Posts Tagged ‘OWS’

The alternative to the state, part 3: mutual aid

July 24, 2012 11 comments

“Anarchism is stateless socialism.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Naturalist and anarchist Pyotr (Peter) Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution (available here) in 1902 in response to claims that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” meant the struggle of all against all. The historians, he explained, taught us of wars, cruelty and oppression, and the state, glad to find an excuse, explained to us that those things would be the norm if not for an intervening authority. (Hobbes’ “state of nature” being an unfortunately-well-known example of why we think this way.)

His book describes a different point of view: mutual aid among humans and other animals. It shows not only how they take care of each other, but the evolution of the morality of mutual aid. The “Law of Nature”/“kill or be killed” doctrine is simplistic and only covers a part of the existence of animals in the wild or humans in society. Members of a wide variety of species engage in mutual aid, not only within the species but sometimes across them, as we learn when we see birds cleaning the teeth of crocodiles.

Though competition among people can help economies grow, far more important is taking care of one another. We help out our family members, our friends and even strangers who can do nothing for us. As I explain elsewhere, we possess love, kindness, empathy, sympathy, caring, and a sense of fairness. For various reasons, we may not cooperate regularly with those in our community. But we could.

Mutual aid, examples of which are detailed below, has existed in human society for as long as we have been humans. Mutual aid promotes community and independence, which is why the state, along with slave owners and bosses, frequently attempts to shut it down. They have put a state bureaucracy in place of people helping each other, imposed taxes so that people needed to find sources of income, and declared a variety of practices illegal. But in the space where mutual aid has been allowed, it has flourished.

Why mutual aid? Why not charity?

In spite of the huge sums taken from them by the state, people still give to charity. They realise the state is not helping the causes they believe in and know they can help by picking up the slack. Why? “Presumably for a combination of reasons, including, in no particular order, compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder.” (“Government is no friend of the poor“) Mutual aid, like charity, avoids the high administrative costs and, of course, the political intentions of government-run antipoverty programmes.

There is nothing virtuous about being forced to pay for other people. But charity is generosity, right? Charity is not necessarily bad, but it can have the effect of entrenching poverty like government welfare programmes, rather than leading the way out of it. It can grant the givers a sense of benevolent superiority. It can disempower the receivers, making them feel like they have nothing to contribute. Giving food and clothes can also destroy local economies, as free foreign goods crowd out local goods. People come to depend on someone else’s help. Mutual aid, on the other hand, implies that people in the network will help each other whenever and however possible.

Mutual aid is not likely to be illegal, in contrast to agorism. It means putting aside the competition and force that are inherent in the statist model (whether capitalist or socialist) and cooperating to help one another. It means sharing, and cooperating to make sure what one gives is used as one wants. While our nature pushes for reciprocity, we do not necessarily expect an equal return. It might run along the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. (Of course, people may decide to kick free riders out of the network.)

For those who do not trust or believe in the welfare state, mutual aid can create a social safety net. It can prevent the poor, disabled or elderly from falling into poverty. You can be sure your money is going toward community projects or helping those in need, rather than hoping the government or a potentially-corrupt non-profit is spending it the way you would like.

What can you and the people around you do to help each other?

–The book Mutual Aid and Union Renewal argues that unions could reverse their decline if they engaged in mutual aid. If unions do not appear to benefit their members, or simply do not encourage their involvement, loyalty will remain low. But a union could act as an extended family. Some union members have set up member assistance programmes, helping each other with alcoholism and substance abuse, for example.

–The cooperative is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily work together or jointly own something, like a housing project or business. They are usually run democratically (without the state) by their members. They foster community through cooperation. Ideally, they would break off from and become independent of the state, and thus provide examples of secession.

–A worker or producer cooperative is one owned by the people who own and operate a business. (This arrangement is sometimes called “market socialism”.) Shared ownership diversifies, rather than concentrates, wealth. Not all worker cooperatives are exclusive owners of businesses, as some outside shareholders may be involved. Such cooperatives employ over 100m people and could be the wave of the future for business. After all, Ocean Spray, Sunkist and the Associated Press are all cooperative businesses.

–Agricultural cooperatives enable farmers to pool their resources for mutual benefit. They may be more able to afford capital equipment for more efficient farming in this way. In the days of continual raids on small farms and heavy subsidies of big farms, the benefits of farmers’ working together outweigh the costs, both to themselves and consumers. A kibbutz is an agricultural cooperative, as is India’s Amul, which sells dairy products, and Malaysia’s FELDA, which sells palm oil.

–A consumers’ cooperative is a business owned and run by its customers. The two largest supermarket chains in Switzerland are co-ops. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op is one example, as is the UK’s Co-operative Group.

