Tag Archives: Communism

The perpetual confusion about "Property"

keep out
Image by Arriving at the horizon via Flickr

Once again I must return to the subject of ownership rights and how there’s two very distinct ways to define them: Private Property and Possession. That is not of course to mean that there’s no further variation between each of those systems, such as variation on the time to abandonment, the scale of ownership (individualist or collective) etc but rather that there is a hard core difference which splits the ownership scale in half, making each half incompatible with the existence of the other within the same social structure.

This idea, that Private Property as an ownership system is distinct from Possession as an ownership system should not be difficult to grasp.  It is after all one of the core concepts of most forms of Socialism and anyone trying to do a substantial critique – especially of communism – should as a bare minimum be able to understand what socialists actually oppose when we speak about “abolition of private property” or what collective ownership means in practice.

And yet, time and again, instead of seeing valid criticism against socialist theory from defenders of the capitalist mode of production, we see an endless string of strawmen centered around misunderstanding (purposefully, one starts to think eventually) the socialist opposition to “Property”. This is even more cringe-inducing when it is stated as a novel and irrefutable argument against socialist theory. As if it so easily proves that all socialists are just too silly to see and understand the obvious flaws in their opposition to Capitalism. It’s like someone bringing up the “Mud Pie” example as a new and exciting criticism against Marxian economics.

Such is the most recent example where we are guided to understand what “property” is and that communists “seem to forget” a bunch of stuff about how human societies function and the positive aspects of being able to own stuff. It once again trots out the classic red herrings about people who would prefer private property over anything else and that the only way to stop them must be via a state. Yadda yadda. Regular readers of mine should already know how easy it is to refute this nonsense.

It is all, in the end, based on simply calling all “Ownership” as “Property” and thus claiming that we, as humans, can’t function without “property”.He therefore obscures the fact that there is a difference between “Possessive property” and for lack of a better word now, “Sticky Property” and its significance. He pontificates on the voluntary aspects of “property” and how everyone else got it so wrong, while failing to make any point on whether Possession or “Sticky” property should be preferred, something which is at the heart of the socialist idea. In short we replace arguments over substance with arguments over vacuous semantics.

You see, it does not really matter what we call the various systems of ownership, we could call them blue and purple bananas for all the good it will do us. The important thing is that we understand the same concepts. That the socialist criticize the ownership system which facilitates and promotes wage-slavery, rent and usury and promote one which makes that systematically impossible. That this is not a discussion on how we’re going to enforce it (voluntarily or coercively) but on simply which system we ought to prefer.

To simply take your own or what you assume are the “right” definition of the word ‘property’ and superimpose it onto socialist critique, is simple a recipe for strawmen fallacies. Perhaps you have the most popular definition. Perhaps you have the proper or more the most clear. Perhaps not. The important thing to remember, as Proudhon pointed out in the past, is that if you’re going to call all types of ownership “property” then you really need a way to distinguish between possession and “sticky property”. He suggested to call the later the more appropriate name of “theft” of course but I doubt the propertarians will agree on that.

As a communist, I have a reason why I prefer the definitional distinction to be between “Private Property” and “Possession”. Property is generally understood anyway to be “sticky” that is, to remain with someone until they sell or abandon it, regardless of occupancy or use. As such, it does not take much effort, other than explaining that there’s other possible forms of ownership other than that, to clarify my opposition to it.  But it’s not important to use those concepts if they confuse someone. I can easily switch to a terminology that one feels more comfortable with if that will make things easier for them. However this is still my preferred terminology for the reason I just explained and thus find it incredibly silly for someone to make strawmen based on what I write for the general audience and then defend their actions on the grounds that their definitions are superior or more correct.

OTOH, what I most commonly end up seeing is that propertarians do not choose to call everything “property” because it is easy to discuss the concepts around it, but because it conveniently allows them to pretend that other valid forms of ownership do not exist. They will attempt to argue that “Property” is necessary and by that lump all concepts of ownership into the same umbrella, even when incompatible with each other. This is necessary in order to make their core arguments from “self-ownership” lead to Laissez-faire Capitalism, something which would be weakened if possession was a valid form of ownership, distinct from private property. Therefore it’s better to assume that the former is simply a subgroup of the latter. In fact, this is surprisingly similar to the way they try to argue that they’re open to the idea of communism…as long as it exists within a greater propertarian framework.

