On Left and Right Anarchists
This essay will be mainly about contrasting two kinds of anarchists. But first perhaps I should say a few words about what anarchists are. And to do that, I might contrast them with their opposite, which is authoritarians.
Authoritarians believe that in any social activity, someone should be “in charge.” They say that the only alternative is chaos, disorder, and destruction — and they have been very successful in spreading that depiction of anarchism, largely because authoritarians own most of the newspapers and television studios. They liken society to a boat, which will crash if there are too many people or too few at the steering wheel.
(Joke: Three authoritarians are shipwrecked on an island. What is the first thing they do, before searching for food or drinkable water? Answer:They elect a president.)
But society is not a boat. If you break it down to its roots, the word “an”+”archy” means “no”+”rulers.” Anarchists do =not= seek disorder, and most of them actually are very orderly, but the order they seek is horizontal and egalitarian, not hierarchical. We can work together, not because you boss me around, but because we negotiate agreements. That’s freedom, which all anarchists (left or right) believe in.
And we anarchists see authority as a terrible thing. Power corrupts. You can see that all around us: bosses bully their workers, guards torture prisoners, police shoot the poor, and the rich lie to start wars to make themselves richer. There is a high correlation between being a police officer and being guilty of domestic violence (much of which goes unreported, because police are reluctant to arrest other police).
And incidentally, it’s hard to separate money from the power of authority. Political power is used to make some people more wealthy, and conversely people with money have many ways of influencing other people politically. Money power, political power, the power of authority — they all corrupt.
Now, what about left and right anarchists?
All anarchists — at least, the sincere ones — have much in common. We share the belief that people should be free to choose their own way of life. We also share the belief that people should be well informed, so that they can choose wisely when they are freely choosing their own way of life — i.e., so that they will not make choices that they later regret. And so, to make people well informed, we try to explain what we believe to be the truth about human nature, and how economics works, and how the world works.
But the two groups, left and right, promote different explanations, because we have different beliefs about human nature and economics. And many of us are so sure of our own explanations that we doubt the sincerity of our opponents. We conclude they are not actually in favor of freedom — i.e., not really “anarchists” at all. This has led to much ill will between the two groups, which is unfortunate. We would do well to remember that different things are obvious to different people.
In brief, our difference of opinion is this:
- On the right, the anarcho-capitalists (or “an-caps,” also known as “agorists”) believe that private property and markets are good and beneficial for all, and that moreover freedom cannot endure except through the use of markets. And so they believe that anyone who sees how things work will embrace markets wholeheartedly, and anyone who advocates widespread sharing in place of trading is on “the road to serfdom.” Anarcho-capitalist beliefs have been widely promoted in our corporate (“mainstream”) media — to such a high degree here in the USA that the terms “libertarian” and “voluntarist” have both come to mean an-cap.
- On the left, anarcho-communists (“an-coms”) such as myself believe that private property and markets are horribly toxic, for reasons discussed later in this essay, reasons that are never mentioned in the corporate media, reasons that most people in our society have never heard of or thought about. We believe that freedom cannot endure in the presence of markets. And so we believe that anyone who sees the truth will avoid markets as much as possible, and will work to build a world in which everything is shared.
I will now try to explain both of these views in greater detail — but mostly the latter view, which is my own. I will try to be honest and respectful in presenting the an-cap view, but I’ll admit that my understanding of their view is merely based on what some an-caps have told me in conversations. Here is how they have explained it to me:
“Imagine that you and I each have something — some goods or a service — that the other wants a portion of. Then obviously we should trade, at whatever exchange rate seems agreeable to both of us. That mutually voluntary transaction is the essence of freedom; any challenge to this arrangement is tyranny; anyone who disagrees must be a statist advocating Stalinist dictatorship.”
That one brief paragraph is very simple. It’s very persuasive, if you don’t think about it too much. But any argument is won by whoever frames its questions. The paragraph above entirely overlooks what happens before and after that simple “voluntary transaction.”
