Notes On Anarchism: Plutocracy or Democracy

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Capitalism is antithetical to democracy. The choice between socialism and capitalism is, to my mind, a choice between democracy and effective plutocracy (i.e., rule by the wealthy). Socialism, as the collective ownership of the means of production, implies the most radical form of direct democracy. Under capitalism, on the other hand — particularly as advocated by modern-day libertarians and so-called “anarcho”-capitalists — one votes with one’s dollar, which is to say, the wealthier one is, the more power one has. Money literally is power. Being heard, just like everything else (i.e., safety, healthcare, education, food, shelter, etc.), is a commodity to be purchased in the market place. One is only as free as one can afford. And because capitalism is not meritocratic, as I have argued before, I take this to be a pretty damning problem.

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Notes On Anarchism: Earning and Deserving

In capitalist societies, human life is not inherently valued. It is something that must be bought, and in order to afford it, one must sell oneself to the capitalists, prove oneself profitable, and in return will receive wages which will (hopefully) be enough to purchase life’s basic necessities–viz., food, housing, healthcare, etc. When the things that are necessary to survive are conceived as things to be earned, as things which one does not deserve simply in virtue of being human, then human life itself cannot be said to be held as inherently valuable. If it were, the things necessary to sustain this supposedly inherently valuable life would not be a matter of being earned just in case one meets certain conditions. The only inherently valuable thing in a capitalist society is capital. And I have a real problem with any system that values something–anything–above human life.

Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

Apparently, my ongoing–albeit intermittent–“Notes On Anarchism” series has morphed into a way to (attempt to) briefly and succinctly respond to frequently asked questions regarding anarchism (and socialism more generally).

Thus, today I am taking up the annoyingly common objection that, because man (it is always man–I suppose the jury is still out on woman) is inherently evil, socialism (especially libertarian socialism) could never work, because man [sic!] would have to be inherently good. Therefore, it is concluded, the state is necessary and capitalism is our best bet economically.

What I find particularly odd about this objection is that it seems to be essentially saying that, because humans are inherently evil, we should–indeed, we must–build an economic system that encourages greed, selfishness, and the valuing of profit above all else (i.e., capitalism); and that, furthermore, we should give some of these inherently evil people a monopoly of force over the rest of society. If it is true that humans are inherently evil, this hardly seems like a solution.

Secondly, the “inherently evil”-“inherently good” dichotomy is, in my opinion, a red herring. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do people always say to me, “Well, either you believe people are inherently good or you believe that people are inherently evil.” My question is: Why should we assume that people are inherently anything? This thinking strikes me as incredibly reductionistic, and I have addressed it in further detail, spelling out what I take to be serious problems with the idea of “human nature” here.

Now, to be clear, I do believe that empathy and mutual aid are an “inherent” (if we must use that word) aspect of the human species, developed over the course of evolution and without which we would never have survived. I absolutely believe that humans are social creatures and that if anarchy (in the pejorative sense) were to prevail, most of us would probably not run around killing, raping, and pillaging (and if the threat of the state’s use of force is the only thing that prevents you from doing so, I don’t think I want to hang out with you.) There is, to my mind, plenty of good and convincing evidence for all of this. Why, for example, is the lack of empathy (i.e., psychopathy) considered psychologically aberrant? Why is it so damaging for soldiers who experience firsthand the ravages of war? Why do babies who aren’t held enough often become psychopaths? Because we are social creatures!

The principles of “rugged individualism” and Social Darwinism still enjoy a considerable amount of prominence among right-wing politicians, but, quite simply, I think the evidence is completely and utterly lacking that these ideas come anywhere near accurately describing the human species and how we relate to one another. I have written on this in more detail before as well.

