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." [The Abolition of Work and other essays, p. 21]
In response to this, defenders of capitalism usually say something along the lines of "It's a free market and if you don't like it, find another job." Of course, there are a number of problems with this response. Most obviously is the fact that capitalism is not and has never been a "free market." As we noted in section B.2, a key role of the state has been to protect the interests of the capitalist class and, as a consequence of this, it has intervened time and time again to skew the market in favour of the bosses. As such, to inform us that capitalism is something it has never been in order to defend it from criticism is hardly convincing.
However, there is another more fundamental issue with the response, namely the assumption that tyranny is an acceptable form of human interaction. To say that your option is either tolerate this boss or seek out another (hopefully more liberal) one suggests an utter lack of understanding what freedom is. Freedom is not the opportunity to pick a master, it is to be have autonomy over yourself. What capitalist ideology has achieved is to confuse having the ability to pick a master with freedom, that consent equates to liberty -- regardless of the objective circumstances shaping the choices being made or the nature of the social relationships such choices produce.
While we return to this argument in section B.4.3, a few words seem appropriate now. To see why the capitalist response misses the point, we need only transfer the argument from the economic regime to the political. Let us assume a system of dictatorial states on an island. Each regime is a monarchy (i.e. a dictatorship). The King of each land decrees what his subjects do, who they associate with and, moreover, appropriates the fruit of their labour in exchange for food, clothing and shelter for however many hours a day he wants (the King is generous and allows his subjects some time to themselves in the evening and weekends). Some of the Kings even decree what their subjects will wear and how they will greet their fellow subjects. Few people would say that those subject to such arrangements are free.
Now, if we add the condition that any subject is free to leave a Kingdom but only if another King will let them join his regime, does that make it any more freer? Slightly, but not by much. The subjects how have a limited choice in who can govern them but the nature of the regime they are subjected to does not change. What we would expect to see happen is that those subjects whose skills are in demand will get better, more liberal, conditions than the others (as long as they are in demand). For the majority the conditions they are forced to accept will be as bad as before as they are easily replaceable. Both sets of subjects, however, are still under the autocratic rule of the monarchs. Neither are free but the members of one set have a more liberal regime than the others, dependent on the whims of the autocrats and their need for labour.
That this thought experiment reflects the way capitalism operates is clear. Little wonder anarchists have echoed Proudhon's complaint that "our large capitalist associations [are] organised in the spirit of commercial and industrial feudalism." [Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 72] Ironically, rather than deny the anarchist claim, defenders of capitalism have tried to convince us that such a regime is liberty incarnate. Yet the statist nature of private property can be seen in (right-wing) "Libertarian" (i.e. "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. And, indeed, it was. Such private towns have existed, most notably the infamous company towns of US history. Howard Zinn summarises the conditions of such "private towns" in the Colorado mine fields:
"Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The 'laws' were the company's rules. Curfews were imposed, 'suspicious' strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp. The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company . . . Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme . . . Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages." [The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]
Unsurprisingly, when the workers rebelled against this tyranny, they were evicted from their homes and the private law enforcement agents were extremely efficient in repressing the strikers: "By the end of the strike, most of the dead and injured were miners and their families." The strike soon took on the features of a war, with battles between strikers and their supporters and the company thugs. Ironically, when the National Guard was sent in to "restore order" the "miners, having faced in the first five weeks of the strike what they considered a reign of terror at the hands of the private guards, . . . looked forward" to their arrival. They "did not know that the governor was sending these troops under pressure from the mine operators." Indeed, the banks and corporations lent the state funds to pay for the militia. It was these company thugs, dressed in the uniform of the state militia, who murdered woman and children in the infamous Ludlow Massacre of April 20th, 1914. [Op. Cit., p. 22, p. 25, p. 35]
Without irony the New York Times editorialised that the "militia was as impersonal and impartial as the law." The corporation itself hired Ivy Lee ("the father of public relations in the United States") to change public opinion after the slaughter. Significantly, Lee produced a series of tracts labelled "Facts Concerning the Struggle in Colorado for Industrial Freedom." The head of the corporation (Rockefeller) portrayed his repression of the strikers as blow for workers' freedom, to "defend the workers' right to work." [quoted by Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 44, p. 51 and p. 50] So much for the capitalism being the embodiment of liberty.
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 (and, of course, capitalism then was more "free market" than today, suggesting that this is simply wishful thinking). 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. . . . But freedom means more than the right to change masters." [The Libertarian as Conservative, The Abolition of Work and other essays, p. 147] 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 of "liberty."
Needless to say, the authoritarianism of capitalism is not limited to the workplace. Capitalists seek to bolster their power within society as a whole, via the state. Capitalists call upon and support the state when it acts in their interests and when it supports their authority and power. Any apparent "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 appropriate the goods and defend their "property" against those from whom they stole it.
Unlike a company, however, 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. 47]
We have discussed the state and how the ruling elite control in section B.2 and will not do so here. Nor we will discuss the ways in which the elite use that state to enforce private property (see section B.3) or use the state to intervene in society (see section D.1). Rather, the rest of this section will discuss how capitalism impacts on freedom and autonomy and why the standard apologetics by defenders of capitalism fail.
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 Pozner/Donahue].
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." 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. 13 and 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.
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 that 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. For capitalist economists like Friedman, workers choose whether to work or not. The bosses must pay a wage to cover the "disutility" of labour. In reality, of course, most workers face the choice of working or starvation/poverty. Capitalism is based upon the existence of a labour force without access to capital or land, and therefore without a choice as to whether to put its labour in the market or not. Friedman would, hopefully, 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 of freedom. 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. To requote Bob Black:
"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." ["The Libertarian as Conservative", The Abolition of Work and other essays, p. 147]
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 (one time head of the US autoworkers' union) 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 ideologue of the Canadian right-libertarian "think-tank" the Fraser Institute, 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.