But I digress into an anti-AnCap rant again. What I’m trying to point out is that the words we use are irrelevant as long as we end up understanding each other and making substantial arguments. I long to see someone making  a solid critique on why a Possessive system is unfeasible or even simply inefficient, or how private property is more ethical and whatnot…without having those points demolished by decade-old anarchist arguments or simple facts of reality.

And until then, all misguided propertarians who insist on making strawmen and presenting them as the most insightful thing ever and the absolute refutation of any and all forms of Socialism – should and will receive at best a quick dismissal as the waste of time they are, or at worst a well deserved ridicule for being obnoxiously ignorant.

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Email: Divided between Communism and Anarchism

red red red flags
Image via Wikipedia

Recently someone sent me an email letting me know that he likes the content of the Division by Zer0 (Thanks!). Along with his email, he sent some of his own musings which I found interesting enough to deserve some extra publicity. So I got his permission to post them on the blog. Enjoy.


Why I’m divided between “communism” and “anarchism”

By Scott

I have been, for the last few years of my life, moving radically leftward, from my rather innocuous beginnings as a “Trotskyist” to simply a “Marxist” to being labeled a “Left-Communist” to where I am now, which is on the fence between “communist” and “anarchist”. Both sides have their influences; the “communist” side has given me a strong respect for Marx’s historical analyses, as well as his critiques of the Capitalist system, among other things, while the “anarchist” side has given me the example to live by, for many anarchists are “lifestyle” anarchists, living their lives as withdrawn from the capitalist system as possible. Their world-wide actions (notably the recent “unrest” in Greece, along with the French riots a few years ago) have made world powers shake with fear, governments almost collapse, and the entire world watched as cars burned and the streets were controlled by police no more.

So what am I to do?

I believe that the best solution is simply to ignore these labels and be reminded of what is important: ending capitalism’s reign of terror. All who oppose the horrors of capitalism must work together under that banner, not as “communists”, not as “anarchists”, but as people who believe in the survival of humanity, and who believe that humanity cannot survive under the conditions of imperialism, oppression and slavery. What you want to add to that (from environmentalism to animal rights to “power to the people” to whatever else) is up to you. But we who oppose capitalism must not be divided by these ideological differences. Even the most dogmatic of communists from the same party cannot agree on everything, so why should we try? Instead, we should act. An action carries only the message that is put behind it, and a Leninist and an anarchist can both protest against imperialism in the 3rd world. They can both protest against the treatment of workers in many workplaces. They can both agree that community activism is a good thing. So why can’t they work together? We’ll sort out our differences (in a comradely fashion) when capitalism is no longer our enemy. Until that time, though, we must focus on our common struggles.


Truth is that I’ve had similar thought myself but the more I read and interact with Marxist-Leninists, the more stark the differences become between us. While theoretically what Scott says seems reasonable, the problem appear very soon once one tries to actually cooperate as it’s all a matter of how each movement tries to go about bringing down Capitalism.

The biggest difference imho is how one side (M-L) wants a vanguard party to lead the struggle while the other wants the revolution to occur through spontaneous and decentralized actions of the workers. There can be no agreement on this point. Anarchists cannot commit to promoting a vanguard party and M-L very often refuse to support and occasionally oppose struggle which is not led by them.

It is exactly because the methods by which we try to achieve the future society will make or break the revolution that there can be no cooperation when there’s a fundamental difference in tactics. It is exactly because the difference in tactics between Anarchists is not fundamental that they generally cooperate while on the other hand distance themselves from Marxist-Leninists and Rothbardians.

So as nice it would be for all of us to cooperate to bring about a better world, there’s also a reason why this doesn’t generally happen. The best we can do instead is patiently explain and convince people that our tactics are the ones that can work.

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Ask an Anarcho-Communist

I’ve recently discovered the IAmA part of reddit which is basically a place for people to declare some kind of expertise or classification and allow people to ask whatever is on their mind on this particular concept. I’ve decided to see what kind of questions people might have for an Anarcho-Communist so I’ve made up a new thread.

There’s quite a few interesting questions already and people seem to have less initial hostility than I imagined. This is good. It shows that Anarcho-Communism (as opposed to simply ‘Communism’ which is basically the same thing anyway, even though most people misunderstand it) is not a slandered in the mind of the people yet.

So if you’ve got a question that’s been burning your mind and you’d like to ask to an Anarcho-Communist about it, head over to the thread and fire your lazers ask away!

