Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/4.2

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A.4.2 Are there any liberal thinkers close to anarchism?

As noted in the last section, there are thinkers in both the liberal and socialist traditions who approach anarchist theory and ideals. This understandable as anarchism shares certain ideas and ideals with both.

However, as will become clear in sections A.4.3 and A.4.4, anarchism shares most common ground with the socialist tradition it is a part of. This is because classical liberalism is a profoundly elitist tradition. The works of Locke and the tradition he inspired aimed to justify hierarchy, state and private property. As Carole Pateman notes, "Locke's state of nature, with its father-rulers and capitalist economy, would certainly not find favour with anarchists" any more than his vision of the social contract and the liberal state it creates. A state, which as Pateman recounts, in which "only males who own substantial amounts of material property are [the] politically relevant members of society" and exists "precisely to preserve the property relationships of the developing capitalist market economy, not to disturb them." For the majority, the non-propertied, they expressed "tacit consent" to be ruled by the few by "choosing to remain within the one's country of birth when reaching adulthood." [The Problem of Political Obligation, p. 141, p. 71, p. 78 and p. 73]

Thus anarchism is at odds with what can be called the pro-capitalist liberal tradition which, flowing from Locke, builds upon his rationales for hierarchy. As David Ellerman notes, "there is a whole liberal tradition of apologising for non-democratic government based on consent -- on a voluntary social contract alienating governing rights to a sovereign." In economics, this is reflected in their support for wage labour and the capitalist autocracy it creates for the "employment contract is the modern limited workplace version" of such contracts. [The Democratic Worker-Owned Firm, p. 210] This pro-capitalist liberalism essentially boils down to the liberty to pick a master or, if you are among the lucky few, to become a master yourself. The idea that freedom means self-determination for all at all times is alien to it. Rather it is based on the idea of "self-ownership," that you "own" yourself and your rights. Consequently, you can sell (alienate) your rights and liberty on the market. As we discuss in section B.4, in practice this means that most people are subject to autocratic rule for most of their waking hours (whether in work or in marriage).

The modern equivalent of classical liberalism is the right-wing "libertarian" tradition associated with Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, von Hayek and so forth. As they aim to reduce the state to simply the defender to private property and enforcer of the hierarchies that social institution creates, they can by no stretch of the imagination be considered near anarchism. What is called "liberalism" in, say, the United States is a more democratic liberal tradition and has, like anarchism, little in common with the shrill pro-capitalist defenders of the minimum state. While they may (sometimes) be happy to denounce the state's attacks on individual liberty, they are more than happy to defend the "freedom" of the property owner to impose exactly the same restrictions on those who use their land or capital.

Given that feudalism combined ownership and rulership, that the governance of people living on land was an attribute of the ownership of that land, it would be no exaggeration to say that the right-wing "libertarian" tradition is simply its modern (voluntary) form. It is no more libertarian than the feudal lords who combated the powers of the King in order to protect their power over their own land and serfs. As Chomsky notes, "the 'libertarian' doctrines that are fashionable in the US and UK particularly . . . seem to me to reduce to advocacy of one or another form of illegitimate authority, quite often real tyranny." [Marxism, Anarchism, and Alternative Futures, p. 777] Moreover, as Benjamin Tucker noted with regards their predecessors, while they are happy to attack any state regulation which benefits the many or limits their power, they are silent on the laws (and regulations and "rights") which benefit the few.

