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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.

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Freedom is peace

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

There is a widespread belief that security and freedom are incompatible. We have been told, especially since 9/11 and not just in the US, that the needs of security, meaning keeping us safe from non-state actors who want to do us harm, who are apparently everywhere, outweigh the luxuries of freedom. But security versus freedom is a false dichotomy. The truth is, the extent to which we are free is the extent to which we are at peace.

Some extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum of freedom are prison, slavery, and a surveillance or informant state that does not tolerate dissent or differences. There is neither peace nor freedom in these situations, as anyone is subject to mistreatment at the hands of his or her masters at any time. The claim that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” is wrong because people who have power do not always need what you would consider a good reason to use it. Ask people living in jail for selling drugs, or a slave. They are routinely subjected to whatever form of abuse because their bodies are constantly at someone else’s mercy.

A short way from the extreme opposite of freedom is a situation such as a city locked down after a panic. The presence of vehicles of war on the streets of Boston or Cairo following terrorist attacks is not a situation of security. In the case of Boston, ordinary people had guns thrust in their faces and their homes entered, which presumably inspired them with terror as intense as the bombing that just taken place. It is unlikely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have killed people if they had been allowed out of their homes, especially since if he had the people could have dealt with him themselves. In Egypt following the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, peaceful protesters were killed and arrested and a curfew was imposed. Police of every level of the security apparatus, including those in plainclothes and the spy agency, remain all over the city. We are all subject to arrest (or extortion) for looking suspicious or saying the wrong things. The threat of violence looms always just over our heads. And it is not clear how such state reaction prevented further terrorism.

Getting people to expect such state action and believe in it as a necessary way to restore security and freedom are part of the building blocks of the police state. We usually do not know about how power is wielded every day because of compliant media; alternatively, when we find out about what the powerful are up to, we are told why their actions were necessary and right, proportional and in self defense. When we accept this state of affairs it can happen more often.

There is a middle ground (though not at times of crisis) in which police can provide the people with general protection and not turn despotic. However, state security of any kind is necessarily unaccountable to the people and can be used by those with power for social control. Getting a group we do not belong to to protect us does not necessarily lead to protection from that group. We do not necessarily have this choice, because rule is imposed on us without our consent.

That is one danger in the idea of private-security firms. Private security is more likely to be accountable to us than the state is, because if they do not report us they will not get paid. Nonetheless, we must consider the fact that my employing a private-security firm does nothing to guarantee the security of the people around me. And yet, my security depends on those around me. Errico Malatesta put it thus.

Solidarity, that is, harmony of interests and sentiments, the sharing of each in the good of all, and of all in the good of each, is the state in which alone man can be true to his own nature, and attain to the highest development and happiness. It is the aim towards which human development tends. It is the one great principle, capable of reconciling all present antagonisms in society, otherwise irreconcilable. It causes the liberty of each to find not its limits, but its complement, the necessary condition of its continual existence–in the liberty of all.

He proceeds to quote Mikhail Bakunin.

No man can recognize his own human worth, nor in consequence realize his full development, if he does not recognize the worth of his fellow men, and in co-operation with them, realize his own development through them. No man can emancipate himself, unless at the same time he emancipates those around him. My freedom is the freedom of all; for I am not really free–free not only in thought, but in deed–if my freedom and my right do not find their confirmation and sanction in the liberty and right of all men my equals.

Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of the conditions under which we can realise our potential. If we seek peace, we need security not just for ourselves but for others. This belief may be demonstrated when a desperate or mentally ill man robs and attacks someone. We did nothing to help this person and we are all vulnerable as a result. It is even easier to see in an age when people who feel their lives and cultures are threatened can go around the world to plan and execute a terrorist attack on the heart of the entity they believe is threatening them.

Security for all means peace. Freedom for all means peace. They are not opposites. They are, in the end, the same.

Freedom to reach our potential

April 25, 2013 6 comments

The reason I advocate freedom, in whatever forms seem both ideal and possible, above just about everything else is because it is the single most important thing for realising humankind’s potential. In today’s world, freedom is ebbing away. States are getting bigger and bolder. Propaganda is getting more sophisticated. More people are coming to depend on the state for more privileges and services, and the state is coming to seem more necessary than ever. People are willing to give up their freedom instead of taking responsibility for the most important things in their lives: security, health, education and where a sizeable proportion of their income goes. The following outlines the benefits of freedom and the basis for my claim that freedom is how humankind can reach its potential.

