Charles Lane is compelling not simply for his critique, but his faith. Finding flaws in a system is relatively easy compared to creating one. Critiques, as such, offer little by way of solution other than to eliminate possibilities. They tell us this way does not work, much like simple trial and error. I see a door with a long vertical bar running the entire length for a handle. There is no signage. I pull, it does not open. On a second attempt, I push and go inside. In trivial cases like this the critique would be equally unnecessary, as the action is little more than a reflex. One is inside before formulating it, let alone needing to pass this newfound science on to the next person in line.
It goes without saying that as systems increase in complexity so must any critique. Philosophers will never want for subject matter, and of their books there shall be no end. Yet the nature of critique, no matter how comprehensive, remains essentially the same. It is a negation of that which is, little more. Any solution must itself be a new system, open to critique in turn. This can fool us into thinking we have sufficiently answered criticism merely by pointing out the flaws in the critic’s proposed solution, when we’ve accomplished nothing more than a logical fallacy (i.e. tu quoque). On the other hand, many (most?) critics confuse their critique with a solution, assuming their own work done, playing into the hands of the former.
This is not to diminish the importance of critique, only to position it relative to the harder work of creation. A voice in the wilderness speaks louder than a thousand sycophants, whether we are drawn or repulsed. Truth, defined however you please, has a unique way of piercing the soul. We instinctively know the feel of its cold, surgical steel. Unfortunately, we have also mastered the art of dissimulation, denial and deflection, with countless excuseses ready to hand. Worse, there is no cure. All we can do is be vigilantly open to reality and other’s experience of it (i.e. in the Peircian sense (cf. The Fixation of Belief).
If such defensiveness is true of an individual, how much more so the state? Lane writes in his letter of 21 February 1843:
But the iron-hearted system does not limit its depressing despotism to the case of a total denial of its right divine. This is a sort of high treason which might be expected to arouse its ire. But it also takes into its vengeance any partial denial of its purity; and, on smaller occasions, thunders forth its unrelenting anger. When a young man, happily conscious of the wickedness of learning to shoot his fellow-creatures, refuses to be drilled, and to bear deadly arms against the innocent, the guns of the willing are pointed at his head, and long imprisonment, as the lightest expiation, follows. Such a mode of protecting the persons of its citizens, of respecting their native feelings, their purest sentiments, seems abundatnly curioius, and difficult of reconciliation with our intuitive moral precepts.
This desperate, insecure instinct to defend that which is flawed is tragic, all the more so when the system as a whole is deified, as inevitably happens. Instead of listening, alternate views are dismissed as apostasy, critics are crucified. All the while, as its apologists fall on their own swords, the system pushes from behind.
What Lane suggests in place of the state is radical. If it were simply another, alternative form of government based on force there could at least be an easy counter-argument. We would point out the flaws in his proposal and slip silently back into the comfortable, collective fantasy of our current system, one in which we (think we) have power, control, safety. Instead, he points to the fundamental nature of society: it is voluntary or nothing at all. If voluntary, it can never be forced. To force consent is a contradiction in terms, it is to replace communtiy with coercion and control. There is voluntas or not, there is no third possibility. Any state that goes beyond this is a dictatorship by definition, even if of the gentlest, most generous kind.
What does an alternative to government look like? Lane offers nothing other than what we all know to be true, yet are terrified to accept. There is no plan, no system. We simply accept that we are better able to make decisions for ourselves than have them forced upon us. Standard objections are thrown back upon their premise: How will we avoid war? We won’t. How will we prevent theft? We can’t. What happens if another person wrongs us? We seek redress. In each case we have to decide how to react, which is no different than what we already do. Giving one group of people power over another (military, police, legislatures, governors, &c.) and arming them does nothing to prevent the wrongs people are capable of inflicting on each other. It only serves to increase violence. The safety we think we gain is an illusion.
