The book The Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood provides a compelling history of capitalist analysis. The story, in a nutshell, says that nearly all accounts, both for and against capitalism, have failed to really understand the generation process of capitalism, and because of that historical misunderstanding they misapprehend what capitalism is. In this concise review, I will try to summarize the main thread of Wood’s argument, specifically with an eye toward an analysis of capitalism rather than as an evaluation of historical accuracy. Towards that end, I will not challenge any assumptions of the author but accept her account of capitalism, what it means, and how it acts. Finally, I will attempt to locate this account within my own work.
Wood spends a good deal of time elaborating the competing views she hopes to overcome, all of which can be boiled down to some version of Adam Smith’s origin story with its emphasis on “man’s propensity to truck, barter, and trade.” This story reveals capitalism to be something of a natural evolution of human instinct, being gradually unfettered by political and religious control and exploitation. Once these fetters were finally dispensed with, the economy became liberated, and human beings were finally free to do what they really wanted to do all along, become capitalists. In this sense, capitalism is simply an extension of the innate desire for human beings to employ the things they own to their own advantage.
She makes several good arguments for why this explanation is erroneous, which I will not bother to recount here. Instead, I want to focus on her alternative account that finds capitalism as developing in English agriculture. In my interpretation, it is a misread to claim that Wood is arguing that capitalism is born out of English agrarian society. Rather, I believe she is arguing that when a proto-capitalist model of property relations came to be applied to the necessities of life as occurred during the supplantation of traditional agrarian society during feudalism, the only means of living were altered for everyone and a new system with its own logic and imperatives took over. This was against the resistance of the people who would come to adopt it, namely peasants.
Rather than the traditional tail of fetters being removed, the story Wood tells shows how the powers of economic exploitation simply were shifted from direct control by lords to seize profits from the relatively independent peasant producers to one where the exploitation was formalized in the property relations with the lords established as “owners” and the peasants as “tenants” or “farmers”. The only remaining role then for the state in such a system is to enforce the property relations as a whole, making economic relations quasi-independent of political activity. This separation masks the coercion, making it feel more “natural” or “free”, rather than the obvious and direct political oppression involved in feudal systems. Such a system, Wood suggests, changes the mode of exploitation from extra-economic means to purely economic ones, and at the same time changes the incentives for lords from one of squeezing peasants to maximizing the productivity of farmers and employees. This effect accounts for both the success of capitalism in replacing nearly all other forms of economic relations and for capitalism’s intense classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and so forth. Without its political element, it is not clear who may be exploited and so the exploitation is filtered through some or several forms of identity politics.
In general, I think Wood’s reading is accurate although I don’t claim to know the intricacies of the agrarian argument she bases it on. What I take from Wood’s analysis is simply the fact that the defining characteristic of capitalism is its ability to separate exploitation from the political sphere. This fits with the very nature of oppression, which, roughly defined, is characterized by apparent freedom and opportunity with the subtle reality being one of limited options and forced choices. With this understanding in play, capitalism is not established by private property or markets for its exchange. Those elements may be associated with a great many economic systems. Capitalism is then a particular way of preserving classism without recourse to draconian political force.
On the upside, assuming Wood is correct here, capitalism offers humanity the first glimpse of economic freedom from direct political control. This is indeed the achievement that capitalist apologists have long used to justify the system. The failing of capitalism lies not in its divorce from political oversight, but in its continued adherence to the principles of classism and exploitation. The goal of any socialist regime worthy of the name would be to devise a way to surgically eliminate that element while preserving the freedom for self-determination and individuality that comes with economic independence.
In my own work, that goal is met by the abolition of the form of rent. The form of rent is the particular facet of capitalism that allows one to make money from ownership without relinquishing the rights of ownership. It is, in my opinion, the “Pandora’s box” of capitalism, through which all the evils enter. Without the form of rent, especially manifest in profit, interest, and rent, capitalism ceases to be exploitative, and without its exploitative element, capitalism isn’t capitalism at all. In Wood’s understanding capitalism is the exploitation of labor without direct political means; so, no exploitation, no capitalism. No matter whatever elements of capitalism remain, including private property and markets, without the form of rent it ceases to be capitalist and becomes, for lack of a better term, libertarian socialism.
