Philosophy Responses and critiques

Are we not free men?

You may not yet be aware of it, but just recently all the world’s governments – which, it turns out, were just a cover for the corporate global elite – were shut down. We the people are now the rightful and equal owners of all the titles and rights of these corporations and all their assets are now duly secured and held in trust, somewhere or other, for all of us. Even more amazingly, this paradigm shift did not require a revolution, an economic collapse or even any widespread grassroots dissent. No. All that was needed, apparently, was a strongly worded legal letter.

If this is all starting to sound like the plot of a Douglas Adams novel then you’re probably not yet familiar with the One People’s Public Trust (OPPT) or the affiliated Freeman on the Land Movement (FMOTL), the ‘global freedom movement’ that’s ‘rocking the world’ according to one of their founders, a local Internet ad-space salesperson turned ‘marketing guru’ turned Freeman who is also an avid supporter of renowned crank Michael Tellinger’s lawsuit against the South African banking system (Tellinger’s Ubuntu Party bears striking similarities to FMOTL and OPPT).

The Freemen (there are ostensibly no Freewomen) are an amusing albeit slightly tragicomic bunch: declaring the state illegitimate, pointing out the ills of capitalism and advocating instead a social order characterised by gift economics and direct democracy (so far so good), they then go on to argue that the best way to achieve this magical new world – or at least the best way to avoid paying taxes or licensing your car – is through a layperson bricolage of misinterpreted lines from old law dictionaries (they especially love contract and maritime law), a smattering of Latin, the Magna Carta and random search results from securities and exchange websites, along with a couple of ill-understood legal cases as precedent. They also sometimes write letters to the queen. Armed with this arsenal of half-truths and distortions, groups like the OPPT have filed grandiose cases (well, sometimes they’ve just uploaded reams of pseudo-legal word salad to their personal websites – the kinds of websites that share prominent links to Alex Jones, AIDS denialism and channelings from Zeta Reticuli – claiming themselves to be free, sovereign citizens) declaring that, technically anyway, we’ve now all been liberated from our shackles.

Let’s go over this once more, just to make sure the batshit insanity is clear: FMOTL/OPPT have unveiled a grand conspiracy whereby we’re all subjugated, partly via the legal apparatus, by an oppressive and all-powerful political and economic elite. More importantly, they’ve figured out how to escape from this bind…We free ourselves by appealing to the legitimacy of the very legal structure that serves to keep us enslaved! In other words, the bad people oppress us using the law, but if we can use that same law in very clever ways to demonstrate to them that they’re in fact bad people, then…well…therein lies the problem: the whole plan, even if the Freeman understanding of law, contemporary banking and so forth wasn’t so embarrassingly poor that law and economics undergrads crack jokes about it, makes about as much sense as handing Stalin a highlighted copy of salient passages in the Communist Manifesto in order to argue that he doesn’t have a right to send you to the gulags. Actually, it makes even less sense than that, so little in fact that it’s difficult to find a suitable analogy. In a way, it’s a kind of psychological cargo cult or, as Rationalwiki more bluntly puts it: their theory of the world is utterly spurious, and their practical approach is made entirely of magic beans and crack.”

It goes without saying that these movements have never won a case, are associated with all sorts of dubious con artists and New Age charlatans and are regarded as little more than an annoying bunch of time-wasting cranks. For the most part, engaging with this errand nonsense is about as pointless as trying to master time travel using the Time Cube. After all, how do you even begin to respond someone who, when you point out the flaws in their reasoning, states: “you call it cognitive dissonance, I call it the freedom to experience the universe in any way I wish.” (believe it or not, someone really said this to me in a recent online debate with some OPPT advocates). Futile to argue with or not, interest in FMOTL/OPPT has grown in recent months in South Africa, largely amongst that cluster of politically naïve but well-meaning people who hang out at Afrika Burn, support initiatives like Occupy and anti-Monsanto campaigns and buy massages using talents (not that I have a problem with any of these in principle – I’m even registered on the talent exchange). These people, however misled they may be as to the functioning of common law, do actually agree with me on some fundamental issues, leaving me feeling strangely compelled to critically engage with them. After all, like the Freemen I too think that property law needs to be eradicated, that capitalism needs to be abolished and that the state has no legitimate right to govern me and, like them too, I’d prefer to live in a world of free equals, although I usually call this world ‘anarchy’ or ‘full communism,’ two terms I’m sure that, tellingly, most Freemen would balk at. Unlike them, however, I disagree – and both history and common sense vindicate me here – that the way to achieve this is by asking these inherently corrupt institutions to reflect on their own contradictions, as though there’s some magical power that’s able to foreclose on the governments of almost all the world’s countries through the very legal apparatus regulated by these same governments – an omnipotent, all-seeing eye in the sky that will, once it acknowledges the veracity of the cases brought against the state, the legal apparatus, etc., cause them to spontaneously dissolve in the coruscating light of reason or morality.

