Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Dieselpunk Politics – Part 4

This is the last of the installments exploring the possibility that there may exist something that could be labeled as dieselpunk political/ economic movements.

As I’ve done before there are some disclaimers that I feel are necessary. First, while only two socio-political systems have been addressed in my blog I don’t mean to imply these are the only two possible systems that may be worthy of being called dieselpunk politics. But, in my opinion, these two political/ economic schools are useful for demonstrating clear examples of two possible systems. Second, it’s not my intent to advocate for any specific socio-economic theory. Once again I wish to repeat that the goal of these blog entries is to offer support for my claim that such a label can be applied appropriately.

In this final entry on dieselpunk politics I’m honored that Hayen Mill has been so gracious as to honor us with another essay. In this case Mr. Mill has written on a school of thought commonly called “anarcho-capitalism” and its ties to the diesel era. So once again, I’m honored to turn my blog over to Mr. Hayen Mill. ~ Larry

A highly controversial political ideology that one could label as ‘dieselpunk’ is anarcho-capitalism, under the broader term of libertarianism. Contrary to minarchism, it advocates the elimination of the state and the elevation of the sovereign individual in a free market. In an anarcho-capitalist society, law enforcement, courts, and all other security services would be provided by voluntarily-funded competitors such as private defense agencies rather than through taxation, and money would be privately and competitively provided in an open market. According to anarcho-capitalists, personal and economic activities would be regulated by the natural laws of the market and through private law rather than through politics.

Anarcho-capitalists, a term originally coined by Murray Rothbard, see free-market capitalism as the basis for a free and prosperous society. "Capitalism," as anarcho-capitalists employ the term, is not to be confused with state monopoly capitalism, crony capitalism, corporatism, or contemporary mixed economies, wherein natural market incentives and disincentives are skewed by state intervention.

Murray Rothbard

In contrast with all the other anarchist theories, anarcho-capitalism is based upon the subjective theory of value, which holds that to possess value an object must be both useful and scarce, with the extent of that value dependent upon the ability of an object to satisfy the wants of any given individual.

One of recent possible examples of anarcho-capitalism in practice can be the Old West in the United States in the period of 1830 to 1900, according to the research of Terry L. Anderson and P. J. Hill, given that “private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved," and that the common popular perception that the Old West was chaotic with little respect for property rights is incorrect.

Not so wild west couple

Central to anarcho-capitalism are the concepts of self-ownership and original appropriation (aka homesteading principle), as well as the non-aggression principle (NAP). Anarcho-capitalists advocate individual or joint (i.e. private) ownership of the means of production and the product of labor regardless of what the individual "needs" or does not need.

Some contemporary examples of anarcho-capitalism include Merchant Law and the common modern practice of settling disputes through mutually agreed arbitration rather than government courts.

As written in the introduction to dieselpunk politics, there are three general elements necessary for one to be able to use the label dieselpunk:

1)contemporary in that it can be found today, 2) decodence in that we can identify it as existing in some form during the 20s through 40s, and 3) ‘punk’ in that it emphasizes independence and exists primarily outside the mainstream of politics of that time as well as today.

Anarcho-Capitalism fits these three by being contemporary (thanks to the Austrian School of Economics and writers like David D. Friedman) while at the same time paying tribute to the era of 1920s-1940s, when the idea of the businessman as the agent vital to the advancement of society was immortalized by examples of many great industrialists. It also emphasizes independence in that it rejects central authority and celebrates the integrity of businessmen when being confronted with regulatory agencies or government bureaucrats (this is immortalized by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). While not being a defendant of anarcho-capitalism, the book was the starting point of many contemporary anarcho-capitalists. It also exists primarily outside of the mainstream of politics, both during the 1920s-1940s as well as today. It is, however, currently rejected by most social anarchists, mostly by the use of the term anarchism as by the dispute of the legitimacy of private property, giving more emphasis to its marginality.


Anonymous said...

I recommend reading Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises, based on his German writings and studies during the 1920's and 1930's, published in its German form in 1940, and published in English in 1949. Available in several popular formats here, for free:

James Schafer said...

These are a great series of articles that I’m sorry I didn’t discover earlier. I believe that Steampunk/Dieselpunk must engage with real world social and political issues to be a durable phenomenon. It's wonderful to see people in the community doing that. If I take some issue with your arguments it's in the spirit of continuing the discussion rather than in any way disparaging what's you've presented.

My biggest concern is an aspect of your third criterion for Dieselpunk – namely that the agenda must exist outside of the mainstream politics both of the present “and of that time.” We do not live in history, but rather the present. To have contemporary utility the culture of Dieselpunk must matter today. If we hamstring ourselves by rejecting ideologies that might not have seemed “punk” ninety years ago we may win a Pyrrhic semantic argument but lose the more important war for contemporary relevance.

By way of example I would first call out the argument that anarcho-capitalism is counter to the dominant structures of today. In America at least half the nation seems drunk on Randian dreams of heroic capitalists and lazy parasites and a world where everyone (or at least the poor) must suffer whatever consequences come from their bad economic choices. To argue that this view as (disingenuously) espoused by a whole slew of presidential hopeful is somehow “punk” is unconvincing. And as counterpoint I would argue that many of the great projects of the State from history are so inconceivable (at least in America) as to be effectively “punk” despite once being entirely mainstream. Can anyone seriously imagine our government supporting a project like the Hoover Dam or the WPA today? The era in which you locate Dieselpunk saw huge revolutions in society and while some of those were vile in the extreme, others should be celebrated and embraced. I believe we would be foolish to discard from a nascent Dieselpunk political movement good ideas from the 1930s simply because those in power have (intentionally) forgotten what many people once knew.

I also think that it is worth considering the distinction between Dieselpunk politics “of the classroom” and those “of the street.” We live in an era where few people (including national level politicians) can articulate a coherent political platform to which they adhere. Expecting dieselpunks to negotiate the nuances of, for example, mutualism is optimistic but probably not particularly useful as means of bringing discussions of a Dieselpunk platform “to the masses.”

My own preference would be to distil Dieselpunk politics to something rather simpler – to a platform which I have advocated for Steampunk (again, I’m revealing my predilection to lump the genres rather than split them). Namely: a commitment to making historical decorative media and material culture (be it “decodence,” Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau, etc.) accessible to all, and a refusal to tolerate the economic, political, or social tyranny of the few over the many. The former pillar demands a return to historical ideals of public spaces and monumental architecture as well as goods (including objects and media) that are attractive, durable, and affordable – a goal achieved ideally through both fair wages and mass production that rejects the contemporary ideal of disposable culture based on planned obsolesce. The latter pillar simply embraces the lessons learned from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – namely that authoritarian regimes, unrestrained capitalism, and aristocracies of any kind threaten the health and happiness of all.