Clarification of Terms
Recently, a friend in the Scottish Society of Louisville (a local Scottish heritage organization that helped fund my doctoral studies, and which I recommend to any interested Louisvillians) requested that I clarify what I mean by the terms ‘anarchism’, ‘anti-racism’, and ‘anti-capitalism’; and that I explain how they were connected to the promotion of Scottish Gaelic in Kentucky. This blog post is an elaboration of the answers I gave that friend: I share it here in the hope that it might help other interested people with similar questions to understand more clearly some of my objectives in helping to initiate the Kentucky Gaelic revival. If, after reading this, my thoughts on the terms in question still seem unclear, I’m sure the fault is mine, and I would be happy to attempt to explain further: don’t hesitate to get in touch at kentuckygaelic.com. For now, I invite you to read the following:
Dùthchas is Anarcachas ann an Ceanndachaidh / Folk-culture and Anarchism in Kentucky
This is the name of a podcast and Facebook page that I created with the three aims of promoting traditional knowledge associated with Kentucky (folklore about Kentucky regions, arts-and-crafts activities like quilting, etc.); anarchism (the goal of promoting a state-less, non-hierarchical society, or of promoting stateless or non-hierarchical activities within existing society); and the Gaelic language.
Although they might seem incongruous, I see these three things as being closely connected: folk-culture (that is, cultural knowledge transmitted intergenerationally within families and communities through mentor-to-apprentice teaching in homes and neighborhoods), and minority languages (which are essentially a form of folk-culture) are both endangered by hegemonic forces that replace local family and community knowledge with knowledge propagated by mass media, usually with the help or in the interests of either state-affiliated or state-protected formal institutions like schools and corporations. Take the example of Scottish Gaelic: its slow diminution over the course of around 1000 years has mostly resulted from its persecution by the Scottish state, the British state, or corporations and landed business people working in cooperation with these entities. If there had been no government in Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, then it’s very likely that Gaelic would be stronger today, and, although I advocate for the payment of reparations by the UK and Scottish governments for their ill-treatment of Gaelic over the years, I think it would be far better for the language if these governments had simply never existed.
When I speak against government, some people assume that I’m against cooperation or collective action, or that I’m anti-social – that, essentially, I’m endorsing Ayn-Rand style US libertarianism, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While I am a libertarian in the classical sense, in that I think people should feel free to make for themselves the choices that determine the courses of their lives, I also believe that human beings are fundamentally social creatures – that we are far happier in groups than in isolation, and that we tend to achieve far more by working together than by working alone. I see socialism, in the most basic sense of the word (that is, a conception of society in which people look out for one another’s interests, rather than merely their own, and in which maintaining the welfare of society itself is considered a laudable aim) as the best form of human social organization.
However, unlike many socialists and social democrats, I believe that hierarchical organizations that exercise undue power over the actions of other individuals and groups within society by hoarding resources and deciding independently how to distribute these resources to others – whether they be corporations, or the organs of government – do not promote the wellbeing of society, but instead hinder it. I have come to the conclusion that the best way – indeed, perhaps, the only way – of creating a society wherein people have the right to exercise individual agency while belonging to maximally supportive and emotionally fulfilling communities is for people to rely on one another rather than on formal institutions: living as equals, unoppressed by governments and corporations, and keeping the production of the physical and cultural commodities on which they rely (from food to philosophy) as local and community-centric as possible.
Now, I know that some people – up to and including both the current and outgoing presidents of the United States – get upset at the idea of anarchy: that, for them, it connotes lawlessness and terror; an endless battle of all against all in which no one triumphs, especially the weak. That is one definition of anarchy, but not at all the vision of the future for which I hope. For me, anarchy means a system of social organization in which all people are equal; in which all members of every community protect and nurture the wellbeing of their fellows out of self-respect and a sense of love and duty to their neighbors, rather than a slavish devotion to the law, or the fear of punishment for breaking it; and in which people are free to follow their passions, to the extent possible without treading on others’ rights, instead of toiling away their lives as pawns of the market or virtual slaves of the state.
That condition of maximal freedom and equality is the kind of anarchy I hope to bring about, and anarchism is the process by which that condition of anarchy might be realized – not, or at least not yet, in the form of actual societal revolution, but through conducting revolutionary acts of community-building, and attempts to dismantle the unjust hierarchies that harm society and its members.
One of the greatest unjust hierarchies at work in the US today is the racial caste system that dominates and divides our social life. White people have controlled a disproportionate amount of wealth and power in North America since the invention of the construct of whiteness in the 1600s, while non-white people – especially Black and indigenous people – have continually suffered simply for not having been born white. Whiteness itself was only invented by wealthy plantation owners to prevent worker solidarity among their servants and slaves; before the late 1600s, and in many cases far later, ‘race’ was synonymous not with the modern idea of genetic- or color-based race, but with the concept of cultural nationhood (that is, ‘tribe’). It was once possible, for instance, to speak of the Gaels as a race; and, at the outset of whiteness, the only people truly considered ‘white’ were the Anglo-Saxons – a term which meant not pale-skinned people in general, as it does today, but specifically the English.