In this third part of my series on the political architecture of democratic libertarian socialism, I hope to articulate and resolve some practical questions. It would be impossible to nail down every question or even all the important theoretical and pragmatic questions in this short work, but addressing a few should provide enough of a sketch that my readers should glimpse an image of the final portrait.
So far I have argued that a libertarian socialist democracy would require organizing its populations into small deliberative bodies of a hundred or fewer people. These political communities would form the basic democratic units, be responsible for the legislative decision-making at all scales of politics, elect representatives to govern and report the activity of government back to them, and finally demarcate particular zones of enforcement of laws at different scales in the form of jurisdictions.
This is all well and good in theory, but how does it work in reality. Obviously, there is no way to inductively determine the best procedures on all counts. However, we may abductively suggest some procedures that would keep with our libertarian socialist ideals. The first question we must address would be, who counts? We have already determined that individuals do not count by themselves as political units and that the smallest democratic unit is the community. But the community is made up of a certain number of individuals. So, who counts as an individual? It might be tempting to say everyone, but this is misleading. Do we mean newborn children? Invalids? The insane? Criminals? “Everyone” may be an unwise policy. I think, what we want are humans of a certain age, who have not demonstrated a tendency to abuse others, and are in reasonably good mental health. But what age? What kind of abuse? What good mental health?
The concern with children is two-fold. First, at what point have they become wise enough to direct their own affairs and partially the affairs of others, and second, this being a voluntary political architecture, how do they affirm the rules they live under.As children have the prevailing tendency to become adults, so do they have the tendency to go from not counting to counting or to put it another way, from being mere persons in a jurisdiction to citizens of a community in that jurisdiction. Whatever the education process a community chooses, political education must be mandatory for the health of a democratic society. Children should be involved at every level of the deliberative process, even if they are denied a voice and a vote until a mature age. Their participation should evolve in stages. Perhaps, say, at ten they watch the younger children, and at fifteen they begin to be allowed to speak to their communities about what they think on certain matters. At age twenty, I imagine, they would become full members with all the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.
The hegemonic aspect of any dominate political architecture would seem to overcome the voluntary nature of individual affirmation. We can’t restart the whole system every year for the sake of children’s voluntary affirmation. However, we might incorporate a revolutionary element in the laws themselves, which would allow them to require periodic reaffirmation, say once every five, ten, twenty-five, or one hundred years. Laws that are basically universally accepted would only need a reaffirmation vote every hundred years, and the vote total could be lower for affirmations. Were as lower order laws may need to be affirmed more frequently. If a law is ever not affirmed it would be considered repealed.
Criminals offer a different challenge. Having forsaken the laws of the society they are proven untrustworthy in politics. Yet they too deserve a voice. The question of how to treat criminals is also two-fold: first, punitive and second, rehabilitative. To be stripped of your voice and your vote in a truly democratic society is to be stripped of your right to self-government, and so your autonomy. You become a pawn at the whims of others, and is a strong, although not an extreme, form of punishment. It seems a fitting and sufficient punishment that lawbreakers lose their power to be lawmakers. On the other hand, the punishment must not be permanent or even long-lasting, for, without recourse to restoration, criminals would quickly become a permanent underclass of non-political citizens; such people are easily exploited and if the interests serve the majority, criminals can be easily created. This punishment is the only punishment criminals should receive. The prohibition on voting must be finite for every crime and last no longer than the rehabilitative element. Also, it should be noted that the vote of the criminal is neither cast nor counted. It would be unfair to let their community count them as though they voted.
What remains of criminal elements should be handled in a rehabilitative and restorative manner. The goal of the former is to prevent repeat offense while the goal of the latter is to restore to the victim what can be restored. Obviously, there are limits on both of these, but the goal of a criminal justice system must be the bringing back of both the criminal and the victim. This prevents turning the criminal justice system into a defacto slave system for society justified by the fact that these people are lawbreakers. Therefore the state has a vested interest in not allowing convicted criminals to work for any reason. The guaranteed income established by the principles of libertarian socialism would suffice to meet their needs, but no labor can be extracted from them voluntarily while they are under the authority of the justice system and any labor arrangement entered into involuntarily amounts to a form of slavery.
