This post is part 2 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist.
A pure focus on the state distracts somewhat from the more general problem of hierarchy. Not all “authority” is bad, since I defer to the authority of the carpenter, the tailor, the bus driver and so on every day. That is ad-hoc authority: I follow them for now for my own benefit. Institutionalized authority is the problem. Anarcho-capitalists (ancaps) agree with this idea but limit their focus to the institutions of the state. But it is not only the state’s authority that is harmful.
Power corrupts. The state is not the only source of power. In a world where money buys influence, the lack of a state would only partially diminish that power. Money could still buy authoritative-looking media sources and spread any kind of lies, fear, hatred, etc.; it could be used to bribe any kind of leader (such as union leaders or town elders); it could be used to raise a private army, and once those things had taken place, the non-aggression principle (or NAP) would be no longer a norm but would return to, as it is today, little more than an ideal to aspire toward. The state would be reborn.
I disagree with other anarchists who look down on anarcho-capitalism because they think it would be even more tyrannical than today. If that were true, why would the rich not be at the forefront of calls to eliminate the state? They are the true beneficiaries of the state. They might be able to reconstitute the state if it were eliminated, but without it the accumulation of wealth and power would be more difficult. When I was an ancap, I wrote about how people in a stateless world could defend themselves against people trying to restore the state. I do not disagree with ancaps on everything. However, I no longer see anarcho-capitalism as the ideal. We could go much further toward freedom and justice if we dig deeper into anarchist theory.
Anarchists oppose institutional hierarchy. Hierarchy as we know it today is largely a product of state violence, what Marx called primitive accumulation, but does not exist solely in the state. It has transformed people from hunter-gatherers and self-sufficient farmers into dependent cogs in the wheels of the capitalist/corporatist/whatever-you-call-it system. The majority is, by the design of the system, locked out of making decisions regarding it. That is just as true in a corporate hierarchy as in the state.
People with money are far more likely to become owners and bosses than people without money. They can afford the best education and the best means to impress others (eg. nice suits, lavish parties). They can afford to start their own businesses and do not have to work for minimum wage. They can afford the accountants and lawyers necessary to navigate the complex regulatory state. The owners and bosses make decisions, including the decisions about whom to promote up the ranks. Hierarchy thus reproduces itself. When there are other hierarchies in society, such as in unions, powerful people can co-opt them by buying the influence of the leaders. Hierarchy thereby creates a class system, buoying the people on top not only through the state but through their informal influence, and keeping the people on the bottom down by locking them out of the decision-making process.
But why should workers not participate in decision making at the organizations where they work? It seems cruel to tell them they should buy stock in the company or start their own when these things are far easier said than done. It sounds a bit like “if you don’t like it here, move”. Moreover, ancaps often say those things in regard to the current economic system, not some ideal free market. It is almost as if they are mocking people for not having enough money to buy influence over decisions that affect their lives when the system they live under makes doing so impossible.
That is why anarchists believe in non-hierarchical or horizontal organization–no superiors, no subordinates, everyone on an equal footing regarding decision making. In my view, that does not necessarily mean equal salary: I might choose to divide my time between two organizations and thus take only half the salary from each. It does, however, mean all employees can decide those things together, and do not have to beg or butter up their bosses for raises and time off or live in constant fear of getting fired for some mistake or failing.
To address the ancap concern, non-hierarchical organization does not require violence. It requires creating such structures as viable alternatives to the life of class, money and power. It could mean starting cooperatives, where employees are also owners; it could mean starting communes, where property is voluntarily given up; it could mean any other form of mutual aid, working with the people around you to solve your problems. The abolition of hierarchy is an ideal to be striven for, just like non-aggression.
