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Don’t criticize the rich

September 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Why is it that ancaps, who know the economy is based on theft and violence, will attack you for wanting to “redistribute” wealth (whatever you or they mean by it)? Why is that they tell you you are just jealous and want something you don’t deserve? Is it because they hate socialism (or love capitalism) so much they will attack you to defend the current order? Smash the state, but don’t take away any of the money acquired by the violence of the state. That would be stealing!

When Voltaire said “to find out who rules over you, simply find out whom you are not allowed to criticize”, he was not talking about political correctness. The point of political correctness is to make it no longer all right to hurt marginalized groups, like ethnic minorities, disabled people, the poor, and so on. When making fun of people reinforces beliefs about people’s inferiority and thus contributes to their lower status in society, we are punching down. We should be punching up.

So who else are we not supposed to criticize? Ask people in the US, Canada and other places what they think of the rich as a class. Ask if it’s right to have much more money than 99% of the rest of the people. Among many–ancaps and conservatives tend to have this trait in common–it is considered normal that the rich earned their wealth and subsequent power. They will say, given the system is basically fair, most of them earned their money legitimately.

But the system is not fair. So how is it legitimate? What did they do? How did they get their money? And why would having money justify having power over us? Most people can only become wealthy by taking advantage of the state’s use of legal force. That is how wealth and poverty are created together virtually everywhere: forcing people into subordinate relationships and making them work on the productive resources available. Like the corporation, money and the wage system do not exist because they were widely considered good ideas. They are the products of a long process of ordering an economy to create a few rich people and a subordinate class dependent on wages. We should pay more attention to the people making money off this system and expose it all.

We are allowed to criticize wealthy individuals for individual actions–think of villains like Kenneth Lay or Bernie Madoff–while nearly all the rest of the people doing equally bad things get off scot free. How many executives of Lockheed Martin or Boeing can you name? How many have you seen in the news over the number of dollars each has made from war? Even when someone at a food company makes a decision that poisons a thousand people, the company spokesperson comes out and says the company made a mistake. Who made the decision? Why will there be no justice? Can you name any other powerful person that you don’t regularly see in the media? The rich are the class you are not allowed to criticize.

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Is it only from the concentration of wealth that we make any progress? If so, does that justify corporate or any other hierarchy? We should be allowed to keep the product of our labor and pool it with whoever else chooses to do so. We should be creating organizations so others can flourish, not so we can use them to create wealth for ourselves. We should be cooperating with people working on the same things as us, not competing with each other in different organizations, conducting research separately and spying on each other, creating redundant products, spending time and money on advertising instead of simply distributing that money to everyone involved.

There is no doubt that through organization we get things done. But we do not have to have a hierarchical structure where some people make all the important decisions, including how the money is spent, while most have no such power. The existence of such structures is why hierarchical society is allowed to exist. Even if we managed to eliminate the state, the presence of large concentrations of wealth would lead back to a privileged class that makes the rules.

Of course, people who eliminated the state would be vigilant. We could only ever reach that point if a large proportion of the people agreed with the cause and took self-defense into their own hands, and they would be on the look out for the power-hungry. But if we continue to live somewhere money piles up very unevenly we might still ignore the real problems it causes, and end up back where we started. The problem is inequality.

Consent

September 17, 2018 1 comment

Why is consent only important at some times and not others? Consent is necessary for sex; otherwise, it is rape, and rape is never ok. Regarding sex, it is assumed we are in voluntary relationships with the people who touch us. But we are also in non-consensual relationships and people never talk about them.

For instance, why do I need a “representative”? Surely, to represent me they would need to act in my interests. What if my so-called representative does not represent me? Can I withdraw consent from this relationship? Can I vote for no one? No. Their decisions apply to me. I didn’t join anything. I never gave any hint I wanted them to represent me. They never even asked me.

The police are authorized to arrest you if you have drugs. In other words, there are people who will use violence against you for ingesting or possessing something that someone in another city decided you were to face violence for ingesting or possessing. You are not allowed to ingest or possess something if that guy in a suit in the other city wrote down that you were not allowed to. If you do, the people who will use violence against you might hit you, kidnap you and throw you in a cage (and even force you to work as a slave), or kill you. When did I consent to any of this? Why does consent not matter in this case?