Alternatively, feel free to ask in the comments of this post if you prefer it 😉

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Quote of the Day: Red Terror VS Stalinist Totalitarianism

Quoth Slavoj Zizek:

Even in the most violent phases of the Leninist dictatorship, when those who opposed the revolution were brutally deprived of their right to (public free) speech, they were not deprived of their right to silence: they were allowed to withdraw into inner exile. […]For Stalinism, however, even such silence resonated too much. Not only were masses of people required to show their support by attending big public rallies, artists and scientists also had to compromise themselves by participating in active measures such as signing official proclamations, or paying lip-service to Stalin and the official Marxism. If, in the Leninist dictatorship, one could be shot for what one said, in Stalinism one could be shot for what one did not say. This was followed through to the very end: suicide itself, the ultimate desperate withdrawal into silence, was condemned by Stalin as the last and highest act of treason against the Party. This distinction between Leninism and Stalinism reflects their general attitude towards society: for the former, society is a field of merciless struggle for power, a struggle which is openly admitted; for the latter, the conflict is, sometimes almost imperceptibly, redefined as that of a healthy society against what is excluded from it—vermin, insects, traitors who are less than human.

Amirably shows the brutal increase of mind control required to maintain control of the system. It admirably shows that Lenin was no saint either.

(h/t Plagal)

Deliberate Obtusity

Secodontosaurus obtusidens head
Image Unrelated via Wikipedia

I’ve recently started monitoring the twitter stream for keywords relating to Anarchism, Communism and Libertarian Socialism, just so that I might see what others are saying about it and perhaps intervene and clarify a thing or two. I expected of course rampart hatred on Communism by ignorant US Americans but I didn’t expect it on this scale. Not a minute passes that someone won’t make a snide remark on it while talking about anything. From complaining about China (I honestly can’t believe that people still consider the PRC communist at this point), to whining about the US Gov and Barack, to urging Iran not to become communist, to simple ranting.

It’s insane really. It’s reached the point for some people that anything not Neoconservative can simply be labelled Communist. I mean, of course I can imagine that people like this exist, but I expected, dunno, less of a magnitude.

In any case, I replied here and there and I was pleasantly surprised that some people at least were willing to listen when I basically explained that they have it wrong. Those at least are open to the possibility that they may have things wrong. However there are others…

Looking back at it, I should have known that someone who puts Communism and Fascism in the same context can’t be very intelligent, or honest for that matter, but I didn’t expect GlenBradley to not only stand by his statement when corrected but to insist that he made no mistake. And thus, this clusterfuck of a conversation began.

Needless to say, it didn’t end well. For all my attempts to explain what Communism really is about, it felt like talking to a brick wall. Not only that, but the discussion  kept going in a random ad-hominem direction where eventually I ended up having to prove “I’m not an Elephant”.Whatever argument I made, was either ignored and was called “rhetoric” just so that Glen wouldn’t have to acknowledge it.

In retrospect, I should have known what to expect when I noticed that this guy is running for office. However the idiocy here is the interesting part. I mean, at some point, when you say to someone “You’re misunderstanding the theory” you expect them at least to pause and see why you are saying this. Can it be possible that yes, you are misunderstanding it? Apparently not.

I mean, I’m not asking people to suddenly be convinced, throw away their previous allegiances and become comrades, but I at least expect them to be capable of comprehension. This is not just to humor me, it’s in order to be able to have a rational conversation about the subject. When I discuss about Communism as a stateless, classless society and the other person means a totalitarian bureaucracy, then we’re obviously going to be talking past each other.

But when after all attempts to get on the same level, the other person refuses to budge, then I can only call this either Egregious Stupidity, or Deliberate Obtusity. In the case of our wannabe politician, I can only surmise that it’s the second, especially once he started calling me a “sophist without integrity” because he refused to understand a sentence, no matter how much I explained it.

But this obtusity is not only dishonest, but it really hold people back. Even if I am wrong about Communism, how do you expect to convince me if you simply refuse to understand what I’m saying? How can people decide on anything more than their current bias if both opponents act like this? It just becomes  a shouting match.

And unfortunately this is the sad state of politics everywhere. It seems much more beneficial for Politicians to misrepresent their opponent’s position and attack a strawman instead of actually discussing the subject. I guess this helps to retain their voting block as people who are content to vote once per 4 years (and call this farce “democracy”) don’t really want politicians who *gasp* actually change their minds.

