To Market, To Market

In a review of anchorage anarchy in a recent edition of Anarchy, A Journal of Desire Armed, I am described by the author as a “non-anti-capitalist anarchist.” Around the same time I read this article, I also received a letter from a contributor to aa in which I was called to task for my use of the word market to describe the sort of economic relations I think would best serve free people.   While the Anarchy writer did not elaborate on why he chose the description he did, my correspondent did go on to say that he thinks “free people would determine the means of exchange/sharing/distribution that is most suitable for them & it would tend to be disorganized and fluid, where market implies a more structured approach.” Continue reading

Anarchy, Neither Capitalist nor Communist

Jason’s article on Stirner and capitalism later in this issue serves to clarify an important point which too many anarchists fail to recognize; that opposition to collectivist economic and social arrangements does not make one a supporter of capitalism.   Stirner and most other egoists and individualists have been at least as critical of capitalist economic relations as they have been of capitalism’s socialist and communist critics.  But this very consistent and clear individualist opposition to capitalism throughout the history of the movement, from Stirner through Tucker and Warren to the Mackay Society and Bad Press seems to have been missed by some of our critics on the left of the anarchist movement.

Partly this is because at least some of us write and talk about markets, money and prices as viable devices to guide economic and social relationships in a stateless world.  We defend private property and tenure of land and living quarters based on use and occupancy.  We believe individuals do not owe anything to anyone else unless they freely entered into an agreement with other folks to cooperate in some project or exchange some goods or services.  Apparently, since we use some of the same words as do supporters of capitalism, there are those in the libertarian movement who would group us with them.

But we also condemn profit, rent, interest, and intellectual property.  And we believe that none of these methods of extorting wealth from productive people and transferring it to the rich would be possible without the existence of the band of armed thugs who defend economic inequity, ie, government in its various forms, and we therefore oppose the state and all forms of authority as well.  We support workers’ control and ownership of their workplaces and what they produce.  We support squatting of unused living spaces.  And we support any form of social interaction, whether cooperative or competitive, which is freely chosen and from which one is free to walk away when they so choose.  This sounds like no form of capitalism with which I am familiar.

What’s in a Name?

While much of the anarchist movement defines itself by its opposition to capitalism, it fails to show a similar level   of    contempt   for   socialism   and communism.  In fact, many anarchists continue to identify themselves as anarchist communists or libertarian socialists.  By doing so they demonstrate a belief that the real-world examples of socialist and communist societies with which we are all familiar, so-called “actually existing socialism,” are not the only kind of socialist societies that are possible.  And this is despite the fact that the socialist societies created since the russian revolution have been at least as tyrannical, murderous and exploitative as any capitalist society could ever hope to be.  Yet, they find it acceptable to label their movement and their ideas with the same words used by Stalin and Mao to describe the abattoirs they ruled.

There has never been a real world socialist/communist society that could be mistaken for anything approaching an anarchy.  And I am not speaking here just of the marxist-leninist states like the ussr, china, or korea.  The various flavors of african socialism, whether in Nkrumah’s ghana or Nyerere’s tanzania were all authoritarian as well, even if less brutal than those in europe and asia.

Furthermore, in the few instances where supposedly anarchist communists were in a position to help build libertarian societies, as in spain in the thirties and the ukraine around 1920, the anarchists acted like authoritarians.  While they were quick to dismantle capitalist economic structures, they were far less interested in destroying the state and other authoritarian institutions.  They had armies with command structures, conscription and even the death penalty.  There were leaders and followers.  These were not anarchist societies.

A Curse on Both Your Houses

Capitalism as we know it is loathsome.   But so is socialism as we know it.  Anarchist communists say that the socialist countries were and are examples of authoritarian socialism, while they work towards a libertarian socialism which will look entirely different.  But they are deaf to the arguments of individualists who say that the free markets, free exchange, and free trade we advocate have nothing in common with authoritarian capitalism.  Anything that resembles, in their minds, capitalism is not acceptable.

Reading the anarchist press one often finds far more criticism of capitalism than of the state.  And such antigovernment sentiment often seems an afterthought.  Such a focus on opposing capitalism, and prioritizing that over a critique of government and authority itself, is what leads so many anarchists to applaud authoritarian leftist militias like the zapatistas and the sandinistas before them, to wear (and sell) t-shirts bearing the image of Che, and to talk approvingly of Mondragón which is riddled with authority and inequity and often acts like any traditional capitalist enterprise.  I fail to see how support for authoritarian means will produce libertarian ends.

The State and Revolution

Although I favor individualist arrangements over collectivist ones, I believe that people should be free to partner with others in any sort of social or economic activity they choose, as long as no coercion is involved.  And the only way to rid the world of coercion is to eliminate the state and other authoritarian institutions.  Anarchists, whether socialist or individualist, need to be promoting this message.

We all oppose the various flavors of authoritarian government around the world, whether capitalist or (at least nominally) socialist.  But when the government of the united states is criticized by anarchists it is often as an agent of capitalists, while the soviet government would never have been attacked by libertarians as a representative of communists, despite the fact that that is what its rulers called themselves.  In both the old ussr and today’s usa, quite different authoritarian societies and economies were/are imposed on unwilling victims.  Such subjugation is not a function of any particular economic system, it is a result of a political system, of a state.

That is the message that anarchists should be sending out.  The anarchists of europe long ago separated themselves from the rest of the socialist movement because they believed that the state was at the root of the problems experienced by working people.  Their critique of government and authority—at least on paper—was what distinguished them from the authoritarians in the movement of their day.  Unfortunately, today’s anarchist left seems far more interested in being part of the anti-capitalist opposition that in offering an anarchist critique of both that movement and the state.  That does not bode well for the future of freedom.

