Drawing The Line Once Again

by Taylor Stoehr, April 21, 2011

After Paul Goodman’s death in 1972 anarchist historian George Woodcock characterized him as perhaps “the only truly seminal libertarian thinker in our generation.” If we ask what made Goodman different from other twentieth-century anarchists in the West, it is helpful to begin with his resistance to identifying himself as a political person at all. He saw himself as an old-fashioned man of letters, and insisted that he was not political — not until outrageous conditions got him “by the throat,” making it impossible to carry on his proper work, and forcing him to speak out. Among other things, this meant that concerns other than political ones often shaped his ideas in ways that took them out of the central current of anarchist polemics against the State. For example, his perennial interest in community planning (due in large part to his architect brother Percival Goodman) oriented him toward practical arrangements of life, a heightened awareness of ecological issues, and the problems inherent in top-down “planning,” even with the best intentions. His devotion to his own literary art gave him trust in the “creator spirit.” Similarly, his practice as a Gestalt therapist put a psychological spin on everything, and his philosophical training provided a world-historical perspective. One finds all of these aspects of his thought merging in formulations like these:

“Social inventions that liberate strength; mutual aid [that] is our common human nature mainly with respect to those with whom we deal face to face; the vulnerable point of the system [is] its failure to win human allegiance.”

There are many such expressions in his writings, all of them part of what young activists meant when they said that “the personal is political.” Goodman did not believe in an anarchist “program” or any authoritative set of “principles,” but rather championed an anarchist “attitude,” grounded in individual autonomy and power of initiative. This attitude informed the double-barreled challenge he presented to anarchist youth in his “May Pamphlet” (written and published during the last months of WWII and reprinted in 1962): to “draw the line” beyond which we cannot cooperate in the circumstances of a mixed society of coercion and nature, and to live in that society “not in a utopian but a millenarian way,” as though it already were the natural society — that is, “not to look forward to a future state of things which [we] try to bring about by suspect means; but … draw now, so far as [we] can, on the natural force … that is not different in kind from what it will be in a free society.” Whether they got it out of Goodman or came to it on their own, young people on the campuses would soon be advocating and moving unilaterally toward small but significant changes that could immediately be put into effect, rather than calling for sweeping changes that would takes years to accomplish. This was the 1960s version of the traditionally anarchist direct action. Although one may dispute whether it was still productive when the movement began to provoke violent confrontations rather than experimenting with creative alternatives, the millennial attitude makes sense as a psychological as well as a political tactic.

Goodman’s anarchist critique of the prison system could not be easily implemented by such means without a large price. The case of Attica in New York was a chilling example, but Massachusetts’ Walpole prison was actually “run” by the inmates for a brief period in the mid-Seventies. Although Goodman supported draft resisters who chose jail rather than expatriation during the American war in Vietnam, he warned them that jail was not an obviously preferable “total institution,” and he hoped his own son would choose Canada (Matty died before he had to make this choice). Nonetheless, during the 1960s going to jail itself had become a form of direct action in both the civil rights and the antiwar movements, though few activists asked the question Goodman asked, why the prisons were allowed to exist at all.

In our own day that question has become much more central to any critique of the organized system and its byproducts — war, racism, poverty, and social control. The prisons are largely reserved for those who for one reason or another will not conform to the coercive social order, a growing underclass determined by poverty, race, and institutional disabling. When Goodman questioned the usual distinction between political prisoners and “common criminals,” he pointed out that the state condones “moral vices that fit well into the commodity system,” while one is jailed for advocating or exemplifying “pleasures outside the system of exchange or that undermine the social discipline … thus, one may not steal, copulate in the park, or encourage the sexuality of children.” His conclusion was that “We must proceed on the assumption that the coercive society knows well which acts are a threat to it and which are not.”

Although the volatility of the 1960s kept Goodman focused on moment by moment issues rather than the perennial problem of incarceration, the prisons remained on his mind to the very end. When he listed the three most urgent areas for “drastic cutbacks” in public spending in his last book of social criticism, New Reformation (1970), they were the military industries, the school system, and the penal system. And in his farewell credo, published posthumously as Little Prayers and Finite Experience, he devoted several pages to his continuing concern about the primacy of punishment as the end-product of the American criminal justice system. His own attitude included great respect for the Anglo-American tradition of Common Law, but not for the proliferation of legislated statutes and penalties, which was ultimately to result in current encroachments on judiciary autonomy such as mandated sentencing and differential punishments, both keyed to race.

