Anarchist communism, public services, and the welfare state
Anarchists are against hierarchy and coercion, and as such oppose the structures of the state. From this simplistic premise, there are those who find it hard to comprehend anarchist support for public services and the public provision of welfare. Right-wing “libertarians” and “anarcho”-capitalists are the most vocal in their criticisms of such a stance.
Murray Rothbard, in For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, makes this point strongly;
In particular, government, in the United States and elsewhere, for centuries and seemingly from time immemorial has been supplying us with certain essential and necessary services, services which nearly everyone concedes are important: defense (including army, police, judicial, and legal), firefighting, streets and roads, water, sewage and garbage disposal, postal service, etc. So identified has the State become in the public mind with the provision of these services that an attack on State financing appears to many people as an attack on the service itself. Thus if one maintains that the State should not supply court services, and that private enterprise on the market could supply such service more efficiently as well as more morally, people tend to think of this as denying the importance of courts themselves.
The point is that the advocate of a free market in anything cannot provide a “constructive” blueprint of such a market in advance. The essence and the glory of the free market is that individual firms and businesses, competing on the market, provide an ever-changing orchestration of efficient and progressive goods and services: continually improving products and markets, advancing technology, cutting costs, and meeting changing consumer demands as swiftly and as efficiently as possible. The libertarian economist can try to offer a few guidelines on how markets might develop where they are now prevented or restricted from developing; but he can do little more than point the way toward freedom, to call for government to get out of the way of the productive and ever-inventive energies of the public as expressed in voluntary market activity.
Unfortunately for Rothbard, he falls for his own logical absurdity in reverse. He makes the presumption that, by opposing the private provision of public services and welfare, one is automatically supporting their monopolisation by the state. In the case of liberals and state-socialists, this may well be true. Those who support the state tend to believe that it is the only party capable of providing adequate public services. Anarchists may well share their belief that the an-cap “free market” model leads only to an inequality in provision, with the poorest effectively priced out of neccesary services. However, it does not follow from this that control over services by the state, whether a liberal social democracy or the highly authoritarian Red Bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union, is the only alternative.
Here, I intend to offer a more in-depth discussion of the anarchist position of public services, why we oppose the an-cap model, and what we advocate in a free communist society.
The public-sector versus private-sector conundrum
Mainstream politics is dominated, in the immediate term, by the conflict between two competing but extremely similar economic models.
On the one hand, we have the liberal social-democratic model. In a word, it is welfare-state capitalism. Advocates, though often termed as such by oppenents, are not socialists. They favour a form of capitalism in which property rights and the free market are tempered by state provision of services and welfare to the needy and also government stimulation of the economy through public borrowing and spending in times of crisis.
Conversely, we have the conservative or neoliberal model. Conservative capitalism pays lip-service to right-wing “libertarianism” in its advocacy of a laissez-faire market and a “tough” stance on public services and welfare. However, it is pragmatic in its attempts to defend and stimulate elite power and privilege, as neo-liberal support for distinctly un-libertarian governments across the world, and for a bloated welfare state for the rich, demonstrates. This economic model can be termed “capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich.”
There are slight variants of these two basic models as you travel along the narrow mainstream spectrum. However, suffice to say that both anarchist communism and “libertarianism”/”anarcho”-capitalism are well off the radar.
Anarchism cannot maintain any relevance if it stays bound-up in a “revolutionary ghetto.” Whilst working towards alternative models for the future, and ways to implement them in the present, we must always be aware of the realities of the dominant political framework. We all have to live within a state-capitalist society, and ignoring that fact and the wellbeing of the working class in the here-and-now gets us nowhere. This is the supposed contradiction between “long-term visions” and “short-term goals” which Noam Chomsky encourages social activists to embrace;
My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede efforts to “roll back” the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights. State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision.
A pertinent example of this is the healthcare debate in the United States. Writing “in defence of socialised medicine,” I laid out the inescapable indictments of the US system and explained “why the distortions of screaming reactionaries in America need to be rejected, as do any moves to privatise and destroy the health service any further in Britain.” As should be obvious to any rational person, this does not mean to say that state-mandated healthcare is anywhere near a perfect system. What it does mean is that, in a narrow choice between that and the for-profit system of the US, state systems are preferable in near enough every way.
Those in the US who are screaming about “socialism” and “Marxism” in response only betray themselves as ill-informed reactionaries defending privilege over universal justice.
The dogma of the an-cap model
“Anarcho”-capitalists will point out, quite correctly, that the neoliberal model for services such as healthcare is quite different from the an-cap one. Whilst neo-liberal services involve the massive state-subsidy of private property, an-caps seek a genuinely free market. Rothbard expounds the virtues of such;
How will the poor pay for defense, fire protection, postal service, etc., can basically be answered by the counter-question: how do the poor pay for anything they now obtain on the market? The difference is that we know that the free private market will supply these goods and services far more cheaply, in greater abundance, and of far higher quality than monopoly government does today. Everyone in society would benefit, and especially the poor. And we also know that the mammoth tax burden to finance these and other activities would be lifted from the shoulders of everyone in society, including the poor.
This argument is repeated as dogma by virtually all on the libertarian right, supposedly as self-evident rather than based upon empirical experience. There are several significant problems with this thesis, not the least of which is that a genuinely free market cannot be “capitalist” in any conceivable sense of the word. Writing from a mutualist perspective, Kevin A Carson explains in The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand why “expropriation of surplus value–i.e., capitalism–cannot occur without state coercion to maintain the privilege of usurer, landlord, and capitalist.”