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. 26-27]
At first sight, this appears to sound reasonable. That we "own" ourselves and, consequently, we decide what we do with ourselves has an intuitive appeal. Surely this is liberty? Thus, in this perspective, liberty "is a condition in which a person's ownership rights in his own body and his legitimate material property are not invaded, are not aggressed against." It also lends itself to contrasts with slavery, where one individual owns another and "the slave has little or no right to self-ownership; his person and his produce are systematically expropriated by his master by the use of violence." [Rothbard, Op. Cit., p. 41] This means that "self-ownership" can be portrayed as the opposite of slavery: we have the dominion over ourselves that a slaveholder has over their slave. This means that slavery is wrong because the slave owner has stolen the rightful property of the slave, namely their body (and its related abilities). This concept is sometimes expressed as people having a "natural" or "inalienable" right to own their own body and the product of their own labour.
Anarchists, while understanding the appeal of the idea, are not convinced. That "self-ownership," like slavery, places issues of freedom and individuality within the context of private property -- as such it shares the most important claim of slavery, namely that people can be objects of the rules of private property. It suggests an alienated perspective and, moreover, a fatal flaw in the dogma. This can be seen from how the axiom is used in practice. In as much as the term "self-ownership" is used simply as an synonym for "individual autonomy" anarchists do not have an issue with it. However, the "basic axiom" is not used in this way by the theorists of capitalism. Liberty in the sense of individual autonomy is not what "self-ownership" aims to justify. Rather, it aims to justify the denial of liberty, not its exercise. It aims to portray social relationships, primarily wage labour, in which one person commands another as examples of liberty rather than what they are, examples of domination and oppression. In other words, "self-ownership" becomes the means by which the autonomy of individuals is limited, if not destroyed, in the name of freedom and liberty.
This is exposed in the right-libertarian slogan "human rights are property rights." Assuming this is true, it means that you can alienate your rights, rent them or sell them like any other kind of property. Moreover, if you have no property, you have no human rights as you have no place to exercise them. As Ayn Rand, another ideologue for "free market" capitalism stated, "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] If you are in someone else's property (say at work) you have no basic rights at all, beyond the right not to be harmed (a right bosses habitually violate anyway by ignoring health and safety issues).
Self-ownership justifies this. You have rented out the property in your person (labour services) and, consequently, another person can tell you what to do, when to do and how to do it. Thus property comes into conflict with liberty. If you argue that "human rights are property rights" you automatically ensure that human rights are continually violated in practice simply because there is a conflict between property and liberty. This is not surprising, as the "property rights" theory of liberty was created to justify the denial of other people's liberty and the appropriation of their labour.
Clearly, then, we reach a problem with "self-ownership" (or property in the person) once we take into account private property and its distribution. In a nutshell, 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 expressed it, "the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given time" under capitalism. [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 187]
In a society of relative equals, "property" would not be a source of power as use would co-incidence with occupancy (i.e. private property would be replaced by possession). 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), 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.
As we've seen in the discussion of hierarchy (sections 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." ["The Libertarian as Conservative", The Abolition of Work and other essays, p. 145]
In developing nations, this control can easily been seen to be an utter affront to human dignity and liberty. There a workplace is often "surrounded by barbed wire. Behind its locked doors . . . workers are supervised by guards who beat and humiliate them on the slightest pretext . . . Each worker repeats the same action -- sewing on a belt loop, stitching a sleeve -- maybe two thousand times a day. They work under painfully bright lights, for twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts, in overheated factories, with too few bathroom breaks, and restricted access to water (to reduce the need for more bathroom breaks), which is often foul and unfit for human consumption in any event." The purpose is "to maximise the amount of profit that could be wrung out" of the workers, with the "time allocated to each task" being calculated in "units of ten thousands of a second." [Joel Bakan, The Corporation, pp. 66-7] While in the developed world the forms of control are, in general, nowhere as extreme (in thanks due to hard won labour organising and struggle) the basic principle is the same. Only a sophist would argue that the workers "owned" themselves and abilities for the period in question -- yet this is what the advocates of "self-ownership" do argue.
So if by the term "self-ownership" it is meant "individual autonomy" then, no, capitalism is not based on it. Ironically, the theory of "self-ownership" is used to undercut and destroy genuine self-ownership during working hours (and, potentially, elsewhere). The logic is simple. As I own myself I am, therefore, able to sell myself as well, although few advocates of "self-ownership" are as blunt as this (as we discuss in section F.2.2 right-libertarian Robert Nozick accepts that voluntary slavery flows from this principle). Instead they stress that we "own" our labour and we contract them to others to use. Yet, unlike other forms of property, labour cannot be alienated. Therefore when you sell your labour you sell yourself, your liberty, for the time in question. By alienating your labour power, you alienate the substance of your being, your personality, for the time in question.
As such, "self-ownership" ironically becomes the means of justifying authoritarian social relationships which deny the autonomy it claims to defend. Indeed, these relationships have similarities with slavery, the very thing which its advocates like to contrast "self-ownership" to. While modern defenders of capitalism deny this, classical economist James Mill let the cat out of the bag by directly comparing the two. It is worthwhile to quote him at length:
"The great capitalist, the owner of a manufactory, if he operated with slaves instead of free labourers, like the West India planter, would be regarded as owner both of the capital, and of the labour. He would be owner, in short, of both instruments of production: and the whole of the produce, without participation, would be his own.
