Private property is in many ways like a private form of state. The owner determines
what goes on within the area he or she "owns," and therefore exercises
a monopoly of power over it. When power is exercised over one's self, it is a
source of freedom, but under capitalism it is a source of coercive authority.
As Bob Black points out in The Abolition of Work, "The liberals and conservatives
and Libertarians who lament totalitarianism are phoneys and hypocrites. . .You
find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline in an office or factory as you
do in a prison or a monastery. . .A worker is a part-time slave. The boss says
when to show up, when to leave, and what to do in the meantime. He tells you
how much work to do and how fast. He is free to carry his control to humiliating
extremes, regulating, if he feels like it, the clothes you wear or how often
you go to the bathroom. With a few exceptions he can fire you for any reason,
or no reason. He has you spied on by snitches and supervisors, he amasses a
dossier on every employee. Talking back is called 'insubordination,' just as
if a worker is a naughty child, and it not only gets you fired, it disqualifies
you for unemployment compensation. . .The demeaning system of domination I've
described rules over half the waking hours of a majority of women and the vast
majority of men for decades, for most of their lifespans. For certain purposes
it's not too misleading to call our system democracy or capitalism or -- better
still -- industrialism, but its real names are factory fascism and office oligarchy.
Anybody who says these people are 'free' is lying or stupid."
Unlike a company, the democratic state can be influenced by its citizens, who
are able to act in ways that limit (to some extent) the power of the ruling
elite to be "left alone" to enjoy their power. As a result, the wealthy
hate the democratic aspects of the state, and its ordinary citizens, as potential
threats to their power. This "problem" was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville
in early 19th-century America:
"It is easy to perceive that the wealthy members of the community entertain
a hearty distaste to the democratic institutions of their country. The populace
is at once the object of their scorn and their fears."
These fears have not changed, nor has the contempt for democratic ideas. To
quote one US Corporate Executive, "one man, one vote will result in the
eventual failure of democracy as we know it." [L. Silk and D. Vogel, Ethics
and Profits: The Crisis of Confidence in American Business, pp. 189f]
This contempt for democracy does not mean that capitalists are anti-state.
Far from it. As previously noted, capitalists depend on the state. This is because
"[classical] Liberalism, is in theory a kind of anarchy without socialism,
and therefore is simply a lie, for freedom is not possible without equality.
. .The criticism liberals direct at government consists only of wanting to deprive
it some of its functions and to call upon the capitalists to fight it out amongst
themselves, but it cannot attack the repressive functions which are of its essence:
for without the gendarme the property owner could not exist." [Errico Malatesta,
Anarchy, p. 46].
Capitalists call upon and support the state when it acts in their interests
and when it supports their authority and power. The "conflict" between
state and capital is like two gangsters fighting over the proceeds of a robbery:
they will squabble over the loot and who has more power in the gang, but they
need each other to defend their "property" against those from whom
they stole it.
The statist nature of private property can be seen in "Libertarian"
(i.e. minarchist, or "classical" liberal) works representing the extremes
of laissez-faire capitalism: "[I]f one starts a private town, on land whose
acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression],
persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to
a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision
procedures for the town which the owner had established" [Robert Nozick,
Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 270]
This is voluntary feudalism, nothing more. Of course, it can be claimed that
"market forces" will result in the most liberal owners being the most
successful, but a nice master is still a master. To paraphrase Tolstoy, "the
liberal capitalist is like a kind donkey owner. He will do everything for the
donkey -- care for it, feed it, wash it. Everything except get off its back!"
And as Bob Black notes, "Some people giving orders and others obeying them:
this is the essence of servitude. . . . [F]reedom means more than the right
to change masters." [The Libertarian as Conservative]. That supporters
of capitalism often claim that this "right" to change masters is the
essence of "freedom" is a telling indictment of the capitalist notion
Is capitalism based on freedom?
For anarchists, freedom means both "freedom from" and "freedom
to." "Freedom from" signifies not being subject to domination,
exploitation, coercive authority, repression, or other forms of degradation
and humiliation. "Freedom to" means being able to develop and express
one's abilities, talents, and potentials to the fullest possible extent compatible
with the maximum freedom of others. Both kinds of freedom imply the need for
self-management, responsibility, and independence, which basically means that
people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. And since
individuals do not exist in a social vacuum, it also means that freedom must
take on a collective aspect, with the associations that individuals form with
each other (e.g. communities, work groups, social groups) being run in a manner
which allows the individual to participate in the decisions that the group makes.
Thus freedom for anarchists requires participatory democracy, which means face-to-face
discussion and voting on issues by the people affected by them.
Are these conditions of freedom met in the capitalist system? Obviously not.