Over time, the franchise of whiteness has expanded to include most people who look phenotypically pale, just as the British Empire once expanded to include many lands outside of England. However – in both cases, whether whiteness or Britishness – Englishness was the dominant force in the construct. It is for this reason that all indigenous and immigrant languages in the United States, including those of non-English ‘white’ people, have eventually given way to English. The American Revolution, rather than deconstructing the British Imperial project, merely replaced England with the United States as the dominant power in the Anlgo-Saxonization of the Western Hemisphere: the American colonial elite – that is, wealthy, land-owning English people in America – did not lose power during the Revolution, and those non-English European immigrants who ultimately became white were expected to adopt English language and manners in order to don the protective mantle of whiteness, thereby ceasing to belong to the cultural nations of their ancestors.
Part of my mission in restoring Gaelic in Kentucky is to help challenge the false consciousness of whiteness: I want white people in Kentucky to reflect on the cultural heritage(s) that their immigrant ancestors had to give up in order to become white, and to consider how poorly those sacrifices have actually served them. Not all whiteness is created equal: the white people who descend from the English upper-classes have always had an economic and cultural advantage over late converts to whiteness from other European immigrant groups. Kentucky – mostly colonized by European immigrants from the lower classes of non-English speaking areas of the British Isles, and long bedeviled by economic inequality – has seldom if ever been looked on as hosting the most prestigious sort of white people. In light of this reputation, Kentuckians of all ‘races’ have often been disparaged by people from other regions in a similar (albeit markedly less severe) way to that in which people of color have been disparaged by whites. In order to combat this regionalism, and the racism with which it is bound up, I would like all Kentuckians, including white Kentuckians, to reflect on the fact of their marginalization as Kentuckians; and for white Kentuckians to begin to feel more solidarity with other Kentuckians (including and perhaps especially Kentuckians of color) than with white people from elsewhere in the US and Europe. Only by liberating ourselves from the false-consciousness of whiteness can white people in Kentucky, or anywhere else, cease to be dangerous to people of color, and, indeed, to ourselves. As such, my efforts to promote Gaelic and the Gaelic identity – thereby hopefully helping to undermining the hegemony of whiteness – are calculated to be anti-racist.
Just as statism and racism have often endangered the future of Gaelic – the first, by driving Gaels from their lands, or by coercing them into speaking English; and, the second, by replacing their Gaelic-language-centered identity as Gaels with an English-language-centered identity as whites, whether in Britain or North America – capitalism, too, has proved itself an enemy of the Gaelic language. Over the course of the last three hundred years, Gaelic has been constantly derided as unprofitable. For the most part, this assertion has been true – Gaelic is not, in general, a language of economic advancement – but this alone would not make it seem worthless if not for the capitalist belief that the essential worth of any given thing stems exclusively from its economic value. In contrast to this capitalist outlook, I believe that the fundamental worth of a thing rests in its ability to contribute to human wellbeing and happiness, and that people themselves are intrinsically valuable. Whereas many a capitalist has looked at Gaelic’s historically limited earning power, and concluded that the language should be either allowed to die or even hastened to its proverbial grave; I see the joy it brings its learners, and the sense of pride and cultural continuity it affords the Scottish Gaels, and have come to feel that Gaelic’s survival as a living language is a moral imperative. These two conceptions of value – one capitalist, and one humanist – are fundamentally at odds: they cannot coexist in the same mind without a high degree of cognitive dissonance, and they cannot be implemented in the same social system as a means of assessing the value of things without coming into direct conflict with one another. Therefore, declaring that Gaelic has worth despite its low profit potential – which I do, often and loudly – is fundamentally at odds with capitalism, and is, as such, an anti-capitalist act.
Above and beyond that theoretical argument for the incompatibility of Gaelic and capitalism is the concrete fact that the Highland Clearances – the forced mass-exodus of the Gaels from their traditional homelands in the Scottish Highlands – was conducted in the name of capitalist economic progress. After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden Moor in 1746, the Highland aristocrats ceased being clan chiefs in all but name, and began to effectively function as landlords. Their people, who had traditionally paid rent in kind, or in military service, had little recourse to the money economy of the Lowlands, and so were unable to pay the rent when it was requested in cash. When it became clear that the traditional Gaelic way of life – that of communally organized subsistence agriculture – could not be profitable in monetary terms, and that more money could be had by replacing the Highland tenants with red deer and cheviot sheep, the landlords did exactly that: they drove away the tenants by fire and sword (often wielded by hired mercenaries and complicit police), destroyed Gaelic farmsteads, and converted the then-emptied land into sprawling deer parks, grouse moors, and sheep pastures.
The Highland Clearances were not inevitable or necessary – no more than the expulsion of Native Americans from their former lands East of the Mississippi River, or the use of African slaves in the plantation economy of the Southern US and the Caribbean. People who had bought into notions of progress built on white- and English-language hegemony treated the Gaels, the American Indians, and the enslaved West Africans as callously as they did because they believed that people’s worth was based solely on their productivity, and that some people were either fundamentally unproductive, or truly productive only when used by others as tools. Treating people as objects instead of as people, and judging their worth solely according to their productivity, is the fundamental moral failing of capitalism; in order to unironically promote Gaelic, one must instead believe that people – and by extension their cultures – have an inherent worth beyond their ability to generate wealth. In that sense, all minority language promotion – including Gaelic promotion – is fundamentally anti-capitalist.