"What is the difference, in the case of the man, who operates by means of labourers receiving wages? The labourer, who receives wages, sells his labour for a day, a week, a month, or a year, as the case may be. The manufacturer, who pays these wages, buys the labour, for the day, the year, or whatever period it may be. He is equally therefore the owner of the labour, with the manufacturer who operates with slaves. The only difference is, in the mode of purchasing. The owner of the slave purchases, at once, the whole of the labour, which the man can ever perform: he, who pays wages, purchases only so much of a man's labour as he can perform in a day, or any other stipulated time. Being equally, however, the owner of the labour, so purchased, as the owner of the slave is of that of the slave, the produce, which is the result of this labour, combined with his capital, is all equally his own. In the state of society, in which we at present exist, it is in these circumstances that almost all production is effected: the capitalist is the owner of both instruments of production: and the whole of the produce is his." ["Elements of Political Economy" quoted by David Ellerman, Property and Contract in Economics, pp. 53-4
Thus the only "difference" between slavery and capitalist labour is the "mode of purchasing." The labour itself and its product in both cases is owned by the "great capitalist." Clearly this is a case of, to use Rothbard's words, during working hours the worker "has little or no right to self-ownership; his person and his produce are systematically expropriated by his master." Little wonder anarchists have tended to call wage labour by the more accurate term "wage slavery." For the duration of the working day the boss owns the labour power of the worker. As this cannot be alienated from its "owner" this means that the boss effectively owns the worker -- and keeps the product of their labour for the privilege of so doing!
There are key differences of course. At the time, slavery was not a voluntary decision and the slaves could not change their master (although in some cultures, such as Ancient Rome, people over the could sell themselves in slavery while "voluntary slavery is sanctioned in the Bible." [Ellerman, Op. Cit., p. 115 and p. 114]). Yet the fact that under wage slavery people are not forced to take a specific job and can change masters does not change the relations of authority created between the two parties. As we note in the next section, the objection that people can leave their jobs just amounts to saying "love it or leave it!" and does not address the issue at hand. The vast majority of the population cannot avoid wage labour and remain wage workers for most of their adult lives. It is virtually impossible to distinguish being able to sell your liberty/labour piecemeal over a lifetime from alienating your whole lifetime's labour at one go. Changing who you alienate your labour/liberty to does not change the act and experience of alienation.
Thus the paradox of self-ownership. It presupposes autonomy only in order to deny it. In order to enter a contract, the worker exercises autonomy in deciding whether it is advantageous to rent or sell his or her property (their labour power) for use by another (and given that the alternative is, at best, poverty unsurprisingly people do consider it "advantageous" to "consent" to the contract). Yet what is rented or sold is not a piece of property but rather a self-governing individual. Once the contract is made and the property rights are transferred, they no longer have autonomy and are treated like any other factor of production or commodity.
In the "self-ownership" thesis this is acceptable due to its assumption that people and their labour power are property. Yet the worker cannot send along their labour by itself to an employer. By its very nature, the worker has to be present in the workplace if this "property" is to be put to use by the person who has bought it. The consequence of contracting out your labour (your property in the person) is that your autonomy (liberty) is restricted, if not destroyed, depending on the circumstances of the particular contract signed. This is because employers hire people, not a piece of property.
So far from being based on the "right to self-ownership," then, capitalism effectively 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. For 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).
It should be stressed that this is not a strange paradox of the "self-ownership" axiom. Far from it. The doctrine was most famously expounded by John Locke, who argued that "every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself." However, a person can sell, "for a certain time, the Service he undertakes to do, in exchange for Wages he is to receive." The buyer of the labour then owns both it and its product. "Thus the Grass my Horse has bit; the Turfs my Servant has cut; and the Ore I have digg'd in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, becomes my Property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine . . . hath fixed my Property in them." [Second Treatise on Government, Section 27, Section 85 and Section 28]
Thus a person (the servant) becomes the equivalent of an animal (the horse) once they have sold their labour to the boss. Wage labour denies the basic humanity and autonomy of the worker. Rather than being equals, private property produces relations of domination and alienation. Proudhon compared this to an association in which, "while the partnership lasts, the profits and losses are divided between them; since each produces, not for himself, but for the society; when the time of distribution arrives it is not the producer who is considered, but the associated. That is why the slave, to whom the planter gives straw and rice; and the civilised labour, to whom the capitalist pays a salary which is always too small, -- not being associated with their employers, although producing with them, -- are disregarded when the product is divided. Thus the horse who draws our coaches . . . produce with us, but are not associated with us; we take their product but do not share it with them. The animals and labourers whom we employ hold the same relation to us." [What is Property?, p. 226]
So while the capitalist Locke sees nothing wrong in comparing a person to an animal, the anarchist Proudhon objects to the fundamental injustice of a system which turns a person into a resource for another to use. And we do mean resource, as the self-ownership thesis is also the means by which the poor become little more than spare parts for the wealthy. After all, the poor own their bodies and, consequently, can sell all or part of it to a willing party. This means that someone in dire economic necessity can sell parts of their body to the rich. Ultimately, "[t]o tell a poor man that he has property because he has arms and legs -- that the hunger from which he suffers, and his power to sleep in the open air are his property, -- is to play upon words, and to add insult to injury." [Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 80]
Obviously the ability to labour is not the property of a person -- it is their possession. Use and ownership are fused and cannot be separated out. As such, anarchists argue that the history of capitalism shows that there is a considerable difference whether one said (like the defenders of capitalism) that slavery is wrong because every person has a natural right to the property of their own body, or because every person has a natural right freely to determine their own destiny (like the anarchists). The first kind of right is alienable and in the context of a capitalist regime ensures that the many labour for those who own the means of life. The second kind of right is inalienable as long as a person remained a person and, therefore, liberty or self-determination is not a claim to ownership which might be both acquired and surrendered, but an inextricable aspect of the activity of being human.
