Friday, March 15, 2013

Capitalism ≠ Anarchism

In recent years a ridiculous notion has been promoted in the United States. It's the idea that the philosophy of anarchism is compatible with the principles of capitalism. Proponents of this proposed ideological merger call themselves anarcho-capitalists, market anarchists, or agorists. And while anarchists around the globe may not believe in the seriousness of those proposing the merger of these philosophies, I remind them that the proponents we are talking about are primarily people within the borders of the United States of America. This is the same land that has also concocted the notion of “national anarchism” which promotes racial segregation. These are concepts from “the land of the free” – where more people are imprisoned in total numbers (and per capita) than in any other nation. So, as absurd as it is, I assure you that the idea of “anarcho-capitalism” is a real thing.

From a historical perspective, along the lines of traditional anarchist philosophy, any casual student of the subject can tell you that anarchists and capitalists have always opposed each other. The notion of private property has always been anathema to anarchists. “Property is theft” has long been the rallying cry of anarchists since Proudhon published his book by that title. Since that publication, the differentiation between personal property (used directly and frequently by it's owners for personal and communal reasons) and private property (owned by an individual who does not use the property directly and who generally profits off of it usage by others) has been well established by anarchist philosophers. Generally speaking, this distinction might be explained by contrasting an artisan who lives above his shop and a capitalist who owns numerous shops and profits off of the work being done by others in those shops. This differentiation can be taken to further extremes – primitive tribal people who only claim particular items which they directly make use of and always keep with them (such as a knife or a bow) as opposed to individual land owners who own vast swathes of land (and who profit off of the work done by others to extract resources from that land). But the bottom line is that anarchists have always opposed the accumulation of private property beyond that which is directly put to use by the owner on a regular basis. This is a cornerstone of political anarchist philosophy.

The so-called anarcho-capitalists, however, have thrown the traditional anarchist concept of property out the window. Having read some of their essays, and after having questioned them in various forums, the broad consensus amongst them seems to be that any individual should be able to own as much property as they can buy, trade, or otherwise get a contract for. According to them, it would be unethical to restrict the amount of property (land or otherwise) which one could own. Any groups of people who do not agree with the concept of contractually owning land would be out of luck and would have no rights to the land. The anarcho-capitalist owner, according to them, would be justified in removing any individuals from the land which they owned. Primitive tribes who lived in an area since time immemorial would have no right to stay in an area if they did not have a contract and the formal owner wanted them to move. Any means to remove such people would be left at the pure discretion of the contracted land owner.

And not only would the individual land owners have the final word in choosing who could come or go from the land they've contractually claimed, but they also claim the absolute right to do with that land whatever they choose. Vast swathes of farmland could be laid fallow, rainforests could be clear cut, mining operations could use the quickest, cheapest, and most environmentally harmful means to extract any resources.

While most traditional anarchists would generally be opposed to government oversight in regard to environmental standards (and the government has largely been proven corrupt and irresponsible in this regard), their disdain for government involvement in such matters is conflated by anarchocapitalists with the notion that reasonable environmental protections could not be agreed upon by society and that environmental protections are instead best left to the singular owners of any land or resources. If a land owner wanted to pave over Yellowstone or dam up the Mississippi, the only justifiable recourse in such an event would be purely economic according to market anarchists. Essentially, a boycott would be the only real recourse. Of course, if the owner was wealthy and didn't care about any boycotts (or if they were selling an essential commodity)... that really wouldn't bother them in the slightest.

Additionally, anarcho-capitalists are generally opposed to any notion of the commons which people could share in some way without the existence of any particular owner. Any and all beaches, for example, could be made private at the whim of the owner. Any land could be restricted in this way. Tolls could be set up arbitrarily or no passage could be allowed at all if the owner desired to keep a particular population contained in a particular area (creating borders). And again, as with any of the property they owned, the owner could protect their property or remove trespassers by any means they saw fit.

Lastly, with binding contracts being of utmost importance in their society, the anarcho-capitalists would defend the right of people to enter into contracts of indentured servitude. Never mind the economic conditions which might compel an unfortunate soul into signing such an agreement... a deal is a deal and a contract is a contract.

All of these attitudes about property and land would, undoubtedly, lead to conflict. The de facto capitalist ruler of any land or territory would have to take means in order to protect their property from those who wanted to make use of it any way prohibited by the current owner. Those opposing the control of any particular land owner would include not only those dissatisfied with wealth inequality (or those opposed to any environmental degradation being caused), but also other land owners who might be intent upon claiming certain property by any means necessary.

Private property owners intent upon maintaining control over their property (and doing whatever they pleased with it) would need some sort of military power in order to continue doing so. This fact would lead to a sort of capitalistic feudalism. Military alliances would probably arise, and some equilibrium might be reached to achieve peace between the feudalistic land owners, but the issues of serfdom and revolt would be as pronounced as ever. Overall, I believe it's this issue of feudalism which undermines the position of the anarcho-capitalist more than anything. It wouldn't go over well with many people.

The central idea of anarchism, of self rule and opposition to those who would control and dominate others, is not served by so-called anarcho-capitalists. The concentration of wealth and property that is advocated by anarcho-capitalists allows for a small minority of groups or individuals to maintain power and control in very much the same way that they are currently allowed to maintain power and control. The lack of a centralized government in their system would not prevent quasi-governments, operating essentially as kingdoms, from arising in their anarcho-capitalist ideal. This is why anarcho-capitalists are not really anarchists at all.

Capitalism, in any form, by its very nature, leads to a focus upon accumulation of material wealth which serves as a form of power. Anarchism, on the other hand, is concerned with personal and collective freedom. And while anarcho-capitalists would argue that the freedom to accumulate wealth should not be infringed... that is a trick of semantics which suggests that individuals should be allowed to control and dominate others. But that notion is more aligned with other forms of authoritarian power structures than it is with anarchism. If you want the “freedom” to be a fascist... anarchists will always oppose you. Capitalism is more akin to fascism than it is to anarchism. Capitalism ≠ Anarchism.

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