The example of drugs shows us the state considers our bodies its own property. Laws against taking drugs show that our masters do not allow us to put things into our own bodies, as if they were loving parents and we were children getting into the chemicals under the sink. The power to criminalize prostitution is another example of the state’s claim to have the final say in what you do with your body.

You pay taxes. In other words, if you do not pay money every day to a group of people you do not know who will decide what to do with it, regardless of your opinion on what they do with it, some people can kidnap you at gunpoint and lock you in a cage. Why do you not get to decide how that money is spent? What if you have better ideas than what politicians owned by lobby groups have in mind? Why does consent not matter in this case either?

And I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to care that some of the money we make goes toward making war. In other words, some people take your money and use it to buy weapons to kill and torture people neither you nor they have ever met in other parts of the world, making the people who made these decisions richer and thus more influential over the very system that rewards killing people all around the world. Do you consent to that? Or does your consent not matter?

I have been told that we tacitly consent, usually because we are not actively fighting against these things. But that is not how consent works. Consent must be positive. If want to take your clothes off, I need your consent. If I do not know whether or not it is all right with you, it isn’t. However, if I want to harass you, kidnap you, cage you, beat you or kill you, I just need a badge.

Why does consent not matter to us? Because the system that feels normal to us does not ask for it.

A truly democratic system would be one where decisions were made together, and when one does not consent, the others can coax, plead, bargain or apply pressure but should not force the dissenter. That is why such decisions should be taken in groups of 100 or less, not in groups of millions where it is impossible to come to a consensus and an elite develops. We do not need an elite. We can govern ourselves.

Governance just means making and enforcing rules. Government, on the other hand, is an institution that claims a monopoly on governance over its conquered territory. All societies have governance. Not all societies have government. Self-governing, egalitarian, non-hierarchical societies and organizations exist and have always existed. We do not need too many rules. Each of us should play a part in creating them, or if we just arrived, agree to them. We can all have the power to enforce them. At any rate, most of our rules would come from norms, as they already do, rather than written rules that might differ in detail from place to place.

Though nearly all decisions would be made in small groups, such as families, clubs, factories, and so on, for the occasional decision that needed to be made in a larger group, it would be possible to delegate authority to a representative. In other words, you could tell someone to vote yes on a certain proposition. If they do not vote yes, the decision must be retaken or considered null. That said, nowadays even the idea of delegates is probably obsolete, as we have the technology to make decisions across decentralized organizations in minutes.

When is an organization democratic? Joining the organization is presumably consenting to its mission, structure and policies, and members can leave at any time. (Cooperatives often start new people on probation before they can become full members.) At minimum, all members should have a vote on leadership (if there are leaders) and new policies. There should be no secrecy: Meeting minutes and other important information should be available to all members. The members should be able to recall leaders for violating a policy, such as acting outside the scope of their mandate. Again, these organizations would ideally be small, as the smaller they are, the more democratic they can be, as each member has proportionally more influence over decisions. Such organizations do not need to compete with each other to exploit others like the corporation but cooperate to empower people as part of their mission.

Politicians do not consult us on their votes. We do not have access to meetings between lobbyists and their clients, or lobbyists and politicians. We do not know what people who are making the decisions that affect our lives with our money are saying to each other behind closed doors. Why would we ever consent to such a system? Because we’ve been told it’s necessary?

Consent matters.

Violence

April 28, 2017 2 comments

Several years ago, I wrote about the virtues of the Non-Aggression Principle, or NAP.  I mistakenly wrote that anarchists (ie. most anarchists) believe in it. However, the more anarchist and revolutionary material I have read, the more I see the NAP as unnecessarily limiting.

Non-aggression means you should never initiate force against other people, and that force should only be used defensively. Inextricably linked is the right of property, which I discussed recently.

The NAP is a fine rule for interpersonal relationships and would be a reasonable way of organizing a small community. But when we live in a world where rich people pull the levers of the state and make decisions to evict people from their homes, steal their livelihoods, pass unfavorable laws and use the police to hold us down, fighting back should be considered self defense.