What is our potential, anyway? Psychology, anthropology and history can provide us answers, as we can see what has been done and what can be done if people decide. As individuals and societies, we have the potential to be responsible for ourselves and those around us, to take care of each other. We can have egalitarian societies. We can have peaceful societies. We can reach untold heights of technological advancement and material progress. We can wipe out diseases. We can solve ancient mysteries. We can adapt when systems break down. We can be happy, healthy, wealthy, wise and at peace. This is our potential. But how do we get there? By concentrating power? Enacting laws and regulations? My answer is to build a free society.

freedom liberty anarchy

What advantages would a stateless, voluntary, anarchic society have in realising our potential?

Art. As many of the people reading this will be used to freedom of expression, they may not appreciate its value. Art is a way of exposing and mocking oppressors and violent people, of communicating things we all know are wrong on a deep level. In a free society, it would still have the power to expose wrongdoing and bring people together, while providing a necessary outlet for all forms of self expression. In addition, art is an expression of life and adds to our enjoyment of it.

Economy. Free and open economies, meaning ones with unhampered freedom to do the work you want, move where you want to do it and keep the full product of your labour means more prosperity more equally shared. I have gone into this elsewhere, so please follow these links. On why regulation is not protection but crony capitalism, see here. On what the free market really means, why it would reduce inequality and why it means a smoother business cycle, see here. Finally, two studies (Hamilton and Whalley 1984; Winters et al. 2003) find that fully liberalising labour markets, which means letting anyone move anywhere to work, could add forty trillion dollars to the global economy. Freedom of movement would also unleash the various benefits of diversity. Freedom facilitates exchange (whether of goods, services or labour) among those optimally positioned to make the most of it.

Health. At present, we are chained by laws that limit what we can put into our bodies, while subsidies and regulatory handouts to large agribusiness and chemical corporations (and whatever Monsanto is) distort the market for food, making processed and GMO foods competitive with fresh, local produce. State regulators often miss dangerous things, whether by negligence (since they pay no price for being wrong) or corruption (since many of the people who make dangerous things are put in charge of regulatory agencies, Monsanto again the clearest example). Regulation per se is not wrong, but it is better handled by the wisdom of the crowd. That is why we have so many websites (and before the internet, books and magazines) by and for consumers to make the best choices for their health. (Find more here.)

Education. For over a hundred years now, the state has controlled education nearly everywhere with public education whose curriculum only those in power can approve. The result is not the best education for everyone, as we were promised, but the indoctrination of every generation in the state’s values: obedience, nationalism, the glory of military service and how to get a job in the modern corporate economy. What could education be like? There are so many possibilities, only one of which involves spending most of one’s childhood at a desk in a classroom. Giving parents and children their freedom would mean far more experimentation in education.

Justice. Our system of positive law, with the state creating, interpreting and enforcing laws, as well as controlling the court system, is necessarily biased in favour of the state. Justice only comes through the state system if the result does not concern those who control the state. But a system of privately-produced, or polycentric, law could serve the average person far more effectively and efficiently.

Peace and security. With no criminalisation of victimless pursuits, there would be far fewer criminals and no violent black markets. With no taxation to force the costs of war onto the masses, a major incentive for war is gone. With no ability to wage widescale war, feuds may take place but none of the worst horrors we have seen can occur. With no indoctrination into nationalism, free people will likely unite to defend each other, given their shared interest in collective security, but will not be forced into supporting a cause they have the choice to opt out of. They will form organisations to keep the peace, anything from neighbourhood watches to militias, depending on what kind of threat they perceive; and dispute resolution will always be available because there will be no monopoly of it.

Happiness. Fewer people’s lives torn apart by the state, whether put in jail for a victimless crime or killed in a war, means more happiness. Inequalities, a source of stress, illness and violence, would be lower (non-existent in communes). The uncertainty of wild economic mood swings, the unemployment that is an inevitable part of a highly-regulated market, the continual threat of violence for something one did not even know was a crime—all would be gone. Not all sources of unhappiness would evaporate, of course; one should not expect miracles. But there is reason to believe we would be happier.

