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Q: What do Individualist Anarchists Think of An Anarchist FAQ?

Saturday, May 30, 2015 12:10
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McKay, Iain, 2008 An Anarchist FAQ, Section G: Is Individualist Anarchism Capitalistic? Anarchist Writers, accessed 25 May 2015,
McKay, Iain (2012) An Anarchist FAQ: Volume 2 (AK Press) Section G: Is Individualist Anarchism Capitalistic?,  

The Anarchist FAQ Collective’s “Anarchist FAQ is a massive work, which has been constantly maintained and updated since 1996. The FAQ gives very detailed account of the history and theoretical aspects of anarchism from an unapologetically communistic, anti-capitalist, social anarchist perspective. It seeks seeks to answer the numerous questions anarchists are frequently asked. Unsurprisingly each of its numerous sections and subsections is named for the question it addresses. Examples include “What is Anarchism?” and “What Would an Anarchist Society look like?” It bibliography includes a vast library of important anarchist texts. Even those who disagree with its interpretation of anarchism will find it worthy of exploration. It is available at multiple locations on the internet and has been published in two massive, phone book-like volumes by AK Press, under the name of its lead contributor Iain McKay.

The FAQ is not something one is likely to read straight through or in a small number of sittings. Thus it is often better to view its contents in terms of its individual sections. While its most controversial sections concern anarchism relationships with what it calls “Anarcho”-capitalism (scares quotes their’s) the sections on individualist anarchism provides some of its more interesting content and will be the subject of this review.

While individualist anarchism is mentioned occasionally throughout the FAQ it is the focus of Section G, which is titled “Is Individualist Anarchism Capitalistic?“. This section, which is the focus of the review, covers roughly 150 pages. The authors resoundingly answer the question with no, but still reject individualist anarchism in favor social anarchism regardless. While the market anarchists will appreciate this sections emphasis on the individualist anarchism’s embrace liberatory and egalitarian goals, they will disagree with the sections dismissal of markets as a means achieve these goals as well as their dismissal of individualists as inconsistent Anarchists.

The section highlights individualist anarchism’s more radical and anti-capitalistic aspects. It makes the explicit case that the individualist anarchist tradition that developed in the 19th century United States, was not only anti-capitalist, but outright socialist. Much of the material here, focuses on making the case that the anarchism of Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner is part of a broader anarchist (aka libertarian socialist) movement which also includes anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists. This broader anarchist movement is in itself part the larger socialist movement, though one that is critical of its state socialist contemporaries. Dyer Lum and Voltarine De Cleyre are referenced repeatedly along side Spooner, Tucker and Max Stirner — each of whom get a their own subsection.

The FAQ uses extensive quotations by all these writers to demonstrate their commitment to socialist ideals. Many of the come from Benjamin Tucker who asserts that anarchism would mean the “emancipation of the workingman from his present slavery to capital.” [Instead of a Book, p. 323] He also claims that “[w]hile State Socialism removes the disease by killing the patient, no-State Socialism offers him the means of recovering strength, health, and vigour.” [Liberty, no. 98, p. 5]. Tucker goes on to say that in his preferred system “any person who charges more than cost for any product [will] . . . be regarded very much as we now regard a pickpocket.” One of Tucker’s associates and contributor to his Journal Liberty, Joseph Labadie, describes their socialist position “which has for its object the changing of the present status of property and the relations one person or class holds to another. In other words, any movement which has for its aim the changing of social relations, of companionships, of associations, of powers of one class over another class, is Socialism.” [ Liberty, no. 158, p. 8]

This is not to say that Individualist anarchism was in no way influenced by classical liberalism, but rather to say it is specifically the part of the larger anarchist tradition that has the most in common with classical liberalism, while maintaining its radical socialist nature. The FAQ describes individualist anarchism as mixing Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism with Herbert Spencer’s liberalism. Hence the individualists combined support for free markets and specific forms of private property, as well as an egalitarian oppositions to profits, interest, rent, landlordism and the economic status quo.

The individualists saw free markets and the removal of state enforced monopolies as a way to create an egalitarian society free from landlords, high interest loans, bosses and wage slavery. The authors contrast their tradition with that of mainstream or “right”-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists and seek to place individualist anarchism well outside the tradition of Ludwig Von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. The later is used as a case in point for much of the contrast between the two traditions.

The authors claim that these thinkers and their followers attempt to co-opt individualist anarchism into their own tradition, through selective quotes, while dismissing their obvious disagreements as “bad economics”. For example they quote Murray Rothbard, “Spooner and Tucker have in a sense pre-empted that name [Individualist Anarchism] for their doctrine and that from that doctrine I have certain differences… ..the [economic] differences are substantial, and this means that my view of the consequences of putting our more of less common system into practice is very far from theirs.” [“The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View”, pp. 5–15, Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, p. 7]

