This post is part 4 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist (ancap).
Property is a more complicated issue than most ancaps give it credit. This post only outlines my rather simple views on the matter and why they differ from what I used to believe as an ancap.
First, we should probably distinguish between property and possessions. There is more than one definition for these words, but for our purposes we might call property the exclusive ownership of the means of production, including land, factories and machines. Exclusivity is the key factor. Ancaps often want to know if their hammers, laptops and 3-D printers are included in this definition, and I would say no: they are possessions, intended only for personal use. If people were monopolizing the hammers and laptops and 3-D printers, that might be a different story. However, these things are widely available.
Infoshop’s FAQ summarizes the anarchist argument against property thus:
The statement “property is theft” is one of anarchism’s most famous sayings. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that anyone who rejects this statement is not an anarchist. This maxim works in two related ways. Firstly, it recognises the fact that the earth and its resources, the common inheritance of all, have been monopolised by a few. Secondly, it argues that, as a consequence of this, those who own property exploit those who do not. This is because those who do not own have to pay or sell their labour to those who do own in order to get access to the resources they need to live and work (such as workplaces, machinery, land, credit, housing, products under patents, and such like).
Many ancaps ridicule the idea of positive rights (such as the right to food and shelter, as distinct from the right to be left alone), and yet assume we have a fundamental right to property, as if property were an unalienable extension of one’s right to the ownership of one’s body. Hey, I like privacy too, but surely my preference alone is not enough to justify forcing someone off land I live on. What if there are refugees, or people evicted from their homes by thoughtless landlords, and I have land and room where they can stay? A communist would surely open his or her home at some point to these people, but even if you fall short of communism, what is the justification for saying they are not allowed to, say, put up a tent on your lawn or shelter in your garage? Ancaps are supposed to be opposed to all initiation of force but disregard the force involved in kicking someone off one’s property. I myself took several discussions to realize this form of force was part of the problem.
Hans Hermann Hoppe tried to put it this way.
Is it not simply absurd to claim that a person should not be the proper owner of his body and the places and goods that he originally, i.e., prior to anyone else, appropriates, uses and/or produces by means of his body? For who else, if not he, should be their owner? And is it not also obvious that the overwhelming majority of people—including children and primitives—in fact act according to these rules, and do so as a matter of course?
Moral intuition, as important as it is, is not proof. However, there also exists proof of the veracity of our moral intuition.
The proof is two-fold. On the one hand, the consequences that follow if one were to deny the validity of the institution of original appropriation and private property are spelled out: If person A were not the owner of his own body and the places and goods originally appropriated and/or produced with this body as well as of the goods voluntarily (contractually) acquired from another previous owner, then only two alternatives would exist. Either another person, B, must be recognized as the owner of A’s body as well as the places and goods appropriated, produced or acquired by A, or both persons, A and B, must be considered equal co-owners of all bodies, places and goods.
Unfortunately, Hoppe’s argument begs the question. He assumes things must be owned. Yet, exclusive ownership of property is a very new institution, invented in most places by the same people who came up with and benefited from the state. Who says this stance is “moral intuition”? Who says “natural rights” are so natural and right? Why does ownership of one’s body necessitate ownership of the product of one’s labor? Why is it so hard for Hoppe to understand we could share things? “Primitives” certainly do NOT make these same assumptions, as any anthropologist can tell you. They do not own things. They do not even understand the concept. They share. If one hunter kills an animal and the other does not, everyone eats. In fact, in some cultures, the successful hunter downplays his or her role in the killing out of a sense of solidarity. If said hunter bragged, even though he or she was the one who brought home the food, the rest of the group would shame him or her. So perhaps Hoppe should learn a bit more about humanity before claiming to speak for all of it.
Murray Rothbard, on the other hand, in Confiscation and the Homesteading Principle, takes an almost syndicalist view of ownership. He looks at Yugoslavia and how state-owned factories became co-ops owned by the people who worked there. He looks at the USSR, where all means of production were in the hands of the state, and says the workers have already homesteaded them and therefore should own them. (It would certainly have been better than the disastrous way things ended up transitioning to capitalism.) “The principle in the Communist countries should be: land to the peasants and the factories to the workers”. He makes no distinction for “stolen property”, by which he means property owned by the state or slaveowners–those who have worked in these corporations or the slaves who worked the land have already homesteaded it. He even made the case for reparations, as slave-plantation-owners’ descendants were still alive, and thus reparations can be quite specific.