This is not based on any particular reading of human nature. Lane was a 19th c. New England Transcendentalist, so it is unlikely that he held to Calvin’s view of total depravity (i.e. human nature is not essentially good). The book Pollyanna would not appear for another 70 years, but perhaps Lane thinks too highly of humanity? If he only knew how terrible man can be he would immediately see the need for…
…for what exactly? Safety? Assurance? Security? Prosperity? Every person seeks this, even the worst among us. The answer is not only trite but absurd. These things are not to be found in nature. Any system we settle on will not secure them, certainly not one that puts a subset of people in power over the rest and arms them with weaponry and punishment, up to and including execution. That we appoint such a group and hand over our lives to them is insane. This is what makes the answer not only absurd but dangerous. We recite this myth to each other until we no longer see it as such. Any injustice done in its name is, by definition, justice.
Lane’s faith, on the other hand, is just that. He does not believe the abolition of government will make each person virtuous–each person will continue to be what he is. Rather, he believes each person is better off free. Societies will continue to exist, as we are naturally social. But, instead of force, they will be based on voluntary association.
It seems safe to assume he knew little of Daoism, though I would like to think Laozi would resonate deeply with him:
It is when the great Dao is forsaken that benevolence and righteousness appear,
When wisdom and intelligence emerge that great falsehood occurs,
When the six relations exist in disharmony that the obedient and the kind appear, and when the state is in disorder that loyal minsters arise.
Repudiate sagehood and discard wisdom, and the people would benefit a hundredfold. Repudiate benevolence and discard righteousness, and the people would again be obedient and kind to each other. Repudiate cleverness and didscard sharpness, and thieves and robbers would not exist. As for these three pairs of terms,
Because they serve as mere decoration,
Give people the chance to identify with something else:
Exemplify simplicity, embrace the uncarved block
Curtail self-interest, and have few desires.
The closest Laozi is willing to come to a traditional leader is one who looks nothing like one:
In antiquity, he who was good at being a leader was perfectly in step with mystery in all its subtlety and profundity; so recondite was he that it was impossible to understand him. Now, because he defies understanding, all I can do is force a description of what he was like: he seemed hesitant, as one might be when fording a river in winter.
He seemed tentative, as one who fears his neighbors on all four sides.
He seemed solemn, oh, as if he were the guest. He seemed yielding, oh, just like ice when about to break up. He seemed solid and sturdy, oh just like an uncarved block of wood. He seemed empty and receptive, oh, just like a valley. He seemed amorphous, oh, just like murky water.
Who can take his turbidity and, by stilling it, gradually become clear? Who can take his quietude and, by stirring it long, gradually come alive?
One who keeps this Dao does not wish to be filled.
For it is only by not getting filled that one can avoid having the cover remade.
I do not know what a voluntary society would look like in practice, and even if I did it would merely be one instance of countless possibilities, with its own flaws and opportunities. I only know anything less is neither. I can treat each person as having self-ownership or I can subjugate him. This is the foundation. It does not define the building but makes any structure possible. Let people govern themselves as they wish. Give them the freedom to try, fail and correct. But the moment you force them to submit you have destroyed the very society you seek to sustain.
In the penultimate chapter of The Stand the Free Zone Committee decides to arm its deputies in the name of security for their new, post-apocalyptic society. The enemy has been defeated by divine intervention, but fear remains. A drunken brawl results in one man throwing another (an elected officer) through a plate glass window, requiring thirty stitches. If the deputy had been armed, the argument went, this could have been avoided…As Stuart and Fran make their way back East we’re let inside Stu’s mind for King’s summa summarum:
As he followed her inside Mother Abagail’s house he thought it would be better, much better, if they did break down and spread. Postpone organization as long as possible. It was organization that always seemed to cause the problem.
What the Free Zone failed to realize was in arming themselves and surrendering their freedom the enemy had not been defeated, the hand of God notwithstanding. Randall Flagg simply changes his name to Russell Faraday, and the circle closes.