The FAQ argues that in addition to the differences in intended consequences, Rothbard understates the important dissimilarities between the economic system he favors and that of Tucker and Spooner. The later favored a strictly “occupancy and use” based system of land tenure, as opposed to the absolutist ownership Rothbard favored, as well as a legal system in which juries played a major role (something Rothbard rejected). The author’s argue this later point by quoting from Rothbard, who criticizes Spooner and Tucker for “allowing each individual free-market court, and more specifically, each free-market jury, totally free rein over judicial decision.” This Rothbard feared would allow juries to “decide both the facts and the law of every case strictly Ad Hoc.” Rather Rothbard argued that Lawyers and professional “jurists” arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures.” [“The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View”, pp. 5–15, Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, p. 6-7]

Furthermore the individualists saw labor unions as comrades, and rejected political actions in favor of direct action, and , unlike Rothbard. The authors emphasize the later point by quoting Rothbard:I see no other conceivable strategy for the achievement of liberty than political action.” They also quote Rothbard as claiming that a libertarian party “in control of Congress could wipe out all the [non-‘libertarian’] laws overnight . . . No other strategy for liberty can work.” [Konkin on Libertarian Strategy From Strategy of the New Libertarian Alliance, Number One, May Day 1981, 3–11] They contrast this with tucker who claimed that voting makes one “an accomplice in aggression.” [Kline, Wm. Gary, The Individualist Anarchists: A Critique of Liberalism, 1987. p. 305]

While the FAQ makes a compelling case that 19th century individualist anarchism should be seen as separate tradition that the libertarian movement of the 20th century, one has to acknowledge that there is more overlap between the two than the FAQs authors tend to indicate. For example members of both traditions would likely find much agreement with Charles W. Johnson’s discussion of the evils of the regulatory state in Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It.

Indeed much of the writing produced by the Center for A Stateless Society (C4SS) finds itself comfortably straddling both traditions. Its criticisms of the state are valid regardless of where one stands on the spectrum of thought regarding what amounts to just acquired property. The FAQ acknowledges C4SS Senior Fellow Kevin Carson as being an important voice in the individualist tradition, and makes numerous positive references to his work.

Even Murray Rothbard who the FAQ frequently maligns, incorporated leftist concerns similar to those of the individualist anarchists into his work. This is especially true of his output during the 1960’s where he openly embraced the black power movement and the Students for a Democratic Society as well as the criticisms of early 20th century corporatism in New Left historian Gabriel Kolko’s excellent book The Triumph of Conservatism. Additionally Rothbard’s 1969 essay “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle argues that the employees of government funded business could occupy and seize their employer’s assets for their own use, in a manner that would be quite familiar to revolutionary social anarchists. He recommends the students and faculty of government funded universities do the same as well.

In a more recent example, market anarchist Roderick Long has taken the tradition of Austrian economics explored by the likes of Rothbard and Rothbard’s mentor Ludwig Von Mises to radical leftist conclusions, that very much echo the individualist anarchist tradition. His essay “Against Anarchist Apartheid” explicitly argues that line between the market anarchists traditions is far more blurry when one looks at the specific thinkers involved and the ways they viewed each other. Long ultimately finds it unclear as to what is actually supposed to be the ultimate distinguishing factors separating both schools of market anarchist thought, as each possible one has clear exceptions. Below Long’s essay are some great exchanges between Long and others including mutualist Shawn Wilbur concerning the distinction between these traditions as well as the FAQ itself. Both Long’s essay and the comments below it are well worth checking out.

The FAQ goes on to discuss what its authors perceive as misconceptions that individualist anarchists hold about social anarchists. Here they argue that social anarchism is not inherently violent, but that violence committed by social anarchists has largely been in response to violence committed by the state and big business against the working class. It also notes that through out history anarchists have been more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

It also notes that social anarchists do not wish to force anyone to live communally, and that communal arrangements can only work if they are done voluntarily. They make it clear that they believe such arrangements will allow individuality to thrive rather than destroy it. The authors also proudly claim that social anarchism has long been the majority form of anarchism even in the US. They believe this is due to social anarchism being more relevant to contemporary capitalism, than its individualist counterpart. This of course reflects the biases of the authors and it says nothing to indicate that this will always be the case, especially as peer to peer production, and data replication make independent production a possibility for more people, as Kevin Carson argues.

While the majority of the section is dedicated to arguing that individualist Anarchism falls within the greater libertarian socialist tradition, and a significant portion is also dedicated to discussing why other libertarian socialists reject it and vice versa. Their criticism focuses largely on the social anarchists rejection of markets as a means of creating positive change, as well as disagreements between the two sides on the issue of wage labor.

The various schools of social anarchist thought, favor a voluntary communism where members of a given commune can freely help themselves to shared resource, while contributing back what they are able to — from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs. Such communes would give all members a say in their decision making processes, and federations of such communes could freely interact.

While such an end goal is not at odds with the individualist anarchist vision, individualists tend to be more agnostic as what the economic structure of their favored society might look like. Most generally acknowledge that removing government imposed restrictions on economic life, as well as mutual banking and labor activism, would contribute to an environment more conducive to cooperative and communal enterprises succeeding and growing.

Again Charles W. Johnson makes a relevant point when he states that the “freed market” (“freed” emphasizing the lack of freedom in the current system) would include all voluntary interactions. He elaborates:

worker ownership and consumer co-ops are part of the market; grassroots mutual aid associations and community free clinics are part of the market; so are voluntary labor unions, consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and countless other alternatives to the prevailing corporate capitalist status quo.