His article also says the following.
Alan Milchman, in the days when he was a brilliant young libertarian activist, first pointed out that libertarians had misled themselves by making their main dichotomy “government” vs. “private” with the former bad and the latter good. Government, he pointed out, is after all not a mystical entity but a group of individuals, “private” individuals if you will, acting in the manner of an organized criminal gang. But this means that there may also be “private” criminals as well as people directly affiliated with the government. What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not “private” property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property.
Does it not follow if business owners have acquired their wealth through some kind of violence, even if the violence occurred generations ago, that wealth is a reasonable target for confiscation?
A house is a possession. If you are living in your house, it is not sitting idle, and if you do not want to let others in, I do not think it would be right to force you. However, if you have a house sitting unused, can you not see why an anarchist would say you should open it up to others to stay there?
But perhaps you do not have a large income and need to rent out your house to live. A bigger fish to fry is corporate ownership of property. Look how many houses banks in the US own. Preventing people from squatting there is the same kind of violence as protecting a nation state’s borders.
Some ancaps envision gated communities and yet assume the borders of the nation state are illegitimate. What is an independent, gated community but a small nation with closed borders? What if all the decent land and water in the area are claimed already? Where do “immigrants” go? Who asked you to build your house there and put a fence around it? Why does nature belong to you?
The ideal is not to wall off what is mine and yours in the name of scarcity but to share in the name of ending suffering. Sharing does not require permission from everyone else in the world before planting a tree, as Hoppe states later in the same essay. It merely means if a man comes along who is hungry, “it’s my tree because I planted and tended it” is not a moral basis to deny him food from it. If you are afraid of free riders, join with people in your community to shame able-bodied scroungers into contributing something. But please do not wrap your fear of scarcity up in a moral basis for private property.
I have never held original documents written by officials in the Reagan administration or the intelligence apparatus that indicated the CIA armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan, yet we can be pretty sure they did. We have enough accounts from presumably credible sources (such as Zbigniew Brzezinski) the US was the major party involved. Evidence the US has deliberately supported ISIS has come to light in the form of classified documents leaked to Judicial Watch. In fact, we already had several reasons to believe the US had been supporting ISIS.
We can speculate on how the US might benefit from creating an enemy like ISIS. It is clear from the way ISIS sprang into the news in mid-2014 the people in power wanted you to begin to see the new face of the enemy. Why would they need such an enemy?
Contrary to the claims of both those who love and those who hate Barack Obama, the Iraqi parliament booted the bulk of US forces out of Iraq, setting the deadline for their withdrawal for January 1, 2012. The Iraqi security forces were apparently strong enough to fight (or make deals with) militias, but would of course need foreign assistance in dealing with a large group of battle-hardened zealots. My guess is by the time we were seeing ISIS all day on the news the White House had already decided to bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq and send whatever troops they will send when things escalate further.
In mid-2013 you might recall Barack’s failed attempt to raise enthusiasm for intervention in Syria. Not only was public opinion lukewarm on the idea, Vladimir Putin actually wrote a very diplomatically worded letter in the New York Times to Americans (but really to Barack). The underlying message was clear: Don’t mess with Bashar alAssad or you’ll be sorry. So that idea fell apart. We forgot all about it. ISIS came along. Assad’s crew, as well as many of the groups fighting them, have done things that would disgust us as much as anything we have heard ISIS has done. But we have not heard about them in the news to the extent ISIS has been shoved down our throats. And remember, to a number of Americans and others, ISIS represents Islam, and Islam (or at least “radical Islam”) is the enemy.
