I was just listening to a recent episode of the The Dig, the ever excellent podcast from Jacobin Magazine called ‘Cops and Counterinsurgency’, with Stuart Schrader discussing his book Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, which is about how the US ‘police-reform’ movement, which began in the 1960s, was directly inspired by and based upon security tactics developed in post-colonial states, where the US government funded, trained and equipped local police forces to suppress communist and other left-wing political organisations and discipline populations into going along with the US’s desired model of (capitalist) development and ‘modernisation’. It’s a fascinating episode and I’m not even finished with it yet but I just wanted to write briefly about one fundamental theme, namely that our analytical models for social and political issues should never be solely national. If our analysis accepts the bounds of the state and the nation as its own bounds, we could never even really see these connections between the tactics of post-colonial ‘hegemonising’ (is that a neologism?!) and those of domestic policing.
This reflects a broader point that is basically common sense on much of the left; that we must be internationalists, always, in theory and in practice. This amounts to a banality in most broadly marxist contexts. But I think its worth drawing out some of its implications.
The scale of the challenge e.g. climate change
Our political institutions are thoroughly national. The institutional mechanisms through which explicit political power is exercised are organised into states and nations; this includes all significant international institutions (as I have discussed elsewhere; I like to call it 'implicit' or ‘default nationalism’. The (new) media and culture are limited exceptions to this, at least insofar as technology does permit an internationalist culture, even if, in practice, both the literal languages of such activities and, even more so, their content, render them largely parochial. And of course capital (wealth, finance, corporations etc.) is certainly not constrained by the borders of sovereign states: investments, profits, goods and savings, flow around pretty freely, citizenships and work permits can often effectively be bought.
But to a very significant extent, our political activities are constrained by state borders, simply because the goal of politics is to pursue power and this is where power is concentrated, so whether we wish to smash the state or control it, it is where a lot of the action is. And this is probably even more true at the level of discourse and culture, especially in the mainstream. We talk, think and write in terms of ‘Spain’, the ‘UK’, Australia. The current pandemic is an exceptionally clear demonstration of this - the figures for cases and deaths are usually presented as state by state or global; states have largely controlled different responses within their territories.
But this national framing is wholly inadequate, as the pandemic also illustrates. The virus spread through international travel and the chances of such diseases crossing from animals to humans is importantly increased by capitalist industrialisation on a global scale as well as by climate change.
Climate change is the really stark illustration of this. As I write this, unprecedentedly huge wildfires are are raging across the Pacific North West. Climate change has made such huge fires worse and more frequent. It is true in this particular case that the US has more power than most other states to address carbon emissions, due to it still being the world’s sole superpower (even if in decline).
But there is still something almost ridiculous in saying that these fires show how important it is for the US to change it’s policies on fossil fuel use etc. This is true of course, but it is also true that the climate is a global system. Climate change on this scale is not a local problem with local solutions. If other people in other countries burn as much fossil fuel in the future as the US does now, no amount of US policy change will make any difference to these fires!
So with pandemics, with policing and with ecocide, we face a truly severe challenge; we are stuck with national political institutions to address international, global problems.
Analytical anarchism or one reason why anarchism isn’t as ridiculous as it might sound.
This is a bit more of a stretch but whatever. Internationalism is not the same as anarchism, at least in the sense of radically decentralised, non-coercive democratic governance. It is perfectly possible to be an internationalist and promote global institutions (or to be more of a villain and promote imperialism or a dystopian world-state). But the limitations of national framing support a key element of anarchist analysis, namely that the state just isn’t as important as we might think it is or as dominant ideology has us believe. There is some tension here, for sure, because anarchism certainly does think that the state is a big deal - the normative core of anarchism a denunciation of the kinds of centralised, coercive hierarchy of which the state is paradigmatic, so of course anarchists think that the state matters.
But anarchism also contends that the state is unnecessary, that we could organise ourselves perfectly well without it and that, to some extent, we already do, in all kinds of spontaneous self-organisation in our everyday lives (see e.g. work by Kropotkin, Ward and Graeber) and when we act on our own ethical principles rather than just fear of legal sanction. In a rather different vein, a (non-radical) descriptive anarchism is also common sense in much mainstream international relations (IR). The relations between sovereign states are anarchic in the sense that there is no Leviathan for states, no over-arching authority to impose resolutions on their disputes.
There are lots of issues and complexities with both political and IR anarchism, but one rather basic idea is lent support by the examples mentioned above of pandemics, policing and wild fires, as well as many others. This is the idea that we really should not accept the centrality or necessity of the state or the nation to our analysis of the status quo.
When we want to understand what is happening in the world, it is utterly imperative that we refuse the common sense ideology that frames issues in national terms. Not because we are utopian political anarchists, although perhaps we should be, but more because we are like those hard-nosed IR realists who see the international world as a Hobbesian state of nature. The world just doesn’t work the way common sense ideology tells us, our social world and its pathologies and delights are not, in fact, organised into neatly separated sovereign legal units; everything is, in fact, connected, as Spinoza and the hippies have been trying to tell us. The air you breath and the money you spend, the clothes you wear and food you eat, the language you speak and the life you lead are subject to social/causal forces that stretch widely across time and space, the details of your family to macro-historical trends. It is deeply mistaken to approach social questions with any fixed assumption about which of these kinds of causes is most salient in relation to a particular issue, like policing or climate change.
Reality is the best argument for radical politics
An even more basic point underpins these brief reflections: the most important tool of radical argumentation is a clear-eyed sight of reality, of the world as it actually is and works. This kind of clarity is not so easy to achieve, so confusing and powerful are the myths of common-sense. But one the key lessons of Marx himself (one learnt so well by his intellectual descendants in IR realism!), is that we must always try to look at reality, to analyse actual, material social relations and practices. And as with pandemics, policing and climate change, the result of doing this is a radical rejection of common sense, such as the common sense national framing of social and political concerns.
This insistent pointing out and description of social reality is, I think, always going to be the most effective tool of radical politics, of socialism, communism, anarchism, of class struggle in general, of really any effort to promote true human flourishing. It is important, but hard, to persuade people that, say, meritocracy is unjust or that socialism is the answer. But it is, I think, a bit easier to get some initial purchase on people by simply bringing to their attention aspects of their own reality which they may not be aware of, like the origins of policing tactics, wild-fires or novel coronaviruses, or to which they may not have paid much attention, like their own experiences of social alienation and economic exploitation. Analytical anarchism is an example of this; it turns out that this radical perspective is just the best way of describing the world around us.