However there is another liberal tradition, one which is essentially pre-capitalist which has more in common with the aspirations of anarchism. As Chomsky put it:

   "These ideas [of anarchism] grow out the Enlightenment; their roots are in Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, Humbolt's The Limits of State Action, Kant's insistence, in his defence of the French Revolution, that freedom is the precondition for acquiring the maturity for freedom, not a gift to be granted when such maturity is achieved . . . With the development of industrial capitalism, a new and unanticipated system of injustice, it is libertarian socialism that has preserved and extended the radical humanist message of the Enlightenment and the classical liberal ideals that were perverted into an ideology to sustain the emerging social order. In fact, on the very same assumptions that led classical liberalism to oppose the intervention of the state in social life, capitalist social relations are also intolerable. This is clear, for example, from the classic work of [Wilhelm von] Humboldt, The Limits of State Action, which anticipated and perhaps inspired [John Stuart] Mill . . . This classic of liberal thought, completed in 1792, is in its essence profoundly, though prematurely, anticapitalist. Its ideas must be attenuated beyond recognition to be transmuted into an ideology of industrial capitalism." ["Notes on Anarchism", For Reasons of State, p. 156] 

Chomsky discusses this in more detail in his essay "Language and Freedom" (contained in both Reason of State and The Chomsky Reader). As well as Humbolt and Mill, such "pre-capitalist" liberals would include such radicals as Thomas Paine, who envisioned a society based on artisan and small farmers (i.e. a pre-capitalist economy) with a rough level of social equality and, of course, a minimal government. His ideas inspired working class radicals across the world and, as E.P. Thompson reminds us, Paine's Rights of Man was "a foundation-text of the English [and Scottish] working-class movement." While his ideas on government are "close to a theory of anarchism," his reform proposals "set a source towards the social legislation of the twentieth century." [The Making of the English Working Class, p. 99, p. 101 and p. 102] His combination of concern for liberty and social justice places him close to anarchism.

Then there is Adam Smith. While the right (particularly elements of the "libertarian" right) claim him as a classic liberal, his ideas are more complex than that. For example, as Noam Chomsky points out, Smith advocated the free market because "it would lead to perfect equality, equality of condition, not just equality of opportunity." [Class Warfare, p. 124] As Smith himself put it, "in a society where things were left to follow their natural course, where there is perfect liberty" it would mean that "advantages would soon return to the level of other employments" and so "the different employments of labour and stock must . . . be either perfectly equal or continually tending to equality." Nor did he oppose state intervention or state aid for the working classes. For example, he advocated public education to counter the negative effects of the division of labour. Moreover, he was against state intervention because whenever "a legislature attempts to regulate differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is otherwise when in favour of the masters." He notes how "the law" would "punish" workers' combinations "very severely" while ignoring the masters' combinations ("if it dealt impartially, it would treat the masters in the same manner"). [The Wealth of Nations, p. 88 and p. 129] Thus state intervention was to be opposed in general because the state was run by the few for the few, which would make state intervention benefit the few, not the many. It is doubtful Smith would have left his ideas on laissez-faire unchanged if he had lived to see the development of corporate capitalism. It is this critical edge of Smith's work are conveniently ignored by those claiming him for the classical liberal tradition.

Smith, argues Chomsky, was "a pre-capitalist and anti-capitalist person with roots in the Enlightenment." Yes, he argues, "the classical liberals, the [Thomas] Jeffersons and the Smiths, were opposing the concentrations of power that they saw around them . . . They didn't see other forms of concentration of power which only developed later. When they did see them, they didn't like them. Jefferson was a good example. He was strongly opposed to the concentrations of power that he saw developing, and warned that the banking institutions and the industrial corporations which were barely coming into existence in his day would destroy the achievements of the Revolution." [Op. Cit., p. 125]

As Murray Bookchin notes, Jefferson "is most clearly identified in the early history of the United States with the political demands and interests of the independent farmer-proprietor." [The Third Revolution, vol. 1, pp. 188-9] In other words, with pre-capitalist economic forms. We also find Jefferson contrasting the "aristocrats" and the "democrats." The former are "those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes." The democrats "identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the honest & safe . . . depository of the public interest," if not always "the most wise." [quoted by Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, p. 88] As Chomsky notes, the "aristocrats" were "the advocates of the rising capitalist state, which Jefferson regarded with dismay, recognising the obvious contradiction between democracy and the capitalism." [Op. Cit., p. 88] Claudio J. Katz's essay on "Thomas Jefferson's Liberal Anticapitalism" usefully explores these issues. [American Journal of Political Science, vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan, 2003), pp. 1-17]