All these things are possible because free people can advance their lot through trial and error. You know so if you have lived in a society that is free in any given way. If the state pays little attention to science and technology, there has probably been enormous such progress in your lifetime. Humans are natural scientists. Progress is inevitable in any area they put their minds to—provided, of course, it is not blocked by the powerful.

How does freedom get us to where we could be?

Imagine the strictest totalitarian state, perhaps like the Soviet Union, or even along the lines of 1984. All the human potentials listed above are absent. Now, imagine if the unfettered freedom to move to new places was somehow introduced to society. Not only would people have the chance to better their material circumstances; they would have the chance to see how people in other places lived and worked. They would learn different ideas and beliefs. The same could be true if the people could consume whatever media or art they chose, or if the state played no role whatsoever in education or science. One person would realise he or she should be allowed to say and do what he wants, and most importantly to think differently, and would spread the word to others. If the idea of liberty caught on, it could bring the edifice of all forms of oppression crashing down. The idea of freedom liberates minds that are receptive to it.

chains freedom potential

Now, imagine a society six months after having eliminated all forms of oppression, including indentured servitude, feudalism, social hierarchy, debt and wage slavery, taxation, laws and central planning. If people made the conscious choice to end these things, their society would not collapse into chaos. The first six months would be a trial period for them, as they attempted various forms of ownership of production, mutual aid and reciprocal exchange. They would be taking uncertain steps, and some people would attempt to set up governments, gangs and other vehicles for concentrating power. The free people would need to act in concert to reverse such attempts.

How about after five years? After five years of maximising spontaneous order society would likely be bursting with energy. The people would have come to certain conclusions based on the past years of trial and error, and certain norms would predominate. A culture that valued freedom would put it into practice in all of its institutions. There could be voluntary institutions for everything that needs to be done collectively, such as infrastructure, education, health care and security. Some would be provided through mutual aid, while others would be available for purchase.

A currency would probably have been decided on, as free people usually come up with a currency through a process of elimination. That said, there might be competing currencies, even in the same place, which would protect against inflation because people can use the alternatives whenever one currency is debased. There would also probably be communities with various systems of moneyless exchange, such as a local exchange trading system, or LETS.

Communities would have various rule systems based on contracts. Many rules would be uniform across geographic spaces, as they are today. Norms spread but they usually do not spread everywhere except by force (think of the global spread of liberal democracy). Even five years into a revolution of spontaneous order, people would still be testing and developing their rule systems, and would be learning from best practices shared by other communities.

This society is possible. It requires not a leap in nature but merely a shift in mindset. People need to unite, organise to achieve their goals, and stay vigilant to protect their freedom and their security.

freedom emancipation

We are the true anarchists

January 7, 2013 12 comments

My fellow anarchists, please stop this yellow-red, ancap-ancom, East-West-rap feud nonsense. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Many anarcho-capitalists (and voluntaryists) and anarcho-communists (and mutualists) claim to be the only true anarchists. This claim is unhelpful, divisive and unfair. They claim the ideas of the other side would lead to a mere rearranging of capitalist property relations or rehashing old, failed communist policy. These claims are unlikely to be true, as, whether you can admit it or not, all anarchist theories are revolutionary. If you do not see that, it is unlikely you have spent much time trying to understand them.

This feuding is, in fact, typical of people who do not expect to succeed in their missions. The main political parties in any country work together, at least on some issues; the weakest are constantly bickering among themselves. It is possible governments place agents provocateurs among anarchists and other minorities to keep them divided. I do not know how to tell such a person online. Suffice to say, it is easy to make a guy feel he is right and you (and your whole team) are wrong: just dismiss his argument without appearing to consider it. We can resist these divide-and-conquer tactics by committing to unity of principle and purpose while encouraging diversity of opinion. But it tends not to work that way in practice.

Stupid anarcho-communists still don’t understand that we have to have property rights to have a free society. Damn anarcho-capitalists want to maintain hierarchies and classes by allowing property and bosses. They are not even anarchists! Anarchists are what I say they are. Well, are you against rulers? Then you are all anarchists. The debate rages, while the stateless society is still a glint in the revolutionary’s eye. Is there nothing more laudable on which we could be spending our time? Many anarchists spend hours a day arguing over the minutiae of what a stateless society should look like. They get angry and fall into disunity over questions that do not matter at present. The common goal is the removal of the state. The target is clear. It does not matter how many feathers are on our arrows. Work together. It is not as hard as you are making it.