Similarly, white supremacists and fascists necessarily believe intimidation of and violence against vulnerable minority groups is legitimate. But many people who follow the NAP as an ironclad principle seem to believe only those who actually wield the weapons are legitimate targets. Many ancaps will tell you reasoned discussion with or about these people is the best or only way to defeat them, or otherwise tax evasion or secession. While all these options are ideal, they do not solve the pressing need to protect people from predators.

If someone is on the corner preaching hate, that person could gain a following, which could turn into a gang, attacking people it deems worthy of attack, or a political party, which could become a ruling party. Dangerous people will hide behind “freedom of speech” until they gain power, by which time it is too late to stop them. To be nipped in the bud, you could try reasoning with the person or satire, but if these things do not work, intimidation and the threat and application of discriminate violence should not be taken off the table. Why not make these people afraid to leave their houses?

This last question is particularly timely. Far-right, fascist, neo-Nazi movements are on the rise in North America and Europe. They are organized, motivated and gaining in popularity. They are using violence to take control of the streets. Ancaps make ignorant claims that anti-fascist (antifa) organizing and violence make antifa just as bad as the people they oppose. They actually take the side of the fascists and say antifa call everyone they disagree with fascists to legitimize violence against them. While of course that might happen on occasion, ancaps should know better than to believe everything they hear in the media as representative of all anti-fascists. Ancaps have no strategy for dealing with such people except to sit back, let them take power and then criticize them when they do.

Many ancaps falsely accuse anti-fascists of calling everyone else bigots and fascists in order to legitimize using violence against them. This claim is largely baseless. While there are undoubtedly some that do so, there is no reason to believe it is a normal practice among anti-fascists. Moreover, this wide generalization should be above any ancap who claims to oppose “collectivism”.

In August 2017 ancaps criticized antifa again for attacking fascists for marching and making speeches while some of the same people were attacking innocent people in the same town. They claimed it is fine to prevent people from committing violence but their preaching of hate and violence is all right until they act on it. That is not how it works. The incitement and the violence are very closely linked. You cannot have one without the other. As such, you do not get to select which counter-violence you like to condemn. It was all necessary to stop the threat. Letting them organize would have multiplied the violence. Learn to see the real threat. Stop holding the “freedom of speech” of fascists and bigots in such high esteem. Stop criticizing the people who are doing something about this serious problem.

The above situation about hate preaching could be likened to that of US soldiers during the Vietnam War who fragged (killed) their superior officers. One could argue the officers were merely advocating violence, not actually committing it themselves. But the killings were an act of resistance to an aggressive and tyrannical war machine, and probably played some role in ending the US’s prosecution of the war. How could it not be justifiable?

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Did these people end the war, or did the Vietnamese and US troops who raised the cost of war too high to continue it?

I would take the utility of violent resistance one step further. If a group of owners and bosses is reducing salaries, cutting pensions, firing employees and attacking strikers for no other reason than to protect their pocketbooks, it is all very well to say “go and start your own business then” or “you should have saved your money”, but that does nothing for the newly impoverished. Can you explain why taking away someone’s source of income is not violence (even though security guards and police are there to protect legal owners) but smashing the windows of the decision makers is?

What if a board decides to poison a river people or animals rely on for their health? Is that not violence? And what if it is not clear who the precise decision makers were because the board does not make its meeting minutes public? Surely, attacking members of the board would be an act of self defense, whether to prevent them from doing it again or to prevent others from doing the same. If you do not agree with using overt violence against them, why not at least fight back some other way, say, by taking down their websites, hacking their emails and hacking their bank accounts?

A purist adherence to non-aggression would prevent someone made unemployed and homeless by the force of the political-economic system from, say, breaking into a supermarket and stealing food. Even though ancaps are well aware the system robs some people of everything they have, they have no solutions for those people besides charity. What if the sum of everything given to charity is insufficient to feed and clothe and house all the people in the streets? Ancaps would tell those people to wait for the generosity of others, because stealing food from a business is a violation of the NAP. Thus, to reiterate, while the NAP can work for small groups, it is not ideal under this system of plunder.

