May 25, 2006
Typical Anti-Capitalist Distortion, Part II

[Updates below.]

In a post I wrote almost two years ago, I commented on a letter to the editor written by a Jesse Harasta. He was replying to another letter to the editor written by Robert A. Strevell (who was in turn responding to an op/ed column in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin). Check that post out for the details.

Last week, Mr. Harasta sent me an e-mail because he wasn't happy with what I'd written. We talked for a few days and decided he would create a formal reply to my remarks (posted on his Upstate Anarchist blog) and we'd continue the conversation from there.

I'd first like to apologize for the harshness of my tone in the initial post. I had little to go on other than the general remarks of a stranger whose political philosophy was not made clear. Mr. Harasta engaged in several common attacks made by authoritarian leftists against "capitalism" and I assumed he was just another American Democrat looking to chain businesses - and by extension - individuals to the state to right the wrongs he saw.

Imagine my surprise when he said he posts at a blog with "anarchist" in its name! I'm here to reply to his reply and will do so with the greater understanding of his position.

Like many out there, I occasionally put my own name into an Internet search engine, just to see what pops up. The other day, while trolling through the Google listings "Jesse Harasta" I saw a link to a blog discussing a letter I wrote to the editor of the Press and Sun Bulletin (out of Binghamton, NY) in response to an earlier letter entitled "Capitalism Makes Lives Better." In my letter (which the paper edited, shortened and named "Capitalism isn't All Good"), I said that the earlier letter had been na´ve in its assumption that unregulated the story of Capitalism was "a loving, blissful stroll through history."
The words that Mr. Strevell wrote that appear to apply to this were: "In the last hundred years it has been demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that capitalist countries, particularly those where government interference in the free enterprise system is least, have provided the highest standards of living in history for their people. "

One point must be made at the outset, one that is routinely neglected by the majority of defenders of a free market. The United States and "western" nations (obviously I include countries like Japan in this) in general are not examples of free market capitalist societies. They have varying degrees of respect for individual rights stemming from self-ownership and private property. They censor, tax, regulate, and coerce the peaceful on a regular basis. Though by historical standards countries such as the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Germany and so forth are more capitalist than the average government on this globe, I will vigorously and repeatedly affirm that you cannot have a truthfully free market society within the confines of a state.

Any defenses I have of current examples of capitalist-leaning nations must be understood in this light. Any agreement I have with Mr. Strevell contains that asterisk. Mr. Strevell is correct in the respect that societies that let individuals create and trade in markets tend to have better living conditions than those societies that attempt to control individuals and direct their actions. Does Mr. Harasta have a factual objection to this? I'd caution him against mentioning disgraces such as slavery and the mass murder of native Americans because each of those stand in stark bloody contrast to the free market capitalist ideals of peace, voluntary trade, and respect for the individual. Early American history is replete with examples that show dramatic departure from those ideals.

Like Drizzten, I believe in the inalienable liberties of human beings and believe that the state is one of the greatest sources of oppression in the world today. Daily, I am horrified and disgusted by the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. These days, we are bombarded by news reports of warrant-less wire tapping, secret prisons, systemized torture and limitless detentions; the na´ve (primarily Democrats in this case) seem to believe that this is merely the product of the current Bush Administration, but in fact the power of the government and especially the power of federal executive and bureaucracy have been growing continuously for decades. Democrat and Republican, all of the administrations and Congresses wage wars (the ultimate abuse of centralized power), increase secrecy and gather power to themselves. In my mind, the destruction of New Orleans was a powerful symbol of the misplaced trust that Americans have put upon uncaring, centralized bureaucracies and the disastrous effects that it can have (for more discussion on this, check out this essay on my blog).

Had I known this, my initial comments would have been significantly different, if I bothered to make them at all. Again, my apologies, Sir.
However, the government is not the only source of centralized power in the world today and, especially in places where the central government is weak such as the Third World, corporations and private enterprise have become just as oppressive and even more unaccountable.

This is also not necessarily something that should make me rise in outraged opposition. Just as I reject the notion that there are "capitalist governments," I also reject the notion so many American right-wingers (and a fewer number of American libertarians) have that blindly trusts every business that comes under attack for their actions. It is possible to violate an individual's rights and operate under the aegis of corporate power. It is possible to be a businessman or businesswoman and treat someone beneath human dignity. It is possible to be so consumed with the growth of your personal or your company's wealth that you value it higher than being decent to those around you.

However, the seeds of my disagreement are sown at this point and will only grow larger.

What difference does it make to the young Chinese girl laboring incredible hours if she works for the central Communist government or if she is in one of the "free market zones" and works for a Western company?

I wrote two posts recently (China's "outward signs of capitalism" and Unclear on the Concepts) that ought to demonstrate what I think about China's current socio-political system. Short take: it ain't capitalist and it ain't a free market.

But what indeed are the differences between working long hours for the state and working long hours for a private company that operates within the confines of statism? Well, if Mr. Harasta's sincere objection at the heart of his question lies with long hours and tough labor conditions, he isn't asking the right question. The differences between statist employment and private employment most noticeable to the laborer are going to be in the realms of hiring & firing, compensation, promotion, and the nature of work performed. Of course, if all you want is a paycheck and you aren't concerned about the ethics of where your hourly wage comes from, then you aren't likely to care about the differences in economics between state and private entities.

