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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.