By Tavia Nyong’o
“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” — Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform
“My thoughts are murder to the state.” — Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American writer, conservationist, and proto-anarchist.
Teaching Thoreau’s great essay on ‘Resistance to Civil Government‘ during a partial shutdown of the US federal government is an occasion for feelings of great ambivalence. The scholar Henry Abelove has called Thoreau’s prose persona seductive. And I, like Abelove, very much want to be seduced. But how can I extol the worldview of this fearless forerunner of queer anarchism while the anti-government wing of the governing party allows the sick and needy to go uncared for, the statistics on the jobless to go uncollected, the safety of our food supply to go unverified? There is a great deal of interest today, post-Occupy, in anarchist political philosophy and horizontal modes of organizing and action. This anarchist resurgence inspires me, even as it disquiets. I wonder: could I be mistaken in my conviction that, however much leftwing anarchism can sound like rightwing libertarianism, they ultimately form distinct and opposed political traditions?
For answers, I turn to Thoreau, and his queer little errand into the wild a century and half ago. Every American school child knows how Thoreau went to live in a cabin by a pond in Walden forest, and how he epitomized the search for a more basic and independent way of life. But, if we take too literally his descriptions of how he lived, and what he lived for, we can sometimes forget that the society he temporarily distanced himself from was, by today’s standards, itself incredibly spartan. Even those enjoying the heights of antebellum civilization that Thoreau rejected, did so without electricity, telephones, televisions, cars, the highway system, airplanes, or the internet. There was no federal income tax, no Social Security, no FBI or NSA. So, lest we be hopelessly anachronistic in our reading, we must keep in mind all that Thoreau could not have meant, when we try to recover what it meant for him to dwell apart from his society, what prompted him to utter his famous animadversions against government and to pronounce our individual duty to resist it.
The famously combative opening sentence of his essay on Civil Disobedience is memorable. “I heartily accept the motto–”That government is best which governs least”…Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe–”That government is best which governs not at all.” These are words to thrill a modern Tea Party activist. But just a page later we find Thoreau reformulating: “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” This idea is different: Thoreau’s expectancy for improvement, his call to better government, is less often heard, even from left anarchist circles, than his call to do without it.
Thoreau was unlike the “no-government men” or at least, he wanted to be. Much rightwing rhetoric today pronounces itself with vitriol equal to Thoreau’s against government programs they oppose, like health care, public education, and regulation (versions of government Thoreau scarcely knew). But vehemence alone does not establish a shared affinity. Libertarians like to claim him, but Thoreau’s experiment in Walden was not so much a “going off the grid” like today’s survivalist fringe, so much as it was an effort to find a way to live against state-thinking. The right forgets that when Thoreau went to jail rather than pay his poll tax, he was motivated by outrage against specific state actions: the war against Mexico and the Fugitive Slave Law, a law that made the entire union hunting grounds for slavecatchers, and mocked the vaunted freedom of states like Massachusetts. It was against the states crimes against humanity and its imperial wars specifically, not government as such, that Thoreau theorized his proto-anarchism.
Consider this: today’s “government shut down” is itself actually an act of state. It was planned and put into action by a governing party at the behest of its radical Tea Party fringe. Shutdown is, as Malcolm Harris noted, a euphemism for accelerating the ‘austerity‘ being implemented across the world currently. It is not a shutdown of all state functions, least of those having to do with the conduct of wars or surveillance, and many of even the “non-essential” have been ordered back to work, sometimes without pay. Threatening to send the nation into insolvency if pet agenda items are not enacted is not “getting the government off our backs.” It is the pursuit of neoliberal governmentality by other means. As with austerity elsewhere, the target of the shutdown is not ‘government,’ but the social welfare state and popular sovereignty. Just ask the people of Detroit, who have had their elected government suspended in order to allow predatory creditors and lawyers to loot their remaining assets.
A sectional interest abusing constitutional mechanisms to hold the nation at ransom to forward a divisive agenda built, around the protection of a form of property, even at the cost of ruining lives. That describes the Fugitive Slave Law of Thoreau’s day, and it describes the attempt to defund the government and Obamacare now. The real comparison to be made is not between libertarianism and anarchism, but between the reactionary agenda, then and now, to withdraw protections from those who are seen not to matter — slaves and Mexicans then, the sick, poor, people of color and marginalized today — and to instead focus the resources of the state on the policing and imprisonment necessary to keep this drastic upward distribution of wealth from exploding into violence. It was this sort of state, the very one dreamt of by the likes of Grover Norquist, that produced thoughts of murder in Thoreau. This was the sort of state he called on us to resist through direct action.
I am not among those who imagine queers and other anarchists can simply recreate Thoreau’s wild way of life. Anyone who sought to live in such precise antagonism to his own particularly day as Thoreau did can hardly have thought highly of those present day communities who idealize an arbitrary point in the past, beyond which they refuse to develop. True, Thoreau scorned the pursuit of wealth, the coveting of consumer items, the longing for marriage and family. He even scorned reading the newspaper: keeping up too closely with the revolting deeds of his fellow Americans was, he remarked, like a dog returning to its vomit. His idea of revolutionary action was certainly individualistic. But what he meant by individualism was different, almost antithetical, to the possessive, endlessly flexible individual so valorized today. There is an astonishing image at the end of his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” where Thoreau directly links wildness, contemplation, and anarchist belief with a profound sense of entanglement with affairs of state:
I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?. The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
As Pete Coviello points out in a fine new book on Thoreau and his era, Thoreau’s discontent with society was paradoxically motivated by powerful desires to connect, to love and be loved. The persona of his journals is different from the persona of his essays and Walden, but they are recognizable facets of a single, complex being. Thoreau’s queerness lay in his determined avoidance of the love, marriage, family, and property accumulation that were then, as now, extolled as the principal aims of white, bourgeois life. He refused to be heteronormative then, and would have not tried very hard to be homonormative now. But even as Thoreau rejected institutionalized forms of relationality, Coviello insists, he did so in order to allow himself the lifelong struggle of articulating another form of being, one that was, like friendship itself, forever without institution. Coviello quotes from Thoreau’s Journals:
Ah, I yearn toward thee my friend, but I have not confidence in thee. I am not thou—Thou are not I…Even when I meet thee unexpectedly I part from thee with disappointment… I know a noble man; what is it hinders me from knowing him better? I know not how it is that our distrust, our hate is stronger than our love…Why are we related—yet thus unsatisfactorily. We almost are a sore to one another (Coviello, 30-31).
Thoreau is here able to say, with pitch perfect ambivalence, that the experience of friendship is one of simultaneous expectation and disappointment, love and hate. I love him, Thoreau says of his friend, and yet I hate him. Contrast this to the stance of the libertarian who says: I hate him, and I love me (and mine)! Thoreau offers a stunning insight here, in the decades before the modern hetero/homo divide was solidified. It is one that may begin to make new sense now that there are tentative signs that divide it may be crumbling. He points out that friendship exists almost everywhere without institutional support or government sanction. Not that friendship is pathologized. Indeed, it is probably universally extolled as an anodyne to the ravages of consumerist, competitive society. But even where extolled, friendship always lacks an apparatus. Thoreau’s insight into the undercommons of the affections is at least as valuable as his demonstrations on how to grow without neighbors. Here is Thoreau’s queer path into the wilds, wilds that are as much between us, whoever and wherever we are, as they are along some romantic horizon, always just beyond reach.
Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip (2005)
Pete Coviello, Tomorrow’s Parties (2013)
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (2013)
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Slavery in Massachusetts