I understand the hypothesis violence against even worthy targets leads to the expansion of the police state. But the police state will take any excuse it can to expand, and in the absence of a reasonable excuse it will fabricate one. If we stand by and watch rather than fighting back, we have already lost. Many people, particularly ethnic, religious and gender minorities, are already subject to the kind of abuse you fear will be brought down on all of us. If we are trying to reduce the amount of violence and repression, we will need to fight back against oppressors. We can start by recongizing and supporting the struggle of marginalized and brutalized people and stop criticizing their methods. That is what is meant by solidarity.

In a world where the people in power do not respect the NAP but those who do refuse to invoke it to fight back, it amounts to pacifism, and pacifism is a luxury. Ward Churchill, in Pacifism as Pathology, writes

If you feel a relative absence of pain, that is testimony only to your position of privilege within the Statist structure. Those who are on the receiving end, whether they are in Iraq, they are in Palestine, they are in Haiti, they are in American Indian reserves inside the United States, whether they are in the migrant stream or the inner city, those who are ‘othered’ and of color in particular but poor people more generally, know the difference between the painlessness of acquiescence on the one hand and the painfulness of maintaining the existing order on the other.

And at what point is it legitimate to start fighting back? Only when we are certain they are killing innocent people? Secrecy makes such knowledge impossible. Look at the Holocaust. Most people did not know it was taking place until it was over. Derrick Jensen, also in Pacifism as Pathology, puts it thus:

One of the smartest things the nazis did was make it so that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational best interest to not resist. Many Jews had the hope–and this hope was cultivated by the nazis–that if they played along, followed the rules laid down by those in power, that their lives would get no worse, that they would not be murdered. Would you rather get an ID card, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather go to a ghetto (reserve, reservation, whatever) or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather get on a cattle car, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather get in the showers, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? But I’ll tell you something important: the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, including those who went on what they thought were suicide missions, had a higher rate of survival than those who went along. Never forget that.

They tell us that if you use violence against exploiters, you become like they are. This cliche is, once again, absurd, with no relation to the real world. It is based on the flawed notion that all violence is the same. It is obscene to suggest that a woman who kills a man attempting to rape her becomes like a rapist. It is obscene to suggest that by fighting back Tecumseh became like those who were stealing his people’s land. It is obscene to suggest that the Jews at who fought back against their exterminators at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor became like the Nazis. It is obscene to suggest that a tiger who kills a human at a zoo becomes like one of her captors.

All of this closed-mindedness–this intolerance for any tactics save their own (one pacifist in his review of Endgame wrote “Give me Gandhi or give me death!”)–is harmful in many ways. First, it decreases the possibility of effective synergy between various forms of resistance. Second, it creates the illusion that we really are accomplishing something while the world continues to be destroyed. Third, it wastes valuable time that we do not have. Fourth, it positively helps those in power.

We already know the state and its patrons are killing people. The time to resist is now, before they can grow too large to challenge.

Peter Gelderloos in How Non-Violence Protects the State (which I strongly recommend) also puts forward the idea of effective synergy among forms of resistance, a diversity of tactics, as he calls it. No thoughtful revolutionary thinks in terms of purely violent resistance, as it is likely to lead to dictatorship or chaos. But if violence is used strategically and combined with educating the public (including through satire), counter-economics, boycotting corporations and taxes, strikes, the takeover of the means of production, building decision-making and mutual-aid structures, community and personal autonomy and secession, there is the chance of meaningful change and even revolution.

Portrait of a hipster man mediating on white background

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 logic of the new empire

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment

If you want to understand why a coalition of states invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, why drones are bombing people in a dozen countries and why Syria and Iran will probably be next, consider, as one reason, the logic of empire. Empires are always attempting to expand. For at least 20 years now, if not 50, people have been talking about the decline of the US empire. It’s not declining. It’s still expanding. But it’s a new kind of empire.