And so, a kind of natural selection happens, where politicians act like this because people expect them to, and people start copying the debating style of politicians, because it seems “successful” (As in: you can say the last word in a debate). And this deliberate obtusity leads only to intellectual stagnation.

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Communism in the garbage bin of history

Marching for Communism in Iran
Image by Petteri Sulonen via Flickr

As the Iran situation becomes worse1 and more and more people start speaking about it online, it seems that many take it as an opportunity to take a swipe at communism while they’re at it.

I’ve started monitoring twitter for mentions of political currents I am interested in and among the usual ignorant bashing, the following phrase, in various similar forms, seems to be posted often:

Theocracy is destined for the garbage bin of history along with Communism and Fascism.

This seems to be repeated by Liberals, Conservatives, Rothbardian minarchists and a generally a lot of people standing on the “right” side of the political spectrum. Putting aside the idiocy of putting Communism and Fascism side to side, there’s the implicit assumption that Communist has indeed been delegated to the “dust bin of history”.

But how much truth is contained in such a statement? While it’s undeniable that Communism has been severely slandered by those who would rather that you don’t know much about it; has it been discredited like fascism, to the point where ideological basis is rejected by most people outright? As much as it would seem so in the US political scene, the answer fortunately is no.

In times of a capitalist boom, there’s always a lot of pundits who will eagerly proclaim the obsolescence of Communism, the end of class struggle and “The end of History”. That lasts only as much as the next bust, recession and depression when the socialist spirit once more rises up to haunt the ruling class. It is at this point where the same pundits will try to stem the tide by reminding us that they already proclaimed Communism obsolete so why are we bringing it up all over again?

But in fact, Communism itself has not been discredited. The core idea of Communism: a stateless, classless society can’t be, as instinctively it sounds positive for most people. Instead what has been discredited are the hijacked results of socialist revolutions of the early 20th century, results which for the delight of the western propagandists were self-described as “Communist” or “Socialist”.

These ideas, that a totalitarian regime can somehow act for the best of the working class, have deservedly been discredited by history itself, which is incidentally proved Anarchist predictions correct. But, and this is the important point, since Communism is not about totalitarianism, this does not affect it.

Now some US Americans might claim that due to popular use, Communism has been accepted to mean the USSR, PRC example and as such, the phrasing is right. But then of course one could easily point out that the USA has completely fucked up the political definitions they use to the extent that, like their measurement system, they are the only ones who accept it.

For most of the world, Communism is far from discredited and even the Stalinist currents in many countries are still going strong. Certainly, many people might think that Communism can’t work in practice, but that’s not the same as rejecting the system altogether. Indeed most of the time it simply takes a libertarian perspective on it to show that what’s practically impossible is only the authoritarian currents.

But if one can say this about Communism, how about Fascism? Doesn’t it mean that Fascism as well can be considered valid? The main difference between them is that Fascism has been rejected by most people altogether, from the ideological components (racism, xenophobia, anti-labour, cronyism etc) to the specific practical implementations of it. It’s been rejected because its whole base is rotten to the core. And while there will always be people rotten enough to embrace it, it’s unlikely to gain popular support. (although of course, I can always be proven wrong)

But this is not the case with Communism, which still has pure goals and people have simply been prevented from progressing towards them; not as a systematic fault but because of the particular (flawed) paths that people took towards the goal. But there’s still other ways to attempt, other paths to take and fortunately there’s quite a lot of people willing to listen.

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  1. Personally I refrain from saying much about it as it seems there is a lot of propaganda from both sides, for an external observer like me to decide either way. Furthermore, neither of the two warring parties are on the side of the people of Iran []

Why talking about Communism matters

Discussing
Image by andreasmarx via Flickr

DB0: If you remember Orgthingy, he was the contributor to the Division by Zer0 who wrote an article on socialism a month or so ago. Today he returns to discuss a bit of why the Socialist society can only based on democratic principles and why we need to promote. Orgthingy is not a natural English speaker so please try to read more into his sentences if it doesn’t immediately make sense.


Many have told me already that Capitalism is a “Natural system therefore loved by society”. First of all, it’s not natural at all. It’s a fairly new system that emerged just few centuries back in Europe, brain-washed the people then democratically got applied (at least in countries like UAE and Kuwait, but Capitalism democratically emerging isn’t the case in most of the world I guess).

