And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (with thanks to reader JdL)
In my discussion with economist Bob Murphy, a subject we touched on prompted further reflection. The subject is this:
What, if any, is the point at which counter-violence is justified?
Murphy is steadfastly pacifist in the face of state violence, but some readers and I are closer to Solzhenitsyn in the epigraph. I originally responded to Murphy that, while I am not pacifist, my preferred vector of social change is underthrow, which I define as the sum of our peaceful choices arrayed against unjust authority. That, of course, contrasts with overthrow. Readers have also seen more than one reference to satyagraha, a nonviolent moral force.
But I told Murphy that there is a point beyond which I would be willing to fight back. But when I asked myself, “What point, exactly?” I didn’t have a good answer.
I call that point “the trigger.”
Another writer—Christopher Cook—picked up on the theme independently and went deeper into the question at my prompting. I had pressed Cook on the tactical question because we are both decidedly more broadly strategic and philosophical in our outlook, which can keep one in the realm of the Pillar Saints when the world is decidedly more kinetic.
In other words, when the shit hits the fan, we need to be prepared to do something. But if we’re prepared to do something, what does shit + fan look like in reality? What is the tipping point? We’re already seeing and tolerating too many illiberal actions on the part of governments worldwide.
Before going into the trigger, I want to this passage from Spencer MacCallum and Alvin Lowi on the ideas of Spencer Heath (MacCallum’s grandfather):
Accordingly, while in agreement with the voluntaryist ideal…, defiance of authority was conspicuously lacking in Heath’s philosophical position. No social reformer was he, no militant, relying upon anger or moral outrage. His ambition was to lay the foundation for an authentic natural science of society, and in keeping with this goal he strove to so inspire others with a sense of the still-hidden beauty in the evolving social order that, under the aesthetic motivation, they would begin to make discoveries there like those which have already been made and are continuing to be made in the established fields of the natural sciences. (Emphasis mine.)
This, of course, is an echo of underthrow from the past. (Credit goes to Christopher Cook for mining this passage.) I have claimed elsewhere—perhaps with a different spin—that we must appeal to Heath’s aesthetic motivation, particularly as too many dedicated to human freedom emphasize bloodless syllogisms, bludgeons of principle, and impotent antipathy toward “the state.”
Acknowledging that I, too, am guilty of this, my call is not to abandon rectitude entirely but to balance it with the right doses of inspiration and aesthetics: True. Beautiful. Good.
Still, the trigger is approaching. We know the Deep State is using mass censorship, mass defamation, and mass surveillance against us, including—you guessed it—our friend Christopher Cook:
How close is all this to the trigger?
To mix metaphors, as we frogs continue to heat up in this pot, remember that our fidelity to American ideals—especially the Declaration of Independence and Constitution—means we are under constant suspicion and threat. You are probably being surveilled like Cook and censored like me and many others. And it’s going to get worse. You are not suspected of being a domestic terrorist so much as being framed as one.
Still, before it’s too late, we must ask: What degree and kind of authoritarian overreach justifies counter-violence? How will we know that point when we see it? Is it a question of degree or kind or both? What measures could we take? We must not be afraid to ask such questions and coalesce around the best answers.
And we must not be afraid to organize as bees against bears.
Admittedly, I am merely asking such questions, Dear Reader, not because I am afraid to answer them. I ask because I don’t know the answers.
Yet I don’t want to be a boiled frog. I don’t want you to be a boiled frog. I don’t want us sitting together “burning” in some American Gulag, ruminating on the what-ifs. When that day comes, I don’t want us to sit meekly in our lairs, “paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase.”
Instead, I hope we can see the point at which we have “nothing left to lose.” And act.
But before the trigger is tripped—or put more darkly, must be pulled—we must engage as warrior monks in a thousand acts of underthrow, which can themselves hasten the “evolving social order.”
Spencer MacCallum wrote to me before he died in 2020. And in that correspondence he offered this most lovely thought, which still resonates:
Not interested in combating government as we know it, which is a social pathology, but only in the creative, growing edge of understanding our emerging free society.
Max Borders is a senior advisor to The Advocates. He also writes at Underthrow.