I spoke at the Free Bradley Manning Rally in Leavenworth, KS yesterday. My remarks were the front page of this document.
Below is a lightly edited copy of the followup conversation I’ve been having on Facebook with someone who heard me speak
Ben: Hey, I’m Ben Brungardt! I was at the rally today. I don’t know if you saw me, I was in a Vladimir Lenin t-shirt. Anyway, I never got a chance to talk to you but I wanted to say your speech was awesome and very moving, and I wanted to know if there is anyway I can get more involved. Thanks.
Brad: Hi Ben! There’s all kinds of stuff to do that maybe ought to be done. The tricky part is figuring out how to best apply your scarce time, energy and resources.
A good start is self-education. We’re in a war of ideas that won’t be won easily. It’s going to take advocates for those ideas.
Tell me a bit about your background as far as your interest in radical politics — where you’re coming from, what has interested and influenced you and so forth.
I’ll be glad to do the same.
Ben: Well I’ve grown up in a very open-minded house hold. My father was a professor of sociology for 35 years and has always considered himself a ‘mild’ Marxist. It was round about 8th grade when I really decided to learn for myself about radical politics, away from textbooks and people who had a vested interest in me being moderate. So when I first discovered socialism in 8th grade I thought it was incredible. So I carried on as a Marxist until about around the time Obama was elected, that really motivated me to get even more serious and read up more. So I read up on Noam Chomsky, Eugene V. Debs, Henry David Thoreau, Peter Kropotkin, and I just studied philosophy and politics more on my own. While I took bits and pieces from different schools of thought I am cemented in radical left Communist, Anarchist and anti-Capitalist thought. So I’d say my background is cemented in the radical-left, and I’m somewhere between an Collectivist Anarchist and a Leninist.
Brad: Okay. Well, I’m what some would call a “petit bourgeouis individualist“. I consider myself “anti-capitalist”, but my conception of “capitalism” is that it’s state-driven monopolization of capital rather than commerce itself. In terms of economic theory, I’m a radical “free market” guy — but a real one that wants to abolish the system of politically-granted privilege and subsidies that makes the present economic system oppressive for us regular folks in my view.
I run into a fair amount of hostility from anarchist communists because a lot of my strongest influences are people who have embraced a label that I disagree with them on — so-called “anarcho-capitalism“. I did that myself for several years before I was persuaded to change my mind on that point (so that I now consider myself anti-capitalist) by the guy who wrote the following, which I recommend:
Excerpt: Manorialism, commonly, is recognized to have been founded by robbery and usurpation; a ruling class established itself by force, and then compelled the peasantry to work for the profit of their lords. But no system of exploitation,including capitalism, has ever been created by the action of a free market. Capitalism was founded on an act of robbery as massive as feudalism. It has been sustained to the present by continual state intervention to protect its system of privilege, without which its survival is unimaginable.
The current structure of capital ownership and organization of production in our so-called “market” economy, reflects coercive state intervention prior to and extraneous to the market. From the outset of the industrial revolution, what is nostalgically called “laissez-faire” was in fact a system of continuing state intervention to subsidize accumulation, guarantee privilege, and maintain work discipline.
Most such intervention is tacitly assumed by mainstream right-libertarians as part of a “market” system. Although a few intellectually honest ones like Rothbard and Hess were willing to look into the role of coercion in creating capitalism, the Chicago school and Randroids take existing property relations and class power as a given. Their ideal “free market” is merely the current system minus the progressive regulatory and welfare state — i.e., nineteenth century robber baron capitalism.
But genuine markets have a value for the libertarian left, and we shouldn’t concede the term to our enemies. In fact, capitalism–a system of power in which ownership and control are divorced from labor — could not survive in a free market.
I would suggest reading that whole article over and thinking about it. Ask me any questions you want. If you want to look into this school of thought some more, I can refer you to more resources. If that doesn’t interest you, I can also probably help point you toward stuff that will.
Ben: That’s a really interesting position. I can totally understand where you are coming from. I think it’s great that even two political ideologies that butt heads somewhat can still come together on a lot of common ground. There are a lot of aspects of Mutualism I really like and can get behind, and this article was interesting because every time I hear ‘free market’ I’ve never stopped to think what exactly a ‘free market’ would really be. Very, very good article and very thought provoking as well.