–Finally, social cooperatives, of which there are over 7000 in Italy, provide social services such as child care, elderly and disabled care, help with addiction, education and employment counseling.

–There are other community-strengthening ideas that fall short of cooperatives. You could start a neighbourhood watch, where members of the community take turns guarding each other’s property. Neighbourhood watch is widespread in North America. When the police are absent, their job is merely to punish crime. A neighbourhood watch can prevent it by having people present at all times. Moreover, in the countless parts of the world where the police are not accountable to those they police and are seen as thugs, a well-established neighbourhood watch could make the police redundant. This practice is easier today than ever, since we can communicate with each other at great distances, calling our neighbours to warn them without knocking on their doors.

Neighbourhood associations and homeowners associations of various kinds are protecting local environments, enforcing safety and other rules, organising social activities, building recreational facilities and fixing roads.

–One person following this blog’s Facebook page told me of a teacher who started a parents’ group that collects canned food, clothing, books, small items such as toothbrushes. Parents donate time, labour or rides to one another. In this way, the group promotes agorism and community.

–Poor communities have even more to gain. Many rural Africans work each other’s fields, and the owner of a given field might provide food and drinks. They help one another build houses. They pool their money for life insurance, or household items. (See more here.)

–People who complain about high costs of buying from the insurance oligopoly may want to pool their money with others. Members of the network may choose criteria by which some pay more and others pay less. Smokers might pay more in a health insurance society and pyromaniacs will probably not be allowed in a fire insurance society. And no one will be forced to subsidise others’ risky habits.

–Likewise with the banks. Need a loan? How about a credit union? There are thousands of credit unions in North America with millions of members. A credit union is an example of a consumers’ cooperative.

–Sick of inflation? Don’t like making money? Ever tried a local exchange trading system (LETS)?  LETS is a non-profit enterprise that records transactions for people’s exchanging of goods and services. A member may earn credit for fixing someone’s car, and spend it later when he needs a babysitter or a dentist. The credit does not need to be in the national currency, which is how it avoids inflation and the necessity of making money. Credit can be given for a given job by whatever criteria the people decide.

–Mutual aid could mean investment. Communities or other networks can put their money into local ventures with people they know and trust, gaining a tangible stake in the business and avoiding the rigged markets for securities.

–Support groups have sprung up for just about every shared personal problem. People who have the same illness take strength from and learn to cope thanks to their groups; immigrants set up hometown societies or landsmanshaftn.

–Occupy Wall Street coordinated mutual aid for the those who participated in the May 1 protest. People supplied food, medical and legal support, skill sharing and workshops, and hosted a Really, Really Free Market (mentioned in my last post) where people could bring clothes, books, toys, tools and whatever other things people who wanted to participate in a gift economy could bring. They set up a free university, as well.

–Rachel Leone, writing on mutual aid at Occupy, says,

You might not know it, but mutual aid is already part of your everyday life. Family members — both chosen and biological — take care of each other when one is sick, watch each other’s children and pets, and help with household projects. Friends share food and favorite books. Couch-surfers allow strangers to stay on their couches when they travel and then go off to adventure themselves, knowing that they will have a place to rest and a new friend at their next destination. Hitchhiking gets people to from state to state in exchange for stories and songs. Neighbors share recipes and tools. And let’s not forget that good consensual sex can be a form of mutual aid, too!

All these things are already happening. Mutual aid has never been easier. Mutual aid societies have gone international. They use online platforms like If more people choose not to depend on the state, the idea will spread.

Many people are predicting the collapse of the state, or of parts of it, such as unsustainable health care systems. Mutual aid may become necessary. The sooner we get started, the freer and more secure we can be.

The alternative to the state, part 2: agorism and counter-economics

July 11, 2012 3 comments

Freedom, including the freedom to build and trade and innovate, is the natural state of humanity (as agorists will tell you: see the principles underpinning agorist theory here). If the state is meant to protect us from the bad people (it is not, but that is its perpetual justification), it follows that, if we are peaceful people who do good things for ourselves and others, we have the right to ignore the state. If one must ask permission, one is not free. Agorism is voluntary exchange without asking permission; taking one’s freedom back and using it to make people better off.