Stirner and Capitalism

There is a curious statement in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s novel Illuminatus!:

“Most anarchists hoped Joachim-like, to redistribute the wealth, but Rebecca had once told him about a classic of anarchist literature, Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, which has been called ‘the Billionaire’s Bible’ because it stressed the advantages the rugged individualist would gain in a stateless society.” (53)

For those of us who have read Stirner, this is an odd statement.  It might be assumed that this was purposeful, one of Wilson’s guerrilla ontology tactics, and that it was put forward in such a manner only to later deconstruct its underlying assumptions.  Of course, equally possible it was meant at face value, particularly considering Wilson’s soft spot for free-market libertarianism and capitalism.  This sort of view of Stirner, and egoism in general, is an all too common assumption.  Stirner is often viewed as a proponent of an extreme form of anarcho-capitalism.  This view, however, is unfounded.

There is a common misconception that Stirner was some sort of rogue capitalist.  Certainly some of his disciples have contributed to this notion.  In his writings, Stirner rarely ventured into the realm of economics.  When he did so it was to dispel the spooks of economics.  He argued that people by nature are egoists, and that ideologies to the contrary merely serve as rationalization and justification for egoism.  It would be better to be honest about motivation.  It has been common for some to equate this viewpoint with capitalism.  The underlying assumption made by many is that capitalism is individualist, thus Stirner supported capitalism.  This is not what Stirner said.

Most of Stirner’s concepts and projects were negative, that is they were intended to break down structures and ideologies.  One of the few positive projects he proposed is the “Union of Egoists”(79), which he did not really define.  By nature this union could not be strictly defined, as it is fluid, open and dynamical.  It was a proposal for individuals to come together with others, in a fashion that does not compromise the self, but rather amplifies it.  He never proposed that individuals should not work together or share.  On the contrary, friendship may be one of the most powerful egoist tools.  The egoist can give up many things for friendship, as Stirner argued:

“I can with joy sacrifice to him numberless enjoyments, I can deny myself numberless things for the enhancement of his pleasure, and I can hazard for him what without him was the dearest to me, my life, my welfare, my freedom.  Why, it constitutes my pleasure and my happiness to refresh myself with his happiness and his pleasure.  But myself, my own self, I do not sacrifice to him, but remain an egoist and – enjoy him”(290).

Some might mistake his skepticism and criticism of alternatives, such as communism, as a defense of capitalism.  I don’t think that it is.  When he said “If you know a better medium of exchange, go ahead; yet it will be a ‘money’ again”(274), it seems to be a criticism that communism is merely a new form of capitalism.  Really, the egoist wants autonomy and liberty for themselves, and the autonomy and liberty of others enhances this.  The problems of capitalism, such as division of labor, were dealt with by Stirner, such as when he argued that “if I do not trouble myself about my affair, I must be content with what pleases others to vouchsafe me.  To  have bread is my affair, my wish and desire, and yet people leave that to the bakers”(275).

The structure of capitalism is not a reflection of individualism or egoism.  It isn’t even necessary to refer to Stirner to come to this conclusion.  Capitalism relies on a massive structure of manufacturing and social control.  It has division of labor at its root.  Division of labor is not the same as specialization.  Specialization means that a person may have a particular set of skills that they are most adept at, or most enjoy.  Division of labor means that each task is broken down into repetitive blocks in order to improve efficiency.  A person cannot build a car themselves, they are reliant on a massive megamachine of manufacturing.  Even if a person has all the mechanical skills to assemble the pieces, they do not have the capability to manufacture the pieces or to forge the necessary tools or to mine the raw materials for its production.  This always relies on a collective form, and of the worst sort.  This is a form that has alienation, boredom and even slavery as its component parts.

It may be beneficial to look towards Raoul Vaneigem for some ideas as to how to get out of this position.  Vaneigem was one of the primary theorists of the Situationist International, and might have his philosophy defined as egoist communism.  He criticized masters not on moral grounds, but because “masters, and God himself, are weak because of the shortcomings of those whom they govern.  The master knows the positive role of alienation, the slave its negative one, but both are denied full mastery”(204).  Capitalism eliminates the masters, leaving “just slaves-who-consume-power, distin-guishable from one another only by reference to the relative quantity of power they consume”(207).  Vaneigem proposed a solution to this problem, the coming of “masters without slaves”(207).  In his view, the proletariat should adopt an egoist position and become “the bearer of the end of class distinctions and of hierarchy”(213).

In the end, the egoist is no friend of capitalism.  It is another spook to be destroyed.  The writing of Stirner reflects this.  Yet one doesn’t need Stirner to come to this conclusion, it is obvious when considering the nature of capitalism, the megamachine that turns individuals into components of an artificial system.  Petit bourgeois tactics, such as becoming an independent craftsman, may be useful survival strategies on a temporary basis, but make terrible ideologies.  The individual is never free under capitalism, even if they get a bigger cubicle.  I want to destroy the walls of the cubicle, escape from work and production altogether.  I don’t want to do this alone, though.  I want a union of egoists to join me.  At first a limited union may feel like enough but soon the mere possibility of having to encounter slavery in any form will feel disgusting enough that it will have to be destroyed, just out of fear that it might spread its infection.

Works cited:

Stirner, Max.  The Ego and His Own.  trans.

Stephen T Byington. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1973, 2005.

Vaneigem, Raoul.  The Revolution of Everyday Life.  trans.  Donald Nicholson-Smith.  London, Rebel Press, 1983, 2006.

Wilson, Robert Anton and Robert Shea.  The Illuminatus! Trilogy. NY: Dell, 1975, 1988.