The anarchist position on the inalienable nature of human liberty also forms the basis for the excluded to demand access to the means necessary to labour. "From the distinction between possession and property," argued Proudhon, "arise two sorts of rights: the jus in re, the right in a thing, the right by which I may reclaim the property which I have acquired, in whatever hands I find it; and jus ad rem, the right to a thing, which gives me a claim to become a proprietor . . . In the first, possession and property are united; the second includes only naked property. With me who, as a labourer, have a right to the possession of the products of Nature and my own industry -- and who, as a proletaire, enjoy none of them -- it is by virtue of the jus de rem that I demand admittance to the jus in re." [Op. Cit., p. 65] Thus to make the self-ownership of labour and its products a reality for those who do the actual work in society rather than a farce, property must be abolished -- both in terms of the means of life and also in defining liberty and what it means to be free.
So, contrary to Rothbard's claim, capitalism in practice uses the rhetoric of self-ownership to alienate the right to genuine 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:
"They speak of 'inherent rights', 'inalienable rights', 'natural rights,' etc . . . Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal. And unless there is equality (and by equality I mean equal chances for every one to make the most of himself [or herself]) unless, I say, these equal changes exist, freedom, either of though, speech, or action, is equally a mockery . . . As long as the working-people . . . tramp the streets, whose stones they lay, whose filth they clean, whose sewers they dig, yet upon which they must not stand too long lest the policeman bid them 'move on'; as long as they go from factory to factory, begging for the opportunity to be a slave, receiving the insults of bosses and foreman, getting the old 'no,' the old shake of the head, in these factories they built, whose machines they wrought; so long as they consent to be herd like cattle, in the cities, driven year after year, more and more, off the mortgaged land, the land they cleared, fertilised, cultivated, rendered of value . . . so long as they continue to do these things vaguely relying upon some power outside themselves, be it god, or priest, or politician, or employer, or charitable society, to remedy matters, so long deliverance will be delayed. When they conceive the possibility of a complete international federation of labour, whose constituent groups shall take possession of land, mines, factories, all the instruments of production . . . , in short, conduct their own industry without regulative interference from law-makers or employers, then we may hope for the only help which counts for aught -- Self-Help; the only condition which can guarantee free speech [along with their other rights] (and no paper guarantee needed)." [Voltairine de Cleyre, The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, pp. 4-6]
To conclude, the idea that capitalism is based on self-ownership is radically at odds with reality if, by self-ownership, it is meant self-determination or individual autonomy. However, this is not surprising given that the rationale behind the self-ownership thesis is precisely to justify capitalist hierarchy and its resulting restrictions on liberty. Rather than being a defence of liberty, self-ownership is designed to facilitate its erosion. In order to make the promise of autonomy implied by the concept of "self-ownership" a reality, private property will need to be abolished.
For more discussion of the limitations, contradictions and fallacies of defining liberty in terms of self-ownership and property rights, see section F.2.
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), the control of the state by the capitalist class 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. 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." [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 infinite number of other choices besides losing his money or his life and the denial is backed up by a gun, then this is clearly robbery even though it might be said that the victim making a 'voluntary choice' between his remaining options. When the legal system itself denies the natural rights of working people in the name of the prerogatives of capital, and this denial is sanctioned by the legal violence of the state, then the theorists of 'libertarian' capitalism do not proclaim institutional robbery, but rather they celebrate the 'natural liberty' of working people to choose between the remaining options of selling their labour as a commodity and being unemployed." [quoted by Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, p. 186]
Therefore the existence of the labour market depends on the worker being separated from the means of production. The natural basis of capitalism is wage labour, wherein the majority have little option but to sell their skills, labour and time to those who do own the means of production. In advanced capitalist countries, less than 10% of the working population are self-employed (in 1990, 7.6% in the UK, 8% in the USA and Canada - however, this figure includes employers as well, meaning that the number of self-employed workers is even smaller!). Hence for the vast majority, the labour market is their only option.
Michael Bakunin notes that these facts put the worker in the position of a serf with regard to the capitalist, even though the worker is formally "free" and "equal" under the law:
"Juridically they are both equal; but economically the worker is the serf of the capitalist . . . thereby the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given time. The worker is in the position of a serf because this terrible threat of starvation which daily hangs over his head and over his family, will force him to accept any conditions imposed by the gainful calculations of the capitalist, the industrialist, the employer. . . .The worker always has the right to leave his employer, but has he the means to do so? No, he does it in order to sell himself to another employer. He is driven to it by the same hunger which forces him to sell himself to the first employer. Thus the worker's liberty . . . is only a theoretical freedom, lacking any means for its possible realisation, and consequently it is only a fictitious liberty, an utter falsehood. The truth is that the whole life of the worker is simply a continuous and dismaying succession of terms of serfdom -- voluntary from the juridical point of view but compulsory from an economic sense -- broken up by momentarily brief interludes of freedom accompanied by starvation; in other words, it is real slavery." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 187-8]
Obviously, a company cannot force you to work for them but, in general, you have to work for someone. How this situation developed is, of course, usually ignored. If not glossed over as irrelevant, some fairy tale is spun in which a few bright people saved and worked hard to accumulate capital and the lazy majority flocked to be employed by these (almost superhuman) geniuses. In the words of one right-wing economist (talking specifically of the industrial revolution but whose argument is utilised today):
"The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless much more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them." [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, pp. 619-20]
Notice the assumptions. The workers just happen have such a terrible set of options -- the employing classes have absolutely nothing to do with it. And these owners just happen to have all these means of production on their hands while the working class just happen to be without property and, as a consequence, forced to sell their labour on the owners' terms. That the state enforces capitalist property rights and acts to defend the power of the owning class is just another co-incidence among many. The possibility that the employing classes might be directly implicated in state policies that reduced the available options of workers is too ludicrous even to mention.