[DB0: I have to disagree with Orgthingy here, as he is taking a very simplistic view of the rise of Capitalism. Capitalism didn’t brainwash the people just like that. The state helped the capitalist mode of production take hold, by protecting the bourgeoisie from proletariat aggression and by always siding with the Capitalist on legal challenges. As the mode of production spread and people’s rebellions (e.g. the Luddites) failed to stop it, eventually the got used to it. So it wasn’t democratically applied, but rather brutally forced on peasants and artisans.]

Most of this blog’s regular readers already know that Capitalism offers inequality and contradicts with democracy, yet people these days seem to like it as most  are ignorant of the ‘bad’ aspects of it). Now if you do similar techniques, like educating people on Socialism and Communism, through schools or any other way, then you’d end up with a fully-democratic move towards this economic system and ‘country’ since you’re not forcing1 any of the two ideologies onto people.

This was of course a simple and theoretical view, since in reality it would be much more complex to achieve having a communist/socialist society. Capitalism unfortunately is a ‘changing-proof’ kind-of system2 and prevents that from happening. Simply put, capitalists have the money and power.  For example they use expensive mass advertisement for their political campaigns (and unsurprisingly win); They’ve got the money/power, therefore media would not spread the idea of communism and socialism, but actually oppose it as much as possible3.
Thus without the people’s support, a ‘democratically’ emerging communism and socialism is impossible, as the capitalist-propaganda model will break even through a revolutionary spirit. A Revolution of minority can only fail.

[Db0: This is not strictly true. While a revolution without popular support will fail, during times of severe downturn, such as a period of economic crisis, the spark of a revolution can be lit by a minority uprising and this can quickly spread elsewhere. People who were neutral may become supportive, and those who were a bit opposed may become neutral and silent consentors. But one has to remember that the current system is indeed maintained by a minority rule. The minority of the state and the capitalist class. To overcome this, a socialist revolution would probably just need to have a somewhat larger minority than that]

What has to be done then? You may be wondering what should we do to get Socialism/Communism into power. First of all, don’t lose hope. What we need to do is get people’s attention, especially now since we’re in a recession (like what I’m doing by writing this article). Second: Communists and Socialists all around the world should focus on education (not necessary through media, but L’Humanite is a great example of ‘communist-media’) of what Socialism and Communism really are and free their minds from propaganda of the capitalists.

Socialists/Communists all over the world, unite! Educate those who don’t know!


Db0: The idea of Orgthingy is basically very similar to what my tactic is, although I do not limit myself to Socialism only. The whole point of this site is to spread my ideas around. I believe that each of us is incapable of changing the world by himself but small actions in concert would be enough. I would be happy to know that I’ve managed to convince two people to not only espouse Epicurean/Anarchist/Communist thoughts, but to also attempt to convince two more people themselves.

For all of us, it is vitally important to promote grassroot informational campaigns and word-of-mouth “advertising” of what we espouse. And it’s not enough to simply do it behind close doors in a forum of our peers and bask in the groupthink, like some Rothbardians like to do. We must go out, on open ground and challenge others and ourselves (to defend our ideas). Doing this will not only give our voices a chance to be heard by the silent majority, but strengthen your own arguments and give a much needed confidence.

So don’t be afraid of dialogue. Go out, challenge and be challenged!

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  1. forcing, even if they don’t clearly know what Socialism and Communism really are, would be against people’s will, therefore contradicts with democracy and idea of revolution which needs support of majority of the people []
  2. by that, it means it’s hard to reform a bourgeois state apparatus into communist or socialist ideologies []
  3. Dbo: This is a bit simplistic really but the main idea is right []

Private Property VS Possession

Discussion (Property)
Image by Tama Leaver via Flickr

One of the most sticky points in explaining Communism to people is the concept of property. This is especially tricky because all socialists renounce the concept of Private Property as wrong and something to be abolished, which in turn created vast confusion to those not familiar with the theory. This is even more accentuated by deliberate (ie propaganda)  or accidental misunderstanding of Communism as it espousing that people won’t own stuff.

But it is an obvious truth that people like to own items for various reasons. From the most simple of not wanting to share a toothbrush, to the more complex of feeling psychological attachments to various items that we would like to consider ours (say a car or a toy). This is understandable and it is obvious that it would be unnatural if any social theory proposed that this is undesirable.

