[Trigger Warning for Violence and Domestic violence, especially in the Video which has a battered woman as the opening shot]
This summer Franklin López released a documentary film called End:Civ (The full documentary can be viewed here). The documentary is based on the book End Game by the environmental activist, Derrick Jensen, and each section of the film begins with Jensen talking about one of the selected premises from the book. López then illustrates the premise through interviews with environmental activists and news footage. End:Civ is worth watching and I think it is worth thinking about the destruction that industrial production entails. Both Jensen and López are anarchists (or so Wikipedia says, I don’t know whether they would accept that label). In any case, Jensen believes that civilization is not sustainable and should be destroyed.
In this post I will describe why Jensen’s over all conclusion, that we should return to a Stateless society (anarchy), is undermined by one of his specific arguments (sub-arguments) about the Structural Violence of civilization.
I want to take issue with one of Jensen’s arguments in the film that occurs at minute 26:48 of López’s film. (I have embeded a shorter YouTube video by someone other than López that just exerpts the particular argument I find troubling. My transcript is from López’s film, however, and might differ from what is embedded below. The argument occurs at minute 1:17 of the embedded video)
In this section of the film, Jensen is trying to convince the audience that civilization is built on violence and requires violence to be sustained. I agree that, much of what we buy involves horribly violent practices that are hidden from us. But the next part of his argument, when he talks about why we pay rent, undermines rather than supports an anarchist conclusion.
Jensen uses the example of paying rent:
Second I said, “Ok well do you pay rent?”
And he’s like, “Yeah.”
And I said, “Why?”
And he said, “Because I don’t own.”
And I said, “No, no, no, what would happen if you didn’t pay rent?”
And he said, “Well the sheriff would come and evict me.”
I said, “I don’t know what that means. What would happen?”
He said, “So the sheriff would come and he’d knock on my door.”
I said, “Ok great, what happens if you open the door? And you say, ‘Hey, I’m just finishing up making dinner, would you want some?’ And so the sheriff sits down and you feed him. You don’t poison him, and then, uh, after dinner you say, ‘Well, You know, you’ve been somewhat pleasant company, but not all that pleasant, so I would like for you to leave my home now.’ What would happen?”
He said, “Well the sheriff would pull out his gun and say, ‘I’m here to evict you because you didn’t pay rent.’”
I said, “Ah, so the reason you pay rent is because if you don’t some guy with a gun is going to come and take you away.”
He said, “I think I get it.”
This is classic Socratic method. Socrates would ask leading questions and then get the interlocutor to agree with each step until they both arrive at what seems to be an inevitable conclusion.
I am not a big fan of the Socratic method. I don’t think it involves thinking for one’s self. And I think that it obscures the steps that are made rather than making the argument’s steps evident to analysis.
In any case, Jensen slips here between asking about the reasons for doing x and asking about the consequences of not doing x. These two things are not always the same, but making the slip is essential to Jensen’s argument.
Personally, I pay rent, but the reason I do so is not mainly for fear of the consequences (eviction). The reason that I pay rent is because I made an agreement with my landlord that I would pay for the space he owns and in return he would not enter or otherwise use the space for as long as I live here.
Further, the consequences of not paying rent involve more than just the threat of eviction. I would also be upset with myself if I did not pay rent because I would then not be true to my word.
But this argument about the structural violence of civilization is only a sub-argument that is supposed to lead us to a larger conclusion. The larger conclusion Jensen wants us to arrive at ultimately is that we should return to a pre-civilization state where there is no State authority to act with force (an indigenist form of anarchy).
Jensen’s argument is self-defeating because the larger anarchist conclusion requires the kinds of reasons for paying rent that I provided (honouring one’s promises), yet his argument against civilization requires that the only reason to do something is fear of the consequences (violent enforcement of the laws).
Anarchy is an umbrella term that shelters a number of more specific political philosophies. But common to all is the idea that the State is illegitimate and undesirable and anarchists instead promotes a stateless society. For a stateless society to function, the individuals within it must have high moral standards, mutual responsibility, and must honour their agreements voluntarily. The idea of the State and the need for only one authorized agent of coercion arises precisely because of the fear that individuals would not honour their commitments unless there was some threat of undesirable consequences. If individuals were perfectly moral then there would be no need for State coercion.
In order for an anarchist society to function you need to believe that people act for reasons other than the fear of punishment. You need to believe that if the punitive threat were removed people would continue to cooperate. But in this section of Jensen’s argument, he tells us that people only act because of the fear of punishment. If this were true, then the last thing we should do would be to eliminate the State and it’s authorized coercive mechanisms (the police and prison).
If it is true that people only pay rent because of the fear of violent eviction (rather than because they want to honour the agreements that they make), then a Stateless society would not function because such a society would have no coercive mechanism and no one would honour their agreements to cooperate. One cannot consistently believe both that persons only act for fear of punishment and that we should remove punitive mechanisms in order to achieve a more ideal form of communal living.