Goodman’s anarchist attitude toward state power was at the core of his denial that incarceration was a socially justifiable outcome of criminal conviction. He liked to quote seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes to the effect that when the State abrogated the social contract by imprisoning any individual, for any reason, then the prisoner had no remaining reciprocal obligations to the State, and was justified in attempting escape by any means possible — just as a caged animal is naturally right to free itself if it can.

Of course, there are reasons why a society might want to protect itself from criminal acts, and Goodman did not ignore these. Here is his last word on the subject, from Little Prayers and Finite Experience:

“I suppose the most sickening aspect of modern highly organized societies is the prisons and insane asylums, vast enclaves of the indigestible, that the rest live vaguely aware of, with low-grade anxiety.

“We have been getting rid of the stupid but at least human notions of punishment, revenge, “paying the debt,” and so forth [he could say this in 1972, though not today]. But instead, there persists and grows the Godlike assumption of “correcting” and “rehabilitating” the deviant. There is no evidence that we know how; and in both prisons and asylums it comes to the same thing, trying to beat people into shape, treating the inmates like inferior animals, and finally just keeping the whole mess out of sight.

“The only rational motive for confining any one is to protect ourselves from injury that is likely to be repeated. In insane asylums, more than 90 percent are harmless and need not be confined. And in prisons, what is the point of confining those — I don’t know what percent, but it must be fairly large — who have committed one-time crimes, for example, most manslaughters and passional or family crimes, while they pay up or atone? People ought indeed to atone for the harm they have done, to get over their guilt and be “rehabilitated,” but this is much more likely to occur by trying to accept them back into the community, rather than isolating and making them desperate. Certainly the old confession on the public square was a better idea.

“It is doubtful that punishing some deters others. Varying the penalties has no statistical effect on occurrence, but only measures the degree of abstract social disapproval. And it is obvious that the great majority who do not steal, bribe, forge, and so forth, do not do so because of their life-style, more subtle influences than gross legal risks; other cultures, and some of our own subcultures, have other styles and other habits — for example, the youth counterculture has much increased shoplifting and forging of official documents.

“The chief reason that so-called “moral legislation” has no influence in deterring vices is that temptation to the vices does not occur in the same psychological context as rational calculation of legal risks — unlike business fraud or risking a parking ticket. And it is likely that much authentic criminal behavior is compulsive in the same way.

There are inveterate lawbreakers and “psychopathic personalities” who cannot be trusted not to commit the same or worse crimes. (I think they will exist with any social institutions whatever.) It is unrealistic to expect other people not to panic because of them, and so we feel we have to confine them, instead of lynching them. But our present theory of “correction” in fact leads to 70% recidivism, usually for more serious felonies; to a state of war and terrorism between prisoners and guards; and to increasing prison riots. Why not say honestly, “We’re locking you up simply because we’re afraid of you. It is not necessarily a reflection on you and we’re sorry for it. Therefore, in your terms, how can we make your confinement as painless and profitable to you as we can? We will give you as many creature satisfactions as you wish and we can afford, not lock you in cells, let you live in your own style, find and pursue your own work — so long as we are safe from you. A persisting, and perhaps insoluble, problem is how you will protect yourselves from one another.”

“It may be objected, of course, that many sober and hardworking citizens who aren’t criminals are never given this much consideration by society. No, they aren’t, and that is a pity.”

* * *

What would Goodman say if he were alive today? But of course he isn’t. (He’d be 100 years old.) Nonetheless, there is a way to surmise how he might view our present situation — that’s what it means to speak of acquiring his attitude. Once you have it, you know how he would have approached problems he may never have faced himself. For instance, reading over the long passage I’ve just quoted, we can begin to revise and amplify his views in the light of changed circumstances. I’ve already offered in brackets an update on what one criminologist has dubbed “the culture of punishment.” It’s tempting to add other notes and emendations, not merely correcting for time-lapse but also carrying forth the analysis to new applications. Consider, for instance, the “model prison” Goodman imagines for dangerous incorrigibles, and compare it with the idyllic Norwegian facility documented in the outtakes contained on the DVD version of Michael Moore’s film Sicko. Given the criminal justice system in Norway, one of the most sensible and humane in the world, we might assume the prison population there to be some approximation of the incorrigible group Goodman had in mind for his utopian proposal — except for the fact that the Norwegian prisoners have hope of eventual release. These are people who have not been denied their personhood or caged like wild animals forever.