As for questions, I had a few. Obviously, the changes we advocate for are going to take a revolution; so what is your opinion of, or how important to you are, things like workplace democracy and so forth? My other question is at the rally I received many pamphlets to join the IWW, I have wanted to for a while, and all my Marxist friends have been suggesting I do so. I wondered If I could get your opinion on that. Thanks a bunch.
Brad: You could say that I’m for anything that’s voluntary. I think workplace democracy would be the norm in a free and healthy society. However, where free people decide among themselves that it might suit their particular needs for one of them to specialize in administrative work, that’s okay also.
The problem with the status quo, as I see it, is that the top-down approach is shoved down people’s throats by forcibly cutting off alternatives. Workplace democracy might not be explicitly outlawed, but the ruling class has all of the bargaining power thanks to all of the favoritism they get from the state — so the worker typically has no choice but to enter a “voluntary” employment relationship with them in which they get to set all of the rules.
Imagine cattle being herded into a corral. They are not actually shoved through the gate. It’s just that every *other* direction they try to go, they run into obstacles deliberately put in their way. In the case of workers under capitalism, the herding is accomplished by monopolization of capital in the hands of a state-allied ruling class and state-enforced privilege — things like licensure requirements and a huge amount of regulations that act to forbid people from self-employment if they don’t have the resources to deal with all of the bureaucratic overhead costs that sort of thing dumps on them.
Consider… what would it actually take to start working for yourself as a self-emplyed taxi driver? A car, a mobile phone and maybe $50 worth of business cards to get you started. Proof of insurance might be helpful to show difficult customers worried about safety.
Those are about the only natural costs. But the artificial costs are huge…
You can’t just start driving a taxi independently like that under capitalism without risking being kidnapped by people who would call it an “arrest”. You have to pay a large amount of money for special licenses. You have the costs of complying with various special requirements that go along with those licenses.
So one often has little real choice about whether or not to take a job working for someone else under the present system.
As for the IWW, I’m a fan and supporter. I used to be a member, but I had to let my membership lapse because I’m sort of a figurehead “boss” in one of the projects I’m involved with.
But, of course, you didn’t just ask how I felt about workplace democracy, so let me try to give you a better answer to the question you actually asked.
“Obviously, the changes we advocate for are going to take a revolution; so what is your opinion of, or how important to you are, things like workplace democracy and so forth?”
I have a specific point of view about what’s most important in terms of revolutionary theory, but I also appreciate that a diverse array of approaches will make things even harder for the state to deal with. Bureaucracy is not agile and that works to the advantage of all genuinely anti-authoritarian factions.
I might have to cover a lot of ground in order to give you a good answer, so let me give a short one first. My perpsective is that workplace democracy isn’t a primary consideration, but it can be an important secondary consideration.
Giving you a thorough answer means having to talk about revolutionary theory — and before I get into that, it might be helpful to remind you of Proudhon’s distinction between the political revolution and the social revolution.
It’s not that I think that “smashing the state” and thereby freeing the market will magically make everything alright right away. It’s just that stopping the ongoing harms inflicted by the state would result in a “legal” environment that would match the label “free market” used by academic economists.
We don’t have to wait for the state to go away before trying to address those ongoing harms through voluntary, non-authoritarian methods like mutual aid — but our efforts will not be completely successful so long as the state is still in place and inflicting those ongoing harms. Additionally, addressing those harms — healing the damage to society — will still take time after the point at which we can honestly say the state has been abolished.
The good news is that society not only wants to run itself, but also tries to heal itself. Free market economic theory describes some of that process — why wealth will tend to level out over time through open competition (because without a state, there would be no way to stop poor people from doing things that benefit themselves). But mutual aid and social cooperation fit in with that vision as well.
Anyway, the point is that we have both the social revolution and the related but seperate (and also narrower but very difficult) problem of the political revolution to deal with. So when I talk about revolutionary theory from here on, I’ll mostly be talking about the political revolution. Or, more precisely, the anti-political revolution.
Let’s dip into revolutionary theory and specifically the political/anti-political revolution of replacing the state with alternative means of providing security and “law” in the sense of dispute resolution. In some ways, you might want to treat this as a sort of study guide. I’m going to refer you to a bunch of stuff that more fully explains the basic answers I’m going to give you here.
Mainstream political science has, since about the early 20th century, tended to use sociologist Max Weber’s definition of a state — a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence”.