So, no, I don’t think people are “inherently good”, but I also don’t think people are “inherently evil.” Such reductionistic categories ignore perfectly good evidence to the contrary, as well as encourage vacuous thinking when approaching social and political problems. (I.e., “There is a lot of crime, which obviously just means that people are inherently evil”, rather than, “There is a lot of crime; why might that be? What social, political, economic, or other forms of power relations might be contributing to that?” To say nothing of asking what the historical evolution is of such ideas as “human nature”, what kinds of social and historical contingencies surrounded and contributed to the development of those ideas, how one’s own social and cultural background might be contributing to one’s adherence to these types of ideas, etc. etc.)

Social and political issues are incredibly complex, and, as is clear to anyone who is actually interested enough to do a minimal investigation into the political philosophies of socialism and anarchism rather than just assaulting us with right-wing talking points (if the reader will forgive a brief lapse into cynicism), anarchism and socialism attempt to address these issues with respect for their complexity. Anarchists do not deny that people do bad things, and that they would continue to do bad things in an anarchist society. However, anarchists also believe that there are many, many ways in which current structures–the state and capitalism chief among them–which serve to exacerbate these problems, often to an extreme degree. Capitalism, for example, must discourage and suppress sentiments of collectivity and communality among the working classes, as such sentiments encourage people to work together for mutual benefit rather than for the profit of their capitalist bosses. It is therefore in no way surprising that Milton Friedman said that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

“Human Nature”?

Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.[1]

It is commonly assumed that “human nature” severely limits our potential for improving our social, political, and economic situation. The concept is used almost exclusively as a negative to counter so-called utopians and radicals. “Human nature,” say the dissenters, will take over without a centralized government (read: monopoly of force), or capitalist economic system, and society will devolve into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, if we must talk about something called human nature, I think we need to take into account all of the scientific evidence—which I take to be pretty convincing—that not only does human existence include a self-interested struggle for survival, but also strong elements of empathy and mutual aid, which are the foundations of our moral thinking. In this case, human nature—if it exists—might not be such a terrible thing.

I would begin, however, by pointing out that if human nature truly is as ultimately selfish and greedy a thing as this argument seems to assume, how are the best preventative actions against this to a) give a few of these selfish and greedy people a monopoly of force over the rest; and b) to construct an economic system in which the one and only goal is the maximization of profit? It seems to be a truism that if the maximization of profit is the singular goal of our economic system, this will result in slavery, exploitation, and abject poverty, as these are quite profitable for the capitalists! And how much worse would these things manifest themselves if the human nature camp were correct! What more could expect? This argument seems to essentially lead to the conclusion that if we can’t beat ’em, we may as well feed ’em. But then again, why would we want to beat them at all? If we are all ultimately bad, evil, corrupt, depraved, or whatever term we choose to use, why would we ever have decided that being bad was, well, bad? Why do the overwhelming majority of moral theories developed by philosophers over the centuries praise selflessness over selfishness? If the human nature camp is right, it seems that this would be akin to praising not breathing over breathing. In other words, it wouldn’t be a moral issue at all!

However, as I suggested at the beginning, I think that the entire concept of “human nature” is incredibly suspect. For one thing, if, for example, states and capitalism (and state capitalism) are necessary to prevent the destruction and chaos that would be wrought by allowing human nature free reign, how did we survive so long before figuring this out? Both Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, and Frans de Waal, in The Age of Empathy, have convincingly argued that we would never have survived the evolutionary process if Hobbes and friends were right. De Waal, for example, dispels three of the most prevalent myths concerning human origins: “that our ancestors ruled the savanna”[2], “that human society is the creation of autonomous men”[3], and “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.”[4] “Empathy,” de Waal concludes, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”[5]

We survived the evolutionary process because we are social creatures, who depended on one another and took care of one another, and “It is evident,” according to Kropotkin,

that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[6]

The man (it is always a man) of rugged individualism, who is at bottom self-interested, greedy, and perhaps even evil, would have died off before such a time—over 100,000 years into his existence—when such things as states and profit developed to prevent him from killing all the other members of his species. As David Graeber writes in Debt,

There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.[7]

“Social Darwinists may disagree,” says de Waal, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”[8] This social motive, however, arguably runs counter to capitalism. Milton Friedman recognized this when he wrote that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”[9] Graeber concurs that the capitalist corporation

is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.[10]

So, again, if human nature truly were such an evil thing, this fact would hardly constitute an argument in favor of capitalism.