Yet in the real world, the power of coincidence to explain all is less compelling. Here things are more grim as the owning class clearly benefited from numerous acts of state violence and a general legal framework which restricted the options available for the workers. Apparently we are meant to believe that it is purely by strange co-incidence the state was run by the wealthy and owning classes, not the working class, and that a whole host of anti-labour laws and practices were implemented by random chance.
It should be stressed that this nonsense, with its underlying assumptions and inventions, is still being peddled today. It is being repeated to combat the protests that "multinational corporations exploit people in poor countries." Yes, it will be readily admitted, multinationals do pay lower wages in developing countries than in rich ones: that is why they go there. However, it is argued, this represents economic advancement compares to what the other options available are. As the corporations do not force them to work for them and they would have stayed with what they were doing previously the charge of exploitation is wrong. Would you, it is stressed, leave your job for one with less pay and worse conditions? In fact, the bosses are doing them a favour in paying such low wages for the products the companies charge such high prices in the developed world for.
And so, by the same strange co-incidence that marked the industrial revolution, capitalists today (in the form of multinational corporations) gravitate toward states with terrible human rights records. States where, at worse, death squads torture and "disappear" union and peasant co-operative organisers or where, at best, attempts to organise a union can get you arrested or fired and blacklisted. States were peasants are being forced of their land as a result of government policies which favour the big landlords. By an equally strange coincidence, the foreign policy of the American and European governments is devoted to making sure such anti-labour regimes stay in power. It is a co-incidence, of course, that such regimes are favoured by the multinationals and that these states spend so much effort in providing a "market friendly" climate to tempt the corporations to set up their sweatshops there. It is also, apparently, just a co-incidence that these states are controlled by the local wealthy owning classes and subject to economic pressure by the transnationals which invest and wish to invest there.
It is clear that when a person who is mugged hands over their money to the mugger they do so because they prefer it to the "next best alternative." As such, it is correct that people agree to sell their liberty to a boss because their "next best alternative" is worse (utter poverty or starvation are not found that appealing for some reason). But so what? As anarchists have been pointing out over a century, the capitalists have systematically used the state to create a limit options for the many, to create buyers' market for labour by skewing the conditions under which workers can sell their labour in the bosses favour. To then merrily answer all criticisms of this set-up with the response that the workers "voluntarily agreed" to work on those terms is just hypocrisy. Does it really change things if the mugger (the state) is only the agent (hired thug) of another criminal (the owning class)?
As such, hymns to the "free market" seem somewhat false when the reality of the situation is such that workers do not need to be forced at gun point to enter a specific workplace because of past (and more often than not, current) "initiation of force" by the capitalist class and the state which have created the objective conditions within which we make our employment decisions. Before any specific labour market contract occurs, the separation of workers from the means of production is an established fact (and the resulting "labour" market usually gives the advantage to the capitalists as a class). So while we can usually pick which capitalist to work for, we, in general, cannot choose to work for ourselves (the self-employed sector of the economy is tiny, which indicates well how spurious capitalist liberty actually is). Of course, the ability to leave employment and seek it elsewhere is an important freedom. However, this freedom, like most freedoms under capitalism, is of limited use and hides a deeper anti-individual reality.
As Karl Polanyi puts it:
"In human terms such a postulate [of a labour market] implied for the worker extreme instability of earnings, utter absence of professional standards, abject readiness to be shoved and pushed about indiscriminately, complete dependence on the whims of the market. [Ludwig Von] Mises justly argued that if workers 'did not act as trade unionists, but reduced their demands and changed their locations and occupations according to the labour market, they would eventually find work.' This sums up the position under a system based on the postulate of the commodity character of labour. It is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed." [The Great Transformation, p. 176]
(Although we should point out that von Mises argument that workers will "eventually" find work as well as being nice and vague -- how long is "eventually"?, for example -- is contradicted by actual experience. As the Keynesian economist Michael Stewart notes, in the nineteenth century workers "who lost their jobs had to redeploy fast or starve (and even this feature of the ninetheenth century economy. . . did not prevent prolonged recessions)" [Keynes in the 1990s, p. 31] Workers "reducing their demands" may actually worsen an economic slump, causing more unemployment in the short run and lengthening the length of the crisis. We address the issue of unemployment and workers "reducing their demands" in more detail in section C.9).
It is sometimes argued that capital needs labour, so both have an equal say in the terms offered, and hence the labour market is based on "liberty." But for capitalism to be based on real freedom or on true free agreement, both sides of the capital/labour divide must be equal in bargaining power, otherwise any agreement would favour the most powerful at the expense of the other party. However, due to the existence of private property and the states needed to protect it, this equality is de facto impossible, regardless of the theory. This is because. in general, capitalists have three advantages on the "free" labour market-- the law and state placing the rights of property above those of labour, the existence of unemployment over most of the business cycle and capitalists having more resources to fall back on. We will discuss each in turn.