A world in which peasants had held onto their land and property was widely distributed, capital was freely available to laborers through mutual banks, productive technology was freely available in every country without patents, and every people was free to develop locally without colonial robbery, is beyond our imagination. But it would have been a world of decentralized, small-scale production for local use, owned and controlled by those who did the work–as different from our world as day from night, or freedom from slavery.
Rothbard acknowledged that most “private property” as it exists today is illegitimate, being both expropriated and defended by coercive force. As he puts it, “it is surely odd to find a group eternally suspicious of virtually any and all functions of government suddenly leaving it to government to define and apply the precious concept of property, the base and groundwork of the entire social order.” But if this is true, then how do we right this wrong other than recourse to redistribution by force?
His solution is the homesteading principle, by which people can claim property rights to that with which they have mixed their labour. This gives the sculptor his sculpture and the right to transfer ownership of that sculptor to anybody else they see fit in any manner they see fit. A fair enough system, indeed indistinguishable from the free communist approach of worker self-ownership and self-management.
But Rothbard manages to reach a different conclusion entirely. In offering no requirement for the proprietor to use and utilise their property consistently. This allows them to commit usury, establishing dominion over others through “voluntary” rent or wage-labour. Thus, we come quickly back to the scenario whereby those who use land or capital do not own it, but instead act in service to a master. In What is Property? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon reaches the conclusion that property is nothing less than a private monarchy;
The proprietor, the robber, the hero, the sovereign — for all these titles are synonymous — imposes his will as law, and suffers neither contradiction nor control; that is, he pretends to be the legislative and the executive power at once . . . [and so] property engenders despotism . . . That is so clearly the essence of property that, to be convinced of it, one need but remember what it is, and observe what happens around him. Property is the right to use and abuse . . . if goods are property, why should not the proprietors be kings, and despotic kings — kings in proportion to their facultes bonitaires?
A conclusion which anarcho-capitalist Hans Hermann Hoppe only confirms in Democracy: The God That Failed;
In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance towards democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They — the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism — will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.
Thus, the “anarcho”-capitalist concept of private property will have to be defended and enforced by coercive institutions in much the same way as neoliberal private property. That these organs of coercion are private rather than state-owned makes no difference. Ultimately, replacing the state as it exists today with (essentially) a myriad of competing private states does nothing for liberty and we find that the same inescapable flaws in neoliberal private services are preserved in an-cap ones. This on top of the fact that the private states will not have been forced by popular pressure and rebellion to make the same concessions to liberty that traditional states have. If anything, for workers and consumers alike, “anarcho”-capitalism represents only a regression of liberties.
The anarchist communist alternative
Once we are done protecting state-based public services from transformation to the infinitely worse neoliberal or an-cap models, what alternatives do anarchists propose? The answer, as with favouring anarcho-syndicalism over traditional trade unionism and worker control over wage labour, is a decentralised, non-hierarchical system based on the principle of mutual aid.
There is, of couse, no pre-determined or centralised framework under which an anarchist economy will operate. As Spanish anarchist Diego Abad de Santillan argued in After the Revolution, “in each locality, the degree of communism, collectivism or mutualism will depend on the conditions prevailing. Why dictate rules? We who make freedom our banner, cannot deny it in economy. Therefore there must be free experimentation, free show of initiative and suggestions, as well as the freedom of organisation.” However, we can lay out general principles under which these varying economies will operate.
Peter Kropotkin does so eloquently;
Harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.
In a society developed on these lines . . . voluntary associations . . . would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international temporary or more or less permanent — for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever-increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs.
Moreover, such a society would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary — as is seen in organic life at large – harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be the easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the State.
In Mikhail Bakunin’s words, anarchists are “convinced that the co-operative will be the preponderant form of social organisation in the future, in every branch of labour and science,” and so “only associated labour, that is, labour organised upon the principles of reciprocity and co-operation, is adequate to the task of maintaining . . . civilised society.”
The objection will arise that Ludwig von Mises’ “calculation argument” is logical proof that socialism or communism of any stripe is impossible. Perhaps the most through debunking of this idea is provided by An Anarchist FAQ. It is too long to reproduce in full here, covering as it does sections I.1.1 and I.1.2 of the FAQ, but it makes worthwhile reading and provides a lengthy proof that, contrary to Mises, both market socialism and libertarian communism are not only viable but preferable to capitalism.
With specific reference to necessary basic services and the matter of social welfare an excellent essay on the subject can be found within Twenty-First Century Anarchism: Unorthodox Ideas for a New Millennium. It is Steve Millet’s “Neither State Nor Market: An Anarchist Perspective on Social Welfare” and outlines precisely the principles I am advocating;
Any definition of society should include an ability to take care of the welfare of its members, not just those members who have a privileged place in the social hierarchy. Welfare should be an intrinsic part of any society, therefore, not simply a functional extra. This requires that society is organized first and foremost to provide welfare. What anarchism calls for is the re-absorption of the provision of welfare into the daily lives of the citizens of the community. Welfare thus becomes not simply a function—something provided by a system or the workers in a system—but part of the everyday life of the community and its citizens.
The failure of the State to provide social welfare should not be seen as undermining the idea of social welfare itself, but of invalidating the role of the State; welfare is inextricably linked to empowerment, which is why State-provided welfare is always going to have minimal success. At the same time we should be under no illusions as to what the effects on the poor will be of the paring down of what State provision there is in the name of the market: without a viable alternative, the market simply means sink or swim, and to sink means poverty, destitution, homelessness, even death. The attempt to free welfare from the State cannot be left to the free marketeers of the Right. The need for a democratic and participatory alternative to the Welfare State has never been more urgent.
I could not agree more.