Monopolies enable and encourage abuse. In Markets Not Capitalism (pp68-74), Charles W. Johnson explains that the state has a monopoly on huge swathes of the economy. It has a monopoly on security, and trillions of dollars’ worth of security apparatus to use as it likes. It owns land and natural resources, fabricating land titles, instituting complex land-use and construction codes, and the capture of others’ property by use of eminent domain. It controls the money supply, enriching bankers and criminalising alternative forms of currency that people could use to avoid inflation. It grants monopoly privilege to patent and copyright holders. It has a monopoly on the building of infrastructure, artificially lowering fees of transportation at the taxpayers’ expense, instead of turning it over to the private sector where it can save money and save lives (see here). It has a monopoly on regulation, which largely protects big business at the expense of small, creating new monopolies. Finally, it decides everything that crosses its borders, from the amount of goods and the fees for them to the movement of people. This blog has outlined the problems with most of these monopolies already. The question at hand is, how do we challenge them?

In the New Libertarian Manifesto, Samuel Edward Konkin glances at how libertarians have tried to end the state, from violence to collaboration to spreading the word. He concludes from their overall failure that the answer is to stop feeding the state, and outlines his vision for an agorist society, and the counter-economic method of getting there. Counter-establishment economics, or counter-economics, is simply peaceful action that the state forbids. It exposes the unnecessary and damaging role of the state in the enforcement of its monopolies.

Agorism has much to do with self sufficiency, shaking off dependence on the state and doing things for oneself and one’s community. In addition, while it means avoiding taxes, it is at least as much about starving the state of funds. If a person, or much better, community, opposes the state, he or it can set up businesses or co-ops that are unlicensed, unregistered, unregulated and illegal. They can provide goods and services cheaply and without needing to feed the beast.

Agorism means that one by one, people will stop supporting the state and start supporting each other instead. Agorists will be at the forefront of the building of a new society, and they provide an example for those who are interested. (More on the logic of agorism here.)

To make clear, drug barons are not agorists (as they do not believe the state is immoral) or counter-economists (as they use violence). It is unfortunate that it is necessary to use violence in drug markets, but that is a natural consequence of the criminalisation of something so many people want. But not all black markets are violent.

As the Movement of the Libertarian Left shows, counter-economists come in all shapes and sizes. They could be

–Tax evaders (how-to);

–Smugglers (of humans looking for opportunities, drugs to people who need or want them, banned books, cigarettes subject to high taxes, and so on);

–Midwives whose positions have been eliminated by state health care systems;

–Doctors working without belonging to government-approved national medical associations;

–Gun owners who disobey firearm restrictions;

–Gamblers who gamble with friends instead of in registered casinos;

–Unregistered taxi drivers;

–Publishers and consumers of illicit art, literature and newspapers;

–Pirate radio operators (how-to);

–Farmers who grow and sell things the state prohibits, from hemp to raw milk;

–Cooks who make and sell food, perhaps to friends and neighbours, by mail order (like Stateless Sweets) or by the side of the road;

–Unlicensed contractors (how-to);

–Employers who pay under the table and employees who are paid under the table;

–People who pirate drugs or entertainment subject to intellectual property laws;

–People selling things at garage sales, roadside stands or on Craigslist;

–People who give sanctuary to others on the run, such as whistleblowers and runaway slaves;

–People feeding the homeless despite prohibitions on it;

–People using an alternative currency (such as bitcoin or others), and using encryption to transfer funds online (how-to);

–People engaging in reciprocal gift economies (like the Freecycle Network, Freegan, Food Not Bombs and the Really Really Free Market);

–And anyone competing with a government monopoly, like Lysander Spooner did. Looking at all these illegal (but victimless) activities, are you a counter-economist?

In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, just about everyone was. The state had proven itself utterly incapable of providing more than the bare minimum of all manner of goods that were, in fact, available on the black market: food, repairs, electronics, exit papers and favours from the powerful.

Occupiers, you are counter-economists. Occupy movements were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They established clinics, schools, libraries, kitchens and security teams. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of non-aggression, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.

Learn more at,, in the book Markets Not Capitalism and in the writings of Samuel Edward Konkin and the Movement of the Libertarian Left, available free online.

Principle versus expediency: how to save the world

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Billions of poor people. Wars without end. Torture, disease, genocide, starving children. There are some major problems in the world. The question is, how do we do something about them? We have options. Some people say we need to take control of governments and force the changes rapidly. After all, people are dying now. This post will argue against hasty action.

We have become accustomed in the modern world to doing things fast. We want things now. This trend is reflected as much in activism as with everything else. How will we change everything? Revolution! Slow down. What kind of revolution? A revolution is a major event involving many people. It is impossible to predict the outcome of a revolution, and it is rarely (perhaps never) as the original revolutionaries envisaged. And the kind of revolution that takes place in the street inevitably means violence. Is an uprising, violent or non-violent, the best way to change the world? Let us continue with our options before deciding.