Before the transaction, we have already assumed the context in which it occurs: “I have something, and you have something.” We have separate ownership of separate properties, and that also implies separate interests. And the wording of the one brief paragraph suggests that we’re not considering sharing, not considering giving up our separateness; we will continue to have separate property and separate interests; the transaction will merely change who owns what. This is taken as a background assumption, without being questioned or mentioned or thought about. In effect, the anarcho-capitalists are asking this question, and offering an answer to it:
“ASSUMING that we are to live with separate property and separate interests, THEN how should we best go about it?”
If you ask them about that assumption, they’ll assert that it is obviously true and didn’t need to be mentioned, but they’ll also offer simple “proofs” — for instance,
“OF COURSE we have separate interests, for we are separate beings. If I eat a sandwich, that does not make you less hungry.”
Which is true, of course. And, in the same line of thinking, if your liver and your kidney are both damaged, surgery on just your liver will not repair your kidney.
However, your liver and kidney are interdependent: Damage to either may lead to damage in the other. And you and I are interdependent too, in ways that may be less obvious.
You may feel that you “built” the company that you own. But you didn’t build* the factories from whom you buy the component parts you process, nor the roads over which you’re shipping your products, nor the court system to protect your contracts, nor the market in which you sell your products. The myth of “the rugged individual making it on his own” is only a myth. I could write a very long essay just on that one subject, but I’ll forgo that here.
And humans are social animals — we are happier and healthier in cooperation and community than in competition and isolation. Even a hermit lives with memories of his mother. Biologically, we are not significantly changed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who lived in an egalitarian tribe and depended on one another. Sociologists have found to be true what billionaires would never imagine: Once the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter are satisfied, additional material possessions do not increase happiness, but additional social connections do. Our culture of separateness creates apathy, and makes possible the externalities and corruption that I will discuss later in this essay.
And if you value others only according to what they have, then you will end up rating your own worthiness by the same criteria. Even if you have much, you will know it to be contingent rather than essential — i.e., you could lose what you have, and then you would become unworthy by your own standards. The meaning and value of your life thus hang by a thread; that is an insecure life. And in this fashion, too, you will be unable to accept love from yourself or anyone else; that is a lonely life.
Ownership has become deeply ingrained into our culture. It exists only in our minds and in our agreements, but it has come to seem like a property of physics — i.e., every material object has weight, volume, color, smell, and apparently also an owner. (Did Isaac Newton mention that somewhere in his physics?) We have based our lives on private property for 12,000 years, and it’s hard for us to recall how for 200,000 years before that we shared everything of importance.
And you might also ask how private property got to be distributed the way that it now is. How did it come to be, that a few have much and most have little? For the most part, those who have much are the descendants of robber barons. And now that their thefts are a fait accompli, they’re eager to have laws to protect their “property rights”; they could dispense with all other social services so long as that one is left intact. If there is no government, they’ll create one, to protect their “property rights.” (And yet some of them call themselves “anarchists,” simply because they want to tear down all the parts of government that are useful to the have-nots.)
When you buy stolen property, it doesn’t become legally yours. Legally, it still belongs to the people from whom it was stolen (except if they were poor and the people who stole it were rich; then the theft is called “manifest destiny” or some other fancy name). And those people from whom it was stolen — well, they too bought it from someone who bought it from someone who stole it. If you trace it all the way back, you get to the first time that someone put up a fence around a plot of land and said “this is mine,” thus stealing it from the community which had shared it up to that point. Perhaps this is why Proudhon said “property is theft.”
So, that’s all about the assumptions before the “voluntary market transaction.” What about the consequences?
After the transaction:
One long-term effect is this: Market transactions generally favor whoever is in the better bargaining position; advantage accrues to those who are already ahead. For instance, the migrant farmworker “voluntarily” performs extremely difficult labor for extremely low wages, perhaps just barely enough to survive for another day, because his only alternative is to starve to death; meanwhile, his employer gets rich. The migrant farmworker may be an extreme case, but all privately owned workplaces are little dictatorships, not my idea of “freedom.” And as progress (better equipment, better knowledge, etc.) reduces the number of hours of labor required for any goods or services, the laborers get layoffs, not leisure. The benefits of increased productivity accrue to the owners of the workplace — another example of the principle that advantage accrues to those who are already ahead.