Despite all their rhetoric about "democracy," most of the "advanced"
capitalist states remain only superficially democratic -- and this because the
majority of their citizens are employees who spend about half their waking hours
under the thumb of capitalist dictators (bosses) who allow them no voice in
the crucial economic decisions that affect their lives most profoundly and require
them to work under conditions inimical to independent thinking. If the most
basic freedom, namely freedom to think for oneself, is denied, then freedom
itself is denied.
The capitalist workplace is profoundly undemocratic. Indeed, as Noam
Chomsky points out, the oppressive authority relations in the typical corporate
hierarchy would be called fascist or totalitarian if we were referring to a
political system. In his words :
"There's nothing individualistic about corporations. These are big conglomerate
institutions, essentially totalitarian in character, but hardly individualistic.
There are few institutions in human society that have such strict hierarchy
and top-down control as a business organisation. Nothing there about 'don't
tread on me`. You're being tread on all the time." [Keeping the Rabble
in Line, p. 280]
Far from being "based on freedom," then, capitalism actually destroys
freedom. In this regard, Robert E. Wood, the chief executive officer of Sears,
spoke plainly when he said "[w]e stress the advantages of the free enterprise
system, we complain about the totalitarian state, but... we have created more
or less of a totalitarian system in industry, particularly in large industry."
[quoted by Allan Engler, Apostles of Greed, p. 68]
Or, as Chomsky puts it, supporters of capitalism do not understand "the
fundamental doctrine, that you should be free from domination and control, including
the control of the manager and the owner" [Feb. 14th, 1992 appearance on
Under corporate authoritarianism, the psychological traits deemed most
desirable for average citizens to possess are efficiency, conformity, emotional
detachment, insensitivity, and unquestioning obedience to authority -- traits
that allow people to survive and even prosper as employees in the company hierarchy.
And of course, for "non-average" citizens, i.e., bosses, managers,
administrators, etc., authoritarian traits are needed, the most important being
the ability and willingness to dominate others.
But all such master/slave traits are inimical to the functioning of real (i.e.
participatory/libertarian) democracy, which requires that citizens have qualities
like flexibility, creativity, sensitivity, understanding, emotional honesty,
directness, warmth, realism, and the ability to mediate, communicate, negotiate,
integrate and co-operate. Therefore, capitalism is not only undemocratic, it
is anti-democratic, because it promotes the development of traits that make
real democracy (and so a libertarian society) impossible.
Many capitalist apologists have attempted to show that capitalist authority
structures are "voluntary" and are, therefore, somehow not a denial
of individual and social freedom. Milton Friedman (a leading free market capitalist
economist) has attempted to do just this. Like most apologists for capitalism
he ignores the authoritarian relations explicit within wage labour (within the
workplace, "co-ordination" is based upon top-down command, not horizontal
co-operation). Instead he concentrates on the decision of a worker to sell
their labour to a specific boss and so ignores the lack of freedom within such
contracts. He argues that "individuals are effectively free to enter or
not enter into any particular exchange, so every transaction is strictly voluntary.
. . The employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other
employers for whom he can work." [Capitalism and Freedom, pp. 14-15]
Friedman, to prove the free nature of capitalism, compares capitalism with
a simple exchange economy based upon independent producers. He states that in
such a simple economy each household "has the alternative of producing
directly for itself, [and so] it need not enter into any exchange unless it
benefits from it. Hence no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit
from it. Co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion." [Op. Cit.,
p. 13] Under capitalism (or the "complex" economy) Friedman states
that "individuals are effectively free to enter or not to enter into any
particular exchange, so that every transaction is strictly voluntary."
[Op. Cit., p. 14]
A moments thought, however, shows that capitalism is not based on "strictly
voluntary" transactions as Friedman claims. This is because the
proviso that is required to make every transaction "strictly voluntary"
is not freedom not to enter any particular exchange, but freedom not to enter
into any exchange at all. (A very common scenario in the world today
is a "worker" looking for a job. Most "workers" are born
owning nothing and inheriting next to nothing. This worked finds a job. The
job pays a rather low wage and barely covers the worker's minimum basic necessities
like food, clothing, and shelter. The worker complains about the low wage or
working condition and is given a response by the boss of something like this,
"go find another job...I am not forcing you to work here". The worker
looks around and sees that there are not a lot of other jobs to choose from.
The individual worker has no choice. The simple fact is that working, even in
this rather poor paying job, allows the worker to pay for their basic necessities,
like food, clothing, and shelter. The choice is to work in the conditions dictated
by the owner or die homeless, naked, and starving. Therefore the agreement that
the worker makes with the owner is not "free", because the worker
is faced with the dilemma of not working, with the results being starving to
death, or working under coercive conditions and having a very basic minimal
survival. This simple dilemma and the nature of the coercive system is implicit
in society today. It is understood to be "freedom". If the worker
were free to not enter into transactions consisting of satisfying basic survival
requirements, like food, clothing, and shelter, then the coercion would not
exist and any agreement with the boss would be a free decision.)