Furthermore, it is an incredibly reductive way of thinking. I often hear that we are faced with an either/or choice between affirming the ultimate goodness or badness of humanity. But it’s unclear to me why we have to face this either/or at all. In doing so, we nihilistically resign ourselves to our supposedly evil natures. We know that this or that will never work—whether it be anarchism, socialism, an end to war, the abolition of economics that centralize greed—because of human nature, so why bother even trying? If we are determined that such things can never be achieved, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for example, we never try to end war, because we have become convinced by the concept of human nature that it’s not possible, we will never actually know if it is possible or not! To be sure, from the standpoint of the state and capitalism (and many religious institutions), this is an incredibly effective tool against dissent. Convince people that they are ultimately evil and need Big Brother to curb their evil instincts and they will fall in line and not question your authority.

According to Graeber, the idea of “self-interest”—that we are all ultimately self-interested—originated in St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But “When it was first introduced,” Graeber writes, “most English authors seemed to view the idea that all human life can be explained as the pursuit of self-interest as a cynical, foreign, Machiavellian idea, one that sat uncomfortably with traditional English mores.” Nevertheless, “By the eighteenth century, most in educated society accepted it as simple common sense.”[11] Why did society suddenly jump onto the self-interest bandwagon? According to Graeber,

Part of the term’s appeal was that it derived from bookkeeping. It was mathematical. This made it seem objective, even scientific. Saying we are all really pursuing our own self-interest provides a way to cut past the welter of passions and emotions that seem to govern our daily existence, and to motivate most of what we actually observe people to do (not only out of love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation, and pride) and discover that, despite all this, most really important decisions are based on the rational calculation of material advantage—which means that they are fairly predictable as well.[12]

The idea of the ultimately self-interested nature of human beings, then, was useful and served as a way to cut past all of the messiness of daily life, reducing it all to economic cost-benefit calculations. It was a means of simplifying the complexities of human actions and emotions. A convenience perhaps, but in the end it remains unclear why such a singular explanation is necessary in the first place.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that human beings are “ultimately good.” I am not arguing that human beings are ultimately anything. While I do believe that, per Kropotkin and de Waal (and others), empathy and mutual aid are evolutionarily wired into us, my claim is that such explanations as “human nature,” which depend on there being one basic principle by which everything else is constituted are unnecessarily—and dangerously—reductive. Again, why do human beings have to be either ultimately good or ultimately bad? Why can’t we look our history, riddled not only with war, greed, and profit, but also with heroism, selflessness, love, compassion, and mutual aid, and simply conclude that human beings are capable both of great evil and of great good? Doing so can certainly be frightening, as we are forced to accept responsibility for our actions—rather than blaming it all on human nature—and must realize that the future, far from dragging us helplessly into a world that is just as selfish, greedy, and war-torn as our past, is actually undecided and undetermined and waiting for us to act to bring it into reality. And we have a say in whether that reality is better or worse than our current condition. “To begin to free ourselves,” writes Graeber, “the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.”[13] The concept of human nature would have us believe that we are slaves to fate, but I do not think that such nihilism is at all necessary.

To my mind, human nature is in the same camp as determinism, reductive materialism, and Nietzschean will to power—viz., I think they are reductionist and self-referentially inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, if we are all ultimately selfish, where did the idea of selflessness even come from? And why did we decide that such a mode of action, which apparently runs contrary to our very natures, is in fact desirable and even morally superior? Some might argue that a psychological and/or ethical egoist position could quickly do away with this objection, but to my mind de Waal effectively dispenses with such alternatives when he writes that “Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.”[14] We are empathic, social creatures, who thrive on community, compassion, and mutual aid. As de Waal concludes, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile.”[15] (De Waal also tellingly notes that, statistically, “Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality,”[16] whereas more egalitarian states and societies tend to produce greater happiness and overall well-being.)

