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What are the major debates between anarchists? What are the recurring arguments?

by Bryan Caplan

Without a doubt, the most repeated debate among modern anarchists is fought between the left-anarchists on one side and the anarcho-capitalists on the other. Of course, there are occasional debates between different left-anarchist factions, but probably most of them would be content with an anarchist society populated by some mixture of communes, worker-controlled firms, and cooperatives. And similarly there are a few internal debates between anarcho-capitalists, notably the tension between Rothbard's natural law anarcho-capitalism and David Friedman's more economistic anarcho-capitalism. But it is the debate between the left-anarchists and the anarcho-capitalists which is the most fundamental and the most acrimonious. There are many sub-debates within this wider genre, which we will now consider.

"X is not 'true anarchism.'"

One of the least fruitful of these sub-debates is the frequent attempt of one side to define the other out of existence ("You are not truly an anarchist, for anarchists must favour [abolition of private property, atheism, Christianity, etc.]") In addition to being a trivial issue, the factual supporting arguments are often incorrect. For example, despite a popular claim that socialism and anarchism have been inextricably linked since the inception of the anarchist movement, many nineteenth-century anarchists, not only Americans such as Tucker and Spooner, but even Europeans like Proudhon, were ardently in favour of private property (merely believing that some existing sorts of property were illegitimate, without opposing private property as such).

As Benjamin Tucker wrote in 1887, "It will probably surprise many who know nothing of Proudhon save his declaration that 'property is robbery' to learn that he was perhaps the most vigorous hater of Communism that ever lived on this planet. But the apparent inconsistency vanishes when you read his book and find that by property he means simply legally privileged wealth or the power of usury, and not at all the possession by the labourer of his products."

Nor did an ardent anarcho-communist like Kropotkin deny Proudhon or even Tucker the title of "anarchist." In his Modern Science and Anarchism, Kropotkin discusses not only Proudhon but "the American anarchist individualists who were represented in the fifties by S.P. Andrews and W. Greene, later on by Lysander Spooner, and now are represented by Benjamin Tucker, the well-known editor of the New York Liberty." Similarly in his article on anarchism for the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Kropotkin again freely mentions the American individualist anarchists, including "Benjamin Tucker, whose journal Liberty was started in 1881 and whose conceptions are a combination of those of Proudhon with those of Herbert Spencer."

"Anarchism of variant X is unstable and will lead to the re-emergence of the state."

A more substantive variation is to argue that the opposing anarchism would be unstable and lead to the swift re-emergence of government. Thus, the left-anarchists often argue that the defence corporations envisaged by anarcho-capitalists would war with one another until one came out as the new government; or else they would collude to establish themselves as the new capitalist oligarchs. As Noam Chomsky says in an interview with Ulrike Heider, "The predatory forces of the market would destroy society, would destroy community, and destroy the workforce. Nothing would be left except people hating each other and fighting each other." Anarcho-capitalists reply that this grossly underestimates the degree of competition likely to prevail in the defence industry; that war is likely to be very unprofitable and dangerous, and is more likely to be provoked by ideology than sober profit-maximisation; and that economic theory and economic history show that collusion is quite difficult to maintain.

Anarcho-capitalists for their part accuse the left-anarchists of intending to impose their communal vision upon everyone; since everyone will not go along voluntarily, a government will be needed to impose it. Lest we think that this argument is a recent invention, it is interesting to find that essentially this argument raged in the nineteenth-century anarchist movement as well. In John MacKay's The Anarchists, we see the essential dialogue between individualist and collectivist anarchism has a longer history than one might think:

"Would you, in the system of society which you call 'free Communism' prevent individuals from exchanging their labor among themselves by means of their own medium of exchange? And further: Would you prevent them from occupying land for the purpose of personal use?". . . [The] question was not to be escaped. If he answered "Yes!" he admitted that society had the right of control over the individual and threw overboard the autonomy of the individual which he had always zealously defended; if on the other hand he answered "No!" he admitted the right of private property which he had just denied so emphatically . . . Then he answered "In Anarchy any number of men must have the right of forming a voluntary association, and so realising their ideas in practice. Nor can I understand how any one could justly be driven from the land and house which he uses and occupies . . . [E]very serious man must declare himself: For Socialism, and thereby for force and against liberty, or for Anarchism, and thereby for liberty and against force."

