Anarchism, libertarianism, and the way forward
In Are Occupiers aiding Grover Norquist? I presented a critique of anarchism, claiming that anarchist Occupiers were unwittingly aiding right-wing libertarians and ignoring the benefits of government. Dave Fryett responded to my analysis in On the Appeal of Anarchism, a Response to Don Smith’s “Are Anarchists in Occupy Aiding Grover Norquist?”. In this article I want to further develop my understanding of anarchism and to reply to some of Fryett’s comments.
Anarchism is “a political philosophy that advocates stateless societies based on non-hierarchical free associations.” Anarchists oppose both government power and corporate power.
Nathan Schnieder makes this point in The government shutdown — an anarchist dream?. Anarchism isn’t just a preference for the absence of government, he says. “The rule — the –archy — it seeks to dismantle is also the rule of those with too much property over those with not enough, and of those whose privilege of race or gender gives them priority over others. Anarchists seek a society in which ordinary people can freely and democratically govern themselves, organizing to meet everyone’s basic needs.”
David Fryett, in the article referenced above, explains anarchism like this:
At the core of our thought is equality, anarchism is unimaginable without it. And equality not just in one aspect of life but in all. Anarchism is the end of hierarchical authority, the master-servant relationship, the end of the rule of coercive power. Thus our notion of economic justice requires the abolition of capitalism, which is positively medieval in its hierarchy. For us corporatism and capitalism are undifferentiated, and the distinction made between the two in contemporary political parlance utterly specious, a canard. Thus our goals are incompatible with those of the Democrats who want to tame capitalism, not eliminate it….
In its entirety, the state is the enforcement apparatus of ruling class power.
Modern day anarchists, who were influential in the Occupy Movement, want a direct transition to a horizontal, non-hierarchical society — not by first going through an authoritarian state like the ones that developed in the USSR and China, and not by relying on the kind of state we see in Western Europe and America, where the state is supposed to regulate and balance the corporations.
Libertarianism is “a set of related political philosophies that uphold liberty as the highest political end. This includes emphasis on the primacy of individual liberty, political freedom, and voluntary association. It is the antonym to authoritarianism. Different schools of libertarianism disagree over whether the state should exist and, if so, to what extent.”
In America, the most common form of libertarianism nowadays is right-libertarianism, which supports private property rights and laissez-faire capitalism. Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers support that kind of libertarianism. According to right-libertarianism, the state should exist minimally: only to enforce laws and protect private property. (But there are also libertarian socialists, who favor common ownership and management of property and the means of production.)
So, in short: libertarians want to get rid of, or shrink, government but are OK with corporations, while anarchists want to get rid of, or weaken, both government and corporations.
And replace it with what?
Cooperative, local, worker-owned/managed ventures.
Noam Chomsky is an anarcho-syndicalist. Anarcho-syndicalism is radical industrial unionism leading to worker control and ownership. Chomsky defines it as “a conception of a very organized society, but organized from below by direct participation at every level, with as little control and domination as is feasible, maybe none.”
In The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in, and What’s Wrong with Libertarians Chomsky explains the difference between libertarianism and anarchism this way:
What’s called libertarian in the United States, which is a special U. S. phenomenon, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else — a little bit in England — permits a very high level of authority and domination but in the hands of private power: so private power should be unleashed to do whatever it likes. The assumption is that by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society. Actually that has been believed in the past. Adam Smith for example, one of his main arguments for markets was the claim that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality. Well, we don’t have to talk about that! … Anarchism is quite different from that. It calls for an elimination to tyranny, all kinds of tyranny. Including the kind of tyranny that’s internal to private power concentrations.”
On forming groups
I have some questions about this. What force or convention will prevent private power concentration? What if a bunch of people decide to join up in a group (or gang or corporation or militia) and to use their power to harm others? Who or what will stop them from doing that?
It’s very natural for humans to join together in groups and to cooperate and compete with outsiders. Shall, and can, we outlaw that?