I have a problem with anarcho-capitalists who claim a kind of absolute right to property. What if some people do not have anywhere to stay and want to squat on land you have claimed? What if they want to drink from a river or a part of a river you call your own? Anarcho-communists would say that is aggression. They also point out there is possession, distinct from property, which means you can hold on to something. But simply because you had more money or got there first is not a good reason that you have permanent and complete power over it.

Green anarchists would also point out though homesteading may not mean stealing from another human, it may destroy the environment and steal from other living things. Build homes, but do not shoot anyone who steps on your lawn. Build farms and factories, but not so big they flatten the landscape. At an extreme, property is illegitimate to someone who believes aggression is immoral.

My problem with anarcho-communists is the likelihood that a society without any ownership at all leads inevitably to the tragedy of the commons. Not all property is legitimate, nor does it need to be in the hands of individuals when it could be held by communities; but it seems necessary to me that someone consider it their property in order to take care of it. Property is useful because in a world of scarcity and anonymity, all resources are contestable and many of them will be contested. We can assign property to the person and people with the best link to the resource, thus making conflicts far easier to resolve. See chapter 3 of my book for further discussion of property in a stateless society.

So I disagree with you but I disagree with everyone on something. That does not mean I am not the right kind of anarchist and should be insulted and cast aside. It means I have something different to contribute.

Until you convince another few million people, your ideal society will be little more than a dream. You might need to work with others–especially those whose ideals are actually pretty similar to yours–to achieve it.

The alternative to the state, part 6: breaking free

August 13, 2012 8 comments

“Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy’, why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person?” – Murray Rothbard

The worst thing the British ever did for India was to unite it. India is a vast country of a billion people with nothing in common. As many as a million people died and 12m were displaced when India was partitioned. Today, an insurgency in the east of the country started and continues because of a central government stealing their land in the name of “development” that the people are not interested in, and 100,000 farmers have committed suicide. India has gone to war with Pakistan several times and approached nuclear war over a border clash. None of these things would have happened if India had followed Gandhi’s vision.

“The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy,” said Gandhi. He believed India should comprise independent enclaves that were not subject to violence by powerful governments. His idea of swaraj, which means self-rule, was how to avoid domination by foreign rulers. It meant continuous effort to defend against subjugation. “In such a state” of swaraj, said Gandhi, “everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour”. Swaraj is not just about throwing off shackles but creating new systems that enable individual and collective development. Unfortunately, the forces of power prevailed, and India became ruled by rapacious Indians only marginally better than foreigners.

Many statists believe we need national organisations and associations. But I do not understand why. Most decisions could easily be taken on a personal level, and the ones requiring collective action could come on the community level. As I have made clear on this blog, voluntary collective action is realistic and preferable to coercion. Democracy cannot be said to offer true freedom to the individual without freedom from the government’s every edict. In Democracy: the God that Failed (p81), Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains “[w]ithout the right to secession, a democratic government is, economically speaking, a compulsory territorial monopolist of protection and ultimate decision making (jurisdiction) and is in this respect indistinguishable from princely government.”

Let us go further into justification for secession. Here is Scott Boykin on the subject.

“Modern political thought has produced three main types of argument for the state’s legitimacy. One, found in Kant, grounds the state’s authority on the purported rightness of its institutions and aims.” By whose judgement? If the individual is the judge of what is right and wrong, the individual who deems the state’s institutions and aims wrong has the right to secede; at least, the individual who practices non-aggression.

“Another, found in Locke, holds that consent, whether explicit or tacit, is the source of the state’s authority. A right of secession challenges this-position in maintaining that consent may be legitimately withdrawn in favor of an alternative political arrangement.” If democracy is based on the consent of the governed, does that mean one can withdraw one’s consent?

“The third, found in Hume, bases the state’s authority on its usefulness in producing order, which facilitates the individual’s pursuit of self-chosen ends.” The modern state, in a variety of legal ways, destroys order and limits the individual’s choices. Therefore, you have the right to secede.

You, an individual, and your family and friends, can opt out of a system based on violence. No, I do not mean you can leave and go somewhere else. All countries, by definition, have governments, and government, by definition, is force. I mean you have the right to end a relationship with those who threaten you with violence.

