Not getting it

Corey Robin, in that patronizing tone left-liberals (the kind who self-identify as socialists to distinguish themselves from the liberals they are barely distinguishable from) have adopted since Occupy Wall Street began:

In the last few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields—and it’s considerable—it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.

Robin trots out as his “acute observers” de Tocqueville and DuBois, whom he ventriloquizes violently, and himself and his own liberal take on the national state, specifically that it is absolutely separable and actually autonomous from capital. So for Robin, the Pinkertons are definitively not of the state because they were deployed and employed by capitalists. But this overlooks the Pinkertons’ origins: the agency was created because businesses thought the state was not up to its designated task, of policing labor disputes, and in fact the agency’s first notorious achievement came when it stopped a plot to kill the head of state, Abraham Lincoln, who then employed the Pinkertons for his own security. Then as now, the lines separating state and capital are suppler and more complicated than Robin pretends they are; the assignation of functions and duties is always changing and crossing, and stark ownership distinctions between capital and state, between public and private, can’t begin to approximate the ways the effects of policing are lived by its subjects.

Of course I wouldn’t really expect left-liberals to appreciate these dynamics — after all, their whole political philosophy is predicated on a belief that the state can be a neutral arbiter between labor and capital — but I wish they wouldn’t be brusquely tone-deaf in laying them out. Even on his own terms, Robin’s distinctions don’t hold, and are condescending and insulting to the people he presumes to speak for. For instance, grouping the Klan with capital is disingenuous at best — it is nothing if not a quasi-state organization; ditto for chain gangs. Ridiculously, he seems to think that slavery existed purely economically, that there was not a state apparatus — laws, policing, the judiciary, etc. — that enforced its micropolitical and macropolitical operations. In a more contemporary vein, he doesn’t even seriously consider the war on drugs or a penal system that directly monitors and regulates almost half of all black men to be a serious expression of “repressive political power.”

Maybe if the criminal justice system were fully privatized he’d “get it.”

3 thoughts on “Not getting it

  1. you write so beautifully. i especially loved, “ventriloquizes violently.” v nice.

    thanks, also, for hitting it WRT my discomfort with his appearance on Behind the News. Couldn’t put my finger on it.

  2. What’s the context of Robin’s argument? Was there some sort of American Idol of Coercive Power contest? Nothing in his post suggests that anarchists or other targets identify the state as the sole or overwhelming source of coercion…

    (funny how Henwood and Dean are socialist “styled” but the others are anarchism-“inflected”, stylish vs a word that can be misread as “infected” :-))

  3. And I did read it as “infected” at first!

    The context was that Robin saw a chance to make to make his banal, overly generalized, half-understood distinctions between the left and the right. Again. Okay, that’s harsh, and just a little unfair (but not much). And you’re point is exactly why the post was so silly: not even the most vulgar of anarchists claim what Robin claims they claim. Not even right-wing libertarians do: I’ve heard lots of libertarian ranting about corporate power lately.

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