Another effect of wanting immediate results is a focus on elections. We need to field new candidates, ones that will do the right thing. Are there people like that? Look at the hopes of the Tea Party. After the Tea Party got some of its members elected on a small-government ticket, the newly elected voted for all the same big-government legislation as the other Congresspeople, and have even ended up with all the same campaign contributors. It turns out that a few new people could not make radical changes. One does not simply walk into Mordor.

How about putting pressure on existing politicians? That can work. As little hope as I see in the political process, enough letters or enough protesters can force the hands of the elected. But what is the political solution? Remember, government is based on force. Every law passed is an order. If one does not follow the law, one risks arrest and all the violence that it results in. What we want to force on others may not be the best thing for them.

When we consider working through the system of force, we want to use the existing tools to do so. The state system has two basic tools at its disposal: taxation, which could be used to redistribute wealth, and law, which could be used to force people to act right. I am opposed to the idea of using the state on moral grounds. And as I will demonstrate, morality is not only an end; it is a means.

As I write in greater detail elsewhere, a simple but powerful moral rule is the non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP states that the initiation of force or violence, including the credible threat of violence, against unwilling adults who have not initiated force themselves is immoral. Laws force entire populations. If we could opt out of laws, we would be free, but we cannot. Laws based on the NAP are moral but laws regarding what we wear, eat, drink and smoke, for example, are not, because those things do not harm others. There should be no law regarding victimless pursuits. Taxation means forcing populations to pay for whatever the government decides on. But not everyone in the population has aggressed against another, or is being taxed commensurately to his or her aggression.

Many anarchists believe in the NAP on philosophical grounds. They argue that, whatever is done with the money raised by taxation, whatever someone’s idea of virtue that informs the wording of a law, it is wrong to force peaceful people. More importantly, however, force is a terrible tool for solving problems, and tends to cause far greater ones.

Do taxation and regulation lead to a redistribution of wealth? Yes: from the lower classes to the rich. The basic reason for that is that the lower classes, including the middle classes, have no power over the state. The state has power over them; and in every society, it becomes a vehicle for transferring wealth from the people who are outside it to the powerful people who control it. We have had social welfare policies for decades and poverty still exists. But why are they still poor? Welfare policies actually entrench poverty by making people dependent on the state.

The best cure for poverty is, in fact, a free market. The free market just means free people trading with each other out of mutual benefit, without force. Tearing down the endless regulations and taxes that are designed to benefit the wealthy would give opportunities to everyone else to work as they like. How we could do that by using the state I do not know, because, again, laws benefit the powerful and the powerful control the state. It is impractical to use the state to solve society’s problems.

Could we use laws to force virtue? It depends what is virtuous. I agree with Penn Jillette on this one.

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

The other question is, can the state actually be reconfigured to work for the greater good? Can it be sustainable if done by force and not spread throughout the population as common values? I am inclined to say no. If people can be led to believe in taking care of each other and taking care of the poor, they will do so voluntarily, as of course many do already. If they cannot, forcing them to do so could lead to a backlash. Look, for example, at the plight of some of the people in the democratic world who are most vulnerable: immigrants. Immigrants are people like everyone else, so surely they should all be permitted the same rights and freedoms. Letting immigrants into the US, Europe and the rest of the rich world meant giving them a chance to help themselves and their sending countries. But anti-immigrant forces first controlled the discourse and then the relevant areas of the state, and 400,000 people were deported from the US in 2011 alone. People escaping horrible conditions in Africa are left to drown in the Mediterranean. I take the sum of these and similar actions and indifference toward them to mean the people are not ready to be forced to take care of everyone else.

The state may be a lost cause, but we are not out of options yet. The problem is that the more viable solutions are long term. They require patience, not quick fixes. I think there are two basic things we could do. The first is to educate people—particularly ourselves—on the issues and how to solve them. We can keep the real issues foremost in the minds of people, so that we are the media and the teachers. That doesn’t just mean Facebook, of course. It could mean street protest and symbolic action to raise awareness. This process is neverending, so it is incumbent on concerned people to educate to the extent that others become the media and the teachers as well. The main downside to this option is that not everyone will be interested. But that just means they have better things to do, and I do not blame them for that.

But not everyone has to join us. The second thing is to organise with like-minded people. That means being leaders, working together, helping each other and doing things ourselves. The revolution does not have to be violent. Look at what Occupy did. They were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of the NAP, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.

Two essays on Occupy Wall Street

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

For my master’s programme at the American University in Cairo, I have just completed two essays on Occupy Wall Street. The first describes America’s ruling class using elitist theories of political science.

The second describes the crisis many Americans face and how it gave rise to the movement.