Thursday, August 18, 2011

Molon Labe

Viktor Bout was the kind of man--before his arrest and extradition, at least--whom capitalism is supposed to liberate. He was an inventive special forces operative, linguistically brilliant, who made the best of a bad situation: governmental collapse. He liberated billions of dollars worth of material and funneled it into private hands, employing nothing but his own ingenuity and the laws of supply and demand. What others wanted, he offered, but not for free. What had once been fastened under a statist thumb, he delivered to thousands of desperate hands. If only he had been on the Right Side of History, he'd be a hero.

I could brood over the hypocrisy of American prosecution, given two main points: they have armed opposing sides before, mostly notably in Iran-Iraq; and they have also traded with Bout previously, in supporting the occupation of Iraq. I could discuss the clearly mercenary legacy of capitalization of the former Soviet Union of which Bout is only a small part. Oh, and there's also the fact that the United States is the world's biggest arms dealer, which is actually another point of hypocrisy and a clear example of our rulers' doctrine of exclusive right to violence. As far as what I could talk about, I could go on for a while.

What I do want to consider here is what place a man like Viktor Bout might have in a lawless world. It is very well to see the state's hand in this. Until his capture, he benefited from state protection and his very development as an alleged arms dealer owes almost everything to the politics of the great powers, in the implosion of the Soviet Union through post-colonial civil war to the perpetual discord stoked by America's Middle East policy.

That said, I reject the utopianism of anarcho-pacifism. States engage in war because they operate on human psychology. There is much they have introduced in the course of advancing war and warping it to shift the purpose of domestic stability while destabilizing potential or imagined rivals abroad. And that said, there is nothing to suggest that war will cease when the state does. In fact, given the disconnect of popular sentiment from the borders and boundaries designed by estranged state actors, I should say that I see no possibility of peaceful revolution worldwide. Any anti-authoritarianism established will see threats from within and without. Nationalist movements will perhaps flare up even more brightly given how deep the impulse goes and how persuasive it is in a world where all internationalism has been wedded to the injustice imposed by the great powers. International stability is part of the structure. Accepting the sovereignty of all states--and imposing by force their protection, albeit with notable exceptions--serves the forces that drew up those states!

And so I argue that war will continue. This may not be avoidable. This does not invalidate the support of human liberation. And yet it has interesting implications if we consider a man like Viktor Bout.

He benefited from state stockpiles, this is true. And yet I wonder if arms stockpiles will ever cease while there are factories and regions that excel in their manufacture. I wonder if men with such access to these stockpiles will always deal with any army with capital or barter to offer.

Is this wrong?

What does anarchism have to say to independent arms merchants who deal with all comers? Is this not a form of peaceable conduct and trade? The establishment of a free market quickly silences the response that he benefited from a state-imposed black market, as it would make it only easier for forces to arm themselves and brutalize others accordingly.

Is there a way to avoid this? Is mutual armament and, frequently, mutual extermination simply part of the price of our would-be freedom?

We see the response of states to Viktor Bout and it reeks of hypocrisy. What would any of us say to him, were he to continue his work in a world very unlike our own, but still driven by the same human violence and ambition?


  1. There is a way to avoid it, or at least to counter it. It will not, I imagine, please the pacifists, or the purists.

    But, kill him, or his type. Not often, or you'll red queen the red queen, and end up with an arms race where you wanted a utopia.

    But, if a man sets himself up to rule or trade weapons that others might rule, a fairly dependable recourse is to put him in the ground.

    Of course, you'll probably have to put together a command structure to accomplish it...

  2. Probably.

    I'm curious as to whether this is a decision you make based on principle or a desired outcome. Is his death justice, or is it necessary to impose something you consider more just, or at the least more preferable?

  3. I don't think justice or principle play a significant part of my observation, Cuneyt.

    Those are malleable, diaphanous words. Do they apply, here?

    Only in so much as they can be applied to any choice or set of choices, I gather.

    Here's a view which tries to avoid principle: heads contains memories. Killing the person removes those memories (and the very individual perspective by which they are collated) from a given equation or social knot of relations. It makes the holding of that node less tenable.

    This could also be achieved, perhaps temporarily, by dosing the hell out the same person with a cocktail of LSD-25, Ketamine and Versid.

    A person with disrupted memories and/or personality, or who has been corpsified, destabilizes the accumulation of power and wealth which, and connected nodes, because the memories and perspectives which allow them to be controlled and governed are, er, compromised.

    If a person or party were invested in an extended obstruction, it would be wise to, maybe, disrupt the succession to that node of power, as well.

  4. Thanks, Jack.

    I wasn't saying you were speaking on principle; I just wanted to be sure that we were being clear about how we were each speaking.

    There is one thing, though. Let's say that the decision "let's kill the arms dealer because he supports rulers, if not exclusively then at least enough of the time" is made. Doesn't all action carry with it the principle that this "should" be done, that this or that end is "preferable" to another?

    Isn't the decision to kill a man always at least a little bit principled? In which case, what is your desired end to killing a man who supplies both rebellion and rule?

  5. A decision to kill can follow from a decision that one ought to, certainly. But, as most members of the mob from the 1920s through the 1980s might attest, principle doesn't necessarily accrue.

    Nor do I think that preference is itself a principle. I prefer my coffee, right now. In ten minutes, I might prefer tea.

    There's no principle which can be universally deduced from that preference.

  6. I'm not talking about universal deduction; I'm talking about principle such as, in the mob's case, "this will benefit me in some way, and this is good."

    That's a principle, though intellectuals prefer not to see principle in practice. Every choice has principles behind it. It's not an airy thing.

    Now you're right, I can't deduce a principle from an action. That's something you have to ask from the actor. And that's why I ask you, the author of a scenario in which we'd kill Viktor Bout.

  7. We don't define "principle" in the same way, Cuneyt. I'm not sure that I can answer the question on the terms you've asked it. I don't see a cost/benefit analysis as a principle, precisely because a principle is a deduction to a generally applicable universal.

    C/BA: John shouldn't shoot Victor Bout right now, because Bout is surrounded by goons who will kill John long before he can get off a solid shot, form this distance, with his particular skill set in mind. If John gets a clean shot in the future, it might be of benefit to John and his associates to kill Bout, if Bout is not amenable to negotiations which result in him taking up a different trade.

    Principle: One should kill arms dealers.

    Nor I am assuming a "We" which kills Victor Bout. In fact, I'd probably take the view that whoever killed him was not operating for a general "we" at all.

  8. To be clear about how I use "principle": they need not be Kantian. A principle "I have rights others don't" is a principle.

  9. Yeah, I just don't see the word "principle" as anything but a null set if it's so elastic it can cover contingent, non-repeating statements.