Which is why Socialism doesn’t demand it either.

Now this might seem contradicting but it is only because we are missing part of the puzzle. The fact that one can define two different types of ownership.

The first type of ownership is the common one that everyone is familiar in our current society. It is the type of ownership based on a legal claim to something, ie it is based simply on what the law will recognise based on previous contracts. In this system of ownership, one can consider to own anything and it will remain his until he trades it away. Private Property (PP).

Precicely because this ownership is legally constructed is why it requires to be defined through contracts of some sort that will be recognised by the state. Which is incidentally why any social system based on Private Property will require the existence of a state of some sort and extensive laws to clarify and settle disputes.

But this is not the only system of ownership that can exist. There is another one that not only comes naturally to humans but it also avoids all the pitfalls of PP. Possession or ownership based on use. To put it simply, one can only ever lay claim to things that they use personally. This is fundamentally different from PP in that it does not demand an extensive legal system to enforce it (although it can benefit from it) and it prevents accumulation of wealth.

Now there is an immediate straw man that people who hear of this system immediately jump to. It goes something like this:

“Under Possession, as soon as you left your car unattended, someone could take it legally. Or someone could get in your house and lay claim to it.”

If this sounds as an absurdity, it’s because it is. Of course socialists do not mean something like this when we talk about Possession. Of course the claim to anything is more solid than this. The basic difference from PP is that it is anchored on the use of the item in question rather than an arbitrary claim that goes back to the original forceful appropriation of land.

So under the rules of any society, the possession of any item can be defined socially or legally. Socially for example, it would be unacceptable for someone to lay claim to a car that someone else left in the parking lot. People doing so would be prevented with all the coercive measures any socialist society makes use of (peer pressure etc). However, as this is defined socially, it’s the acceptance of society that would make act of appropriation act acceptable or not. So for example, a car that has been left in a parking lot for years and is going to rust, could be taken on by someone else. Common sense would say that this would be acceptable. Of course these are not hard and fast rules, but up to each community to define to their own culture and experience. But I hope to give you an idea of how this works.

Why is the difference between private property1 and possession so important? First it is because it explains what socialists mean by the abolition of the former and avoids straw man arguments about the “unnaturality” of communism. The second is that it provides a link to pre-civilization human societies, or to be more precise, those which had a hunter/gatherer lifestyle which were egalitarian precisely because the concept of PP did not exist. The third is that it draws attention to the severe drawbacks of PP and by extension it shows how the introduction of it directly led to inequality and relations of authority.

The main characteristic private property is that it allows accumulation of wealth. As each persons claim of ownership is simply based on the law, one can keep massing up as many such claims as they can. As society expands and as people are born without a claim to property, this in turn becomes a leverage for exploitation and, by extension, inequality. Simply put. Someone who does not own land, must sell the only thing he can, his labour (and by extention freedom), and he must sell it at a price that is less than what he would make if he did own land. The excess result of this labour, profit, of course goes to the employer who then uses it to expand his PP. And the cycle of exploitation continues.

Contradict this with Possession, where any one person can only ever own as much as they personally use. As such the scarcity of the land is automatically reduced, as there’s not a few people controlling vast tracts or land and preventing its use until those desperate enough “volunteer” to their terms. There is of course always the possibility that the amount of humans would eventually become so great as to create a situation of scarcity where people would be landless again. But if anything human ingenuity has shown that we can always find more places to live in (From multi storey buildings to space stations).

As such, inequality would not be possible without the ability of people to accumulate. Without this incentive people in turn have no reason to exploit and emiserate their fellow humans for it would not bring them any social benefit. As such, people would realize that their interest lies in spreading the surplus value they create and cooperating with others to collectively improve their life standard rather than competing with each other for diminishing returns (as excessive wealth does not bring excessive happiness).

One would ask, how would Possession deal with items that are too big for one person to use, such as a factory? This is of course has a very easy solution: Collective ownership. Each person who works in a factory is considered to own an equal share of it and as such, any surplus value it creates. And this cannot be run in any other way other than a democratic one. For in a collection of equals, there’s no room for bosses giving orders.

One can then imagine a society based on Possession rather than Private Property would be the exact opposite of what we have now. A society where people would actually not have an incentive to be evil. It is from this society that the necessary mind-frame would spring, of cooperation, voluntarism and freedom.