Some people have more skill and knowledge and are natural born leaders. Others enjoy being followers. If people voluntarily form such an organization (religions or clubs, for example), and if that organization gains some power, can and should we stop them?
Moreover, how would we stop them???
The very notion of “outlawing tyranny” implies a force (the state?) to enforce the law. In other words, anarchism opposes tyranny, but don’t we need a state or other authority to stop tyranny?
Maybe the idea behind anarchism is that the great mass of people will agree to stop them. So the force needed to stop cheaters and criminals will be based on consensus, not on hierarchy. Does this imply a common militia? Everyone carries a gun? The NRA would like that. Isn’t it natural to have a government that serves the people and ensure the common good? That is, rather than having everyone do police work and enforce laws — there are laws, right? — the people delegate those responsibilities to specialists: the government.
Furthermore, corporations are often innovative and efficient, or at least effective, at producing complex products and services (e.g., Microsoft, Boeing, Intel, Google, and Toyota). Likewise, universities and the sciences are pretty hierarchical. Those who publish papers and survive peer review gain power and get to decide which other people are allowed into the community. It’s competitive and rather brutal. That’s how science progresses.
Moreover, some corporations are pretty damn good: CredoMobile supports progressive causes, for example. Many corporations pay their taxes and make an effort to be decent. The blanket condemnation of corporations is extreme. When corporations are regulated and taxed they are useful.
Can non-hierarchical firms produce complex products efficiently? Are there examples of that?
Yes, there are such examples. Open source software is of high quality and is widely used; a prime example is the operating system linux. There’s also gnu, Open/Libre Office, and The Apache Software Foundation. Many businesses rely on free open-source software (e.g., in Java).
Gal Alperovitz has written about the movement in the US towards cooperatives, worker-owned companies, and small businesses, in What Then Must We Do — Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution, and in other publications.
I am all in favor of such local, community-sourced, worker-owned, nonprofit, and non-hierarchical organizations. And I agree with anarchists (and those libertarians who aren’t in it just for the money) that tyrannical government programs and should be done away with. What I disagree about is whether we should also do away with the non-tyrannical, constructive government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, public education, and public transportation. The question is: do we want to discourage government in its entirety?
I also don’t believe it’s possible or even desirable to stop corporations from forming, especially not without government. We do need to regulate the corporations, however.
Several paragraphs above I wrote that anarchists want to replace government and corporations with cooperative, local, worker-owned/managed ventures. How about publicly-owned ventures? Presumably not, because publicly owned ventures would seem to imply the existence of a government. Alperovitz is most excited about worker-owned cooperatives and firms , but he also favors publicly owned enterprises and institutions
Next question: in worker-owned cooperatives, is there no hierarchy? Incompetent or nasty workers need to get kicked out. I presume hiring and firing are a group decision. That was the method described in Shift Change: a film about employee owned cooperative businesses. The cooperative they highlighted had rules for becoming a member; people could apply, after a probationary period. That’s a flat hierarchy, I suppose, but it’s still susceptible to corruption and power-grabbing, if people are denied membership, or services, for the wrong reason.
Tryanny is possible by the group (by the majority, or by worker-owned firms), and not just by the government.
Government’s regulatory functions
In the previous section I talked about the productive effects of corporations: they produce goods and services. But of course, corporations are often very harmful: e.g., war-mongering by military contractors, death-selling by cigarette manufacturers, toxic food by Monsanto, denial of global warming by oil companies, price fixing by Big Pharma, pollution, fraud, corruption of government, political campaign spending, tax avoidance, bailouts, subsidies, etc.
As long as we have corporations, we need the state to regulate the corporations and prevent them from exploiting their power.
And to get rid of corporations, as anarchists propose, and prevent their gaining power, we presumably need government to stop them, at least in the beginning.
A libertarian would defend corporations this way: nobody forces you to buy a product from a private company — unless the government grants the company exclusive rights. Corporations acting in concert with government power are harmful, but corporations by themselves don’t have the power to harm you — according to libertarians.
