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Inequality

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

This post is part 3 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist (ancap).

One thing anarchism has given me is a relentless desire for freedom–not just for myself, but for everyone. It has extended to my personal relationships and to the food I eat, as I believe animals are just as worthy of liberation as humans. I think equality is an essential part of freedom.

Ancaps tend to shy away from the word, as if “equality” meant conformity, or sameness. No anarchist believes in a Harrison-Bergeron state, where people with talent are fettered so others don’t feel bad. All equality has to mean is having an equal say in the decisions that affect you. We do not have that now, as most people are locked out of the political process, and we do not have that under any hierarchy. In the moneyless, propertyless society anarcho-communists and others envision, there would be no inequality of wealth, either, as everyone would share and thus have equal access to everything. (More about this in my next post, on property.) Ancaps tend to assume, as I used to, that there is no particular harm in inequalities of wealth if no one has control of the state’s tools of violence, and that attempting to reduce inequality is a pointless distraction. I think this belief is mistaken. Tolerating inequality is dangerous, particularly under a state but even in a stateless society.

Some ancaps invoke an analogy of Robinson Crusoe to justify exclusive ownership or private property. Alone on his island, Robinson can do whatever he likes. But when Friday comes along, now there are two people and things need to be divided among them. If Robinson spends time making a fishing net while Friday basks lazily in the sun, Robinson should own the fish he catches and should not be obliged to give any to Friday. This situation is plausible on a desert island. But that analogy can take us no further than a new society of able-bodied people who start with nothing. Our world is a world full of established order, of force and violence, of wealth acquired by force and inherited for generations. It is a world where laws, regulations, taxes and, underpinning it all, unequal access to resources have made it impossible for many people to earn a living wage, and yet where ancaps tell people whatever “the market”–not the ideal free market but the market as it is now–dictates their wage should be is correct.

Ancaps will tell you “no one owes you anything”, to the effect not of proposing ethics for a free society but to justify the market and property relations of today. They speak as if most CEOs and rich people were simply workers who had worked particularly hard and somehow deserved not only their enormous salaries but the power over workers and politicians that position brings with it. They do not appreciate that a major feature (some might say the defining feature) of capitalism is how the people on top own the product of a worker’s labor and then give as little as they can get away with back to the worker. If you produce $50 worth of widgets in an hour and make $10 an hour, the corporation has taken most of the value of your product away. That is what socialists mean by exploitation. If you are a fly-by-night employee working for people who have put many years of sweat into their business, this arrangement is not problematic. However, if a hundred people have run a factory for years, they are the true source of the wealth of the owners and bosses. Yet, if they attempted to take over their factory, ancaps would say they are stealing, and violence is a justifiable response.

The capitalist corporation

While I think abolishing the state would significantly reduce the power of the rich, if they are simply left alone they could easily find a way to reconstitute the state in a different form. Capitalist enterprise always sends money up the hierarchy. Retaining hierarchy, the money system and unequal access to resources could make it profitable to raise a private army. While most anarchists envision a society where everyone’s needs are met, many ancaps simply assume this situation would arise if we eliminated taxes and barriers to work. But what if it did not?

Theft would still be an issue, which means security guards would still work in the employ of the rich. Whether or not security guards became a private army, the employment of security guards is a highly inefficient way to allocate resources–protecting wealth rather than creating it. Why would that situation be preferable to more equality, more access to what we need, less need for protection from either theft (for the rich) or predatory armies (for everyone else)? How can you justify turning someone away from a hospital or denying them life-saving drugs when there is easily enough money to pay for it? How can you justify letting someone go hungry when supermarkets owned by rich people are full of food?

Another problem with the current economic system, whatever you want to call it, is it necessarily produces winners and losers. It inherently–not incidentally–produces unemployment, homelessness, poverty, debt and non-state violence. These effects are not due to lack of hard work. I think most ancaps, at least thoughtful ones, understand this point. What it means in practice is, as unfortunate as it might be, we need welfare programs. Yes, there are better ways of providing them, but until you are helping organize mutual-aid arrangements, please do not encourage the dismantling of programs that help people keep their heads above water.

On a related note, while I sympathize with the desire to abolish the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax or intellectual property, these things are simply not going to happen while power is still concentrated in the hands of the rich. The people who are really in charge benefit from these things, which means that even on the off chance a large majority of voters agreed with these policies, the system would perform as it always does on such occasions: Politicians would talk about the need to “do something”; they would either pass a law hailed as monumental or complain about being stymied by the president, the Congress, the courts, the pressure groups or whomever else; if they were successful in passing the bill it would be too watered down to have any significant effect or it would be quietly repealed a few months later and things would somehow return to how they were. That is why the slogan “evolution, not revolution” does not take the workings of the system into account. A popular revolt can topple a government in a matter of days, and has often led to anarchy. If people have the right ideas and initiative, they can create a free society in this situation.

Capitalism creates a class system, which creates stress, a significant cause of illness. It creates boom-and-bust cycles, which put us in a state of hypervigilance, fearing for our very survival. It leads to domination and hopelessness. It leads to substance abuse, as we try to find a way to dull the pain. (More on all these effects here.)

More people in our world need to learn about humanity’s long history of mutual aid. Charity may be necessary in a world where we do not organize and take care of each other but we will not have a revolution worthy of the name without mutual aid. Charity is only necessary because of the systems of exclusion and exploitation that destroyed mutual aid. Charity is a top-down approach.