The first advantage, namely property owners having the backing of the law and state, ensures that when workers go on strike or use other forms of direct action (or even when they try to form a union) the capitalist has the full backing of the state to employ scabs, break picket lines or fire "the ring-leaders." This obviously gives employers greater power in their bargaining position, placing workers in a weak position (a position that may make them, the workers, think twice before standing up for their rights).
The existence of unemployment over most of the business cycle ensures that "employers have a structural advantage in the labour market, because there are typically more candidates. . . than jobs for them to fill." This means that "[c]ompetition in labour markets us typically skewed in favour of employers: it is a buyers market. And in a buyer's market, it is the sellers who compromise. Competition for labour is not strong enough to ensure that workers' desires are always satisified." [Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American, p. 71, p. 129] If the labour market generally favours the employer, then this obviously places working people at a disadvantage as the threat of unemployment and the hardships associated with it encourages workers to take any job and submit to their bosses demands and power while employed. Unemployment, in other words, serves to discipline labour. The higher the prevailing unemployment rate, the harder it is to find a new job, which raises the cost of job loss and makes it less likely for workers to strike, join unions, or to resist employer demands, and so on.
As Bakunin argued, "the property owners... are likewise forced to seek out and purchase labour... but not in the same measure . . . [there is no] equality between those who offer their labour and those who purchase it." [Op. Cit., p. 183] This ensures that any "free agreements" made benefit the capitalists more than the workers (see the next section on periods of full employment, when conditions tilt in favour of working people).
Lastly, there is the issue of inequalities in wealth and so resources. The capitalist generally has more resources to fall back on during strikes and while waiting to find employees (for example, large companies with many factories can swap production to their other factories if one goes on strike). And by having more resources to fall back on, the capitalist can hold out longer than the worker, so placing the employer in a stronger bargaining position and so ensuring labour contracts favour them. This was recognised by Adam Smith:
"It is not difficult to foresee which of the two parties [workers and capitalists] must, upon all ordinary occasions... force the other into a compliance with their terms... In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer... though they did not employ a single workman [the masters] could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scare any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate. . . [I]n disputes with their workmen, masters must generally have the advantage." [Wealth of Nations, pp. 59-60]
How little things have changed.
So, while it is definitely the case that no one forces you to work for them, the capitalist system is such that you have little choice but to sell your liberty and labour on the "free market." Not only this, but the labour market (which is what makes capitalism capitalism) is (usually) skewed in favour of the employer, so ensuring that any "free agreements" made on it favour the boss and result in the workers submitting to domination and exploitation. This is why anarchists support collective organisation (such as unions) and resistance (such as strikes), direct action and solidarity to make us as, if not more, powerful than our exploiters and win important reforms and improvements (and, ultimately, change society), even when faced with the disadvantages on the labour market we have indicated. The despotism associated with property (to use Proudhon's expression) is resisted by those subject to it and, needless to say, the boss does not always win.
Of course there are periods when the demand for labour exceeds supply, but these periods hold the seeds of depression for capitalism, as workers are in an excellent position to challenge, both individually and collectively, their allotted role as commodities. This point is discussed in more detail in section C.7 (What causes the capitalist business cycle? ) and so we will not do so here. For now it's enough to point out that during normal times (i.e. over most of the business cycle), capitalists often enjoy extensive authority over workers, an authority deriving from the unequal bargaining power between capital and labour, as noted by Adam Smith and many others.
However, this changes during times of high demand for labour. To illustrate, let us assume that supply and demand approximate each other. It is clear that such a situation is only good for the worker. Bosses cannot easily fire a worker as there is no one to replace them and the workers, either collectively by solidarity or individually by "exit" (i.e. quitting and moving to a new job), can ensure a boss respects their interests and, indeed, can push these interests to the full. The boss finds it hard to keep their authority intact or from stopping wages rising and causing a profits squeeze. In other words, as unemployment drops, workers power increases.
Looking at it another way, giving someone the right to hire and fire an input into a production process vests that individual with considerable power over that input unless it is costless for that input to move; that is unless the input is perfectly mobile. This is only approximated in real life for labour during periods of full employment, and so perfect mobility of labour costs problems for a capitalist firm because under such conditions workers are not dependent on a particular capitalist and so the level of worker effort is determined far more by the decisions of workers (either collectively or individually) than by managerial authority. The threat of firing cannot be used as a threat to increase effort, and hence production, and so full employment increases workers power.
With the capitalist firm being a fixed commitment of resources, this situation is intolerable. Such times are bad for business and so occur rarely with free market capitalism (we must point out that in neo-classical economics, it is assumed that all inputs - including capital - are perfectly mobile and so the theory ignores reality and assumes away capitalist production itself!).
During the last period of capitalist boom, the post-war period, we can see the breakdown of capitalist authority and the fear this held for the ruling elite. The Trilateral Commission's 1975 report, which attempted to "understand" the growing discontent among the general population, makes our point well. In periods of full employment, according to the report, there is "an excess of democracy." In other words, due to the increased bargaining power workers gained during a period of high demand for labour, people started thinking about and acting upon their needs as humans, not as commodities embodying labour power. This naturally had devastating effects on capitalist and statist authority: "People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talent".
This loosening of the bonds of compulsion and obedience led to "previously passive or unorganised groups in the population, blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women... embark[ing] on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before."
Such an "excess" of participation in politics of course posed a serious threat to the status quo, since for the elites who authored the report, it was considered axiomatic that "the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups. . . . In itself, this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it is also one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively." Such a statement reveals the hollowness of the establishment's concept of 'democracy,' which in order to function effectively (i.e. to serve elite interests) must be "inherently undemocratic."