I disagree with libertarians on this. If a corporation or a small group of corporations gains monopoly power over a market sector (especially for essential products and services such as medicine, health care, food, or water), then they can do evil even — nay, especially — in the absence of government. Also, corporations often harm people by polluting the environment. In both cases (monopoly and pollution) we need governments and laws to regulate corporations. We also need government to protect the people from exploitation by deceptive or dishonest business practices (e.g., mortgage fraud). Most people aren’t knowledgeable enough to make these decisions themselves and need government specialists to regulate the market (e.g., state insurance commissioners).
Government’s constructive functions
Aside from government’s many regulatory functions, it also provides many useful services: education, public transportation, public health, research, conservation efforts, parks, and Social Security, to name just a few. For more explanations of why we need government see Without government, we’d be hunter-gatherers and Bring on the Reagan Counterrevolution, Countering anti-govt propaganda, The Forgotten Achievements of Government, and Government is like a computer operating system.
I note, by the way, that the US government invented the Internet, and much of the foundations of software were produced by universities, with government funding.
Both libertarians and anarchists seem to ignore the productive, beneficial effects of governments.
Obamacare is far from perfect, but it does provide health care for more Americans, and the Republicans hate it and fear it. Do anarchists like government health care? Single-payer healthcare would be a big win, covering more people more cheaply and more justly.
Let’s get practical: addressing David Fryett’s points
First let me acknowledge Fryett was correct that the government was brutal in its suppression of Occupy, and I should have pointed that out in my earlier article. On the other hand, there is no denying that Occupy movements nationwide had lots of infighting and wasteful blathering. Nathan Schnieder makes this point in several of his articles on Occupy. Without leaders and hierarchy it’s hard to be effective. Not impossible (open source) but hard.
I also want to acknowledge the eloquence of Fryett’s essay.
Fryett addresses my claim that we can thank the government for many social goods, such as seat belts, civil rights laws, pollution controls, Medicare, Social Security, laws, constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and press, public transportation, public schools, disaster relief, the Internet, and medical research. Fryett says that the People had to force the government to grant these social goods. Both state and capital oppressed the people.
We have constitutional rights, but the only real threat to these is the state, the same state which ever so condescendingly grants them to us. We would not need the guarantee if not for the existence of the government as it is the only thing which can (and frequently does) deprive us of these rights.
This is simply wrong, in my opinion. Trust busters such as Teddy Roosevelt and FDR directly confronted the power of moneyed interests that had power independently of the state. Without the state, what’s to stop people from forming corporations backed up by private militias?
To me, government — when it works — IS the people, or at least a proxy for the people. Government is (ideally) the power of the people: We the People.
Moreover, without the state there would be no economy and society as we know it. In the absence of laws and public services, we’d still be hunter-gatherers.
Fryett rejects my claim that without government we’d be hunter-gatherers. To the contrary, he says: “Government invented agriculture? Actually, it was the other way around–surplus gave rise to the state.” But see Without government, we’d be hunter-gatherers, where I summarize the history: According to the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, the transition from a society based on hunter-gathering to a modern state progressed hand-in-hand with the development of agriculture. Government protections and laws enabled trade, storage, and distribution systems. Surpluses resulting from agriculture funded government. Farm labor could be enlisted for government projects and wars.
Fryett writes: “Transportation, schools and the other services listed above are the result of the labor of countless workers, and it is they and not the state who are responsible for their existence. The state isn’t providing these services, but rather is establishing its hegemony over them.”
But the state organizes and funds these activities. It’s historically not true that the activities pre-dated the state. The New Deal, the WPA, rural electrification, government jobs programs, … many liberal programs of the 20th century lifted up the middle class from under the foot of robber barons. Public schools, organized by governments, greatly raised the standards of education.