Turning fear into empowerment motivates people and reduces stress. They take responsibility. They are accountable to each other. They do not need to compete for dominance. These things distinguish communities from corporations. Hierarchy, on the other hand, creates stress and fear, as people worry about getting told off or fired or merely docked an hour’s pay for coming in five minutes late. The people in charge have no responsibility to their employees beyond the necessarily unequal terms on which they were hired. (And in a stateless society, who is to force a boss to honor a contract? I have written on this subject too, and yet can no longer see how someone begging to be hired could ever bargain on equal terms with a rich person who can afford better representation.) As such, bosses can, say, fire employees en masse with no notice. Hierarchy creates positions of better pay and power over others that only a minority can fill, which others can only compete for like crabs in a bucket. (And if you do not think the ability to fire another for any reason you like is power over that person, we must agree to disagree. Being able to quit, at least in today’s world, does not compare, since the company can simply hire someone else.) People jockeying for power are forced to defer to the people on top, to kiss their boots, to show themselves willing to serve and dominate, to play a rigged game with a smile.
To illustrate the problem, consider racism. A racist seeks to impose a kind of hierarchy. A racial hierarchy is not very different from a social hierarchy. I know of no perfectly fluid class societies where it is a simple matter for poor people to get rich. At least one survey has found a majority of poor Americans never even make it to the middle class. A racial hierarchy makes it impossible for all within the subordinate race to reach the top (without a revolution), though the masters can elevate some members of the subordinate race by creating house negroes and field negroes, dividing the subordinate race and refining the hierarchy. A social hierarchy is only somewhat less bad in that it makes it impossible for most to reach the top. That should come as small consolation to the poor.
Hierarchy necessarily creates inequality. Though my next post will focus on inequality, for the time being I can point out inequality is not an ideal. Forced equality is not, either, of course (again, anarchists are not Stalinists), but most inequality is simply unnecessary and harmful and too readily tolerated by ancaps. If we somehow eliminated the state without eliminating the stark inequality of power in society, the dominance and submission we know today would not disappear. It would simply regroup and return in a different form.
People who do not leave their hometowns or countries of origin, or who leave them only with closed minds, have trouble understanding what is wrong with their own culture, ideas and beliefs. The same can be said of people who choose an idea and do not question it. For about three years, I was committed to what its adherents call anarcho-capitalism, along with its close cousins, voluntaryism and agorism. If you have followed this blog, page and book, you will have heard my perspective mostly through the voluntaryist lens. But as I strayed into deeper waters, I began to see the flaws and limitations of my ideas. This post is part one of a summary of what I have learned since I finished my book.
Many people who think they are right simply refuse to listen. I have been one of these people many times in my life, certainly when I was part of the online anarcho-capitalist (ancap) community. I have never heard any anarchist say we need to create a state. Creating a state is antithetical to all variants of anarchism. Yet ancaps have insisted to me, repeatedly, without ever backing up their claims, that anarchists want to create a state. Indeed, I have explained anarchism and communism as decentralized, with no state and no need for a state, with no hint of wanting to centralize power, and ancaps have told me I want to create a state.
Presumably, this belief stems from their further claim that anarchists want to forcibly collectivise everyone and everything. Again, I have never heard anyone say that, but it has been repeated so many times among ancaps it has become an article of faith, a given, a fact that needs no facts to back it up. They want to kick you out of your homes, we are told, and collectivise everything you have, right down to your toothbrush (though that part might be a joke). Who says? Why would they? Because they do not believe in property? Different definitions of property are part of the root of this misunderstanding, though different attitudes toward it are as well. (I will discuss property vs possessions in a future post.)
Many of the same ancaps also refer to all anarchists who are not capitalists as “commies”, by which they seem to mean Stalinists. Anarchism is the opposite of Stalinism. Communism has more than one definition and many self-styled communists want to destroy the state and give, as the slogan goes, all power to the communes. The ones who want strong states, armies and gulags while calling themselves anti-imperialist are usually referred to as tankies and have virtually nothing in common with anarchists. Yet, so many ancaps lump tankies and ancoms in together and call them all “leftists” and assume “leftists” all want to recreate the state and force you to live a certain way. Not all communists are tankies and, by the way, not all anarchists are either capitalists or communists, and if you do not know that, you have only a limited understanding of anarchism and communism.