This, and only this, was the proviso that proved the simple model Friedman
presents (the one based upon artisan production) to be voluntary and non-coercive;
and nothing less than this would prove the complex model (i.e. capitalism) is
voluntary and non-coercive. But Friedman is clearly claiming above that freedom
not to enter into any particular exchange is enough and so, only by changing
his own requirements, can he claim that capitalism is based upon freedom.
It is easy to see what Friedman has done, but it is less easy to excuse it
(particularly as it is so commonplace in capitalist apologetics). He moved from
the simple economy of exchange between independent producers to the capitalist
economy without mentioning the most important thing the distinguishes them -
namely the separation of labour from the means of production. In the society
of independent producers, the worker had the choice of working for themselves
- under capitalism this is not the case. Capitalism is based upon the existence
of a labour force without its own sufficient capital, and therefore without
a choice as to whether to put its labour in the market or not. Milton Friedman
would agree that where there is no choice there is coercion. His attempted demonstration
that capitalism co-ordinates without coercion therefore fails.
Capitalist apologists are able to convince some people that capitalism is "based
on freedom" only because the system has certain superficial appearances
On closer analysis these appearances turn out to be deceptions. For example,
it is claimed that the employees of capitalist firms have freedom because they
can always quit. But, as noted earlier, "Some people giving orders and
others obeying them: this is the essence of servitude. Of course, as [right-Libertarians]
smugly [observe], 'one can at least change jobs,' but you can't avoid having
a job -- just as under statism one can at least change nationalities but you
can't avoid subjection to one nation-state or another. But freedom means more
than the right to change masters" [Bob Black, The Libertarian as Conservative].
Under capitalism, workers have only the Hobson's choice of being governed/exploited
or living on the street.
Anarchists point out that for choice to be real, free agreements and associations
must be based on the social equality of those who enter into them, and both
sides must receive roughly equivalent benefit. But social relations between
capitalists and employees can never be equal, because private ownership of the
means of production gives rise to social hierarchy and relations of coercive
authority and subordination, as was recognised even by Adam Smith (see below).
The picture painted by Walter Reuther of working life in America before the
Wagner act is a commentary on class inequality : "Injustice was as common
as streetcars. When men walked into their jobs, they left their dignity, their
citizenship and their humanity outside. They were required to report for duty
whether there was work or not. While they waited on the convenience of supervisors
and foremen they were unpaid. They could be fired without a pretext. They were
subjected to arbitrary, senseless rules. . . .Men were tortured by regulations
that made difficult even going to the toilet. Despite grandiloquent statements
from the presidents of huge corporations that their door was open to any worker
with a complaint, there was no one and no agency to which a worker could appeal
if he were wronged. The very idea that a worker could be wronged seemed absurd
to the employer." Much of this indignity remains, and with the globalisation
of capital, the bargaining position of workers is further deteriorating, so
that the gains of a century of class struggle are in danger of being lost.
A quick look at the enormous disparity of power and wealth between the
capitalist class and the working class shows that the benefits of the "agreements"
entered into between the two sides are far from equal. Walter Block, a leading
Fraser Institute ideologue, makes clear the differences in power and benefits
when discussing sexual harassment in the workplace:
"Consider the sexual harassment which continually occurs between a secretary
and a boss. . .while objectionable to many women, [it] is not a coercive action.
It is rather part of a package deal in which the secretary agrees to all aspects
of the job when she agrees to accept the job, and especially when she agrees
to keep the job. The office is, after all, private property. The secretary does
not have to remain if the 'coercion' is objectionable." [quoted by Engler,
Op. Cit., p. 101]
The primary goal of the Fraser Institute is to convince people that all other
rights must be subordinated to the right to enjoy wealth. In this case, Block
makes clear that under private property, only bosses have "freedom to,"
and most also desire to ensure they have "freedom from" interference
with this right.
So, when capitalists gush about the "liberty" available under capitalism,
what they are really thinking of is their state-protected freedom to exploit
and oppress workers through the ownership of property, a freedom that allows
them to continue amassing huge disparities of wealth, which in turn insures
their continued power and privileges. That the capitalist class in liberal-democratic
states gives workers the right to change masters (though this is not true under
state capitalism) is far from showing that capitalism is based on freedom, For
as Peter Kropotkin rightly points out, "freedoms are not given, they are
taken" [Peter Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 43]. In capitalism, you are
"free" to do anything you are permitted to do by your masters, which
amounts to "freedom" with a collar and leash.
Is capitalism based on self-ownership?
Murray Rothbard, a leading "libertarian"
capitalist, claims that capitalism is based on the "basic axiom" of
"the right to self-ownership." This "axiom" is defined as
"the absolute right of each man [sic]. . .to control [his or her] body
free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value,
and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right
to self-ownership gives man [sic] the right to perform these vital activities
without being hampered by coercive molestation." [For a New Liberty, pp.