Social anarchist communes would fall squarely within such a conception of the market as would the larger federations of communes that social anarchist advocate. Though the FAQ’s authors don’t explicitly mention this, the existence of multiple communes and multiple federations of communes, strongly implies there would be competition between them for members, making their favored system more like the everyday conception of “market” than they intended.

Both schools of anarchist thought also note that independent enterprises will also exist in their vision of a free society, as one of the following sections of the FAQ notes that no one will be forced to join a commune or participate in communal activity. As such an independent non-communal sector would exist in both visions, and offer a competing alternative to communal life. While the FAQ’s authors tend to disparage competition in favor of cooperation they overlook that the very existence of alternatives implies competition between the providers of said alternatives.

The existence of communal production within an individualist anarchist society as well as the implied existence of independent producers and competition between communes in the communist anarchist society, implies that both would actually be more alike in practice than the FAQ often suggests. This appears even more so when one emphasizes the egalitarianism and end to corporate capitalism, that both sides believe their favored systems would offer.

The FAQ’s criticism of the individualist’s market rings hollow when its proposed alternative could still be considered a market, in the individualist anarchist sense. Furthermore its chief objection to markets, that markets exchanges tend to disproportionately benefit the stronger party involved thereby making inequality and exploitation worse, is highly debatable at best. Even if we grant that the stronger party has more negotiating power in a given exchange, one has to conclude that the more third parties the weaker party has to choose from the better off he or she will be. When the stronger party is subjected to competition for the weaker party’s business, it looses its strength and ability to exploit — all things being equal.

In a world free of government imposed monopolies, patent and copy right restrictions, as well as arbitrary licensing and zoning requirements, any successful business model can be copied and the resulting competition will ultimately drive down profits and redistribute large concentrations of wealth downwards. The same is true of union activity and mutual banking. This is true even when granting the existence of non-government barriers to entry the FAQ references, such as differences in geographic advantages or the high cost of start-up capital. A freed market (as conceived by individualist anarchists) would mitigate the later by removing government imposed start-up costs. Also, as Kevin Carson notes extensively in his works, peer to peer production, easily copy-able digital files, downloadable production software and three dimensional printing are already liquidating cost related barriers to entry in numerous fields.

This is not to mention that many of the centralization problems the FAQ applies to the state are also true of large concentrated businesses. Large hierarchical organizations tend to be plagued with communication problems, including an upward flow of credit and a downward flow of blame, as well as calculation problems. Such dis-economies of scale will place a limiting factor on how large a single firm can grow in a competitive market. Whether or not these factors, combined with competition, are sufficient to prevent all businesses from over charging their customers, as the FAQ claims, the larger point that it would reduce such abuses.

The FAQ emphasizes the assertion that mutual banking, in and of itself, is not sufficient to undermine capitalism. While this may be true, it gives the false impression that individualist anarchists only favor mutual banking as the only means of fighting the existing system. It overlooks (or under-emphasizes) other tactics such as labor activism, active resistance of unjust laws, and other forms of mutual aid. It does however make the important point that the elites who benefit from the status quo are not going to passively sit by as the newly freed market puts them out of business. Thus there is a need to defend any progress made.

The FAQ also criticizes individualists for being evolutionary rather than revolutionary (as social anarchist presumably are) and uses the word “reformist” to describe them. In response one must note that neither school generally anticipates seeing their goals achieved in the lifetimes of any living adherents, much less the near future. Both place an emphasis on building the society they want in the shell of the old for the time being. It is also worth noting that revolutionary activity tends to incite violence, chaos and instability. Thus the individualist has a good reason for wanting to achieve as much as possible through peaceful resistance.

Much of the remainder of the section centers around the authors criticizing certain individualists such as Tucker for supporting, or at least being insufficiently opposed to wage labor. While Tucker argued that under his preferred system the worker would get the full value of his work, thus ending exploitation, he allowed that some may wish to work for others on some occasions. While the authors make a compelling case that this is at odds with a tradition that is hostile to the practice of wage labor, it should be noted that they themselves do not wish to forcibly ban the practice but create conditions where everyone has sufficient access to resources so that no one would want to work on someone else’s terms. Both sides seek to greatly empower workers to work in substantially freer and more egalitarian environments. Overall there is sufficient over-lap in terms of both strategy and desired goals, that many readers will be inclined to focus on the positive similarities between both schools of thought and leave questions of “how far occupation and use extends” or “whether to completely abolish wage labor or just minimize it” for a time when we are closer to actually crossing such bridges.

While the FAQ’s disparagement of individualist anarchism, will disappoint individualists, it brings up many points both sides of the anarchist coin should consider and maybe a good place for the to camps to begin an exchange. Its emphasis on individualist anarchism’s socialism and radicalism will be of great interest to anyone attracted to these aspects of the tradition or anyone simply interested in the history of anarchist thought. Overall, while there is much to disagree with, an Anarchist FAQ, (including but not limited to this section) is a thought provoking and informative read.

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