Finally, the sick and invalid present us with dangerous political waters to navigate. Be sure here, I do not mean removing voting rights from disabled persons. What I have in mind here is more or less permanently incapacitated. Anyone who can communicate in any manner is capable of casting a vote and so ought to be allowed. Surely those who cannot speak out for themselves simply won’t, but should their votes still count? Does a community have the right to count citizens who for health reasons cannot represent their own interests? I think not. The greater danger here is that of exploitation of the “votes” of the invalid would give a minority undue legislative power. Now, how a vote is counted can be determined by the community, a nod or a thumbs up or a spoken word or even blinking twice might all count. This would hopefully clamp down on the desire to have people removed from the rolls as invalids while keeping their political power for the community.
Mental health may represent the greatest hazard. The other question is what about those who are so mentally gone that they cannot think rationally. I’m disinclined to restrict their vote unless they are incapable of joining a community. This community standard, the ability to interact with others is crucial to a free and democratic society. Those who are a danger to themselves and others or simply incapable of communicating intelligibly, must not count politically. At any point, if they can join a community then obviously their vote would count the same as any other person.
After knowing who counts, we need to establish the process whereby votes determine laws in this political architecture. The basic unit of democracy is the community and not the individual. Thus, laws should be elected by the number of communities that approve them in a given jurisdiction, but we need to also understand how votes are counted. One problem our distinction between individuals who are not democratic units and communities that are is that we must determine if individual voices are being silenced by the political architecture itself. I do not mean here that voices are being silenced by other individuals in the community, but that the method of counting votes is somehow unfair, e.g. gerrymandering in current election systems.
Let us take the following example as illustrative of the potential problems that would need to be addressed: Image three communities, where community A has 100 members, community B has 50 members and community C has 40 members. Further, imagine that the municipality has split on an issue. These three communities are the deciding vote. Let’s say that A rejects the motion but B and C favor it. If we count votes by the smallest democratic unit, then the motion passes, in this case, two to one. But if we count by individuals we can see that the motion doesn’t pass, 100 to 90. How we decide to count votes then will determine the outcome in this case.
The problem with counting votes per community, as we see above, is that communities vary in size, and it would be disenfranchising to the number of individuals inside a larger community to have their votes equaled to those in a smaller community. This is similar to the problem with the electoral college in the contemporary United States. The easy solution would be to count community votes as either for or against but give them the relative strength of the total membership of the community’s individuals. In the above example, the motion would not have passed because there would have been 100 votes against but only 90 for. Inside each community, the total votes of the community would be up for grabs. If community A voted 49 for and 51 against, while community B voted 49 for and 1 against and community C voted 39 for and 1 against, the result would be 100 against and 90 for, and this despite the individual votes being 53 against and 137 for. This is because communities are the basic unit of democracy, and so they speak univocally. However, the communities strength is relative to their numbers.
But what of those who don’t want to participate? We have incentivized them, yes, but should we force them? Well, one more addition to the political architecture will ensure their participation whether or not they are actually there: every vote of the membership is counted, whether or not you cast your vote or not. For example, let’s say a community of seventy members votes 38 for to 22 against on a measure. The measure will get seventy votes for it, even though only sixty actual votes were cast. The community has spoken and that “community” speaks with the voice of seventy people.
Requiring communities to speak with one voice will occasionally cause doubtless disenfranchising to some voters. However, this disenfranchisement does something positive for society as a whole by avoiding a particularly thorny “prisoner’s dilemma”. How do you encourage participation among everyone, which is vital to the supposedly voluntary nature of this political architecture? Those who show up to communities where the votes are determined univocally, make decisions for all in the community, but only those in the arena of community politics will get to decide for others. This action level is anarchistic. Those who choose not to participate by not attending or abstaining from voting are in reality allowing the other members of their community to cast their vote for them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as an individual understands that that is what they are doing, and it establishes the universal affirmation of legislation required by libertarian principles.