The US made some noise of its support for the Free Syrian Army. This was in effect how they recognized a single opposition group as the legitimate rulers of Syria. A number of people are on record as saying many of the weapons and so on given to the FSA ended up going to ISIS. They have presumably been receiving weapons in Syria from the US for three years or more. In discussing Syrian rebels, John McCain has said “the whole National Security Team recommended arming ISIS” and “I know these people intimately.” Asia Times reported Pakistani defense sources as saying Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of what evolved into ISIS, received arms from the US via Pakistan as far back as 2004. The Express Tribune quoted an alleged commander of ISIS as having said the same. (Find more here.) Syrian rebels have also described training by American trainers in Qatar, and Der Spiegel reported Americans trained them in Jordan.
Judicial Watch obtained documents demonstrating the US government knew not only US-supplied weapons were being routed to Syrian rebels through Benghazi, but also the rebels were dominated by the radical types Americans are told their government is fighting–al Qaeda, Jabhat alNusra, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS. The White House knew and made no attempt to stop it. It is likely they wanted to use Syrian rebels as proxies to fight Assad.
It might well have been nothing more than an accident any given shipment of weapons slipped into the hands of ISIS, just as the last two times we heard weapons were dropped ostensibly first for Kurds in Kobane (not an enemy yet but there is no way they will accept US hegemony) and the other day to Iraqis defending the oil refinery in Baiji that ended up in the hands of ISIS might have been accidents. But it is not necessary to give the benefit of the doubt to an institution that has a long record of arming rival groups in wars and playing sides off one another. The results show a more consistent pattern than simple incompetence would imply.
Assad, Syrian rebels, Iraqi militias, even Iran have all failed to provide the Real Enemy, the “evil” that it took to legitimize reentering the region in a large capacity. ISIS has people screaming for blood.
Moreover, we have also learned from reliable sources that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar (see here, here or here, for example) and possibly Israel have indeed supplied jihadists in Syria affiliated with ISIS with what they needed to become a state—weapons, funding, training, recruits. It is implausible US intelligence services and thus the White House did not know about it, especially considering the New York Times reported as much and Reuters reported on the jihadist elements in the FSA in 2012. They either joined in aiding their most important allies, gave them the green light or were powerless to stop them. Strictly speaking, this is not evidence the US is complicit in making ISIS what it is, but again, given what we know from history, it is hard to believe otherwise.
Surely, if Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States wanted to destroy ISIS, they would be attacking it. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen. Saudi hegemony over the Middle East is at stake. If the House of Saud is not worried about ISIS next door but feels threatened that Houthis would take over in Yemen, we can infer a lot about their priorities. ISIS is their ally. The US is their ally. They are in league.
Finally, if, in spite of all clues to the contrary, all that has happened has been unintentional, it is obvious all this meddling has not been worth it to you or me. And since it is not ending, we still have no idea what further blowback will come from it all. All these factors contribute to what I infer from the evidence (the results of the empire’s actions) is a larger goal of keeping the region unstable. Instability in the Middle East means higher oil prices, more weapons sales, more pretext for repressive policies, more terrorism (thus completing the circle) and more legitimacy for existing regimes as people get scared.
I have been the head admin of the Facebook page Shit Troop Supporters Say since its founding a year ago today. I have a lot to reflect on. It has been an interesting year.
Occasionally I think it is mean picking on troop supporters. Calling out the average flag-waving support-muh-troops guy for not using logic or knowing history is like making fun of a five-year-old for not understanding quantum physics. (And of course some troop supporters do know those things, so it is best not to stereotype.) But then I remember five-year-olds aren’t the ones beating the drums of war, encouraging murder without trial and torture without evidence. They don’t support the police no matter what they do and then claim to believe in freedom. They don’t tell people they don’t deserve to live somewhere because those people were from the wrong part of the world and didn’t pay the fees, and then tell themselves they believe in freedom for all people. Neither do 5-year-olds refuse to learn the history of the regions and conflicts they are so sure someone needs to bomb. People who have taught millions of 5-year-olds to share and play nicely with each other are willing to lend their unconditional support for actions that cost them thousands of dollars and kill thousands of people who posed no harm to anyone.
Calling out the politicians, meanwhile, which is what troop supporters and liberals (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, of course) tend to suggest, is a good catharsis but not much of a plan for change. I think focusing on politicians might merely reinforce the status quo. Voters often say they don’t trust any politicians, but when election day comes they nonetheless feel it necessary to cast their vote for someone they don’t trust. There are good reasons you can’t trust politicians and they are mostly related to the requirements for winning in politics.