Neither have I ever heard anarchists say they want to stop free and peaceful trading of goods or labor by force, yet I have been told that is exactly what anarcho-communists (and presumably anarcho-syndicalists, but to most ancaps, again, any anarchists that does not identify as a capitalist must be a commie) want. What they want, in fact, is to make trading unnecessary by sharing everything. There is a world of difference between trying to make something that is imperfect unnecessary and using force to ban it. I seriously doubt anyone, ancom or otherwise, has any desire to intervene in some trade you are making with your neighbor. These strawman arguments serve no purpose other than to dismiss other anarchists without having to listen to them.
In fact, some ancaps believe their own tales to such an extent they say “capitalists are the real anarchists”. To be true, this statement requires extremely narrow and uncommon definitions of both capitalism and anarchism. People who laugh at the supposed contradiction of “libertarian socialism” do not get that “libertarian” meaning anarchist, favoring freedom and equality in opposition to capitalism, predates the more American definition of favoring free markets.
On a related note, “socialism” does not mean “anything the state ever does”. No definition of socialism means that except the ancap definition. Anarchism is stateless socialism. To most anarchists, socialism means decentralized or common ownership of the means of production. Likewise, there are not many people other than ancaps who think “capitalism” means completely free trade. So why do ancaps feel the need to interrupt every conversation about capitalism as it is by saying “that’s not capitalism”?
But if “we have never had capitalism before” because it is a perfect free-trade society, why do so many ancaps resort to telling socialists they would never have all the good things they have without capitalism? Whatever “capitalism” means, that argument begs the question. There are not only two possible economic systems, capitalism and Stalinism. Anarchy would mean a major unleashing of economic potential and people would choose various forms of organization and production. But why would you favor business when mutual aid has been the norm throughout human history? How will poor, sick and disabled people get by without mutual aid? And why trust charity, a top-down approach, over treating people as equals?
The next post will be about the danger of tolerating hierarchy in social institutions.
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression. – Thomas Paine
If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all. – Noam Chomsky
Nowadays, everyone claims to believe in freedom. Most people, however, do not. This post aims to expose hypocrisy.
Total liberty would yield any number of predictable and unpredictable benefits. But not everyone is convinced. To them (thanks in part to Hobbes), we need a hegemon or overarching power to keep us in check. But why? We have spent most of our history either without rulers or trying to avoid being subjugated by them. Collective security emerges whenever it needs to. We are told history shows the more powerful and better organised militaries always triumph over the masses, which is basically true. That is not a reason to give up and accept our servitude. It is a call to help more people see through the lies and unite against the power that aims to enslave us. Working together we can stay both safe and free. It has happened before and can happen again with the right ideas.
Many who claim to favour freedom believe in strict gun control. How do we defend ourselves against tyranny of those who have all the guns without equal forces? Others say we need to limit immigration. These people believe either freedom should be reserved for those inside our political boundaries, or else it is simply untenable.
Those who advocate real freedom are frequently told they should move somewhere else (usually Somalia). It is clear those who say you should leave the place where you live in order do not believe you should be free where you are. The idea of secession is derided as untenable, which simply means those who want to try it are foolish. But if that were the only problem, people who care about free would still defend those who wished to secede. Instead, they are told they cannot, because, as the nationalist refrain goes, if you try to split my country I will kill you.
But the most hopeless cases are those who claim to defend freedom but in fact loathe it. I refer to soldiers and their supporters. Not all of them, of course; many have indeed seen through the lies and realise how much damage war causes. Too many, however, hold contradictory positions. Their claim is they defend freedom. While there is no actual evidence for this claim, let us assume it is true. Why, then, would they also continually tell the rest of us to stop criticising the wars and the troops? Why would they not encourage it as a sign freedom exists? They actually threaten us with violence, seeing no contradiction between this action and what they claim to have fought for. Their lack of logic, their utter incomprehension of freedom, their inability to see through the lies of the war and the elite that send them to war hold us all back. It is sad that the most well-meaning people, those who could be defending the people against the state, are doing exactly the opposite.
Thus we have the fairweather friends of freedom, those who speak freedom out of one side of their mouths and yet advocate authoritarianism in practice. The list of objections to freedom is endless, but it all amounts to the same: you cannot be trusted to govern yourself, therefore you need to be under the threat of violence at all times. I urge those who believe freedom must be limited to reconsider their positions based on the evidence. See the links above for more.