And as much as the above is true, so is it delusional to expect a society based on private property, an ownership system that promotes the mentality of greed and short term interest, to somehow transform into a libertarian society, where people actually act charitably and do not seek to exploit their inequality for personal gain.

  1. Note: Some elements of the Anarchist tradition, such as Mutualism, use the term Private Property to refer to ownership of all sorts. They still make the functional distinction between them, but call them somewhat differently. So Possession becomes “occupancy and use”. Of course they support possession as natural. []

How would Anarchists/Communists deal with the Free Rider Problem?

Free-rider
Image by schoeband via Flickr

A Free Rider is considered someone who consumes more than he should, or more than what is considered “fair”. In the more extreme case it is someone who contributes nothing but still receives the full benefits of society. In a more mild case, it might be the lazy person who manages to obscure the fact that he’s only working half the time.

Both of these cases are considered a problem because they present a prisoner’s dilemma to whatever they apply. If I work in a factory and can simply slack off half the time, this will bring me the benefit of living a happier, less tiring and stressful job. If this can pass unchallenged it will trigger others in the factory to act in the same way (defect) so as to get the same benefit. When a few people become free riders then it usually does not create an issue as others can cover for their loss without noticeable drawbacks. However when everyone, or a critical mass, defects then everyone suffers.

Free rider then must be somehow convinced or coerced to stop defecting from contributing what is expected of them, and societies have come up with various ways to work around this problem. In a modern nation for example, active coercion is used via the form of taxes to insure that everyone contributes their share. In a theoretical “Anarcho”-Capitalist society on the other hand, this problem is resolved through death1. The question occurs then, how would an Anarchist/Communist society deal with Free Riders.

The way I see it, there’s two necessary conditions that must exist to turn someone into a free rider. These are Incentive and Obfuscation. Incentive is the fact that in a prisoner’s dilemma the best result is when the other side cooperates as you defect. The greater the difference from the result of mutual cooperation compared to cooperation/defection, the greater the incentive to defect. Obfuscation on the other hand is the ability to hide your choice in the prisoner’s dilemma so as to avoid coercion or others defecting with you.

The greater the incentive and the easier the obfuscation, the more free riders you will get in your system until it collapses. A Capitalist system (wether a fascist, democratic or an stateless one) has such a a major issue with free riders because both conditions are high. It is easy to hide the fact that you’re lazy when your co-workers won’t care to give you away and the rewards for doing it are considerate (same pay for less work).  I want to show how in a Socialist society both of these conditions are severely reduced.

Incentive

Lets say we have a factory where our potential free rider is a worker. In a Capitalist run factory he would either be getting the minimum wage (the cost to survive) due to the commoditization of labour, or in the lucky case that the worker is living in a Bourgeois nation, he’ll be getting a decent one. Whatever happens then, the worker knows that he will be getting the same wage and it will also be unlikely that any extra effort will be rewarded.

But this is not the case in a socialist mode of production. Because the workers themselves reap all the fruits of their own labour any slacking at work will come directly out of one’s “paycheck” while any extra effort will increase their reward. Because of this, in our prisoner’s dilemma abstraction of the situation, the reward one receives from cooperating with others within Socialism are approaching the reward one receives via defection. The smaller this difference between rewards becomes, the smaller the incentive for one to defect

Obfuscation

The second condition is how easy it is for a potential free rider to hide the fact that he is slacking about. Within a capitalist company, the limited management finds it very difficult to tell apart who is the slacker as opposed to who is simply slower than others (but still trying) or who is having a bad time. And since other workers generally don’t rat on their colleagues, especially when working conditions are bad, it becomes quite easy to hide the fact that you’re avoiding work, and this only gets easier in direct proportion to the size of the company.

However when you have a company where every worker’s reward is directly affected by every other contribution, suddenly people who take but do not give stand out much more. And because  we’re talking about interactions between equals, workers will find it much easier to speak out and pressure the slacker socially to behave. Whereas it’s easy to hide from ( (or suckup to) the minority of the people who have the power to punish or fire you, it is not as easy to do the same when everyone you work with has a chance to notice, complain and eventually get rid of you.

Now you might have noticed that I’m mostly talking about workplaces as this is the main area where someone might try to free ride, but there’s also the case that one tries to escape working altogether. How can you tell then if your neighbour is contributing his part to the community for all the  benefits he’s getting back? Like the workplace, in a small scale community2 it is very difficult to hide the fact that you never seem to be doing anything. Sooner or later neighbours and other member will start adding 2 and 2 together and come to the right conclusions.

