The problem at the heart of all edgy political movements is that the government is doing the wrong thing, but ignoring the government has three worse consequences:
- the government will punch you in the head,
- other, evil groups (racists, say) will also ignore the government, and
- often simply being free is not enough, you want new control.
The most brutal critique of bottom-up freedom, as exemplified by Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) movement, one of the cultural foundations of the Burning Man scene, was also the simplest. Bey’s chosen temporary autonomous zone is composed of him, your child, and nobody to press charges. The role that Bey’s pedophilia (and also) played in the formation of the TAZ philosophy is never discussed: all too obvious. Whether Bey ever actually abused a child is unknown – he has been scrutinized and nobody has uncovered pressed charges – but his personal predilections serve as the perfect frame to discuss governance.
Some of the people kicking hardest against the governance of the state are also exactly the people that I personally, and we socially, want on the shortest leashes. I visited a commune closely associated with Bey in the mid 1990s, and it was a scary, creepy place. I met some incredibly beautiful, refined, self-aware people, embedded in a context which just felt wrong in a profound way: freedom achieved, but one wonders about the costs.
A more prosaic example, less philosophically significant but pragmatically more relevant is the Radioactive Boyscout, David Hahn, who attempted to build a nuclear pile in his house. Given time and a few more resources, he might have succeeded. The hard part of nuclear piles is not starting them, it’s stopping them once they get started.
And now to the Pope.
Embodied in the Pope we have the opposite problem.
- TAZ, nobody is accountable because there is no authority to make them accountable.
- Catholic church, the Holy Roman Empire, nobody is accountable because the authority which does exist will not make them accountable.
If Peter Lamborn Wilson is a fantasist rather than a predator, there are plenty of examples of lone predators making little pocket worlds with them and their victims. The Catholic problem is different: massive, institutional acceptance of pedophilia as a standard ecclesiastical problem to be managed rather than stamped out. We know a little about the scale of the problem, but it’s not until you actually review the relevant data that you get a sense of the scale of the problem: it is enormous. The Jewish example, Shlomo Carlebach is smaller but equally nasty.
Imagine the cultural effect of tens or hundreds of thousands of people being abused by the clergy, staggering through their lives with all the psychological scarring that goes along with this ritualized abuse. The public mental health implications are staggering. Sexual trauma is heavily correlated with later mental illness. The impact on people’s lives, and the public purse, of taking care of the victims of the clergy throughout their lives…
(or at least facilitate their abuse by other people by providing blanket protection for pedophiles in the church)
These are the two poles we must find balance between: unaccountable individualism, and unaccountable political power.
Every time I get into the Green Libertarianism debate, I have a simple question: what about the Radioactive Boyscout, or the local dump. It’s a hard question, because firm authoritarian environmental barriers have to be observed where personal responsibility has failed. There are plenty of people who will go to jail for decades if the money made from environmental destruction feeds their children. The poor are too poor to put the environment ahead of their own needs, hence all the illegal toxic waste dumps in Africa.
The Temporary Autonomous Zone is not safe. However, the Empire is not safe either. The power vested in the State continues to subsidize dirty energy production, warming the atmosphere. It continues to turn a blind eye and collude with BP in the gulf. On the other hand, individual factory owners would quite happily dump toxic waste into nearby rivers.
The question is not centralized power or individual accountability. The question is “is the environment protected?”
How, exactly, environmental protection is achieved does not really matter in a global sense. If we protect the environment, we have time to sort out our political issues. If we do not, we run a real risk of politics becoming largely moot as the world catastrophically warms, and ecosystem chaos hits our food supplies.
I think we need some new concepts around regional autonomy with global accountability. For example, I’d like to see a mechanism where a small municipality can ask for some kind of variance as an “ecotown”, allowed to make its own building codes and local environmental regulations, with full municipal authority behind these new rules, but minimal interference from local government and central government.
The challenge is how to make these regional innovations in environmental regulation accountable so that we do not see the same progressive legislation turned to evil use by, say, mining corporations which using the same regional autonomy regulations to dump into the environment. The ecotown which uses its freedom to destroy is entirely plausible given the legal might of these monsters.
We need sub-national innovation in environmental regulation. We need to be able to build what we want to build, and live as we want to live, to pioneer new green lifestyles – but without empowering those who are irresponsible.
I’ve gone after the hardest possible cases to make the point clear, that neither pole of power provides acceptable performance. It is in the middle ground that we must seek our solutions.
Beware the concentration of power in the hands of the few.