The anarchist critique of Weber can be said to be that he merely asserts or assumes this “legitimacy” without actually demonstrating or proving it. The notion of an unwritten “social contract” supposedly describing the basis of state authority fails upon critical analysis. Pleas for the necessity of law and security do nothing to establish a case for monopoly provision of those services. I like to mock so-called “Constitutionalists” by calling their document-venerating approach to legitimizing state authority “magic scroll theory” and it has been devastated by people like Lysander Spooner and Larken Rose.
But Weber’s definition can be useful for us if we just take it as a descriptive statement. One doesn’t have to concede any actual legitimacy of state authority to recognize that what makes a state a state is the widespread public *perception* that its authority is legitimate. La Boetie touched on the same point several centuries previously in his very important “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude“.
So, basically, this abusive monopoly service provider maintains that monopoly not only through ruthless, brutal aggression but by conning people into thinking that’s the only way things can be and that they’re either “the good guys” or at least “the not so bad guys and the best you can hope for“.
Radical social change can, thus, be seen as dependent upon creating a shift in public perceptions. Expose the lies. Answer the objections. Refute the myths.
So, as I mentioned yesterday, abolishing a monopoly means opening up competition. It’s just that simple — and also that complex, in terms of how to go about doing that. Before we can even get into how to achieve that, we need to ourselves have confidence in open competition and be able to refute objections to the proposal itself. Being able to educate people about this itself attacks the lynchpin of perceived state legitimacy, when such is argued for from necessity.
So… I need to point you toward a treatment of how law and security could be provided without a state (i.e. monopoly service provider for law and security) by open competition. Then we can get into how to get from here to there.
My highest recommendation for a short and very easy to read book on that topic is Austrian economist Robert Murphy’s book “Chaos Theory: Two Essays on Market Anarchy“[PDF]. Unfortunately, Murphy uses the term “anarcho-capitalism” to describe his views. I urge you to just grit your teeth and keep in mind that the enterprises he describes could just as easily be democratically managed worker-owned cooperatives.
Here are two followup articles that you might find particularly helpful after reading “Chaos Theory“.
- “But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?” also by Murphy
- “Libertarian Anarchism: Responses to Ten Objections” by Professor Roderick Long
If you want something thicker, the book that initially convinced me back in 1990 was “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” by Murray N. Rothbard, which you can read for free online. It also covers a lot more ground than just polycentric law, though, so don’t feel like you have to tackle that book right now. It’s just there if you want additional depth.
Anyway, all of that material should give you a good grasp of the basic idea of how these services can be provided without a state. Once we have a good understanding (informed by sound economic theory) of how law and security could be provided via open competition among service providers, we have a clear goal.
The principal objection to the state from a serious free market libertarian is that state action is, demonstrably, behavior that is inherently criminal in terms of violating inherent human rights. I can elaborate on that point myself, but it might be most expedient to just refer you to a classic explanation of individualist ethics, a video presentation entitled “The Philosophy of Liberty“.
The main takeaway you should get from it, though, I alluded to above. The state is a bandit gang with flags and good PR. Nothing more. All states. Every state, so long as it meets the Weberian definition of a state.
Just as a polycentric system of law and security, a freed market for those services, would protect people from ordinary criminals, it would also protect them from regular bandit gangs. Just as it would protect them from regular bandit gangs, it would also stop bandit gangs from gaining enough of a toehold to use terror and lies to create the illusion of their legitimacy and become new states.
This, then, shows us more precisely how to get rid of the state.
The task before us is to jumpstart competition in the key industries the state monopolizes — “law” and security services. In doing so, the state itself will be suppressed as criminal activity.
From that realization, we can then develop a plan of action to achieve that goal. Actually, we’ll wind up with a collection or methodologically delineated class of plans which people will be able to individually choose for themselves whether or not to support and to what degree or in what role.
Samuel Edward Konkin III was a dissident student of Rothbard who developed an approach to this task of jumpstarting open competition and smashing the state’s monopoly. He called his ultra-Rothbardian school of thought on this matter “agorism” from the Greek word “agora”, meaning marketplace. Here’s how I briefly summarized agorism a few years back.
Agorism is revolutionary market anarchism.
In a market anarchist society, law and security would be provided by market actors instead of political institutions. Agorists recognize that situation can not develop through political reform. Instead, it will arise as a result of market processes.