We also should consider that it’s very unlikely that any person would prefer doing nothing for most of his life. I think it’s in our evolved psychology to want to feel productive to some degree. Certainly there are subcultures where it seems as if free riding (on social benefits) is promoted, but how much that is caused by other social conditions is a big argument (ie are people free riding because they can, or are they free riding because the alternative low-paying crappy non-fulfilling jobs are a far worse option?)

Dealing with Free Riders

So I’ve argued how the number of Free Riders within an Anarchist/Communist society would be much lower than what we’ve come to expect from experience, but it’s still conceivable that a number of them will still exist. While it will be easier to be discovered and the rewards of them defecting will be marginal, some may opt for this method. Perhaps they are just that lazy or don’t care what others think etc. How will we deal with them?

Social Pressure

Humans are primarily social animals and don’t really want to live alone. When a free rider is discovered in work, his colleagues can easily make his life miserable by avoiding contact and/or being hostile, depending on how much he is slacking off. This type of pressure works even now to a significant degree and you very often see people quit from nice jobs because of office hostility. If this can work on people who can even be on the right (that is, not being lazy) then it will doubtly work on people who have to face their colleagues and their own conscience.

Outside work, the same thing can happen. Friends & Family will start urging you to do your part or abandon you if you don’t. Social contacts may become hostile and as the information spreads more and more, people around you will do the same. Imagine your grocery store clerk wordlessly giving you your necessities, imagine your postman “forgetting” to bring you the mail. You get the idea. I do not think there’s many who will want to be in this situation, especially if it’s their own fault for wanting to be lazy.

Ostracism

There is always a chance that a free rider will associate with other free riders in order to alleviate the effects of social pressure. As long as food and shelter are always provided, then one only needs to avoid social withdrawal in order to function in society and if they can find other like them, a subculture of free riders may be created that will be more resistant to social pressure.

Hopefully a future society will be a federation of communities whereas people cluster together with whoever they want to associate with. As such, each community will get to decide with whom they want to associate with and provide their communal resources. Were such a group of free riders to appear amidst the community, it would be relatively simple for the productive members of society to refuse to support them. Whereas this is impossible in a tax based welfare system, it would be fairly simple under Anarchism.

Leaving them be

It is very possible that even with the small incentive and low chance to hide, some people might still find a way to free ride in a Anarchist/Communist society and this is unavoidable in any kind of system really. For example in a taxation situation, you still have a lot of people who find a way to hide their true income or simply become invisible and only work through the black market. In the sense that these people keep using public services that the rest of us have paid for, they are free riding.

Well how about simply ignoring them? The number of such undiscovered free riders can never be large enough to be disruptive as this would mean that the method they achieve it would eventually leak to the rest of the community which would then take action. Trying to get rid of them through blanket measures is more likely to do more harm than good, as it may require authoritarian measures and the like.

So in the end you have a very small percentage of any community leeching off somehow in a way that does not incite others to do the same, we simply write it off as part of the waste. Among the people with special needs, the sick, the children and the elderly, a bunch of free riders will never make any difference.

A vulgar right-wing libertarian might here say that as long as there is any waste, as long as any person has the possibility to leech off his hard work, then the system is unacceptable. But the problem is that under Capitalism not only do the free riders abound but they also get to wield all the power. Who are they? Well, as per the initial definition, they are of course the ones who do not contribute anything by themselves and retain all the benefits of society. How do they do that? By simply turning their wealth to more wealth without having to lift a finger. They are the parasitic class who skim all the surplus value without having to break a sweat. They are the Capitalists.

Given the choice of a free rider in an Anarchist society – who can never have anything more than anyone else, nor exert any power over his comrades – and a free rider in a Capitalist society who not only gets to live the good life without even trying, but also get to be more powerful as time passes at the expense of everyone else…well I’d like to think that most can see which is the best choice.

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  1. To be fair, this is the position is espoused by this particular AnCap who seems to be a bit challenged in the empathy department. As such, it does not necessarily mean it’s the position espoused by all AnCaps, so a more accurate description instead of “death” would be “reliance on private charity, but possibly including death where charity is ineffectual”. H/t sblinn []
  2. since I generally advocate those I will argue from that point. []