Any period where people feel empowered allows them to communicate with their fellows, identify their needs and desires, and resist those forces that deny their freedom to manage their own lives. Such resistance strikes a deadly blow at the capitalist need to treat people as commodities, since (to re-quote Polanyi) people no longer feel that it "is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed." Instead, as thinking and feeling people, they act to reclaim their freedom and humanity.
As noted at the beginning of this section, the economic effects of such periods of empowerment and revolt are discussed in section C.7. We will end by quoting the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, who noted that a continuous capitalist boom would not be in the interests of the ruling class. In 1943, in response to the more optimistic Keynesians, he noted that "to maintain the high level of employment. . . in the subsequent boom, a strong opposition of 'business leaders' is likely to be encountered. . . lasting full employment is not at all to their liking. The workers would 'get out of hand' and the 'captains of industry' would be anxious 'to teach them a lesson'" because "under a regime of permanent full employment, 'the sack' would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined and the self assurance and class consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. . . 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated by business leaders than profits. Their class interest tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view and that unemployment is an integral part of the normal capitalist system." [quoted by Malcolm C. Sawyer, The Economics of Michal Kalecki, p. 139 and p. 138]
Therefore, periods when the demand for labour outstrips supply are not healthy for capitalism, as they allow people to assert their freedom and humanity -- both fatal to the system. This is why news of large numbers of new jobs sends the stock market plunging and why capitalists are so keen these days to maintain a "natural" rate of unemployment (that it has to be maintained indicates that it is not "natural"). Kalecki, we must point out, also correctly predicted the rise of "a powerful bloc" between "big business and the rentier interests" against full employment and that "they would probably find more than one economist to declare that the situation was manifestly unsound." The resulting "pressure of all these forces, and in particular big business" would "induce the Government to return to. . . orthodox policy." [Kalecki, quoted by Sawyer, Op. Cit., p. 140] This is exactly what happened in the 1970s, with the monetarists and other sections of the "free market" right providing the ideological support for the business lead class war, and whose "theories" (when applied) promptly generated massive unemployment, thus teaching the working class the required lesson.
So, although detrimental to profit-making, periods of recession and high unemployment are not only unavoidable but are necessary to capitalism in order to "discipline" workers and "teach them a lesson." And in all, it is little wonder that capitalism rarely produces periods approximating full employment -- they are not in its interests (see also section C.9). The dynamics of capitalism makes recession and unemployment inevitable, just as it makes class struggle (which creates these dynamics) inevitable.
It is ironic that supporters of laissez-faire capitalism, such as "Libertarians" and "anarcho"-capitalists, should claim that they want to be "left alone," since capitalism never allows this. As Max Stirner expressed it:
"Restless acquisition does not let us take breath, take a calm enjoyment. We do not get the comfort of our possessions. . ." [Max Stirner The Ego and Its Own, p. 268]Capitalism cannot let us "take breath" simply because it needs to grow or die, which puts constant pressure on both workers and capitalists (see section D.4.1). Workers can never relax or be free of anxiety about losing their jobs, because if they do not work, they do not eat, nor can they ensure that their children will get a better life. Within the workplace, they are not "left alone" by their bosses in order to manage their own activities. Instead, they are told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Indeed, the history of experiments in workers' control and self-management within capitalist companies confirms our claims that, for the worker, capitalism is incompatible with the desire to be "left alone." As an illustration we will use the "Pilot Program" conducted by General Electric between 1968 and 1972.
General Electric proposed the "Pilot Program" as a means of overcoming the problems they faced with introducing Numeric Control (N/C) machinery into its plant at Lynn River Works, Massachusetts. Faced with rising tensions on the shop floor, bottle-necks in production and low-quality products, GE management tried a scheme of "job enrichment" based on workers' control of production in one area of the plant. By June 1970 the workers' involved were "on their own" (as one manager put it) and "[i]n terms of group job enlargement this was when the Pilot Project really began, with immediate results in increased output and machine utilisation, and a reduction on manufacturing losses. As one union official remarked two years later, 'The fact that we broke down a traditional policy of GE [that the union could never have a hand in managing the business] was in itself satisfying, especially when we could throw success up to them to boot.'" [David Noble, Forces of Production, p. 295]
The project, after some initial scepticism, proved to be a great success with the workers involved. Indeed, other workers in the factory desired to be included and the union soon tried to get it spread throughout the plant and into other GE locations. The success of the scheme was that it was based on workers' managing their own affairs rather than being told what to do by their bosses -- "We are human beings," said one worker, "and want to be treated as such." [quoted by Noble, Op. Cit., p. 292] To be fully human means to be free to govern oneself in all aspects of life, including production.
However, just after a year of the workers being given control over their working lives, management stopped the project. Why? "In the eyes of some management supporters of the 'experiment,' the Pilot Program was terminated because management as a whole refused to give up any of its traditional authority . . . [t]he Pilot Program foundered on the basic contradiction of capitalist production: Who's running the shop?" [Noble, Op. Cit., p. 318]
Noble goes on to argue that to GE's top management, "the union's desire to extend the program appeared as a step toward greater workers control over production and, as such, a threat to the traditional authority rooted in private ownership of the means of production. Thus the decision to terminate represented a defence not only of the prerogatives of production supervisors and plant managers but also of the power vested in property ownership." He notes that this result was not an isolated case and that the "demise of the GE Pilot Program followed the typical pattern for such 'job enrichment experiments'" [Op. Cit., p. 318 and p. 320] Even though "[s]everal dozen well-documented experiments show that productivity increases and social problems decrease when workers participate in the work decisions affecting their lives" [Department of Health, Education and Welfare study quoted by Noble, Op. Cit., p. 322] such schemes are ended by bosses seeking to preserve their own power, the power that flows from private property.