Therefore, I would propose that we dispense with the fictitious and oppressive concept of “human nature” altogether, and open ourselves up to the possibility of doing better. After all, apologists for the state and capitalism often also believe that the founding of the United States was a great improvement for humanity. But if the utopian revolutionaries of the 18th century were able to make humanity’s situation a bit better, why should “human nature” stop us now?

 

Notes

[1] Goldman, Emma (2009-10-04). Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 43-44). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] De Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 205.

[6] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. (Mineloa, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 62.

[7] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Brooklyn/London: Melville House, 2012), 210.

[8] De Waal, 36.

[9] Qtd., De Waal, 38.

[10] Graeber, 320.

[11] Ibid., 331.

[12] Ibid., 331.

[13] Ibid., 383.

[14] De Waal, 106.

[15] Ibid., 221.

[16] Ibid., 197.

Notes On Anarchism: “Don’t People Need Incentives In Order to Work?”

This is a common objection to anarchism (and socialism more generally): without incentive (i.e., the promise of more money, or the threat of no money), no one will do any work! According to this line of thinking, then, the carrot must be dangled in front of our faces in order for us to pull our master’s load a little faster and a little farther. In a certain sense, this is true. We do not sell ourselves to capitalists because we want to–we do it because we must eat! However, the idea that this is the only possible way that any necessary work could ever be done strikes me as incredibly problematic. It perpetuates the idea that human beings are too stupid and selfish to do anything for the benefit of others without the carrot and stick that the beneficent state so graciously hold before us. (Somehow, apparently, we have figured out that we should work together and help each other out, but that we can’t and/or won’t without someone to offer us cookies when we do and the stick when we don’t.)

Furthermore, I think this mindset can serve to dehumanize those who take jobs that supposedly no one else wants to. Essentially, this thinking seems to imply that these jobs, though certainly valuable and necessary for the successful functioning of society, are not respectable jobs. Nevertheless, in order for a privileged few to do what they love, some poor schmucks have to get stuck with the so-called “dirty jobs.” And, again, the thinking goes, without some sort of incentive (i.e., do this or else you don’t eat), these jobs would never be done (because apparently the privileged few simply cannot be bothered to pick up their own trash and clean their toilets).

On the contrary, it seems that things tend to go better in society when people are free to follow their passions without fear that doing so will not put bread on the table. And when people are free to follow their passions, they give the world the best they have to offer–whether it be through artistic, educational, mechanical, medical, or any other skill. I think that is a world worth fighting for. Let’s quit devaluing ourselves with all this talk about needing incentives to do anything. We are social creatures and we never would have survived this long without mutual aid and community.

Some Further Thoughts On the Im/Possibility of Anarchy

A few months back, I took a stab at responding to one of the most commonly asked questions about anarchy and anarchism–namely, is it really possible?  I tried to engage some of the scholarship surrounding the issue in order to answer the question, but in every day conversation, my response essentially consists of two basic points that I think are worth elucidating.

First–and this is a point on which many anarchists might disagree with me–I’m not sure that the question of possibility is the best question to be asking.  Quite simply, I don’t know if anarchy is possible.  As I noted in the previous post, it has been attempted with relative success on a small scale in the past, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it would or could ever happen on a global scale (and by global I mean a world comprised of many, many small anarchist communities and federations).  However, I’m not really interested in speculating on whether or to what extent it is possible.  Possibility and impossibility are, I think, largely contingent on what we take to be possible or impossible.  (More on this below.)  As I mentioned before, the most important aspect of anarchism for me is that it is the endless pursuit of justice and freedom from all forms of oppression, coercion, domination, etc., whether in the form of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, or other forms.  In short, it is the pursuit of a society in which the inherent value, dignity, and equality of every human person is radically affirmed.  Is such a world possible?  I don’t know, but it would be foolish not to try for it.