Community secession

To start, however, I recommend secession on a community level. The only reason I advocate community secession is that no political entity will recognise an individual who secedes until the right to do so is itself recognised, which might not be for a long time. It may be just as true that national governments will not recognise local secession either; the history of secessionist movements is, after all, the history of central states’ making war on separatists.

As I have written elsewhere, anarchy exists and has existed in numerous places throughout history. It often arises during or after a war, revolution or other crisis. Those things may be coming to democratic countries, as they have in Greece and to a lesser extent the US with the Occupy movement. Think how hard it is for the people to change everything from how bad it is now. As a result, many are realising they can make a better society on a local level. They are leaving the state and the banks and the big corporations behind and making a new start.

Thus, we can start sovereign communities. The sovereign community is not subject to the authority of any state besides a local one its members have all willingly signed on to. Naturally, the “community” could be as big as it wants, provided positive consent is granted. It would enable everyone who wants to escape the state to do so, while not dismantling it for those who still want to live under a state system.

I propose entire communities separate, one by one, from the state. They might use legal means and go through the courts, as law is how things get done in a statist society. The sovereign community would not be cut off from all other communities; there is no doubt people would still visit each other. They would just not pay taxes or consume government services. They would make their own rules.

How to break away

Breaking free of the state could be undertaken bit by bit, as in these communities.

–The town council of Sedgwick, Maine, unanimously passed a law exempting the people of the town from all external laws related to food. Federal laws prohibit the growing and selling of certain foods; these people do not care. They have declared food sovereignty.

–Some places are moving away from fiat currency imposed by central banks. Greece’s current situation of lawlessness is leading many to adopt a cashless economy. Barter exchange has become the norm for many Greeks.

–That said, the Greeks may have been forced to act this way with the collapse of the Greek economy. Other communities are taking similar measures without being forced by circumstance to do so. Pittsboro, North Carolina, issues its own currency. It already had the US’s largest biodiesel cooperative, a food cooperative and a farmers’ market. Now it has taken a further step toward self sufficiency. According to Lyle Estill, a community leader, the currency has experienced no inflation. And Pittsboro is not the only one. Cities and towns around the US are rejecting Federal Reserve notes for circulation.

–Other communities are passing laws that refuse to recognise federal laws regarding corporations, such as corporate personhood. More than 100 municipalities in the US have passed ordinances prohibiting multinational corporations from dumping or spraying toxic chemicals, building factory farms, mining, fracking and extracting water.

–The Free State Project aims to make New Hampshire the first state to secede (successfully) from the US. The idea is for libertarians to congregate in order to have the biggest impact. (Not all anarchists agree on this strategy, incidentally.) New Hampshire is not the only state hoping to secede, with independence movements in California, Texas, Wyoming, and presumably other states I am unaware of.

–Keene, New Hampshire, has become a kind of centre for anarchist activism, encouraging the liberty-minded to flock there. It has not seceded from the US but might do in the future. Its people engage in all kinds of agorism, mutual aid, outreach education and civil disobedience. Learn more here and here.

–Like Keene, anarchists and socialists gather in Exarcheia, a part of Athens, Greece. It houses many organic food stores, fair trade shops, anti-authoritarian and anti-fascist activism.

Such piecemeal changes can be steps toward freedom and independence for one’s community, but they could just be a declaration of sovereignty over one particular thing members of the community do not want controlled by someone else. Alternatively, people could break away entirely from the state in one fell swoop. Has anybody done that?

–The Lakota nation, an American indigenous group, seceded entirely from the United States of America. It canceled all treaties it held with the state and its members renounced their citizenship. They hope to reverse the enormous harm 200 years of incorporation into the US has caused.

–Seasteading is an option that becomes more viable every year. Seasteading means building new homes on barges, ferries, refitted oil platforms or islands out in the ocean. Most have been unsuccessful, succumbing to natural disasters or lack of support. That is no reason to write off the whole idea. The real challenges are in construction and, as with all sovereign communities, escaping the violence of the state. Seasteading might not only mean building homes, but also resorts, casinos, aquaculture, deep-sea marinas and even universal data libraries free from copyright laws.

Freetown Christiania, is an enclave of  Copenhagen with just under 1000 residents. It is a self-governing and self-sustaining community which, though officially part of Denmark, is de facto largely independent. It began in 1971 and has become a kind of sanctuary for outcasts such as single mothers and drug addicts. The people make rules by consensus and have banned hard drugs, though marijuana and hashish have been sold openly.