Thus, the market — even a “free” market — increases economic inequality, and concentrates wealth and power. It creates a small class of people who control everything — our workplaces, our debts, our government, and the market itself; any “free” market would be short-lived. This end result — a few people controlling everything — is very much the opposite of anarchy.
Thus, markets and anarchy are not really compatible. That’s why many of us anarcho-commies feel that “anarcho-capitalists” are not really anarchists at all — it appears that either they are insincere, or they do not understand the truths I have just explained about economics. Capitalists are fond of blaming our troubles on the government, but I would urge them to allocate some of that blame to the few wealthy individuals who buy and control the government, and to the market system which puts all the wealth in the hands of those few individuals.
The board game “Monopoly” is a simplification, but it does reflect some basic features of a market economy. The beginning of the game is a pleasant shopping spree: Everyone has money in his pocket, and no one feels threatened. That’s the world anarcho-capitalists fantasize about. But the rules of that game lead inexorably to an ending in which all the players but one are totally impoverished. That result doesn’t depend on chance or on cheating or some sort of “corruption.” Rather, that result is written into the rules of the game. It’s a “fair” game, in the sense that all the players have an equal opportunity or chance to become that one winner — just like the game of Russian Roulette is fair in that all players start with an equal chance to live or die. It may be a fair game, but not the one I would choose.
Powerful, corrupt people become indifferent to the fate of others, and that’s why externalities become commonplace. A market transaction is a negotiation between two parties, but other parties who were never consulted may be affected by the consequences, and may end up forced to bear costs that were never calculated, and that are not reflected in the market price that has been negotiated. Those costs born by the third parties are called externalities, or externalized costs, because they are outside (external to) the considerations of the negotiators. Mainstream (neoclassical) economics textbooks gloss over externalities as though they were small and unimportant, but in fact they are enormous. War, poverty, and ecocide — three kinds of murder — are such unmeasured side effects of market transactions. (And if ecocide continues much longer, it will kill us all, even the rich.) The market is only “efficient” about the costs that are measured and that are reflected in prices. Thus, the prevailing mythology of our time — that “the market is wise and efficient, the market knows best” — is simply false.
Anarcho-communists advocate that everyone should voluntarily share everything, but that notion is so drastically different from our present way of life that it is incomprehensible to most people; it would be as strange as Jesus walking the earth again. How will you get everyone to voluntarily do what most people presently don’t want to do? People who have never thought about these matters have misunderstood anarcho-communism in a wide variety of ways. Here are some of their most common questions, and my own responses:
How would you make everyone give up their property? Who gets what?
First of all, we anarcho-commies don’t want to make anyone do anything. That’s what the “anarcho” means. Anarcho-communism is not just a change of rules or rulers, but a change of culture. That’s much harder to achieve, but also much more durable, desirable, and necessary. Peace is a consensus, an agreement. It can’t be imposed on people. But we’re hoping it can be inspired in people. We can all be like Jesus walking the earth, though it will take us a while to learn how. And I think that’s what he wanted, if there is any truth to the stories about him.
And we’re not asking people to give up property — we’re asking people to share property. It’s not about how I give stuff to you, so that I have less and you have more; it’s about how we put our stuff together, so that we have a bunch of stuff together, and we discuss how it should best be used in the interest of all of us.
What would you do about all the slackers?
The problem of slackers will disappear for several reasons.
First, the most burdensome slackers are the ones on Wall Street, the ones who profit immensely through the manipulation of property. Poof! they’re gone, when you end property.
Second, sitting by the pool and watching television gets boring after a while. Most people would prefer to do something useful for the community, if they could — like the nurse, the teacher, the firefighter. Such jobs are few under capitalism, but they would be plentiful if we restructure the economy to be based on something other than private profit.