This empire does not consist solely of the US government. It includes considerable cooperation from other states. Contrary to what some realist scholars believe, states do not represent the people they rule over (and never have), but the elite of the given territory they rule. In recent decades, however, as legal regimes have converged and states have made it easier to make and move money across borders, the elite and their corporations have gone global. National and regional governments have become, to one degree or another, subordinate to this empire.

This empire is becoming less about the US than about multinational corporations and pliant states around the world. The UN and all affiliated organisations designed for global governance, aided in part by well-meaning non-governmental organisations, have spread constitutional and legal norms. Corporations now have the law (ie. words they have written to give them the use of hired guns) on their side when they repress and displace locals, whether kicking native people off their land in far-flung regions or tossing people out of foreclosed homes all over the US.

If states do not play by the rules of empire, they become targets for regime change. While the US is integral, as I mention elsewhere, this modern empire is not only about the US military but whichever militaries the elite want to use so they can enjoy a piece of the action. Look at how they carved up Iraq’s oil reserves. They went to oil giants from the most powerful countries, not just Shell, Exxon and BP, but the China National Petroleum Corporation, Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., the Korea Gas Corp, Malaysia’s Petronas, Turkish Petroleum International and Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom. The conquerors auctioned off the oil in Iraq those who might otherwise have had the power to block future wars. Now that they profit from war, they are likely to support it more willingly in future.

Iraq Iran US war oil

Historically, all empires have declined and fallen. There are a variety of answers as to why. Suffice to say, we have it in our power to push this empire over the cliff of history as well. But it is not inevitable. The people of the world could eventually cave in, succumbing to the boot on their faces and accepting their enslavement. Most people do not even know what is going on. It is up to those who can see the system for what it is to show others. Resist. Disobey. Fight for freedom and justice. We can have it if we want it enough.

The war on the native

July 16, 2013 1 comment

The nation state is a very new invention. It originated in Europe in war and conquest, as armies conquered some tribes and massacred others. It has expanded and grown and continues to do so to this day. The state was forged in war to subdue others. This basic form remains constant, though the scope of the state has grown, along with expectations about what it can and should do.

The nation was shaped by other processes. Benedict Anderson famously explains that print capitalism was the strongest driver of the forming of the nation and nationalism, as it spread a common language within the borders of the state that did not exist prior to conquest. Since then, the idea of a common culture has taken hold and the nation grows more certain of itself. The advance of media technology in the twentieth century continued this trend. Anderson called nations “imagined communities”, because they were huge groups of people who would never meet with a communitarian identity.

From a different angle, Ernest Gellner writes,

nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalised diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30-Years War (yes, the history of the state is of chaos; it is hard to think one’s idea of “anarchy” could be as bad), effectively baptized the nation state. State borders grew stronger. It was assumed among states that sovereignty, meaning the mutual acceptance of the other’s monopoly on crime within its boundaries, was to be respected. Of course, the urge to use an army at one’s disposal is too great, and the fighting continued until the number of states in Europe shrank and the power of each one to kill grew.

Around 1789, the idea that the state should represent the people, preserve liberty, equality, fraternity, or other revolutionary slogans, caught on. National education systems were erected, inculcating everyone in the logic of the state and the primordiality of the nation. The nation state became timeless, obvious and unassailable. The nation state expanded beyond its borders, as European empires built big ships and conquered the globe. To reach their goals, they killed whomever they had to kill, on any continent they felt like taking.

Ultimately, what the empires left their conquered peoples with was the nation state. The nation state has broken down old social structures and erected new ones. It groups millions of disparate people and assumes they can be represented by a ruling class. It assumes rule by a ruling class is preferable to whatever it has destroyed. It has institutionalised theft and slavery. It has militarised the criminals and disarmed their victims. And even though it legally covers every inch of land in the world, its power over the people within those lines continues to expand. One result of modern state expansion is a war on the native.

Indigenous people all around the world have been persecuted since the inception of the state. They have been forcibly moved so they could be taxed or so the powerful could gain access to land and other resources. They have been killed when they have resisted. Many groups we have never heard of have been wiped out over the years. Others have been decimated and pacified and pushed onto “reservations”. In recent years, much of this wanton violence has been at the request of large extracting corporations. Such corporations, oil and gas concerns, for example, function almost as the right arm of the modern state. The state is a vehicle for accumulating power; the corporation is the most powerful modern tool for accumulating wealth. Heads of state and corporations work together to extract wealth and repress those who challenge them.