The Common Working Person is of course not going to see any real difference between working for the state and working for a corporation because the Common Working Person has such a weak grasp of political philosophy. I would not base opposition to any system on the broad population's feelings when they are so ignorant or disinterested in the mechanisms of economics and politics.

By its nature, Capitalism is an economic system that works to concentrate wealth in the hands of the ruthless.
I don't disagree that activity in free markets can and does create wealth disparities. I am not an economic egalitarian. I don't think there is some point at which morality is ruptured when one person earns more than another or when one group of people earn more than another group. Assuming that wealth is earned and it is earned through the voluntary trade of legitimately-held private property, then I have no fundamental objection to, for example, 10% of the population possessing 50% of the total wealth in that population. Individuals have unique capacities, unique motivations, and unique hierarchies of value and I don't think it is unnatural for certain uniquely successful combinations of those three characteristics to be found in a few people rather than a majority. I do not think being ruthless must be one of those successful qualities.

But what is "ruthless" in this context? I take it to mean deliberate actions that are made without pity or compassion towards those affected. Yes, I prefer it when people are courteous and respectful. I like to see people try and mitigate the negative consequences their behavior might impose on others. However, being free means being free to be an inconsiderate ass. More importantly, though, is what you suggest be done about this reality of human life. Your options are fundamentally limited to one of two modes of action: allowing people to voluntarily change their behavior or forcibly changing their behavior for them.

The line I draw in the ethical sands of human behavior consists of a primary question: was physical force (or the threat of it) used against a person who had not used it first? Libertarians call this the nonaggression principle. When people gripe about capitalism, what I actually see isn't their gripe with some abstract social theory but the desire to, ultimately, either use force to prevent an individual from acting or to use force to compel an individual to act. The government's job is to be that forceful presence molding human behavior.

Mr. Harasta mentions he is an anarchist and he should therefore understand the problems with this approach and reject the use of aggression in human affairs. Most anarchists equate the state with organized crime and I don't disagree. An individual who threatens to hurt or kill you if you don't hand over your wallet is performing the same duty as any system of tax collection does. But if it's wrong (and also counter-productive) to use coercion to change human action, what do you do in response to behavior that doesn't sink to the level of aggression and merely constitutes being inconsiderate? A person who cuts me off in traffic isn't guilty of violating my rights and I wouldn't stalk him to his destination to kick his ass, telling him afterwards to give me more room next time or he dies.

Since wealth is a stand-in for power in our society (with wealth you have the power to do things you normally wouldn't be able to), this is as much a concentration of societal influence as a Presidential mandate.
I agree that with wealth comes power. However, I'm not against power (or even unequal distribution of power) unless it is used to violate individual rights. In such a case, the problem lies with the person who used that power, not the power itself.

On the other hand, a Presidential mandate or declaration or executive order involves, in almost every instance, the initiation of violence against some peaceful person.

And in our modern era of business-government cooperation, the line between economic and political power has been blurred into non-existence.
I very much agree. Telecommunications companies have long assumed the role (or been coerced into it) of law enforcement accomplices, for example. The individuals who lead those companies therefore have significant power over people's lives that they would otherwise not have in a genuine free market. But again, I must assert that the problem is not with profit-seeking individuals per se but with those who want to run our lives.
So what are we to do about it? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer as we have learned that so-called populist revolutions are too often rooted in the rhetoric of government and centralized leader-worship and serve to replicate the oppression they sought to remove.
This I can nod my head to in unison.
Our path instead is a much rockier, foggier one: to shape a society of equals (in every sense of the word: economic, social and political) out of the society of inequality.
To this, I can only say how can equality of outcomes and opportunities in a diverse population be accomplished without resorting to violence? If you think I'm not paying my workforce enough and I continue to politely reject your requests, then what? If the people who work in my business demonstrate their contentment with their compensation structure by remaining at the company or by not speaking up and announcing their grievances, then what?

This is a problem I have with socialists and communist anarchists. They cannot seem to understand that the vast multi-dimensional network of human interaction and interdependence will at some point result in conflict over ends and means...and on some matters there are people who will not back down because their values demand it. The choices are persuasion, tolerance, or force. Only the first two are compatible with a free society.

To do this, we should focus upon the local, on building our communities and creating organs of truly democratic expression.
The creation of new cooperative organizations is not something to which I am opposed (I'm active in the Black Star Co-op, for example). But let's assume you are a living wage activist...what are you going to do after repeated demonstrations fail against existing businesses that don't pay a living wage? What happens when the individual rejects the demands of the community and goes about his or her business as before, when that business does not consist of violating anyone's rights?
Will a perfectly equal society ever be achieved? I doubt it, but I believe that we will find that as we move closer, each step that we take will loosen the grip that authoritarianism has upon our minds and hearts and improve our lives and communities.
I am not a utopian and even on my best days, I'm actually rather pessimistic about the future for freedom. I see an ocean of incoherent demands, incompatible policies, conflicting values, and thuggish desires all around me spanning every direction of the political scale. Without a wholesale change in the underlying philosophy of a great deal of the world population (including most self-described anarchists), I see neither the state nor the fraudulent arguments made to support it going away.

Jesse, thanks for taking the time to correct me on my impression of you. However, unless you can resolve the conflict between individual freedom and collective equality, we'll have to remain at odds.

UPDATED 6/2/2006 10:03am
Jesse has posted a reply to this post, but unfortunately, like him, I'm too engaged with other business to keep this ball rolling. I'll probably have a new post ready to go after next Tuesday.

Posted by Drizzten at May 25, 2006 11:20 AM

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