Jefferson even went so far as to argue that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing . . . It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government . . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." [quoted by Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 94] However, his libertarian credentials are damaged by him being both a President of the United States and a slave owner but compared to the other "founding fathers" of the American state, his liberalism is of a democratic form. As Chomsky reminds us, "all the Founding Fathers hated democracy -- Thomas Jefferson was a partial exception, but only partial." The American state, as a classical liberal state, was designed (to quote James Madison) "to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority." Or, to repeat John Jay's principle, the "people who own the country ought to govern it." [Understanding Power, p. 315] If American is a (formally) democracy rather than an oligarchy, it is in spite of rather than because of classical liberalism.

Then there is John Stuart Mill who recognised the fundamental contradiction in classical liberalism. How can an ideology which proclaims itself for individual liberty support institutions which systematically nullify that liberty in practice? For this reason Mill attacked patriarchal marriage, arguing that marriage must be a voluntary association between equals, with "sympathy in equality . . . living together in love, without power on one side or obedience on the other." Rejecting the idea that there had to be "an absolute master" in any association, he pointed out that in "partnership in business . . . it is not found or thought necessary to enact that in every partnership, one partner shall have entire control over the concern, and the others shall be bound to obey his rule." ["The Subjection of Women," quoted by Susan L. Brown, The Politics of Individualism, pp. 45-6]

Yet his own example showed the flaw in liberal support for capitalism, for the employee is subject to a relationship in which power accrues to one party and obedience to another. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he argued that the "form of association . . . which is mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and workpeople without a voice in management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital . . . and working under managers elected and removable by themselves." [The Principles of Political Economy, p. 147] Autocratic management during working hours is hardly compatible with Mill's maxim that "[o]ver himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." Mill's opposition to centralised government and wage slavery brought his ideas closer to anarchism than most liberals, as did his comment that the "social principle of the future" was "how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw materials of the globe, and equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour." [quoted by Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 164] His defence of individuality, On Liberty, is a classic, if flawed, work and his analysis of socialist tendencies ("Chapters on Socialism") is worth reading for its evaluation of their pros and cons from a (democratic) liberal perspective.

Like Proudhon, Mill was a forerunner of modern-day market socialism and a firm supporter of decentralisation and social participation. This, argues Chomsky, is unsurprising for pre-capitalist classical liberal thought "is opposed to state intervention in social life, as a consequence of deeper assumptions about the human need for liberty, diversity, and free association. On the same assumptions, capitalist relations of production, wage labour, competitiveness, the ideology of 'possessive individualism' -- all must be regarded as fundamentally antihuman. Libertarian socialism is properly to be regarded as the inheritor of the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment." ["Notes on Anarchism", Op. Cit., p. 157]

Thus anarchism shares commonality with pre-capitalist and democratic liberal forms. The hopes of these liberals were shattered with the development of capitalism. To quote Rudolf Rocker's analysis:

   "Liberalism and Democracy were pre-eminently political concepts, and since the great majority of the original adherents of both maintained the right of ownership in the old sense, these had to renounce them both when economic development took a course which could not be practically reconciled with the original principles of Democracy, and still less with those of Liberalism. Democracy, with its motto of 'all citizens equal before the law,' and Liberalism with its 'right of man over his own person,' both shipwrecked on the realities of the capitalist economic form. So long as millions of human beings in every country had to sell their labour-power to a small minority of owners, and to sink into the most wretched misery if they could find no buyers, the so-called 'equality before the law' remains merely a pious fraud, since the laws are made by those who find themselves in possession of the social wealth. But in the same way there can also be no talk of a 'right over one's own person,' for that right ends when one is compelled to submit to the economic dictation of another if he does not want to starve." [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 10]