Under the nation-state system, the real owner of all land (and thus resources on that land) within the borders of the state is the state. Some states afford a measure of land or property ownership to those not connected to the state, but not many. Even Canada has seen a number of oil spills on supposedly-private land in recent months. Perhaps the people living on the poisoned land will be compensated. But the fact that someone else could ruin their land and they will need to petition the state for restitution is evidence they did not own the land to begin with. Moreover, secession is an option for free members of a federation, but not for citizens of the modern nation state.

Kayapó people being "evacuated"

Kayapó people being “evacuated”

A number of indigenous groups in the Amazon, such as the Kayapó, above, have protested the state’s plan for the Belo Monte Dam. This dam promises to flood a large area of land, dry up other land around the river, devastate parts of the rainforest and hurt fish stocks. Tens of thousands of people in the Xingu River basin are in danger. The locals have protested since the initial proposal of the dam in the 1980s and their demands have been ignored. They are now being attacked and moved. The dam will be built. The people with deep, spiritual ties to this land never had any recourse because those in power did not recognise their claim to the land. The state treats those it can use as tools and those it cannot as waste.

Similarly, in Indonesia, conflict is growing as large corporations have been tearing down forests and erecting palm oil plantations. Henry Saragih, founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union says

The presence of palm oil plantations has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger. Human rights violations keep occurring around natural resources in the country and intimidation, forced evictions and torture are common. There are thousands of cases that have not surfaced. Many remain hidden, especially by local authorities.

Naturally, no one is ever consulted or compensated when their habitat is stolen from them. Local security forces protect foreign corporations. The beneficiaries of globalisation and economic growth do not need to pay its prices.

Unsurprisingly, some people have resisted with violence. Under modern state parlance, they are called terrorists and insurgents. People who once farmed land in much of India until they were kicked off have formed a loose movement known as the Naxalites, led by Maoist intellectuals. Companies such as South Korea’s Posco Steel have appropriated other people’s land for their own purposes, with the help of local police. A peaceful anti-Posco movement has arisen, but protests have gone nowhere. Politicians are under pressure from the companies they have already promised to let build and the villagers who will lose their land; they make more money off the corporations so they just repress the villagers. The Naxalites oppose the advance of the state, and have killed civilians and security forces alike.

The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate

The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Naxalites “left-wing extremism” and “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”. Bolstered by the advent of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the Indian government has arrested and killed thousands of Naxalites and their supporters in order to maintain its monopoly on crime. On the violence committed by both sides, Arundhati Roy opines

I think you’ve got to look at every death as a terrible tragedy. In a system, in a war that’s been pushed on the people and that unfortunately is becoming a war of the rich against the poor, in which rich put forward the poorest of the poor to fight the poor, [security forces] are terrible victims but they are not just victims of the Maoists. They are victims of a system of structural violence that is taking place.

In some places the Naxalites enjoy popular support. As with other violent, persecuted groups, however, some Naxalites have used violence against unarmed locals, and have been less popular. As with the War on Drugs and countless other cases of aggression, violence begets violence.

At the same time, the Indian government has pursued a hearts-and-minds campaign of offering “development”, such as roads and schools. The simultaneous application of force and the promise of economic incentives has been praised by the Economist and others of similar persuasion. Vandana Shiva, on the other hand, believes “If the government continues its land wars in the heart of India’s bread basket, there will be no chance for peace.” This strategy is bound to fail as it does not address the roots of the problem. Indeed, it has failed. The people are not interested in being absorbed by the nation state. Explains BD Sharma, “[f]or them, development means exploitation.” This should not be surprising. The nation state views incorporation into its ambit a step up, from barbarism to civilisation. The discourse assumes a model of progress from life outside the state, thought of as unhealthy, backward and hostile to life as part of the state, meaning education, health and higher culture. It defends displacing people from their ancestral homes with its offer of schools, hospitals and integration into the wider economy. But the state always achieves its goals with violence.