There have been several left-anarchist replies. One is to readily agree that dissenters would have the right to not join a commune, with the proviso that they must not employ others or otherwise exploit them. Another is to claim that anarchism will change (or cease to warp) human attitudes so that they will be more communitarian and less individualistic. Finally, some argue that this is simply another sophistical argument for giving the rich and powerful the liberty to take away the liberty of everyone else.

"In an anarchist society in which both systems X and Y existed, X would inevitably outcompete Y."

Again, this argument has been made from several perspectives. Left-anarchists have argued that if workers had the genuine option to work for a capitalist employer, or else work for themselves in a worker cooperative, virtually all workers would choose the latter. Moreover, workers in a worker-managed firm would have higher morale and greater incentive to work hard compared with workers who just worked for the benefit of their employer. Hence, capitalists would be unable to pay their workers wages competitive with the wages of the labor-managed firm, and by force of competition would gradually vanish.

Anarcho-capitalists find that the argument works in precisely the opposite direction. For what is a worker-owned firm if not a firm in which the workers jointly hold all of the stock? Now this is a peculiarly irrational portfolio to hold, because it means that workers would, in effect, put all their eggs in one basket; if their firm does well, they grow rich, but if their firm goes bankrupt, they lose everything. It would make much more sense for workers to exchange their shares in their own firm to buy shares in other firms in order to insure themselves against risk. Thus, the probable result of worker-owned firms with negotiable shares would be that workers would readily and advantageously sell off most of their shares in their own firm in order to diversify their portfolios. The end result is likely to be the standard form of capitalist organisation, in which workers receive a fixed payment for their services and the owners of the firms' shares earn the variable profits. Of course, alienation of shares could be banned, but this appears to do nothing except force workers to live with enormous financial risk. None of this shows that worker-owned firms could not persist if the workers were so ideologically committed to worker control that their greater productivity outweighed the riskiness of the workers' situation; but anarcho-capitalists doubt very much that such intense ideology would prevail in more than a small portion of the population. Indeed, they expect that the egalitarian norms and security from dismissal that left-anarchists typically favour would grossly undermine everyone's incentive to work hard and kill abler workers' desire for advancement.

Some anarcho-capitalists go further and argue that inequality would swiftly re-emerge in an anarcho-syndicalist economy. Workers would treat their jobs as a sort of property right, and would refuse to hire new workers on equal terms because doing so would dilute the current workers' shares in the firm's profits. The probable result would be that an elite class of workers in capital-intensive firms would exploit new entrants into the work force much as capitalists allegedly do today. As evidence, they point to existing "worker-controlled" firms such as law firms — normally they consist of two tiers of workers, one of which both works and owns the firm ("the partners"), while the remainder are simply employees ("the associates" as well as the secretaries, clerks, etc.)

"Anarchism of type X would be worse than the state."

To the left-anarchist, the society envisaged by the anarcho-capitalists often seems far worse than what we have now. For it is precisely to the inequality, exploitation, and tyranny of modern capitalism that they object, and rather than abolishing it the anarcho-capitalist proposes to unleash its worst features and destroy its safety net. Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that anarcho-capitalists focus incorrectly on state domination, failing to recognise the underlying principle of opposition to all domination, including the employer-employee relationship. Overall, since anarcho-capitalism relies heavily on laissez-faire economic theory, and since left-anarchists see no validity to laissez-faire economic theory, it seems to the latter that anarcho-capitalism would be a practical disaster. Left-anarchists often equate anarcho-capitalism with social Darwinism and even fascism, arguing that the cruel idea of "survival of the fittest" underlies them all.

The anarcho-capitalist, in turn, often suspects that the left-anarchist's world would be worse than the world of today. Under anarcho-capitalism, individuals would still have every right to voluntarily pool their property to form communes, worker-controlled firms, and cooperatives; they would simply be unable to force dissenters to join them. Since this fact rarely impresses the left-anarchist, the anarcho-capitalist often concludes that the left-anarchist will not be satisfied with freedom for his preferred lifestyle; he wants to force his communal lifestyle on everyone. Not only would this be a gross denial of human freedom, but it would (according to the anarcho-capitalist) be likely to have disastrous effects on economic incentives, and swiftly lead humanity into miserable poverty. The anarcho-capitalist is also frequently disturbed by the opposition to all order sometimes voiced by left-anarchists; for he feels that only coerced order is bad and welcomes the promotion of an orderly society by voluntary means. Similarly, the left-anarchists' occasional short time horizon, emphasis on immediate satisfaction, and low regard for work (which can be seen in a number of authors strongly influenced by emotivist anarchism) frighten the anarcho-capitalist considerably.

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