As one worker in the GE Pilot Program stated, "[w]e just want to be left alone." They were not -- capitalist social relations prohibit such a possibility (as Noble correctly notes, "the 'way of life' for the management meant controlling the lives of others" [Op. Cit., p. 294 and p. 300]). In spite of improved productivity, projects in workers' control are scrapped because they undermined both the power of the capitalists -- and by undermining their power, you potentially undermine their profits too ("If we're all one, for manufacturing reasons, we must share in the fruits equitably, just like a co-op business." [GE Pilot Program worker, quoted by Noble, Op. Cit., p. 295]).
As we argue in more detail in section J.5.12, profit maximisation can work against efficiency, meaning that capitalism can harm the overall economy by promoting less efficient production techniques (i.e. hierarchical ones against egalitarian ones) because it is in the interests of capitalists to do so and the capitalist market rewards that behaviour. This is because, ultimately, profits are unpaid labour. If you empower labour, give workers' control over their work then they will increase efficiency and productivity (they know how to do their job the best) but you also erode authority structures within the workplace. Workers' will seek more and more control (freedom naturally tries to grow) and this, as the Pilot Program worker clearly saw, implies a co-operative workplace in which workers', not managers, decide what to do with the surplus produced. By threatening power, you threaten profits (or, more correctly, who controls the profit and where it goes). With the control over production and who gets to control any surplus in danger, it is unsurprising that companies soon abandon such schemes and return to the old, less efficient, hierarchical schemes based on "Do what you are told, for as long as you are told." Such a regime is hardly fit for free people and, as Noble notes, the regime that replaced the GE Pilot Program was "designed to 'break' the pilots of their new found 'habits' of self-reliance, self-discipline, and self-respect." [Op. Cit., p. 307]
Thus the experience of workers' control project within capitalist firms indicates well that capitalism cannot "leave you alone" if you are a wage slave.
Moreover, capitalists themselves cannot relax because they must ensure their workers' productivity rises faster than their workers' wages, otherwise their business will fail (see sections C.2 and C.3). This means that every company has to innovate or be left behind, to be put out of business or work. Hence the boss is not "left alone" -- their decisions are made under the duress of market forces, of the necessities imposed by competition on individual capitalists. Restless acquisition -- in this context, the necessity to accumulate capital in order to survive in the market -- always haunts the capitalist. And since unpaid labour is the key to capitalist expansion, work must continue to exist and grow -- necessitating the boss to control the working hours of the worker to ensure that they produce more goods than they receive in wages. The boss is not "left alone" nor do they leave the worker alone.
These facts, based upon the authority relations associated with private property and relentless competition, ensure that the desire to be "left alone" cannot be satisfied under capitalism.
As Murray Bookchin observes:
"Despite their assertions of autonomy and distrust of state authority . . . classical liberal thinkers did not in the last instance hold to the notion that the individual is completely free from lawful guidance. Indeed, their interpretation of autonomy actually presupposed quite definite arrangements beyond the individual -- notably, the laws of the marketplace. Individual autonomy to the contrary, these laws constitute a social organising system in which all 'collections of individuals' are held under the sway of the famous 'invisible hand' of competition. Paradoxically, the laws of the marketplace override the exercise of 'free will' by the same sovereign individuals who otherwise constitute the "collection of individuals." ["Communalism: The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism", pp. 1-17, Democracy and Nature no. 8, p. 4]Human interaction is an essential part of life. Anarchism proposes to eliminate only undesired social interactions and authoritarian impositions, which are inherent in capitalism and indeed in any hierarchical form of socio-economic organisation (e.g. state socialism). Hermits soon become less than human, as social interaction enriches and develops individuality. Capitalism may attempt to reduce us to hermits, only "connected" by the market, but such a denial of our humanity and individuality inevitably feeds the spirit of revolt. In practice the "laws" of the market and the hierarchy of capital will never "leave one alone," but instead, crush one's individuality and freedom. Yet this aspect of capitalism conflicts with the human "instinct for freedom," as Noam Chomsky describes it, and hence there arises a counter-tendency toward radicalisation and rebellion among any oppressed people (see section J).
One last point. The desire to "be left alone" often expresses two drastically different ideas -- the wish to be your own master and manage your own affairs and the desire by bosses and landlords to have more power over their property. However, the authority exercised by such owners over their property is also exercised over those who use that property. Therefore, the notion of "being left alone" contains two contradictory aspects within a class ridden and hierarchical society. Obviously anarchists are sympathetic to the first, inherently libertarian, aspect -- the desire to manage your own life, in your own way -- but we reject the second aspect and any implication that it is in the interests of the governed to leave those in power alone. Rather, it is in the interest of the governed to subject those with authority over them to as much control as possible -- for obvious reasons.
Therefore, working people are more or less free to the extent that they restrict the ability of their bosses to be "left alone." One of the aims of anarchists within a capitalist society is ensure that those in power are not "left alone" to exercise their authority over those subject to it. We see solidarity, direct action and workplace and community organisation as a means of interfering with the authority of the state, capitalists and property owners until such time as we can destroy such authoritarian social relationships once and for all.
Hence anarchist dislike of the term "laissez-faire" -- within a class society it can only mean protecting the powerful against the working class (under the banner of "neutrally" enforcing property rights and so the power derived from them). However, we are well aware of the other, libertarian, vision expressed in the desire to be "left alone." That is the reason we have discussed why capitalist society can never actually achieve that desire -- it is handicapped by its hierarchical and competitive nature -- and how such a desire can be twisted into a means of enhancing the power of the few over the many.