People who say we just need to change politicians but not blame soldiers for signing up seem to have this fantasy of politicians who will not send the troops into harm’s way on principle. But politicians do not have principles. They have tools and they have enemies. Signing up to carry out their orders requires you to understand that.
One group that does not seem to receive enough focus might be those the politicians work for. It’s not you, by the way. They are much richer than you. The people at the top of the business world are the ones really benefiting. So why do people always talk about politicians? Because voting and complaining about politicians is a brilliant way to let the masses let off steam and keep their eyes on the wrong people, like yelling at a poster on your wall.
So Shit Troop Supporters Say looks at how the elite benefit, but we also look at what troop supporters say. Why? Because as a huge and assertive part of the population, troop supporters are the people unquestioningly believing, reproducing and thus legitimizing or making true the beliefs that keep the wars going. That means a big part of the culture is based on a nationalist-warrior mythos that leads to all kinds of unnecessary violence.
But some people are listening and thinking. And some people already know and trust you. To those people who are actually listening you can show the long history of nationalist myths and racism in the US (or wherever you are from) and their legacies. You can show them the history of propaganda in the US, starting from World War One. You can show them how many statements made to sell wars have been misleading or outright lies, or how little truth the newspapers told about what was going on. You can show them how large groups of people can protect themselves by mutual aid rather than hoping hierarchical militaries will do it. If you can discredit the troop-supporter and war-supporter message by reaching those who might listen, especially people you know, you can change the culture.
But we can’t get there with the wrong approach. You don’t impress people by being arrogant, you don’t pull people in by being pushy and you make others turn their ears off when you insult someone. And most people are either not listening or not easily convinced. The latter need to hear the message clearly and repeatedly and the former are not worth your time. The only reason I would argue with the people you can’t reach is because others are listening, and then would only stick to the facts. I fear we lose many opportunities to communicate by simply using the wrong tone.
At any rate, I consider exposing the ignorance of support for war an important endeavour, one that requires research and patience and a little humour. I hope you will continue to support me!
It’s hard to believe how easy it is for troop supporters to tell themselves they are not being bigots right after saying something about how all Muslims are bad by saying something about “liberals” and “political correctness”. They just brush it aside. Islam isn’t a race, therefore I can make whatever hate-filled statement I want about all Muslims and not be racist. I’m not racist just because I said something hateful about a large, diverse group of people that I don’t understand, right? Nah.
People will say ANYTHING about a religious, ethnic or any other group about which they know nothing—Arabs and Muslims (same thing, right?) today, Asians a couple of generations ago and Catholics—boy, those guys were dangerous. When Irish and Germans began moving to the US in the early 1800s, Americans of previous generations heard about Catholic plots to take over the country and indoctrinate everyone in fanaticism. Blood was spilled in the name of this irrational fear, which lasted more than a century.
Today, troop supporters and others say things like “they are trying to kill us” or “they hate us for our way of life” or “they are trying to impose their laws on us”, “they” meaning everyone and everything in this amorphous group they call Islam. All they need is an anecdote here or there about how a Muslim did a bad thing somewhere in the world—or, for that matter, an anecdote about how someone did something bad to a Muslim—and the flame of hatred burns a little brighter. “Don’t you remember 9/11?” they say, as if all Muslims were guilty of the crime. “Why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?” They do every day. You just don’t listen.
They consider thinking in stereotypes sufficient basis for hating and killing anyone in that group and anyone resembling that group. If they actually questioned their beliefs by meeting people and learning their viewpoints with an open mind, they would find they were wrong. If they thought about what freedom really meant, they would stop forcing everyone they are suspicious of to conform to their rules and standards.
Again, it is hard to believe how ignorant these people are. I wish I were exaggerating. But I observe it every single day I visit the troop-supporter pages. They make sweeping generalizations with no basis in fact about a huge group of people and if you call them out on it they say you’re just a liberal who can’t face reality, and that political correctness is killing this country. You wouldn’t say it is your refusal to question your beliefs by asking questions and doing research that is leading this country down the spiral of an imperial police state? Do you not get where the state gets its authority to spy on people, militarize the police, detain whomever they want indefinitely without trial and make war on distant people with impunity? It’s from fear. Your fear of people you don’t understand. Whatever the state does to others, it grants itself the power to do to you. Your ignorance is their power. But hey, if you want to stay frightened and paranoid, you had better learn to love your enslavement.