And third, productivity has been increasing, and will continue to do so, because we keep figuring out more efficient methods for doing things. (We also figure out less efficient methods, but we don’t use those.) Automation is a major factor in this. Increased productivity means that we can produce more and better goods and services with fewer hours of human labor. Under capitalism, all the gains are pocketed by the owner of the workplace. But under a more sane economic system, we wouldn’t all have to work so hard. And we could afford for many people to not be working at all, if they hadn’t yet figured out what kind of work they wanted to do. Young people and indecisive people could go on a “vision quest” (Native American tradition) or a “walkabout” (Native Australian tradition), to figure it all out.
What is an example of a place where this is working? If you hate democracy and freedom and America so much, why don’t you move to Russia?
We don’t have a lot of examples where this has been done. Probably the best example was revolutionary Catalonia, which only lasted about three years before it was crushed by Franco’s Fascists. The Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Kurds in Rojava seem to be making it work, but that has only been going on for a few years so far. I’ll admit it: We’re trying to create something new. But that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Were airplanes impossible? And some of us believe that it’s not only possible, and desirable, but necessary, because otherwise ecocide will soon kill us all.
I don’t hate democracy. Again, this is a misconception some people have, equating the market with democracy, a lie of capitalist propaganda. They’re wrong — the market is actually the opposite of democracy. The market creates enormous inequalities of wealth and power, both nationally and in each workplace. I prefer democratic rule, but it’s not possible under capitalism.
Actually, majority rule is better than capitalism, but consensus rule would be better still. Consensus rule would require enormous cultural change — it requires great mutual understanding and mutual caring. Majority rule has the disadvantages that the minority will be unhappy, and the majority and minority won’t get along with each other. Moreover, majority rule will make unwise decisions if the majority is ill-informed. Consensus rule is more likely to generate discussions that produce wise decisions.
And I’m sometimes asked why I don’t leave. Well, I’ve lived in the USA all my life, and I love my homeland. This is where all my friends and relatives live. I love this country the way that you love your brother when you discover that he has been stealing cars and you beg him to go straight. I love this country the way that you love your daughter when she contracts a terrible disease and you search desperately for a cure. It’s not hate to want to change what has gone wrong. I don’t abandon my family just because they’ve fallen into difficulty. In fact, that kind of abandonment sounds to me more like the behavior of someone who believes in separateness and capitalism.
Who makes the rules? Who decides how things are done? What rights would we have?
Well, I don’t have a detailed plan in advance, but that’s because I’m not running for the office of dictator — I’m an anarchist — I’m hoping we’ll all decide together.
Asking about “rights” is looking at things the wrong way: If you and your spouse are trying to decide which of you has the “right” to do what, then your marriage isn’t working very well. A good marriage is one in which happiness and goals are shared, not separate, and then plans are negotiated and agreed without talking about “rights.” We anarchists would like to apply that principle to all of society. If you and I care about each other, then together we can figure out what we believe is best for both of us. Let’s create a world in which everyone cares about everyone. As I’ve said, it’s a big cultural change.
2018 Aug 27, version 3.02. (Original 2014 April 13.)
Addendum, 29 Jan 2020. My friend Alan Hodge had some thoughts and observations that I found interesting:
- The fun thing about AnCaps is that they are desperately faithful true believers. From von Mises to Friedman, the “economists” (there is no “science” of economics) who concocted this notion of The Market as the arbiter of all fairness in transaction and the perfectly just rewarder of effort and merit were crafting an apologetic for the plutocrats who funded them. This is the hilariously ridiculous article of faith you are required to snap around your brain when baptized into Anarcho-Capitalism. The rest of their tripe is seamlessly impervious, as long as this absurdity is tacit and unexamined. Philip Mirkowski offers a parenthetic but decent summary of the development of these ideas in “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.”
- Markets are government institutions. They are empowered, created, and strictly bounded by government power, are regulated and maintained by governmental controls, and were originally invented as a means of enabling taxable transactions between strangers. The idea of a “free” market existing separately from government is simpleminded ignorance, both of trade and its history. David Graeber discusses the archaeology of markets in “Debt: the First 5000 Years.”