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.