Rich people are not generous just because they give money to charity. They may have made their money through inheritance, the violence of the state (eg. intellectual property) or simply by having enough capital to start and maintain a business, paying workers as little as possible and keeping the rest. Anarchists advocate a non-hierarchical, non-paternalistic, empowering approach to solving our problems, not one where you can give a small amount of your enormous wealth away and be called a public benefactor.

I have written more on this subject in another post. Suffice to say, inequality is not “good” or “natural” and ancaps should learn about the dangers it poses to freedom.

Hierarchy

February 2, 2017 1 comment

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.

Hierarchy, anarchy, solidarity, freedom

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.

Why our world is so harsh for so many

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

The problem with inequality

October 18, 2014 1 comment

The state is a tool to create a ruling class of people who acquire their wealth through theft. Inequality means those who have can buy protection from those who do not, and that tends to lead to repression in the form of police states or slavery. The state cannot, by its nature, eliminate inequality. But what if we abolished the state, as anarchists want? Would inequality still matter? I used to believe inequality was not a big deal, or it only mattered to jealous people. I was wrong. Here are three reasons why, especially today but even in a stateless society, inequality is an issue of major importance.

-Psychological effects

Studies suggest we have an innate desire for equality and fairness. The UK Mental Health Foundation finds that living in an unequal society causes psychological and physiological changes. Inequality can lead to a constant “fight or flight” reaction and perpetual stress. It can lead to violence directly through increased crime (including homicide), and can also create the conditions in which violence festers: less trust, disintegrating families and communities, poor scholastic and work performance and mental illness. The US and the UK, the most unequal societies in the rich world, show the strongest symptoms.

So much for those of us on the bottom of the pyramid. What about those on top? People with relatively large amounts of power and wealth are known to take on the characteristics of psychopaths. Compassion, empathy and sense of guilt decrease (“why don’t the poor just work harder?”); narcissism and entitlement increase (“of course I deserve to be where I am”); rules become for other people (“survival of the fittest”); lying and manipulating become easier; irresponsibility becomes the norm; and the desire to accumulate overrides other goals. (Find more here, here, here, here and here.)

-Structural violence

Structural violence is a kind of indirect violence whereby social structure and institutions prevent people from meeting their basic needs. Intellectual property laws that prevent people who need medicine from receiving it are one example. Borders preventing needy people from entering places where they could make a living are a second. Hoarding food or means of sustenance and surrounding it with fences or security guards is a third. Excessive debt, certain forms of discrimination, structural unemployment, poor working conditions and even just beliefs in the rightness of social hierarchy are further examples. Hellen Keller became a radical socialist soon after she realised blindness and other handicaps were mostly concentrated among the lower classes. A considerably inequitable social structure could lead to structural violence.

-Statism

The modern state is both a cause and an effect of the endless accumulation of wealth. Historically, it has not been possible to create and maintain vast fortunes without violence. Primitive states were forged in conquest to accrue and protect fortunes at the expense of their subjects, and modern states continue to exist for this purpose. (The actions of the so-called Islamic State mirror the actions of a primitive state.) Capitalist states emerged to protect and privilege those who made their fortunes as owners of capital, and while not all of “the 1%” want to use violence to make or expand their wealth, all benefit from and most refuse to question the violence of the system. A hierarchical or unequal society would make it possible for new states (or other forms of violence, such as human trafficking) to form. A stateless society should have safeguards against such a possibility.

-Protecting ourselves from the unequal society

The people of an anarchist society must protect themselves against the mental stresses and violence of unwarranted privilege and the potential reemergence of a state. My suggestion is a very widespread feeling of solidarity: the idea that we are all of equal inherent value and have no right to rule others; taking care of those in need; organisation based on mutual aid, including, of course, self defense. Sufficiently large numbers of people skilled at wielding modern weapons would make it easier to prevent the rise of a new state. We will be truly free when those around us are free, and we will only achieve freedom by working together.

The Black Panthers offer a model of an egalitarian community organisation. Imagine a confederation of them.

The Black Panthers offer a model of an egalitarian community organisation. Imagine a confederation of them.

It is not necessary—in fact, it is contrary—to enforce a state of equality. Benjamin Tucker wrote that the word “socialism” scares people because so many others think one can dismantle privilege by destroying competition and centering production in the hands of the few. But as he went on to point out, as Mikhail Bakunin had years before, anarchism is socialism without the state. If we organise to make decisions together and take care of each other, we have no need for authority. It is not necessary to kill rich people but simply to eliminate the system of violence that privileges them. Laurance Labadie once said “[i]n a world where inequality of ability is inevitable, anarchists do not sanction any attempt to produce equality by artificial or authoritarian means. The only equality they posit and will strive their utmost to defend is the equality of opportunity. This necessitates the maximum amount of freedom for each individual. This will not necessarily result in equality of incomes or of wealth but will result in returns proportionate to services rendered. Free competition will see to that.” Market anarchists might take this to mean freed markets and free association. Gary Chartier explains here and in Markets Not Capitalism, freed markets can work to abolish wage labour and corporate hierarchy as the main form of economic organisation, as well as the formation of a dominant class. (You may want to follow the links provided to read his proposals as to how to work toward such conditions.) He goes on to point out that those who protest in the millions against capitalism are not opposing private ownership and free exchange but a system that exists to grant the owners of capital a huge amount of power over society.

The future will be determined by what we value and why we value it. If we value equality as a means to freedom, we can have both.