So far, so good. However, we reach a problem once we consider private property.
As Ayn Rand, another ideologue for "free market" capitalism argued,
"there can be no such thing as the right to unrestricted freedom of speech
(or of action) on someone else's property" [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,
p. 258]. Or, as is commonly said by capitalist owners, "I don't pay you
Similarly, capitalists don't pay their employees to perform the other "vital
activities" listed by Rothbard (learning, valuing, choosing ends and means)
-- unless, of course, the firm requires that workers undertake such activities
in the interests of company profits. Otherwise, workers can rest assured that
any efforts to engage in such "vital activities" on company time will
be "hampered" by "coercive molestation." Therefore wage
labour (the basis of capitalism) in practice denies the rights associated with
"self-ownership," thus alienating the individual from his or her basic
rights. Or as Michael Bakunin expresses it, "the worker sells his person
and his liberty for a given time" under capitalism.
In a society of relative equals, "private property" would not be
a source of power. For example, you would still be able to fling a drunk out
of your home. But in a system based on wage labour (i.e. capitalism), private
property is a different thing altogether, becoming a source of institutionalised
power and coercive authority through hierarchy. As Noam Chomsky writes, capitalism
is based on "a particular form of authoritarian control. Namely, the kind
that comes through private ownership and control, which is an extremely rigid
system of domination." When "property" is purely what you, as
an individual, use (i.e. possession) it is not a source of power. In capitalism,
however, "property" rights no longer coincide with use rights, and
so they become a denial of freedom and a source of authority and power over
the individual. Little wonder that Proudhon labelled property as "theft"
As we've seen in the discussion of hierarchy (section A.2.8 and B.1), all forms
of authoritarian control depend on "coercive molestation" -- i.e.
the use or threat of sanctions. This is definitely the case in company hierarchies
under capitalism. Bob Black describes the authoritarian nature of capitalism
as follows: "[T]he place where [adults] pass the most time and submit to
the closest control is at work. Thus . . . it's apparent that the source of
the greatest direct duress experienced by the ordinary adult is not the state
but rather the business that employs him. Your foreman or supervisor gives you
more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade."
We have already noted the objection that people can leave their jobs, which
just amounts to saying "love it or leave it!" and does not address
the issue at hand. Needless to say, the vast majority of the population cannot
avoid wage labour. Far from being based on the "right to self-ownership,"
then, capitalism denies it, alienating the individual from such basic rights
as free speech, independent thought, and self-management of one's own activity,
which individuals have to give up when they are employed. But since these rights,
according to Rothbard, are the products of humans as humans, wage labour alienates
them from themselves, exactly as it does the individual's labour power and creativity.
To quote Chomsky again, "people can survive, [only] by renting themselves
to it [capitalist authority], and basically in no other way. . . ." You
do not sell your skills, as these skills are part of you. Instead, what you
have to sell is your time, your labour power, and so yourself. Thus under wage
labour, rights of "self-ownership" are always placed below property
rights, the only "right" being left to you is that of finding another
job (although even this right is denied in some countries if the employee owes
the company money).
So, contrary to Rothbard's claim, capitalism actually alienates the right to
self-ownership because of the authoritarian structure of the workplace, which
derives from private property. If we desire real self-ownership, we cannot renounce
it for most of our adult lives by becoming wage slaves. Only workers' self-management
of production, not capitalism, can make self-ownership a reality.
But no one forces you to work for them!
Of course it is claimed that entering
wage labour is a "voluntary" undertaking, from which both sides allegedly
benefit. However, due to past initiations of force (e.g. the seizure of land
by conquest) plus the tendency for capital to concentrate, a relative handful
of people now control vast wealth, depriving all others access to the means
of life. As Immanuel Wallerstein points out in The Capitalist World System (vol.
1), capitalism evolved from feudalism, with the first capitalists using inherited
family wealth derived from large land holdings to start factories. That "inherited
family wealth" can be traced back originally to conquest and forcible seizure.
Thus denial of free access to the means of life is based ultimately on the principle
of "might makes right." And as Murray Bookchin so rightly points out,
"the means of life must be taken for what they literally are: the means
without which life is impossible. To deny them to people is more than 'theft'...
it is outright homicide." [Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 187]
David Ellerman has also noted that the past use of force has resulted in the
majority being limited to those options allowed to them by the powers that be:
"It is a veritable mainstay of capitalist thought... that the moral flaws
of chattel slavery have not survived in capitalism since the workers, unlike
the slaves, are free people making voluntary wage contracts. But it is only
that, in the case of capitalism, the denial of natural rights is less complete
so that the worker has a residual legal personality as a free 'commodity owner.'
He is thus allowed to voluntarily put his own working life to traffic. When
a robber denies another person's right to make an
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