And secondly, I think it’s important to remember that we have a say in what is possible and so long as we continue to convince ourselves that certain social, political, and economic ways of organizing are impossible, they will be.  So long as we stubbornly hold on to the belief that “human nature” (an oppressive, fictitious concept, in my view) just is such a way that it will never allow us to live in a radically antiauthoritarian, radically egalitarian society, it will be impossible–we’ll never even bother to try!  How fatalistic!  How nihilistic.  And yet, it seems that, the same folks who talk this way about anarchism, will in the next breath praise the founding fathers, the American Revolution, and our Constitution as great leaps forward in human history.  If the democratic (read: bourgeois) revolutionaries of the 18th century could achieve what was at the time considered by many to be utopian, why must we assume that we can’t do the same–and maybe even more–in the 21st century?

All of this to say: I’m not interested in discussing the “possibility” of anarchy; I’m interested in action*.  And I’d rather fail in the pursuit of justice and equality than to never try at all.  It would be an experiment, of course, but the American government was an experiment as well!  Why should we not continue trying to do better?

*As should be abundantly clear to anyone who reads this blog, the action I advocate is nonviolent action.

On Libertarian Socialism, Anarchist Communism, and Other Such Absurdities

There was a great post today on Koinonia Revolution called “Socialism and Communism: The Last 100 Years“, dealing with the demonization of socialism and communism.  Since this is a conversation I have had many times, I thought I’d thrown in my two cents on the common misunderstandings and subsequent misuses of terms such as socialism, communism, and anarchism.

When asked about my political views, if I have the time, I might describe myself as a libertarian socialist who is particularly sympathetic to anarcho-communism.  Otherwise, I will probably just say I’m an anarchist.  But even this term can be problematic.  Indeed, as soon as I start throwing out terms such as “socialist”, “communist”, “anarchist”, and “libertarian”, I am likely to be misunderstood–and even more so when I suggest that there is some meaningful political philosophy that is actually characterized by a commitment to the basic ideas of all of these terms.

In general, “libertarianism” is taken to refer to the free market, minimum government ideas of thinkers such as Ron Paul; socialism is a catch-all term for any left-winger who advocates “big government”; “communism” is the horrible evil of the USSR; and “anarchism” would mean the abolition of all government, order, organization, etc.  Therefore, it is assumed, it is surely impossible that any of these terms could agree in any meaningful way with the other.

On the contrary, as I point out in the “Terminology” section above, socialism is an economic theory that, quite simply, refers to the collective ownership of the means of production.  There is no specific role of the state that is necessary to socialism–the state could be gigantic or non-existent.  Communism, furthermore, is a socialist economic theory, which generally refers to a specific way of structuring a socialist society around the idea of “from each according to her abilities; to each according to her needs.”  Again, no specific state role is necessary for this definition.  Anarchism also goes back to 19th century socialism: It simply refers to a type of socialism that is characterized by a non-hierarchical society (i.e., no state).  And finally, libertarianism was originally used as a synonym for anarchism.  So, in other words, libertarianism is anarchism; anarchism is socialism; communism is socialism; and socialism does not refer necessitate an authoritarian state.

For this reason, it is, historically speaking, more of a redundancy to speak of “libertarian socialism”.  It was not until the mid-20th century that the term libertarian began to be used to refer to laissez-faire economics, even though up until that point libertarians (i.e., anarchists) had always been characterized by an opposition to capitalism.  And similarly, it wasn’t until certain authoritarian regimes (i.e., the USSR, North Korea, etc.) arose as nominally “communist” that communism came to be demonized in American media.  But, as I have suggested, an authoritarian state is not the condition of possibility for socialism.  In fact, Noam Chomsky has argued (I think rightly), that the original definition of socialism is incompatible with an authoritarian state, which would mean that such states as have historically called themselves “communist” were in fact simply authoritarian and nothing more.

Is Anarchy Actually Possible, or Merely A Utopian Pipe-dream?