This example raises another question that Goodman addresses, the issue of how prisoners are to deal with the guilt which now poisons their share of the social world that is their birthright. He contrasts modern resort to incarceration as “correction” or “rehabilitation” with older practices like “confession on the public square,” as means for wrongdoers to “atone for the harm they have done, to get over their guilt, … and trying to accept them back in the community.” Whether offenders are ultimately released, as in Norway, or held in some permanently locked comfort zone, the same analysis of guilt and expiation applies. The underlying attitude implied here is recognition and respect for the basic humanity of those who, for whatever reasons, have transgressed the law. To regard a person as no longer deserving of freedom or association with others is to destroy the possibility of ever repairing the social fabric that has been torn.

Let us look further into this idea of guilt, atonement, and acceptance back into community, for it is a telling instance of how the anarchist attitude can shed light on seemingly intractable social dilemmas. During the thirty or forty years since Goodman wrote his assessment, while prison populations have been ballooning and the experience of incarceration has become more and more cruel, it is also true — perhaps even as a result — that forms of alternative sentencing involving victim reparations and reconciliation have also become more visible, especially in other countries. One can read about such experiments in many books, notably David Cayley’s 1998 survey, The Expanding Prison, a hopeful instance of how the anarchist attitude persists in some quarters — not, of course, in any direct line of influence, but as a recurrent human impulse. Although not the “public square” Goodman reminded us of, other kinds of offender/victim encounters have demonstrated the moral efficacy of such alternatives (or supplements) to ordinary sentencing and imprisonment. Even for offenders who have no hope of eventual release, it makes an enormous difference if their guilt can be laid to rest. Rather than festering in meaningless torment, such persons can perhaps lead lives of worth and dedication, as Goodman said, if they are allowed “to atone for the harm they have done” in some more authentic way than simply by enduring their punishment.

Such possibilities have proved difficult for most people to entertain, whether criminal justice experts, legislative representatives, or ordinary citizens, because the entire realm of crime and punishment has so long been accepted as the sole prerogative of the state and its apparatus. Worse yet, crime is treated as if committed against the state, not other persons or even the community. It is invariably the state that apprehends, prosecutes, sentences, and punishes. I’m not suggesting vigilante law and order. But the administering of true justice requires that all parties be given a voice that is heard and weighed in face to face contact. In today’s hectic criminal courts the victim has almost as little say as the offender, often not even testifying in court, while the community is “represented” by an array of state officials. The central roles are played by hired experts, the prosecuting attorney and the defendant’s often state-appointed counsel, who also has an official role to play. Judge and jury listen to a drama in which the real character and history of all the important actors is almost totally unknown, and regarded as irrelevant. No one speaks for humanity. Go to any courtroom to see it in action. Everyone is costumed in the ordained regalia of suits and ties, uniforms, black robes, and shackles. Each role and function is performed according to state-determined protocols, and any human expression of feeling is discouraged on all sides. Once the prisoner has been sentenced and removed, the state’s inhumanity is bared in its true character at the doors of the prison house, as all who have gone through that passageway can testify.

I hardly need add color or nuance to this picture. What I’m trying to convey is the black and white appropriateness of the anarchist attitude for a true analysis and critique of this foundational exercise of state power, which too often treats persons as things rather than human beings, and punishes in the most degrading manner all who resist or cannot fit into the slots assigned them in the organized system. Other anarchists have said, pointedly, that “War is the health of the State,” true enough, but in our own day it might be closer to the emerging truth to point to the Prison as its apotheosis.

From Taylor Stoehr's introduction to a collection of Goodman's anarchist writings recently published by PM Press in Oakland, Drawing the Line Once Again. PM has also just released The Paul Goodman Reader, also edited by Taylor Stoehr, who is Goodman's literary executor.

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