This creates an interest in people to participate if they want their actual opinions heard. Showing up allows for the exchange of information, fosters discussion and debate, encourages seeing other perspectives, and a host of other deliberative goods. Were votes to be counted individually, as in a pure democracy, then there would be no need to deliberate with one’s political peers, and one could make all political decisions in isolation, forming idiosyncratic opinions, bereft of relationship knowledge. In short, it would be to make individuals the basic unit of democracy, which I have already argued is not possible. This point is worth hammering on. The individual is incapable of rendering a judgment about the society outside the context of their group. They simply can’t understand their own needs or the responsibilities of others, and so could not make good judgments about political issues. The community helps to spread those subjective prejudices out, force them into open dialogue, and then and only then allows a univocal decision. The univocal decision is necessary to put the individual in a place to participate. Democracies work best, indeed, they only work at all, when the overwhelming majority of the citizens participate.
That said, the disenfranchisement is a problem, however, it can be slightly mitigated in two ways. The first mitigating circumstance has already been established for other reasons previously: our political architecture does not require a mere majority vote to carry the day, it requires a supermajority significant enough to overcome most objections to ensure victory. In the above example, 55% approval would be required to pass the law, so that if the numbers were reversed and community A was for the measure while B and C were against it (assuming these three communities made up the total municipality) the measure would not pass. This is the conservative aspect of government, preserving freedom and ensuring a great deal of voluntary support at high scales.
A second mitigating circumstance is possible if we set a minimum on the number of members a community could have. I have previously suggested that the number of members in a community be capped at one hundred, but perhaps I should make a few modifications. First, let me ask if a minimum number is necessary? The real reason for the discord between the three communities in the above example is their relative sizes. This example was chosen precisely to bring out this peculiarity. The feeling that one’s vote doesn’t count comes as a reflection of the scale of the arena, so that difference between the highest and lowest possible membership reflects the number of voters whose voice can be discounted. For example, were the minimum members in a community two and the maximum one hundred, then it would be possible for a form of democratic gerrymandering where groups split to form separate communities in order to have their way. In general, there is nothing wrong with this, but its effect must be limited by creating relative equality between all communities, in other words, we need to set a minimum and maximum that are relatively close together. This should help to minimize the damage in communities, the only place where such division between univocal decisions and numeric strength is allowed. Pragmatically, I would recommend a minimum of fifty members and then change our maximum from one hundred down to ninety-nine, so that upon the addition of a hundredth member, the group splits into two separate communities of fifty. With these numbers, the largest number of individuals that could be disenfranchised at the most actionable level would be forty-nine.
Now scaling up, the only thing that changes is the required percentage of the population to pass the measure and the number of communities participating in the vote. We might ask what if no one in the whole community votes, then that community has simply abstained. Communities themselves can, of course, set quorums if they wish to abstain, so that if less than half of the community members vote, the result is abstinence. This is their right as the basic democratic unit. And there are of course other hurdles to overcome; most notably, how do we get from here to there. Whatever transition we might take, it will be chaotic and anxiety-provoking. I’m not sure there is a right answer here. But I have faith that such a thing may be managed by the numerous talented persons who make up this world.
In the next part of this series, I will go beyond the legislative and explore some of the issues of practical governance this political architecture must deal with.
In the first part of this series, I developed the idea that a democratic libertarian socialist political architecture would be necessarily voluntary, deliberative, consist of political units of fewer than one hundred individuals, and would require representatives to scale up. At the end of part 1, I listed some potential problems with this scaling process. I break these problems into two main types: the jurisdiction problem and the representation problem. In this second part of the series, I will address these two problems.
The Jurisdiction Problem
The question of jurisdiction centers on the freedom of individuals to conduct their lives as they see fit. If all individuals have the right to live as they like and any two individuals disagree, by what process can a decision between them be made? This being a democratic libertarian socialist state, as opposed to an anarchist one, the right to retain private property is still a viable option for settling disputes, as long as the conditions of use and labor that justify exclusion are met. Private property then successfully solves the problem and given the two conditions of use and guaranteed income we avoid exploitation through it. The decision goes to the owner on principle, in fact, that is what it means to be an owner, you get to decide how and when a thing is used.