It’s probably worth pausing at this point to think about the logic of all this once more: in order to believe that the FMOTL / OPPT approach holds any merit, one has to believe that the legal system is simultaneously a) a co-opted framework not set up in our interests and b) a neutral framework set up in our interests or, in other words, that ‘law’ is at once both malevolent and benevolent, democratic and totalitarian, oppressive and just, set up in ‘their’ interests and set up in ‘our’ interests. In sum it’s an attempt to beat the system at its own game, only the players don’t understand the rules properly and haven’t yet recognised that said system creates the game, writes the rules, regulates play, judges outcomes and awards the prizes. The assumption underpinning this flawed reasoning – that there’s some big Other that we can appeal to that is simultaneously both within and outside of the situation we find ourselves in – is the most dangerous kind of magical thinking, not only because it flies in the face of reason but also because it allows people to imagine that they can change the world without really doing anything beyond saying some magic words.

No amount of rational discourse, however, can stop a growing number of hippies and die-hard libertarians from changing their names to Dave of the Family Smith, making extravagant claims when stopped at roadblocks without licenses and sharing endless tinfoil hat and V mask videos on Youtube (Youtube, we must always remember, is somehow immune from the mainstream media hegemony of the global elite). Although a fair number of these folks might just be exceptionally gullible or suffering from a kind of sublimated existential buyer’s remorse, I suspect there’s something both more subtle and more profound at play. Indeed, it is well-known that magical thinking of this type often emerges in conditions of perceived powerlessness as a form of individual or collective psychological self-defense – it’s better to have a completely tenuous fantasy plan for fixing the binds we find ourselves in than resigning ourselves to them. In other words, perhaps the people who buy into the irrational arguments of the FMOTL/OPPT zealots are in fact making a rational decision to preserve their sense of existential well-being in the face of an unjust socio-economic order that they have no idea how to successfully analyse or overcome. The modern world is an incredibly complex place and dogma, no matter how insincerely believed or touted, is often a useful coping mechanism.

Underlying this, however, is an assumption which can itself be challenged: instead of accepting that this is just the way things are and then deciding how best to live with it (through whatever mix of resignation and coping strategies), we could also begin to ask whether or not things are in fact the way they are. Not in a conspiratorial sense, but in the sense the philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests when he argues that what we experience in our daily participation in the social order is a partitioning of the sensible – a circumscribed domain of possibility that occludes anything outside of, beyond, or lacking from the current system. This partitioning, maintained and defended by an arrangement of ideological and material power Rancière calls the police, is precisely what we should draw attention to, pointing to what lies beyond through a radical enactment of dissensus: thought and action on behalf of our excluded groups or classes – what Rancière calls the part of no part – that breaks through the partitions and the police barricades in order to begin politics proper.

If, as Rancière observes, politics is first and foremost an intervention upon the visible and the sayable, then one can see how the clumsy pseudo-legalese of the FMOTL/OPPT movements simply reinforces the partitioning; how they serve as a reification of the same legal system they’re trying to outsmart; how they form part of what we could call theriot gear of the police. If we seek a genuinely transformational politics, then, we cannot simply reproduce the modes of engagement immediately present to us within the partitioning of the sensible, transforming all of our social and political tensions into a set of grievances that are completely compatible with the internal logic of the State apparatus. Instead, through dissensus we need to overturn the very notion that current distributions of power are outside of the scope of action that forms part of our desire for social change. Instead of the closing down of possibility that is evident in the ill-conceived approaches of Freeman-style movements, it is only through a renewed vision and subsequent enactment of possibility, of pointing to what lies concealed by our current partitioning, beyond these police lines, that we can create something genuinely new.

This article was written by Aragorn of the Family Eloff. Under the maritime code of 1914, Aragorn declares himself a SOVEREIGN CITIZEN not bound by the laws of the Corporation of South Africa. You may find the original printed notice of this declaration sellotaped to the underside of the lavatory seat in the last cubicle of Aragorn’s favourite bar. Another copy has been submitted to the queen of England, who has not yet responded. Lots of confusing terms and conditions apply and you will probably be served a lien for reading this.