Fryett writes: “The great majority of anarchists reject political parties. To paraphrase Ngo Van: The so-called workers’ parties are embryonic forms of a new state. Once in power they form the nucleus of a new ruling class and induce nothing more than a new system of exploitation.”
That is extreme and ignores the need to get from our current state to the desired, utopian goal that Fryett has in mind.
This brings us to an important question: how are we we establish anarchism? Chomsky says the state can be used to make progress towards a society based on anarchism: the state “provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power. Rules for safety and health in the workplace for example. Or insuring that people have decent health care, let’s say.”
Or maybe, in contrast, the path to anarchism is similar to the path to spiritual enlightenment in some traditions: the ego just burns out and fades away. Similarly, eventually society will mature to a point where hierarchy is no longer needed. Sounds utopian to me. But over time civilization may approach such a utopia.
Fryett takes issue with my claim that workers prosper when their companies do well. But I say that it depends on which company is involved and whether there are unions. There’s no denying that auto workers prospered until the 1970s. Many workers in high tech are paid well and receive stock options; so such companies are partly worker owned. But certainly Walmart and fast food workers are terribly exploited.
We need unions and government step in and tweak and supplement the market so that the economy doesn’t just serve the 1%.
“What we want is that the means by which society produces those things we need and desire–factories, schools etc.–be publicly owned and run by the workers.” Publicly owned? Does that require a state to manage that ownership? Maybe Fryett means that ownership will be managed locally and in a bottom-up way.
Fryett writes, “If the U.S. went anarchist tomorrow, we would still have need of the FAA or something like it.” Wouldn’t the FAA have authority over private individuals. Isn’t such authority potentially tyrannical?
I predict there will always be nastiness and selfishness as long as humans exist. With power comes risk. Without power nothing happens. We need police power to regulate human desires and behavior. And we need government to protect the weak from the strong, and the dumb from the smart.
Fryett says a “core principle for us is freedom; the ability to act, think, engage, disengage, build, withdraw, plan, organize, exchange, love, and dream freely. The state corrals such liberty, confines it within acceptable parameters.” But I don’t think there’s anyway around the need to corral liberty. The Koch brothers want “liberty” to pollute and corrupt. Without laws and police, life would be hell on earth. With corrupt laws and police, life is also hell.
Fryett gets dreamy: “Anarchism is the end of the world of warring camps, the end of the age of the sword…. Once the merciless, obscene world of state and capital is vanquished, and society is thus transformed, the Dark Ages will finally come to an end, and the real Enlightenment can begin, an age of peace and plenty” He wants an end to wars and the competition of the marketplace. Everyone will just live in peace, love, and cooperation. But people love competition (e.g., sports) and competition is what drives innovation and gets people working.
We all want a world where everyone loves everyone else, and nobody hurts anyone, and everyone is equal, and there are no authorities or police to lord over us. And over time we can transition towards such a world, bit by bit. More and more human interactions will be peaceful and cooperative. But we’re far from such a world now, and the Occupiers’ refusal to get involved in electoral politics and their insistence on trying to create utopia right now make them impractically utopian. Their purist idealism makes them overlook the benefits of government, corporations, and political parties.
Since I don’t think we can turn back the clock, I say: We need to fix government, not destroy it.
The great force of Occupy and populist anger on the left needs to be channeled into practical activism that both raises the consciousness of the people and affects electoral outcomes.
Building an alternative economy and society bottom-up, as Occupiers want to do, might be valuable, but it’s not going to get us to Medicare for All, which is a Big Government program.
Occupy-style activism may have benefits but it’s not sufficient. The Tea Party took over the House. Occupiers wasted time arguing with each other and getting brutalized by the police. In the 60s, many protesters had to die to achieve civil rights for black Americans; maybe lots of people will have to die or be brutalized to reform our corrupt corporatocracy.
Tis’ a shame that angry conservatives take over the GOP, while angry progressives flee the Democratic Party or electoral politics.
(Note: this article was renamed from “How does Anarchism differ from Libertarianism?”)