–As mentioned in previous posts, the Yubia Permanent Autonomous Zone in California is an example of a community that has broken away from the state and established communities based on the non-aggression principle. “The most important thing to understand about Yubia,” says its website, “is that it is not only a place — it is a way of being.”

–These things could happen on a much wider scale. One goal of anarchism is to reduce our vulnerability to repression by the state. We can develop alternative economic and security organisations and decision making. People have already started decentralising the internet, making it harder to implement a kill switch. Hackers, who were once mischievous teenagers, have grown up and have launched satellites to enable a free internet outside of the state’s reach.

–Similarly, in an economy based on a single currency that is regularly debased by a central bank, a new form of online currency known as bitcoin has emerged. It has the chance to revolutionise global finance. One article explains its significance: “There’s decent incentive for small businesses to use it—it’s free to use, and there aren’t any transaction fees. At the moment you can buy the services of a web designer, indie PC games, homemade jewelry, guns, and, increasingly, illegal drugs. If the internet is the Wild West, BitCoin is its wampum.”

–Or we could eliminate money. Setting up a resource-based economy based on the vision of the Venus Project and Zeitgeist holds wide appeal. Some people call their ideas idealistic. Who knows until they try? For those who are interested in building such a society, let them do it. People will join if it shows signs of success. Set a time and a place, get together and make it happen.

–Though difficult without the support of those around, breaking free does not have to take place at a community level. Business and professional associations might decide to stop following pointless laws and paying taxes, while nonetheless continuing to act responsibly. Schools can ignore federal and state laws regarding curriculum or the hiring and firing of teachers, instead making those decisions in concert with parents and perhaps students.

Unfortunately, these things are only possible when enough people, let’s say a critical mass, agree and are willing to fight for these rights against the state they are compelled to obey. The biggest danger inherent in secession is the same one sovereign communities have had throughout history: the state does not give up control over anyone easily. But people are showing more and more that they are fed up of statism, and are doing something about it. Find more about breaking free at www.secession.net.

The alternative to the state, part 5: contract-based communities

August 6, 2012 7 comments

“The future social organization should be carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with the associations, then going on to the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation. It is only then that the true, life-giving social order of liberty and general welfare will come into being, a social order which, far from restricting, will affirm and reconcile the interests of individuals and of society.” – Mikhail Bakunin

The movie Bowling for Columbine showed a headline about a town in the US requiring everyone to own a gun. Naturally, most people in the theatre with me shook their heads. What a bunch of ignorant townspeople, right? But if you are in a place where you know everyone has a gun, how likely are you to break into someone’s house? Wouldn’t be a very sensible idea, would it? But even if you think it is a stupid idea, is it right for you to impose your beliefs on others?

I don’t know why it needed to be a government decision, but at least it was local, which makes it easy enough to move to the next town if you don’t like it—far more reasonable than expecting someone to move to another country or go live in the woods. In a stateless society, no one would be expected to move, because the possession or non-possession of firearms would have been a stipulation of the rules one would have already agreed to to be permitted to live in the community in the first place.

Now, in every democratic country, we have a race, a fight—always of image over substance—to see who will take the reins of power, so that the winner can impose his or her beliefs on the entire population by force. Would it not make more sense to have smaller groups in which people could live by the values they want? If abortion is murder, disallow it in your community; but why should millions of people who disagree with you be forced to follow your values? The option—the right—should exist to secede. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in Democracy: the God that Failed, points out that “[s]ecession solves this problem, by letting smaller territories each have their own admission standards and determine independently with whom they will associate on their own territory and with whom they prefer to cooperate from a distance.” (p117)

In my last post, I suggest a variety of ways of using privately-produced law, such as arbitration, dispute-resolution organisations and insurance, to get the benefits of ideal state services without being subject to the wayward decisions of the elite. This post goes into detail on another, related idea of anarchists: the community based on a contract. This and the next post propose seceding from the state and building stateless, or sovereign, communities.