The world is a complex place and any simple description of it will be incomplete, but I think it is fair to say we are the subjects of an artificial system of theft and oppression that continues to make the world harder to live in.
Look at the sources of power in the world. Look at government, corporations and the media. Laws written for rich people have created a system where it is necessary for us all to sell our labour to the owners of businesses. They own the land, the factories, the offices, the infrastructure. We need to earn money to survive and the best and sometimes only way to make money is to work for a large corporation. We make money for the people who own and run the corporation and they give us back some of it. Next, the government takes its share, claiming it needs it for roads, schools, hospitals, pensions and security, and gives as much as it can (for example through contracts) to corporations. It does not give people a choice to keep that money, decide what to do with it themselves and get what they need through mutual aid (helping each other) like they used to. Some people work their whole lives making others rich and still end up penniless. Why? Because they didn’t work hard enough? Because they were evil in a past life?
The media tell us to consume. The remaining money we have earned, the last bones we have been thrown, we are encouraged to spend on things that make us feel rich: nice houses, cars, furniture, decorations, restaurants, two-week vacations and fancy coffee. Consumers spend their lives working for corporations and giving most of their money back to them. Instead of pursuing their dreams, they work hard in order to spend hard.
I understand people who do not do anything about it. Politics can be pretty boring. I disagree with people who say you should pay attention to politics even if you are not interested in it. You should not be compelled to pay attention to the news and what it tells you the people in power are doing. If they do not have your consent, they should not spend your money or pass laws over you. Moreover, most of the people who expect you to follow politics pay attention to the wrong things. They watch party nominations and election results and contribute to political parties and candidates who never make any real changes. But the media tell us those are the important things. That is how we can make a difference. There are no alternatives, except competing warlords or some USSR/North Korea nightmare. The system works. Stop questioning the system.
Enormous power is thus concentrated in the hands of only a few thousand people, most of whose names you and I have never heard before. A few million or so more wield power on the national level in different parts of the world with some autonomy (think the generals in Egypt) but they have mutually beneficial relationships with members of the upper ranks of the global elite. Look at what the elite do with their power. In the old days, a king would send soldiers somewhere and thousands of people would die. They had power over small parts of the world. Nowadays, power has become global, and as such the crises it leads to have gone global as well. Look at all the (supposedly unintended) consequences of all the wars the US government has been leading, all the people who have been tortured and killed, or who lost their homes and their livelihoods, and continue to do so even after the foreign militaries have left. And yet, consider who has got rich from those wars. Look at the economic carnage from the last financial crisis. Look how many people lost their jobs, homes and all their money, all around the world. And yet, the people who caused it actually made more money from it. And they tell you not to worry, because there will be an economic recovery. Do you believe them? Where is the justice?
Finally, “education” tells us what to think. I’m sure you can think of reasons why the system we live under is the best possible system. You learned it in school, and if you learned it in university like I did (political science major), you have even more reasons why it works best. We need leaders because without people making our decisions for us, society would collapse. We need rich people because without them, who would start businesses for us to work in? We need police to protect us from all the bad people around us. We need hierarchy: all societies have hierarchy, right? All other ways of living go against human nature. Don’t think too much about it: watch TV instead.
As far as I can tell, most people are neither interested in understanding the system nor willing to take the risk of fighting it. Again, I understand and I don’t judge. I just think they should understand it better than they do. If they choose to do something to change it or to change their circumstances, that is their choice and I will support them. I warn you, however, if we do not fight back, one day it will be too late.
Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. – Lord Acton
Power kills. Absolute power kills absolutely. – RJ Rummel
Do you want to know what a sociopath looks like? Think of George W. Bush. Think of all the people he knew were killed due to his policies. Do you think he cared? Did you see him joking about finding weapons of mass destruction in front of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004? Do you think he had pangs of guilt later that night? I don’t think so. Sociopaths are people with no conscience. Many of those who have lost their consciences kill them over time by committing, ordering, approving or otherwise knowingly facilitate murder.