A practical scheme, says Oscar Wilde, is either one already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under the existing conditions; but it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to, and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The true criterion of the practical, therefore, is not whether the latter can keep intact the wrong or foolish; rather is it whether the scheme has vitality enough to leave the stagnant waters of the old, and build, as well as sustain, new life. In the light of this conception, Anarchism is indeed practical. (1)

Is anarchy really possible? A general response to common objections

Some valid points have been brought to my attention regarding potential problems with the viability of the anarchist vision, and these concerns deserve consideration.

I think there are a few relevant points to be made. First, in order for anarchy to work, it must a) be small (there would no “United States of Anarchy” or “Anarchist Russia” or the like, but perhaps a “federation” of many small anarchist communities); and b) everyone involved must be an anarchist. And this has happened before (I am thinking specifically of the Spanish Civil War–Murrary Bookchin has an informative little book on this called To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936–but there are other examples as well, and it seems that most have been crushed by external rather than internal forces). Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the first common objection of the “free rider” problem wouldn’t exactly be a the greatest threat if everyone involved is invested in the community. And those who did not want to be involved would be under no obligation. As it is, a defining factor of states is that they must force everyone to “participate” whether they want to or not–and the state has the monopoly of force to do so. (2) Anarchists would seek to eliminate such coercion.

Furthermore, if it really became a problem, there is no reason why the community could not through consensus agree to exclude the free rider. How exactly would this look? It would probably vary. But I think that Emma Goldman was right to argue in Anarchism: What It Really Stands For that we should not devote all of our time to thinking through every imaginable hypothetical situation. (3) Obviously, when people are involved, there will be variables that we just can’t plan for. However, anarchists are not the first to advocate such an “experiment”: capitalism is an experiment, and so is democracy. In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, for example, David Graeber argues that thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, and Smith were “idealists” whose “utopian” vision has yet to actually be realized (partly because, it appears, many of their ideas were based on fabricated economic history). (4)

And this leads to another point: economic anthropology (and again, I’m thinking specifically of Graeber’s work) tells us that all kinds of different economies have existed in human history, including the kinds of gift and mutual aid economies that so many anarchists advocate. Graeber goes on to argue that capitalism has essentially trained us to think that there is no alternative to capitalism (5). But the very fact that (state) capitalism exists betrays the fact that we are historical actors and can achieve seemingly impossible goals. (6) And, as far as alternative economies go, it must be remembered that most anarchist economic visions (gift economy, mutual aid, communism, participatory economics) would eliminate money and therefore ideas such as “revenue”, “wealth”, and the like must be, at the very least, radically rethought.

I have run into a lot of folks who essentially seem to think that “socialism” means a capitalist state in which money is stolen from the wealthier members of society and given to the poorer. But this is a misunderstanding. In a libertarian socialist (i.e., anarchist) society wherein all of its members were anarchist, there wouldn’t be “wealthy” or “poor” in the economic sense. Everyone’s basic needs would be met, operating under the assumption that no particular line of work (or even lack thereof) makes one more or less deserving of a home, food, healthcare, education, or any of the other basic necessities. I hope that doesn’t sound like a cynical caricature of capitalism (I hate the “bomb-throwing anarchist” caricature, so I try to not level the same against those with whom I disagree), but it seems to me that these are the implications of capitalist thought. If the only goal of capitalism is the maximization of profits for shareholders, as Milton Friedman suggests, then any moral beliefs beyond that are not specifically capitalist and it’s easy to see what moral beliefs would be incompatible with this goal. Similarly, speaking on the development of classical economics, Noam Chomsky explains that

[D]uring the early stages of the industrial revolution, as England was coming out of a feudal-type society and into what’s basically a state-capitalist system, the rising bourgeoisie there had a problem. In a traditional society like the feudal system, people had a certain place, and they had certain rights–in fact, they had what was called at the time a “right to live.” I mean, under feudalism it may have been a lousy right, but nevertheless people were assumed to have some natural entitlement to survival. But with the rise of what we call capitalism, that right had to be destroyed: people had to have it knocked out of their heads that they had any automatic “right to live” beyond what they could win for themselves on the labor market. And that was the main point of classical economics. (7)

It’s easy to see how this goes hand-in-hand with the principle of profit maximization.

