Cory Doctorow, guest of honor at the upcoming FenCon science fiction convention in Dallas, notes (“During the shutdown, some scientists can’t talk about science,” Boing Boing, October 4) that some of his fellow speakers will be unable to speak if the government shutdown continues. Because they’re government space scientists, they fall under the purview of the 19th century Antideficiency Act, which prohibits government workers from volunteering to do their own jobs — including talking about science to the public. The law “was aimed at stopping fraudsters who did ‘government’ business, then presented a bill for services that hadn’t been contracted but had nevertheless been performed — a kind of Civil War era version of red-light windscreen squeegeeing.”
There’s a great deal of hostility toward government workers in some libertarian circles. And some of what government workers do — for example cops who enforce drug laws or brutally shut down Occupy protests — is illegitimate per se. But much of it is stuff — delivering mail, putting out fires, protecting people from actual assaults on their persons and possessions — that there would be a need for even in a free society.
In the end, what we call “the economy” is just people doing stuff, engaged in productive activity, providing goods and services for each other. Over the centuries the state, along with the corporations and other rent-extracting economic institutions it upholds, have hijacked a major share of this productive activity and preempted the channels within which it takes place, so that many people produce goods and services for their fellows within an exploitative institutional framework. Their production of goods and services, which would naturally be governed by cooperative labor and peaceful exchange, is instead subject to the control of states and rent-extracting institutions like corporations whose monopoly powers derive from state coercion.
These people are not our enemies. Many of them are simply people who find it fulfilling to teach kids, save homes from fires, and the like, and — like even most hard-core anarchists at one time — just take the existing system and its self-proclaimed naturalness and inevitability at face value.
Corporate-state capitalism is in a terminal crisis. Subsidized production inputs cause corporate demand for such inputs to increase exponentially, and result in both natural resources and government fiscal resources becoming exhausted. The ever worsening boom-bust cycle requires ever-increasing government expenditure to utilize excess capacity and soak up excess investment capital. And the technologies of radical abundance are destroying the artificial scarcity on which most profit depends.
The state, likewise, is just groups of people doing stuff. Some of what they’re doing is necessary and productive activity; they’re just doing it in a distorted, state-like way. Our goal, when the present system reaches its limits, is not for these people to stop doing what they’re doing. We want them to keep right on doing it as voluntary associations of producers. These individuals and groups of producers currently working within the bowels of state and corporation, as the long collapse proceeds, will increasingly respond to the exigencies of collapse by working around the official rules of their nominal state and corporate bosses by using their own common sense. For example, the smarter police forces and sheriff’s offices will — perhaps quietly and unofficially — stop expending resources on evicting mortgage defaulters and shutting down squats.
This is all what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in “General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century,” called “dissolving the state in the social body.” And dissolving the state in the social body will require them to disregard legal barriers like the Antideficiency Act.
As the progressive hollowing-out of corporation and state continues, it’s likely that at some point people performing services for the public get fed up with rolling paycheck delays combined with bureaucratic interference, just ignore the authority of the government agencies or CEOs they’re supposedly taking orders from, reorganize themselves as p2p networks or cooperatives, and start performing services directly for the public in return for some informally negotiated form of compensation. That compensation may very well be some sort of commons-based support from a larger social unit that includes the people they’re providing services for.
A decade ago, when the Argentinian economy collapsed and bankrupt capitalists tried to board up the factories, workers just showed up, unboarded the doors and kept right on producing under self-management. They kept right on what they’d been doing, right where they’d been doing it before — but their work took on a fundamentally different character. One of these days, government workers will respond to a government “shutdown” in the same way.