The sovereign community

When moving somewhere new, people are usually subject to certain by-laws passed down by the municipality, if such a level of government exists. Such laws might include not letting one’s grass grow too long or driving under 30kph in a school zone. In general, the lower down the level of government, the fewer people it represents, the more accountable it is. A government that presides over only a few thousand people, in fact, is barely a government. Unlike any other government, it would have little or no bureaucracy, few powerful lobbies and people would not need to rally en masse to make changes. A group of a few hundred people who make decisions on consensus is not a government at all, as there is no one imposing decisions on others.

The ideal unit of human organisation is not the nation or the race but the community. Dunbar’s number, the number of individuals the average human can maintain a stable relationship with, is between about 100 and 200, most likely because we evolved in communities of this size. In a community, people grow up around each other and share a culture. They know and learn from and trust each other. True communities make only minor distinctions between family and friends. Their members will defend each other and the community. Rules (or laws) are best made on the community level, because it is much easier to come to a consensus and ensure that the rules represent the wishes of everyone. Rule enforcement, too, would be far easier, because the enforcers would know the offenders. Shaming, ostracism and reconciliation are all much easier. And we do not need to get rid of professional enforcers and prisons for the truly recidivist criminals; we just would not pay unrepresentative and uncaring institutions to do it for us.

The exemplary sovereign community would counter the objection that statists have that anarchy can only mean killing each other wantonly. People who believe in this nightmare scenario not only do not read anarchist ideas on preventing that possibility; they disregard the enormous differences between the modern world and the stateless world of old.

-First, we are used to peace. Many hunter-gatherer societies are used to war. We are accustomed to diversity of culture, language, skin colour, ideas and ways of living. We no longer react toward people we have never seen before as members of other tribes who are likely hostile.  We are used to peaceful interactions with all the thousands of anonymous people we meet over our lifetimes and get into intractable conflicts with maybe twenty of them. People who like peace will defend and build on it, just like people who appreciate their freedom will not give it up easily.

–Even in the past century we have become more peaceful. The decades leading up to World War One were marked by militarism in Europe. War was seen as salutary for a nation and a man. This feeling is now accepted far less widely. One can see evidence for this claim in the statistics alone: people are killing each other less now (relative to population) than any time in history. See Steven Pinker’s the Better Angels of Our Nature for statistics on and possible reasons for this development.

-Second, we can communicate with those members of other tribes in town hall gatherings, dispute-resolution organisations, or just over the phone in ways that even one hundred years ago was impossible. World War One was caused in part by poor communication among the warmakers. Unsure of each other’s intentions and lacking the easy long distance calling we take for granted, part of the march to war was, in fact, a blind stumble of guesses. We no longer suffer from the same lack of communication. Equally importantly, stateless societies would not have vast war machines at their disposal.

-Third, where most people see the inevitability of war, a better understanding of the causes of war reveals that states have, for hundreds if not thousands of years, nearly always been the initiators of war and the causes of terrorism. They make war to enlarge the power and wealth of the people on top. Through taxation and debt, they force their subjects to pay for it. Without the apparatus of legal plunder and the build up of militaries, war is far less likely.

-Finally, we have all the ideas necessary for peaceful and prosperous living, from ideas of stateless, democratic decision making to how to take care of each other through mutual aid.

I conceive of “community” in very broad terms. It could mean cities or something even larger, if they can somehow be managed, as well as towns; cooperatives of farmers or workers; or whatever other associations they want to put together. Individual communities’ making their own rules would mean anyone’s kind of anarchism can be attempted. You could try a propertyless commune or a Galt’s Gulch (let’s hope the capitalists and the communists don’t engage in a Cold War); whatever you think makes the most sense.

I use the word “rules” to differentiate what I am talking about from “law”. “Law” has a number of definitions but this blog goes by that of law as an imposition by uncaring elites on a populace, which is what most laws are. “Rules” here mean the things people have decided to follow, not just to make others follow. They are what people agree to when going to a new place and can be changed when they no longer serve the common good.

Some sovereign communities will have leaders of one thing or another, as do most or all communities. Leaders are great, but it is hard to lead hundreds of thousands of people without an urgent, common cause (which is why a sense of urgency and a flat hierarchy are important for large corporations to stay ahead of the competition). But leading on a smaller level is not a problem. Small groups are more flexible and can act like teams more easily than big ones.

Sample rules

If a community decides on a code of rules, it can institutionalise them by having those who want to live there sign a contract. The contract would say that the people living there would adhere to those rules if they wish to remain there. Some stipulations in the contract might read

–adhere to the non-aggression principle. It is possible to build a community entirely on this premise, with very few other rules. Freedom would be maximised, though there would be other consequences as well.