Psychopathy and sociopathy (in particular the so-called dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism and sociopathy) broadly refer to the condition of having little or no conscience, no guilt, no feeling of responsibility, no ability to feel sympathy for others. Sociopaths lie, cheat, manipulate, intimidate, use violence for their own benefit and do not feel as though they have done something wrong. Some of them occupy positions of power in big business, politics, the bureaucracy and security agencies. Do you think that matters?
Are people born without consciences? Some might be, but environmental factors play a major role. Do you think we could reduce or eliminate some of the incentives to put aside one’s conscience? How might we do that?
Well, how did George take on the characteristics of a sociopath? Was he born that way? Possibly. Did his parents and his upbringing contribute? Probably somehow. But people in power usually kill their consciences over long periods. Few people are dropped into positions of considerable power. They climb to them over time. When Little George was still at university, he connected with other powerful people. He spent years in top positions in oil businesses. Did these roles teach him to control his conscience? When running for Governor of Texas he said he approved lowering the age of the death penalty to 14. If he was a full-blown sociopath by then (which he may have been), he could have signed the death warrants of a million 14-year-olds with no pangs of conscience. But even if he wasn’t yet, he had already begun to chip away at his conscience. He could simply tell himself killing teenagers was for the best for Texas, for “society” or for God and remain emotionally detached from any violence.
One reason soldiers commit suicide is because they can’t live with the guilt of killing people. George W. didn’t see a drop of anyone’s blood. He did the killing with strokes of the pen. His job was to shake hands and give speeches, not think. His PR people cultivated a highly likable image that made sense to enough voters. What are politicians but actors? He knew he would be rewarded for doing what other powerful people wanted him to do. If he ever felt ill at ease, he could always tell himself it’s all right, this is for the good either of others or of myself. But any excuse would do.
The more things they do they might otherwise have felt guilty about, the more cuts people make to their consciences. Soon, they simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. Now, consider how many millions of people around the world have power over us, from bureaucrats who can deny us permits and visas, to taxmen seizing what we worked for, to soldiers occupying our countries, to politicians who make it all official. This is the state, people. This is why your world has been so messed up for so long. They weren’t all born to be bad. This system sucked out their consciences like a leech. Its agents go through a process of learning to control any feelings of guilt by finding reasons to justify their decisions.
Actually, all of us justify hurtful actions sometimes. If we tell ourselves we did the right thing, we are more likely to do it again and with less guilt. But not all of us benefit from doing things that make us feel guilty or repressing that guilt. I can lie, but I might lose the trust of those I rely on. I might steal, but I might face all kinds of social penalties if I do, including jail. Having power means not needing to take responsibility. Indeed, unless there is a sufficiently large scandal and perhaps scapegoating (in a democracy) or rebellion, those in power are rewarded with more money and power. The most powerful in today’s world wield their power through the state.
The state is an instrument of concentrated force. The small minority who control the state can use it to build consensus for their plans or simply impose them without asking, but ultimately the choice is theirs. As long as the state and its precursors (pharaohs, kings, popes, and so on) have existed they have been a means of theft, whether by overt plunder, such as ransacking a town or enslaving people, defensive violence such as protecting large estates acquired by overt plunder, or covert plunder, such as taxation or economic policies. Working with the state, including trying to change it from within, inevitably means following the orders of those at the top of the pyramid to plunder the people.
Power feeds all the elements of the dark triad. The admiration and awe that come with power feed narcissism. As expert manipulators and ruthless competitors, Machiavellians benefit most from a competitive system. And sociopaths make decisions on impulse and take no responsibility for any harm they cause. The state’s monopoly on force shields all these people from consequences.
Any of us could walk the path to these disorders. We are not immune to knowingly hurting others for our own benefit, or in the name of some idea whose implications we do not understand but which we invoke to ourselves for the sake of assuaging our consciences. People have trouble resisting taking power over others when it is offered to them, or when they condition themselves to believe it is right. Concentrating and institutionalising power incentivises sociopathic behaviour. If we considered everyone equal and thus not deserving of power over others we could achieve a free society with far less violence and suffering.