The problem persists in joint property and in public property, however. We must ask how people set rules about, for example, littering on a public street, without violating the rights of the individuals who did not explicitly agree not to litter on that street? Voluntary society seems highly susceptible to collapse into petty sovereignties. A principle of jurisdiction could solve this problem, but this must include some amount of tyranny. It is my hope that we can devise a jurisdictional principle that would mitigate the tyrannical effect to the greatest extent possible so that people would voluntarily agree to subject themselves to the rule of others out of respect for the autonomy of those others and so preserve their own autonomy in their own sphere.
Jurisdiction, as it is generally construed, concerns what relationships count as politically relevant enough that people have the right to create rules in their sphere of action with the effect of restricting the freedoms of those who enter it. At base, we need to know what makes an association of people a body politic empowered to self-govern. Is a relationship between enemies politically relevant? What about business partners? Or geographically distant close friends? The answer is that they all could be, but none necessarily are. Such categories of identity and relationships are too subjective to be useful here and should be replaced with spheres of action. As the individual must be in touch with their own interests they must be in touch with the interests of those who make up their basic democratic unit as well. Their decisions will impact that unit more than any other units. Therefore, those who have the greatest chance for proximal interaction have the greatest concern with each other’s behaviors. Alternative forms of interaction are all less effective. Interactions through media, for example, are always shaped by the media itself and thus constitute a less direct, less effective, and so less politically relevant form of relationship. Political relationships need to be local enough to present direct physical interaction, but not necessarily externally defined. A geographic feature, such as a river or a mountain range, might well divide one political area from another, but this should be because the feature genuinely affects the locality of the individuals who inhabit the body. The building of a bridge or a tunnel could effectively change the political jurisdiction. So, while it may be possible for a community to straddle opposite sides of the globe, it’s very, very unlikely; and even if it is the case, it is more unlikely still that so greatly separated peoples should remain a small scale political unity for long.
Whether a person inhabits a place or is merely visiting is an important question. Those who set down roots seem entitled to a say in that sphere of action, precisely because it is theirs, but those who are just there for a weekend, don’t. Caution must be exercised at this point in any government claiming to be a voluntary association, as a rule affects all (persons), not just those who decided upon it (citizens). If the citizens of a given area enact a biased rule that favors themselves over minorities and non-citizens, this is the worst tyranny and is easily accomplished despite a principle of equality before the law. This tyranny is simply unacceptable and must be mitigated in the name of a just society. James Madison dealt with this problem of faction by allowing larger spheres of action to supersede lower ones. We see this in the United States when the constitution makes lower laws void. A city cannot, for example, enact slavery statues because it is illegal at a larger sphere of action. Madison’s solution, however, suffers the major drawback that each sphere is governed by representatives and it becomes all too easy for wealthy and powerful factions to capture the higher spheres for themselves. Something that Madison thought would be highly improbable.
Although locality makes up an important part of the basis for determining jurisdiction, it is also not limited to a specific externally marked domain. Political boundaries at the scale of the community are nearly fluid and correspond neatly to the areas directly inhabited by their members. This is the most voluntary form of government. It is at the municipal level that the need for defined jurisdiction covering spaces not privately owned enters the political architecture. These public and quasi-public spaces cover areas frequented by the members of several communities but not necessarily wholly bound inside their combined private property. In other words, the laws of a community apply only to the members of the community themselves, they have no jurisdiction beyond the community members and their property. The community is purely voluntary and as close to completely anarchist (at least for adults) as possible. Municipalities, on the other hand, govern several communities at once. The bounds of the municipality must somehow designate which communities are a part of the municipality for terms of voting and where the laws set down by these collective communities are applied. This is the first scale at which laws must be written down and publicly posted and where the law applies beyond the citizens of the jurisdiction. The municipality is the smallest unit of government and law and most likely sphere for tyranny. It is also the most flexible, allowing for the greatest diversity of relationships and laws, biases, and individuality. As with Madison, every scale above the municipality works similarly and each one’s laws would bind the ones below it so that a county that forbids a thing binds all municipalities in that county to forbid it as well.