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed explains the logic of the state and escape from it through the case of the highland people of Southeast Asia. The evidence is strong that many or all of the people living in the mountainous region recently dubbed Zomia are there because some time over the past thousand years or so they have chosen the life of barbarity over forcible incorporation into the state. One of a number of groups Scott considers is the Karen.

Zomia

Many of those we now call the Karen consciously fled the predatory state to escape appropriation of their land and agriculture, forced relocation or slave labour. The Burmese military government has attempted to subdue and incorporate the Karen. They fought back for many years, but eventually, technology caught up and the last major Karen base was destroyed in 1995. The people continue to hold out, however, in small groups. The Burmese military continues to wage its campaign against them. It burns down fields and lays mines there. Soldiers fighting Karen guerrillas, conscripted and paid a pittance, take whatever they want from villages on the front lines, and end up terrorising their inhabitants. Like other persecuted groups of Zomia, the Karen have adopted flexible agricultural techniques, mobility, shifting ethnic identities and social structures that split easily over political, social or religious issues. But the state advances and the Karen get easier to destroy. Scott believes it is only a matter of time before the people of Zomia become tax-paying subjects of the state once again.

Nigeria has also seen terrorism as natives of the Niger Delta have defended themselves against oil companies. The campaign to defeat the locals long enough to extract oil and dump waste has involved police and military, who have done their best to turn ethnic groups against each other. As a result of two decades of conflict, the entire region has militarised. Royal Dutch Shell was implicated in the murder of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. As with other corporate malfeasance punished by a monopolist court system, it cost a trifle and enabled the firm to return to business as usual. Shell is not the only company working the area, as Chevron and Nigeria’s national petroleum company are involved as well. The struggle for freedom from the state in the Niger Delta is not over.

Is there hope in democracy? Under Rafael Correa, the government of Ecuador sued Chevron for billions for the destruction of the environment of thousands of people. Of course, a few billion is a drop in the bucket for such a firm, but at least a symbolic victory is possible. Says Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch, Chevron

left hundreds of toxic waste pits. It dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste. And really, the whole time that this trial has been going on over the course of 18 years, the communities continue to live with that legacy, and they continue to suffer the impacts, the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the environmental impacts of that destruction. And so, this is an important day for the communities. It’s just one step; it’s not a victory. But it is very crucial for them. It’s also an important day for the broader struggle for corporate accountability around the world, for broader struggles for environmental justice and human rights.

Perhaps. Will it set a precedent? An example for other indigenous people? The damage has been done. The environment has been wrecked. And it might just leave the same people open to abuse from Petroecuador, which has caused its share of oil spills. And other Andean people are even less fortunate. (See here and here.) The people have been forced to work through state structures, further integrating them into the nation state, and have been lucky enough finally to have someone in the state who will fight for them. None of these things will last if their sovereignty, over their land and their labour, is not recognised.

It is important that we learn the history of both states and nations. On the history of the state, I recommend Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed, Martin van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State and Bruce D. Porter’s War and the Rise of the State. For more on the nation, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner’s Nation’s and Nationalism and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 are basics of the canon.

Regulation

March 18, 2013 5 comments

“Corporate capitalists don’t want free markets. They want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush the competition by controlling the government.” – RFK, Jr.

It is often claimed in “progressive” and “liberal” circles that we need more regulation to curb the influence and power of big business. This belief is based largely on a misconception as to the origin, purpose and result of regulations.

During the period between the end of the American Civil War and roughly the 1890s, business in the US tried to cartelise but found it could not. In general, cartels can only control a market when force is introduced. During this period, every attempt to form a cartel and raise prices led to new competitors that realised they could undercut the cartels. In response, big business began lobbying the government to pass laws “in the public interest” (as all laws are claimed to be) that would enable them to keep competitors out. It worked. (Find a large amount of research on the subject here.)

