On Left and Right Anarchists

Anarcho-communists and anarcho-capitalists — 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. Though the corporate news media may tell you that “anarchy” means chaos and destruction, what “an”+”archy” really means is “no”+”rulers” — that is, freedom. Anarchist society is quite orderly, and not at all chaotic; we anarchists tend to make lots of voluntary arrangements amongst ourselves. (But the corporate media would have you believe that you must have someone “in charge” to avoid disorder.)

We anarchists on the left and right 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 about how economics works. And many of us are so sure of our own explanations that we doubt the sincerity of 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:

  • Anarcho-capitalists (or “an-caps”) believe that 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.
  • On the other hand, anarcho-communists (“an-coms”) such as myself believe that 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 like the plague.

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 kidneys are damaged, surgery on just your liver will not repair your kidneys.

However, your liver and kidneys are interdependent: Damage to either may cause damage in the other. And you and I are interdependent too, in ways that may be less obvious.

* Yes, that’s a line from Obama. His actions may be fascist, but some of his campaign speeches have been quite progressive. He talks the talk; he just doesn’t walk the walk.

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 than in competition. Biologically, we are not much changed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who lived in a 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. Even a hermit lives with memories of his mother. 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 (and is enforced by governments), 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 explanation of basic physics?) We have based our lives on private property for 10,000 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 legally 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; that’s another reason many of us anarcho-commies feel that “anarcho-capitalists” are not really anarchists at all. Anarcho-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.

monopolyThe 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 I would prefer to play a different fair game.

And power corrupts, as the Stanford Prison Experiment proved. People with power over others become abusive, convincing themselves that the others are undeserving and should be punished. (Of course, it also works in the other direction: People who are already corrupt often seek power.) I won’t blame corruption solely on the market, for power corrupts no matter how it is obtained — through the market, or by becoming a policeman or soldier or prison guard, or through violent revolution, or even through peaceful democratic election of a purportedly representative government. That’s why I’m an anarchist — i.e., I would prefer a horizontalist, peer-to-peer, networked society, rather than a hierarchical system of coercion.

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 — the murder of the ecosystem — 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 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.

What would you do about all the slackers?

The problem of slackers will disappear for several reasons. Automation is making us increasingly productive. If most of the fruits of our labor are not being seized by a handful of “owners,” then we’ll be able to satisfy everyone’s needs with very few hours of labor. Thus, it is not really necessary for everyone to work. If someone has not yet found a job that they really like, we can afford to support them for a while — let them go on a “vision quest” (Native American tradition) or a “walkabout” (Native Australian tradition), to try to discover themselves, and discover what contribution they really want to make to society. And sitting by the poolside and watching television gets pretty boring after a while; most people will want to work, if they can find work that is meaningful and is appreciated. Such jobs have been few and far between, in our old economic system of privately owned workplaces, but we can create a world in which such jobs are the norm.

And by the way, the slackers on Wall Street — a consequence of our economics of separateness — are a far greater burden on the rest of us than the few slackers in poverty.

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. They’re wrong — the market creates enormous inequalities of wealth and power, both nationally and in the workplace. I prefer democratic rule. Actually, consensus democracy is far preferable to majoritarian democracy, but it too would require great cultural change — i.e., greater 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, and majority rule will make unwise decisions if the majority is ill-informed. Consensus is more likely to generate discussions that produce wise decisions.

And if I were choosing some other country, based on its political and economic system, it wouldn’t be Russia. Probably it would be one of the Scandinavian countries, or France, or Sweden, or Cuba, all of which are far more socialistic than Russia (and all of which have far better and cheaper healthcare than the USA).

However, I’ve lived in the USA all my life, and I love my homeland. 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 to without talking about who has the “right” to do what. 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.

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2016 Sept 9, version 2.12.