–join the mutual aid network, or certain aspects of the mutual aid network, such as neighbourhood watch, health insurance, pensions for old people, and so on.

–no private property. People who believe property is theft would probably want that in writing.

–no violence whatsoever. This one is for pacifist communities. I would not want to take away someone’s right to defend him or herself, but pacifists have a different point of view, and if they want to organise on that basis, they should be free to do so. (The problem is, of course, the danger from outsiders; living high in the mountains may eliminate this risk.)

–immigration rules. As good as immigration can be for an economy and for opening minds, for one reason or another, it is possible that a community would not want too many newcomers. Perhaps it would put a strain on the local environment. Perhaps they just do not like Paraguayans. I do not like racism, but I do not force others to accept my beliefs. Let immigrants go where they are welcome, where they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

–the minimum drinking or drug-taking age, and which drugs are prohibited.

–no parental abuse or neglect of children, or else the community intervenes and adopts them until the parent is rehabilitated.

–no Walmart. If communities want to protect local business and even foster infant industries, they can erect barriers to trade as selective as they like. No to big box stores’ setting up in this neighbourhood (or even no buying from such stores and bringing it home). Nowadays, we have the ability to trade with millions of people around the world. A community that makes its own rules does not need to be hampered by one-size-fits-all laws, tariffs and sanctions over whole nations written for minority interest groups.

—Communities and individuals would be able to decide with whom, anywhere in the world, they would trade. Hoppe again: “Consider a single household as the conceivably smallest secessionist unit. By engaging in unrestricted free trade, even the smallest territory can be fully integrated into the world market and partake of every advantage of the division of labor, and its owners may become the wealthiest people on earth.” (p115) Secession  promotes economic integration to the extent independent units want it.

—Sovereign communities would likely form confederations with others, as was the case in pre-British-ruled Ireland, with no violence involved in leaving the group. They may prefer to trade with others of similar values. This principle is similar to the idea of buying fair trade, supporting small businesses over big or boycotting companies that abuse their workers.

–how to make decisions, and when not to. Not all decisions need to be made collectively. A man is free to the extent he does not have to follow decisions he disagrees with. But for those decisions that are made collectively, such as building a road or a school, the rules should specify a decision-making mechanism. The process most respecting of the individual is consensus. Consensus is, of course, rejected as a way of making decisions on the national level, but that is why it is preferable to do it on a lower level, where important things like new rules and punishments can be discussed by the people they will affect. The higher the level, the less representative decision making is and the easier it is for a majority to trample on a minority.

—If the community is too big for consensus, let the decision-making apparatus split and different people can choose which to join without moving. “Community” does not have to be an exclusive territory. As long as they agree not to impose their policies on others, they can live next to each other in harmony. Given what we know about polycentric law, such an arrangement is possible.

–rules for arbitration. My last post propounded a free market in dispute-resolution, arbitration and enforcement. But it is possible that a single community will have a single organisation in charge of arbitrating disputes among members. It may have an authority figure charged with ensuring decisions are enforced. The village policeman is often a friendly, respectable, trusted, admired member of society. It is not necessary to do away with him just because we do not like the FBI.

–penalties for non-compliance. These might start with simply talking to the violator for breaking smaller rules once or twice. Next could be public reprimand—singling out the person for criticism at a community meeting, and asking him or her how he or she will address the problem. A larger offense might require monetary compensation, perhaps working to pay off one’s debt to the victim. As a major punishment for something the community considers very offensive, probably after one or more chances to reform, the community could kick out the offender (or put it to a vote). If the offender is irretrievably violent and the people believe he or she requires deterring or punishing, they can lock him or her up. Of course, a society based on polycentric law would deal with these things equally well.

Whatever codes of ethics communities decide on, there is likely to be a great deal of similarity among them. Free communities will probably agree on some variation of the NAP, participating in a neighbourhood watch or sharing the costs of policing the streets, and so on. Some might be more entrepreneurial or socialist or fearfully protective than others, but most will probably still adhere to common norms. And when they share best practices, people get better ideas. Anything is possible when millions of people are free to decide.

The alternative to the state, part 3: mutual aid

July 24, 2012 14 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 www.chipin.com. 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.