Today, regulations and other laws protecting business include corporate personhood, accounting standards, safety standards, environmental standards and intellectual property. In addition, there are subsidies (“corporate welfare”), amounting to perhaps $98b a year, selective tax breaks and contracting. In each of these categories, government and industry have made a variety of laws enabling large firms to eliminate competition. As such, they are a kind of tax taken from consumers who would pay lower prices and entrepreneurs who would be able to make their livings doing what they want. The tax is given to business owners who would be forced to lower prices or improve services in a free market. The Small Business Administration in 2005 estimated the total cost of these regulations at $1.1 trillion.

free market government regulation

Accounting standards are widely considered necessary to prove a firm is not cooking the books. But in the absence of state regulation, concerned investors would find a way to insure against this possibility with audits. An example of the enormous and unnecessary complication of accounting standards is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal and failure. The Act made accounting more complicated. Implementing it costs a firm millions of dollars. Millions of dollars is pocket change for a big corporation, but prohibitively expensive for new and small businesses that could otherwise rival them. As a result, fewer businesses are created, and wealth and power are concentrated in the larger firms. We now have a complex tax code that could not be implemented by less than a team of accountants. The same is true of the legal code. The modern legal code was designed so that teams of high-priced lawyers can get away with murder and people without money see no justice.

Sarbanes-Oxley is, of course, but one law in a sea of other laws. Those who say the 2008 financial crash was caused by a lack of regulation may do well to realise there were thousands of lines of financial regulations already. They often cite the repeal of parts of the Glass-Steagal Act as the only incidence of deregulation they can think of, but this change did nothing to enable banks to make bad loans. A look at the facts indicates very clearly that regulation was the main cause of the bubble that caused the massive destruction of wealth for all but those whose ties to the state got them trillion-dollar bailouts.

Negative externalities, which seem to be the reason people beg the government to get involved in the market, are easily externalised in a statist society. The same big corporations pollute and break the law repeatedly. They are sued by the government, they pay the government, which means it gets another legal donation from an interest group, and then they are allowed to continue business as usual. The lawsuits are a bone thrown to voters and the corporations shake them off like lice. But they give the appearance that justice has been done. The corporations nonetheless retain all the benefits they get from the state in the form of legal personhood, subsidies, tax loopholes, intellectual property and regulatory barriers to competition. The state does not protect us against negative externalities.

Intellectual property enables firms to monopolise virtually anything they create. Consider the effects of IP laws in the pharmaceutical industry. Kevin Carson explains that drug patents are unnecessary to recoup expenses and develop the most effective drugs.

First of all, there has been a dramatic shift away from fundamentally new kinds of blockbuster drugs, because it’s much more cost-effective to put money into tweaking the formulas of drugs whose patents are about to expire just enough to qualify for repatenting them—so-called ‘me, too drugs.’ Second, a great deal of the basic research on which drug development is based is carried out at government expense in publicly-funded universities. Around half of the overall cost of drug R&D is taxpayer-funded. And in the United States, under the terms of legislation passed in the 1980s, the patents on drugs developed entirely at taxpayer expense are given away—free of charge—to the drug companies that produce and market them. Third, most of the actual R&D cost for developing drugs comes, not from testing the version of a drug actually marketed, but from securing patent lockdown on all the other major possible variants.

Generic drugs do not get developed, or get banned as soon as they are, because they are competition. The poor people who need them most do not get them. Intellectual property, Carson concludes, is murder.

corporatism regulation big business free market

We can divine the purpose of regulation from its results. We now have giant, multinational corporations straddling the Earth, with no government willing or able to oppose them, with the exception of a few populist, anti-imperialist holdouts. Large corporations’ alliance with the state has enabled the two to control natural resources and all manner of other markets. Consumers thus have fewer choices and higher prices than in a market freed from regulation. But freedom is always preferable to laws and regulations imposed by the state. Freedom allows economies and the arts to flourish. It means scientific advances and technological innovation. And it forces responsibility on those able to handle it while still allowing for us to help each other.

The solution to the control of markets by cartels is to free them. That would make customers the true regulators. If they decry a firm’s practices, they can stop buying from it and start buying from its competitor. If you abhor business, you are free to start and join one of the thousands of cooperatives in the world or simply produce and give to your neighbours. But demanding more regulation to prevent big-business malfeasance is akin to shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.