And of course, part of the above analysis is based on the assumption that the competition and division that capitalism seems to engender is not necessary for human society (again, the anthropology seems to suggest that many–though of course not all–early human societies were based on egalitarian principles), and can be replaced by solidarity and mutual aid. At the end of the day, however, what’s most important for me about anarchism is the pursuit rather than [the hashing out of every last specific detail of] the end–the pursuit of justice and equality and freedom from domination, coercion, oppression, violence, etc. and opposing such structures wherever they arise. And, in my opinion, the state and capitalism are among the worst (but certainly not the only!) perpetuators of such structures. That’s why I’m an anarchist. (8)

Notes

1. Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition, 36.

2. The CEO of Nestle, for example, finds the idea of viewing water as a human right to be an “extreme solution“. If those like him who seek the privatization of water were to succeed, common citizens would be met with the choice of state capitalism or death. Somehow that seems more “extreme” to me. And I take this to be quite a contradiction in the more radical laissez-faire capitalist thinking, whose primary exponents say they want “maximum freedom” for everyone on the one hand, but apparently want to force everyone to submit to capitalism on the other. Fortunately, it seems that such ideas are a minority in capitalist circles.

3. Goldman writes, “The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual.” (Ibid., 44-45.)

4. Graeber writes, “Men like Smith and Bentham were idealists, even utopians. To understand the history of capitalism, however, we have to begin by realizing that the picture we have in our heads–of workers who dutifully punch the clock at 8:00 a.m. and receive regular remuneration every Friday on the basis of a temporary contract that either party is free to break off at any time–began as a utopian vision, was only gradually put into effect even in England and North America, and has never, at any point, been the main way of organizing production for the market, ever, anywhere.” David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2011), 353.

5. “[I]t could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.” (Ibid., 382)

6. As Graeber notes, “To begin to free ourselves, the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.” (Ibid., 383)

7. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. (New York: The New Press, 2002), 252.

8. And, consequently, from a Christian perspective, such a pursuit seems to me to be about as consistent with the biblical narrative as anything.

Notes on Anarchism: Lawlessness

Money is the law of the land–not justice or liberty for all, but liberty for the rich.  We live in a plutocracy, not a democracy.  Thus, our current social structure is truly lawless, for enough money (and power, for money equals power and vice versa) can effectively get one out of any legal skirmish.  The law, therefore, only applies to the poor, and is used as a means of protecting the interests of the political and economic elite.  The “lawless society” advocated by anarchists is one predicated on mutual aid, solidarity, and egalitarianism.  Under capitalism, there is no law but money/power.  Ergo, those who would denounce anarchy as impossible because a “lawless society” could not exist are actually denouncing our current political and economic system which is, in a very real sense, lawless.

What’s Wrong With Capitalism?

In the previous post I argued from the standpoint of the inter-subjective theory of consciousness that relationships predicated on domination are — if I may be so bold as to use the term — immoral (there are different methods which one may employ to arrive at immorality, but the basic idea is that, where domination is present, I can neither recognize myself as self nor the other as self, and, insofar as recognition of self-as-self and other-as-self is inherent to our nature, this is a problem.)  Assuming this evaluation is correct, the next reasonable question is, what about capitalism?  In the realm of political theories which would seek to eradicate the domination of the state, there are those who would argue that capitalism must also be eradicated (left-libertarians, libertarian socialists, social anarchists,etc.) and those who maintain that capitalism should be preserved (right-libertarians, minarchists, so-called anarcho-capitalists, etc).

