Wednesday, December 1, 2010

TSA, Free Movement, and the Art of Not Being Governed

Watching the reactionary right wing debate the slightly less reactionary right wing in the media last week about the supposed TSA body scanner scandal and the most efficient way to control American's movements has me thinking. I'm not a right wing libertarian, of course, but I have to say it's telling that as far as I've seen the media hasn't had one of them on tv during this whole hooplah. Curious just because you see them in the media all the time when it comes to the economy and other issues (think CATO institute, for instance).

As much as I prefer the anarchist demand for free movement in general over the much more anemic right wing libertarian concerns over rights, searches, paid for tickets and such, it would be interesting to see one of them arguing with these various reactionaries that have been trotted forward in what are supposed to pass for "all things considered". I can just hear them now: "When I buy a ticket from Southwest Airlines, I am entering into a contract with the airline, not with Big Brother, so what right do you have to make me go through the scanner?! It's the airlines job to deal with safety, not the government's!" I probably ought to have written that in all caps to make it a proper tribute.

Instead, what we have seen, it seems to me, amongst everyone in general is this same old familiar kissing cousins argument that, since neither one deviates from the overall agenda of the ruling class for more controls on movement, naturally leads to conclusions with which the elite is quite comfortable. On the reactionary end we have people demanding exemptions for themselves (or, most often, for their poor grandmothers) from controls on movement because, well, they don't think they look like terrorists (i.e, the "Israeli style" being talked about). I call this the racist argument. On the other hand, unfortunately, we have the liberal argument, namely that everyone ought to face an egalitarian exposure to the naked scanners in exchange for desiring to travel. I suppose this is the "pay the devil his due" argument.

Both these arguments seem eerily familiar to me, I suppose, because of the analysis, investigations and interventions that PCWC did into the anti-speed camera movement here in Arizona over the last couple years. Now, sadly, that movement has turned away from what was once a pretty successful, creative and broadly supported direct action and political theater campaign that had the camera companies and polticians on the run. Unable to escape the white supremacist assumptions that underlay its politics (and despite the best efforts of some to prod it in new directions that challenged those contradictions), it mutated into a zombified, dead, boring and failed electoral movement which eventually had the main organizers in the right wing of the movement (avowed libertarians, many of them) lining up with the likes of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and State Senator Russell Pearce in a truly desperate and pathetic plea to whiteness.

As predicted by its critics on this site, the movement, having failed to reconcile those internal contradictions, eventually fully succumbed to the gravity of white supremacy, in effect demanding free movement for whites but regulated movement for "illegals" in a mish mash politics that couldn't be clearly articulated and didn't even make sense to most whites, who were too afraid of Mexican illegal drivers on their streets to see the encroaching police state steadily encircling them as well. So, unable or unwilling to choose the side of liberty on this crucial question of free movement for everyone and rejecting the direct action strategy for electoralism, the movement has gone down to defeat after defeat.

Anyhow, as I was with the speed camera stuff, I have lately been again looking for new ways of considering the question of movement with regard to the TSA debate. So, as you can imagine, I was quite happy when I stumbled upon this video below, in which James C. Scott, Yale University Professor, discusses his book "The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia". The one thing that struck me in particular, in light of the TSA discussion, is his citation within those indigenous peoples that have resisted incorporation into the state a general tendency to block the abiding drive of the state to attempt control movement. As Scott says, "The state is the enemy of people who want to move around".

But Scott goes further, pointing out firstly that the hill peoples he studies not only cultivate an antagonistic relationship to the demands of the state for control of their movement, but that their movement itself is in fact a result of having resisted and escaped slavery in previous or nearby civilizations. In this sense, their demand for mobility is central to their resisting the imposition of slavery. With a right wing libertarian movement always going on and on about slavery and the NWO, you would think this argument would have some purchase and perhaps point at a way out of the TSA dialectic that defies rather than reinforces the arguments for increased state regulation of movement.

Lately I've been reading Alex Butterworth's "The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents" and that has reinforced for me the importance of free movement in our own anarchist history. Echoing a point I've noticed in other recent books I've read, such as "Under Three Flags: Anarchism And The Anti-Colonial Imagination" by Benedict Anderson or even John W F Dulles' "Anarchists and Communists in Brazil , 1900-1935", anarchists and anarchism (and, even national liberation struggles, as Anderson points out) have benefited from the mobility of 19th century anarchists, coerced as it sometimes might have been.

Of course, always caught between the home state's desire to be rid of a problem and the intention of other states, like Britain, to aid their enemies' revolutionaries ("Britain: friend of every revolution but it's own" went the old saying), that movement of anarchist revolutionaries served as a mixing pot of ideas and eventually became quite a threat to the established order of its day. Think Bakunin and Kropotkin in Switzerland, for example, or the Communards in London. Think France for Sabate. And on and on. Often even the state's deportations came back to haunt them, as we learn from Louise Michel's study of the native Kanaks on the prison island of New Caledonia, and the much-storied way she helped them cut the telegraph lines from the island to the home country. We see the same phenomenon on display in Dulles's book, with Italian anarchists, deported after the revolutionary upsurges of the 19th century playing crucial roles in the class war in Brazil. In fact Brazil later reported many Italian anarchists back to Europe, sending the struggle full circle.

Returning to Scott, note as well his highlighting of both settlerism and what he calls "distance demolishing technologies" (roads, communications, etc) as further weapons in the state's attack on free movement and, essentially, human liberty. Settlerism, the usually state-supported invasion of a foreign population into indigenous lands, assaulter of autonomous ways of living and resistant cultures (George Washington, surveyor, imperialist and American hero, was known as "Town Destroyer" by the Iroquois, for instance), remains a problem with which we in the Southwest are quite familiar. But consider that in the case of the TSA, the distance demolishing technology is not in fact the body scanner, but actually the airplane. Is it the airplane itself rather than, or in combination with, the body scanner that serves as the attack on our free movement? Worth thinking about, but I imagine Scott would answer in the affirmative.

So, continuing to move on from right wing libertarians then, I think these arguments that Scott makes are ones that anarchists are quite well-prepared to make and would bring a lot to the discussion raging on cable news channels for the last week (although overshadowed now by Wikileaks and Julian Assange's catch-me-if-you-can race with Interpol, though the similarities are perhaps more than many would like to admit). Certainly, if these instead are our arguments, they bring more to the table than the rightwing libertarians' sad economism, which only seeks to substitute the bean-counting dictatorship of capital for the all-seeing Big Brother state.

After all, why ought any of us have any more confidence in Google to regulate our movement than the state? As if they were ever enemies to be played off each other. Obviously our argument is a rejection of both. A true defense of free movement, then, both as the hallmark of a free people -- as a necessary condition of freedom -- as well as, importantly, a mode of getting free, can threaten to break through the narrow debate now leading us, state and capital hand in hand as usual, towards more regulation, more tabulation and, certainly, more tyranny.

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