As the state is banditry, revolution culminates in the suppression of the criminal state by market providers of security and law. Market demand for such service providers is what will lead to their emergence. Development of that demand will come from economic growth in the sector of the economy that explicitly shuns state involvement (and thus can not turn to the state in its role as monopoly provider of security and law). That sector of the economy is the counter-economy – black and grey markets.
Now, as I’ve said more than a few times, I’m not necessarily telling you to run out and go try to start your own heroin ring. It’s just that by working to destroy the myth of state legitimacy, people will increasingly make decisions about whether or not to break unjust laws based on a dispassionate cost vs. benefit analysis rather than statist guilt complexes. Where such violation of statist edicts is productive of new wealth, they will tend to repeat it, especially if they don’t have that false guilt plaguing them. This has the potential to create a “snowballing” runaway economic growth process, particularly in an era of state-induced economic crises in which people face hard choices about how to scrape by.
As the underground economy grows, there will be more and more market demand for dispute resolution services and security services — underground at first, but growing stronger as new wealth gets built through productive activity hidden from the state. Eventually, the new society busts out of the shell of the old that it was built within — a sort of free market version of dual-power strategy that you might already be familiar with.
To investigate this further, the following are essential reading:
- “New Libertarian Manifesto” by Samuel Edward Konkin III
- “Agorist Class Theory” by Wally Conger (drawing on Konkin’s unfinished work)
Also, here are a couple of videos I’m featured in that can help explain more.
- Brad Spangler on His Journey to Embracing Agorism
- Stateless Law & Counter-Economics (edited version of an online live talk I gave earlier this year entitled “Building Alternative Legal Systems”)
So, how does workplace democracy fit into that, as I see it? I’ll get to that next.
We’ve seen that the agorist conception of revolution is essentially a matter of market development. We aim to shift public perceptions in such a way as to create a window for alternative service providers in the industries of security and law to develop underground, grow stronger and eventually emerge aboveground and displace the state in doing so.
As I said before, I appreciate that a diverse array of approaches will make things even harder for the state to deal with. I also explained capitalism as an oppressive economic order characterized by monopolization of capital in the hands of a state-allied ruling class, resulting in labor having little choice but to sell itself on terms dictated by the ruling class.
I should perhaps add that even a Leninist state qualifies as capitalist in this sense because the state’s monopoly of law allows it to put capital wherever it pleases via expropriation. We saw in the Soviet Union that state bureaucrats themselves became new capitalists — because despite not officially owning the means of production, they exercised de facto ownership of the means of production as a bureaucratic collective.
Even wholesale slaughter of the ruling class and anyone else even vaguely associated with them, along the lines of what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge carried out, would not solve this problem. So long as there is a state to exercise rule, there will necessarily be a parasitic ruling class that does the ruling and benefits from it as looters of the productive but oppressed majority.
In order to actually smash capitalism and address the social harms it creates, which is where we even get the word “socialist” to describe ourselves, we have to first smash statism.
How does the classic libertarian socialist notion of struggling for workplace democracy fit into that as potentially an important secondary consideration? At least two ways…
First, the big corporations that dominate the global economy are best understood as instrumentalities of ruling-class looters by way of their influence over state policy. Harassing them is perfectly fine in terms of libertarian ethics and is literally a struggle to see to it that crime doesn’t pay. It might also reduce the incentive they have to curry the state’s favor.
Unfortunately, in my view, there is a tendency to see things less precisely than that. Do I think, for example, that someone should be a jerk to their boss if they get a job as a cashier at a little “mom and pop” store or turning wrenches at an independent muffler shop? Well, you’re free to do what you want, but my opinion is that only makes sense if the boss goes out of their way to be a jerk to you first — but, then, you might be better off just looking for a different job in that case.
Secondly, and more importantly, people seeking workplace democracy who actually go to the trouble of setting up a new worker-owned cooperative are entrepreneurs. Unleashing entrepreneurship is what agorism is all about. Even if the business fails, they’re learning important skills they might apply later to start other businesses.
My friend Wally Conger, author of Agorist Class Theory, offers business advice for people looking to start their own business, go freelance, become self-employed or whatever you might want to call it. The motto on his web site really says it all…
In conclusion, who wants the sweat of their brow to support some suit that mostly just gets in the way by adding unnecessary rules and otherwise just making things harder than they have to be? By all means, set yourself and your friends free from the petty tyranny of the conventional workplace as best you can.
ADDENDUM: Ben remains skeptical but interested.
Translations for this article:
- Portuguese, Diálogo Com um Jovem Comunista.