In only 18 days in early 2011, Egyptians succeeded in a major step toward revolution. (They unfortunately did not take the opportunities thus presented them but that simply makes their example more educational.) In only four days, from January 25 to 28, the people rose up in the millions, defeated the security forces in the streets and destroyed the legitimacy of the regime. You want to know how to defeat your oppressors? You want to learn from the Egyptians? Perhaps Etienne de la Boetie could explain both the causes and the effects of the uprising.
All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death. He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?
…From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.
That is what Egyptians did. They had to fight the police, but the state is necessarily a minority; as such, when enough people join in, even just through providing onions and vinegar to survive the tear gas, the state loses. The people denied the state its authority for FOUR DAYS and only four days, and it evaporated. All we need is enough people who decide to disobey.
The second edition of the Rule of Freedom: the Manifesto of the Sovereign Community has been published. The full volume is now available for free here.
The reason I advocate freedom, in whatever forms seem both ideal and possible, above just about everything else is because it is the single most important thing for realising humankind’s potential. In today’s world, freedom is ebbing away. States are getting bigger and bolder. Propaganda is getting more sophisticated. More people are coming to depend on the state for more privileges and services, and the state is coming to seem more necessary than ever. People are willing to give up their freedom instead of taking responsibility for the most important things in their lives: security, health, education and where a sizeable proportion of their income goes. The following outlines the benefits of freedom and the basis for my claim that freedom is how humankind can reach its potential.
What is our potential, anyway? Psychology, anthropology and history can provide us answers, as we can see what has been done and what can be done if people decide. As individuals and societies, we have the potential to be responsible for ourselves and those around us, to take care of each other. We can have egalitarian societies. We can have peaceful societies. We can reach untold heights of technological advancement and material progress. We can wipe out diseases. We can solve ancient mysteries. We can adapt when systems break down. We can be happy, healthy, wealthy, wise and at peace. This is our potential. But how do we get there? By concentrating power? Enacting laws and regulations? My answer is to build a free society.
What advantages would a stateless, voluntary, anarchic society have in realising our potential?
Art. As many of the people reading this will be used to freedom of expression, they may not appreciate its value. Art is a way of exposing and mocking oppressors and violent people, of communicating things we all know are wrong on a deep level. In a free society, it would still have the power to expose wrongdoing and bring people together, while providing a necessary outlet for all forms of self expression. In addition, art is an expression of life and adds to our enjoyment of it.
Economy. Free and open economies, meaning ones with unhampered freedom to do the work you want, move where you want to do it and keep the full product of your labour means more prosperity more equally shared. I have gone into this elsewhere, so please follow these links. On why regulation is not protection but crony capitalism, see here. On what the free market really means, why it would reduce inequality and why it means a smoother business cycle, see here. Finally, two studies (Hamilton and Whalley 1984; Winters et al. 2003) find that fully liberalising labour markets, which means letting anyone move anywhere to work, could add forty trillion dollars to the global economy. Freedom of movement would also unleash the various benefits of diversity. Freedom facilitates exchange (whether of goods, services or labour) among those optimally positioned to make the most of it.
Health. At present, we are chained by laws that limit what we can put into our bodies, while subsidies and regulatory handouts to large agribusiness and chemical corporations (and whatever Monsanto is) distort the market for food, making processed and GMO foods competitive with fresh, local produce. State regulators often miss dangerous things, whether by negligence (since they pay no price for being wrong) or corruption (since many of the people who make dangerous things are put in charge of regulatory agencies, Monsanto again the clearest example). Regulation per se is not wrong, but it is better handled by the wisdom of the crowd. That is why we have so many websites (and before the internet, books and magazines) by and for consumers to make the best choices for their health. (Find more here.)
Education. For over a hundred years now, the state has controlled education nearly everywhere with public education whose curriculum only those in power can approve. The result is not the best education for everyone, as we were promised, but the indoctrination of every generation in the state’s values: obedience, nationalism, the glory of military service and how to get a job in the modern corporate economy. What could education be like? There are so many possibilities, only one of which involves spending most of one’s childhood at a desk in a classroom. Giving parents and children their freedom would mean far more experimentation in education.