Classical anarchism is rooted in socialism, which, by the end of the 19th century had split between anarchists of various stripes and Marxists (i.e., socialists who do not advocate the immediate elimination of the state).  What the two still held in common, however, was the conviction that capitalism must be abolished.  Marx understood capitalism as boiling down to two essential things: the accumulation of profit and private property.  Based upon this definition, an ethical critique of capitalism follows quite naturally.  While I do not consider myself a Marxist, the following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote over Marx’s critique of capitalism which I feel succinctly encapsulates my argument against capitalism.  The underlying assumption, as will become clear, is that individual human persons are inherently valuable, which immediately problematizes the ethical egoist foundation of capitalism, which reduces the value of individual persons to monetary gain and therefore, in principle, renders such concepts as human rights and social justice tertiary at best, and immoral at worst, should they conflict with the only absolute value which is profit maximization.

The goal of the accumulation of profit may be very briefly shown to naturally result in exploitation and alienation.  Quite simply, when the goal of opening a certain factory and hiring workers to work in that factory is to accumulate profit for the owner/employer, it is obvious that the worth of these workers will be valued insofar as they bring in profit.  Should a particular worker bring in (what is perceived as) too little profit, she will be swiftly let go and replaced by another who can ensure greater profit for the corporate elites, no matter what the negative consequences may be upon the worker who has been dismissed.  Had she brought in more profit, her employment would have been maintained and, essentially, she would have deserved the wages which will afford her food, housing, etc.  What this essentially boils down to is this: if the worker is not monetarily valuable to the employer, she does not deserve to eat, have a home, or any other of the basic necessities.  And not only this, but insofar as labor laws require corporations to spend more money to ensure the safety of its workers, in the absence of such laws these safety precautions will likely not be taken and thus the workers will be subjected to unsafe working conditions.  But because their labor is forced (as a result of the nature of the system), they must continue working under these conditions regardless (assuming they want to eat, of course).  [Note: many will argue that labor is not forced because the worker voluntary gives her labor to the capitalist in exchange for pay, and she could just as soon “take her work elsewhere”, as the saying goes.  This line of argument has problems, however.  First of all, because corporations are in competition with one another, they must produce the greatest amount of product, for the least possible cost, to gain the maximum amount of profit.  As a result, we have no reason to assume, should the laborer look elsewhere for employment, that the next employer would be any better than the first.  Secondly, what often happens is that one giant corporation monopolizes the market and destroys the competition.  When this happens, the laborer essentially has two options: work for this corporation, regardless of the conditions or pay, or don’t work at all, which means, in effect, give up the possibility of food, shelter, and livelihood.  It is a lose-lose situation.  Hence, labor is forced because it is performed out of necessity rather than desire.]

Now, to be fair, all of this assumes a rather libertarian-esque, laissez-faire economy, and one may reasonably argue that we now have laws in place which are meant to protect workers from these very dangers which result from the capitalist system.  However, to the mind of the present author, this is an absurd justification.  To say that the system should be maintained because, though the system naturally results in overwhelming amounts of exploitation and dehumanization, laws have been implemented to, in varying degrees, defend against this exploitation and dehumanization is hardly justification.  When the foundation of a home is causing problems we do not simply patch the roof and repaint the siding and call it good.  So too, following Marxian argumentation, capitalism should be abolished and an entirely new system adopted.

But this is not the only aspect of capitalism which results in alienation.  Private property, according to Marx, “is on the one hand the product of alienated labour, and on the other hand the means by which labour is alienated, the realization of this alienation” (308).  Specifically, a possession becomes private property when it brings profit to the owner, who does not himself work, but rather hires workers to work and earn profit for him.  And once this happens, the worker finds herself in the situation described above.

Obviously, what has been offered is only a brief argument against capitalism, but I think it is sufficient in demonstrating why it is, at best, not readily apparent that capitalism is a desirable system and, at worst, that it most certainly is not a desirable system.  There is much more which could still be said for the violence, oppression, coercion, racism, sexism, classism, etc. which is arguably also inherent to the capitalist system.  However, based upon the above argument, it is not difficult to see how such implications would naturally follow from capitalism.

Coupled with the previous post on inter-subjectivity, then, what has been offered is an argument in favor of a social structure predicated on anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, and egalitarianism — that is to say, anarchism.