Anarchists and Socialists

July 18, 2008

Ever since I first became interested in anarchy and decided that I might be an anarchist, after all, I’ve been bothered by what I perceived as the complete lack of similarity between two types of anarchy, anarcho-capitalism and anarcho-socialism. I’ve always been hesitant to declare my support for anarchy because I don’t like being confused with someone who is pro-chaos and anti-corporations. Furthermore, since anarchy for me is about individual freedom, and socialism represents the antithesis of individual freedom, I didn’t see how these two political positions could be meaningfully compared.

Today, looking for something to do while lounging around in James’ apartment here in Brooklyn, I discovered a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. What with my hatred for socialism, I expected to disagree with almost everything in the book. So perhaps one can imagine how surprised I was to find myself in agreement with every part that I read. And with this surprise I became aware of the important similarity between the anarcho-socialists and anarcho-capitalists.

Zinn’s book is an exploration of the systematic oppression of various groups throughout the history of America. As described in A People’s History, the founding of American as a constitutional democracy was not some grand event brought about by the benevolence and idealism of the Founding Fathers, but rather an attempt to set up the form of government most likely to keep powerful and privileged people, well, powerful and privileged. Women, blacks, and Indians were completely ignored because the only interests that mattered were the interests of people with political influence.

I completely agree; the reality is, people act in their own self-interest, even when their actions are dressed up in idealistic rhetoric. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as objective justice or injustice, just that as a factual matter in describing human behavior, self-interest dominates. Where I disagree with Zinn is that he seems to believe that it could possibly have been any other way. As an economist, I believe that incentives matter, always and everywhere. People rob banks because that’s where the money is. Anyone who has the power and influence to win more wealth for himself will eventually use that power; the benevolent dictator is a nice thought, but it’s not an equilibrium.

Concretely, I don’t believe that the white men responsible for founding the United States were uniquely evil or selfish. If the Native Americans, blacks, or women had been in a position to do to white men what white men actually did to them, they would have taken it. I’m not trying to be cynical or to justify oppression. I merely want to point out that the problem of oppression is fundamental and will be present whenever one group holds power over another.

In our descriptions of the general course of history, we aren’t so different, anarcho-socialists and anarcho-capitalists. The difference is in our proposed remedies. Perhaps this is an unfair caricature, but it seems like anarcho-socialists believe that once you remove the people who are currently in power, the problem will be solved. After all, what are the odds that the evil people will just happen to be able to win power for themselves again? Anarcho-capitalists argue that it will never do any good to “throw the bums out,” because the current bums will always be replaced by new bums as long as the potential to set up a government and use that power is still there.

I admit, I’ve only skimmed through this book, but I think I’ve absorbed the main point: white, American males did a lot of bad things to all other people. It’s important to recognize that this is true, but it’s important that we not become fixated on the details of this particular oppression at the risk of distracting us from careful thinking about the root causes of oppression.


4 Responses to “Anarchists and Socialists”

  1. freedomainradio Says:

    A great free book on anarchy – ‘Practical Anarchy’ –

  2. James Says:

    I find what you are stating; “If the Native Americans, blacks, or women had been in a position to do to white men what white men actually did to them, they would have taken it.” to be, well, basically incorrect and missing the point.

    I could come up with several examples showing you how what you said is untrue, to which you could probably state others to the contrary. And this would be fun: so for example, lets take the Native American’s and Columbus’ relationship. Columbus and his men were under the belief (because of the very strong and ever present Spanish Inquisition) that if you were not Catholic, then you were a heathen and sub human. For Columbus to justify his treatment of Native Americans, this had to be true. You are saying (or you seem to be saying) that if the shoe were on the other foot, Native Americans would do the same thing to the Spanish. But as far as I know, Native Americans did not see the Spanish conquistadors as sub human as dictated by their religious beliefs. (Although there were Native American cultures who had slaves and treated them horribly) And this idea is echoed in or modern notion of slavery in America. The reason that the American notion of slavery, and as an extension of that the American notion of oppression, became what it is today, and the reason it is different from past forms of oppression, has everything to do with religion, and not race. This is why the whole African Slave trade was started, not because these people were black, but because these people were non catholic, and thus heathens. You didn’t have to feel morally wrong about enslaving people who were already going to hell. This notion evolved into into our modern notion of racism in America. Also, (and if you had read more of Zinn’s book you would know this) there were plenty of whites that were enslaved in America as well. But this wasn’t called slavery it was instead indentured servitude, even though it was still oppression predicated on the belief that, for instance, the Irish were subhuman.

    Basically what I am saying is that we should do as you say not to do. You say that, “it’s important that we not become fixated on the details of this particular oppression at the risk of distracting us from careful thinking about the root causes of oppression.” But my question is how are you going to get to the root causes of oppression, if you are getting it wrong to begin with? Booyah, grandma.

  3. tripinchina Says:

    James –
    What’s this about trying to study history in order to understand oppression? That’s silly.

    Bill –
    Man, you are so right!

    Why bother actually reading Zinn when we know everything already?

    Why bother studying history at all if economic theory dictates the complete past, present, and future of human potential?

    Why bother attempting to change anything when we’re *so certain* that it’s impossible?

    Sarcastically yours,

  4. […] society, studying the details of history just isn’t helpful. This is true because, pace Thomas, universal economic principles drive history, not, say, evil acts by evil […]

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