Justice. Our system of positive law, with the state creating, interpreting and enforcing laws, as well as controlling the court system, is necessarily biased in favour of the state. Justice only comes through the state system if the result does not concern those who control the state. But a system of privately-produced, or polycentric, law could serve the average person far more effectively and efficiently.
Peace and security. With no criminalisation of victimless pursuits, there would be far fewer criminals and no violent black markets. With no taxation to force the costs of war onto the masses, a major incentive for war is gone. With no ability to wage widescale war, feuds may take place but none of the worst horrors we have seen can occur. With no indoctrination into nationalism, free people will likely unite to defend each other, given their shared interest in collective security, but will not be forced into supporting a cause they have the choice to opt out of. They will form organisations to keep the peace, anything from neighbourhood watches to militias, depending on what kind of threat they perceive; and dispute resolution will always be available because there will be no monopoly of it.
Happiness. Fewer people’s lives torn apart by the state, whether put in jail for a victimless crime or killed in a war, means more happiness. Inequalities, a source of stress, illness and violence, would be lower (non-existent in communes). The uncertainty of wild economic mood swings, the unemployment that is an inevitable part of a highly-regulated market, the continual threat of violence for something one did not even know was a crime—all would be gone. Not all sources of unhappiness would evaporate, of course; one should not expect miracles. But there is reason to believe we would be happier.
All these things are possible because free people can advance their lot through trial and error. You know so if you have lived in a society that is free in any given way. If the state pays little attention to science and technology, there has probably been enormous such progress in your lifetime. Humans are natural scientists. Progress is inevitable in any area they put their minds to—provided, of course, it is not blocked by the powerful.
How does freedom get us to where we could be?
Imagine the strictest totalitarian state, perhaps like the Soviet Union, or even along the lines of 1984. All the human potentials listed above are absent. Now, imagine if the unfettered freedom to move to new places was somehow introduced to society. Not only would people have the chance to better their material circumstances; they would have the chance to see how people in other places lived and worked. They would learn different ideas and beliefs. The same could be true if the people could consume whatever media or art they chose, or if the state played no role whatsoever in education or science. One person would realise he or she should be allowed to say and do what he wants, and most importantly to think differently, and would spread the word to others. If the idea of liberty caught on, it could bring the edifice of all forms of oppression crashing down. The idea of freedom liberates minds that are receptive to it.
Now, imagine a society six months after having eliminated all forms of oppression, including indentured servitude, feudalism, social hierarchy, debt and wage slavery, taxation, laws and central planning. If people made the conscious choice to end these things, their society would not collapse into chaos. The first six months would be a trial period for them, as they attempted various forms of ownership of production, mutual aid and reciprocal exchange. They would be taking uncertain steps, and some people would attempt to set up governments, gangs and other vehicles for concentrating power. The free people would need to act in concert to reverse such attempts.
How about after five years? After five years of maximising spontaneous order society would likely be bursting with energy. The people would have come to certain conclusions based on the past years of trial and error, and certain norms would predominate. A culture that valued freedom would put it into practice in all of its institutions. There could be voluntary institutions for everything that needs to be done collectively, such as infrastructure, education, health care and security. Some would be provided through mutual aid, while others would be available for purchase.
A currency would probably have been decided on, as free people usually come up with a currency through a process of elimination. That said, there might be competing currencies, even in the same place, which would protect against inflation because people can use the alternatives whenever one currency is debased. There would also probably be communities with various systems of moneyless exchange, such as a local exchange trading system, or LETS.
Communities would have various rule systems based on contracts. Many rules would be uniform across geographic spaces, as they are today. Norms spread but they usually do not spread everywhere except by force (think of the global spread of liberal democracy). Even five years into a revolution of spontaneous order, people would still be testing and developing their rule systems, and would be learning from best practices shared by other communities.
This society is possible. It requires not a leap in nature but merely a shift in mindset. People need to unite, organise to achieve their goals, and stay vigilant to protect their freedom and their security.