Here is precisely were democratic libertarian socialist values clash with anarchist ones. For this is where voluntary agreement first begins to drift off. To see this, let’s ask the question: must all who enter a municipality be bound by the laws of the municipality, whether or not they are members of it? Let us say that the members of a municipality unanimously decide to forbid the spitting of chewing gum on the sidewalk. Let us further say that you are a visitor to this municipality who did not and would not have the opportunity to vote on this particular issue. Must you follow the rules of the municipality and not spit your gum on the sidewalk despite having never agreed to this rule? This example highlights a clash of values in libertarianism itself. Does one group, when imposing its rules on its sphere of action, have the right to impose those rules on non-members of the group in their territory? Libertarianism places a value on the voluntary agreement to rules in order to be legitimate but at the same time allows people the freedom to set their own rules. The solution to this apparent paradox is recognizing that all visitors have agreed to the rules establishing how laws get passed in each place and that inherent in that agreement is the agreement to respect the laws set down by others in their own jurisdictions. In other words, like Madison’s solution, there is an agreement at a higher scale which supersedes the lower disagreement. The problem with this solution, as with Madison’s, is that of capture which allows political tyranny.
To prevent capture, I offer a two-part solution. First, individuals must have both a jurisdiction of their own and at the same time alternatives jurisdictions to enter should they wholly disagree with the rules they are subject to. If one is a visitor, one is free to simply not visit. However, for citizens, relocation offers less of a solution. As a citizen, one has a voice in a given jurisdiction, and could simply try to prevent laws. One might not always be able to escape the biases of a group through the vote though, and if one resides in the area, getting up and leaving, while an option, is not always economically advantageous or feasible. Fleeing a jurisdiction is easily accomplished at the community scale where it most likely would not even involve a move. But higher scales bring increasingly greater difficulties to this method of preserving one’s liberty.
This is the reason we need a second part to this solution: higher percentages of popular support must be required to establish a law at larger scales. Rather than force people to relocate to communities that are ideologically homogeneous, we could instead raise the bar for passing laws in correlation with the scale of the jurisdiction it would affect. The goal would be to equally allow groups to create laws governing conduct in their spheres of action and at the same time protect dissent. As stated above, a biased community rule is easily escapable by simply changing communities if you so strongly disagree. A higher order law, however, is more difficult and so should require greater assent to pass. And so on, with each scale up requiring more affirmation. The ability of the large jurisdictions to supersede the lower ones would still have the desired effect as Madison envisioned. However, the ability to capture the larger spheres of action would become increasingly difficult, since the percentage required to secure a decision would change in inverse proportion to the scale of its effect.
Practically, we might imagine that at the smallest level, the community, a simple majority is all that is required to pass a rule. At the highest level, universally, we might require something extreme, like the assent of 95% of the population, to pass this entirely inescapable legislation. The scales between would be higher or lower accordingly. A municipality could require only 55% of its population to affirm a law before it passes, whereas a county may require 60%, a territory 65%, a district 70%, a nation 75%, and hemisphere of the globe 80%. This architecture will result in the majority of laws existing at the smallest scales of government and thus applying only to a few people; at the bottom, only those who voted for them. Only overwhelmingly agreed upon laws would exist at the greatest scales. This is the best that can be done for dissident without allowing minority dictatorship over the majority population.
This solution, however, presents a further challenge. What happens to a person who dissents from the social order? What happens to the minority vote? And while we’re at it, how does one become a community member? These questions are all related to the idea of who counts, which I’ll deal with later, but for right now, let me focus on what recourse persons have in a system they disagree with. The problem is more concrete if we take any social norm that is rather one-sided as an example. Genocide might be an easy one. What would happen if you lived in a community who condoned genocide even though you reject it? Well, first you could leave the community. All individuals are political beings, and so all individuals must belong to a community. But you are free to choose your community to some extent. If you choose to leave a community, it would be necessary for you to be accepted by another. However, it can never be acceptable for a community to eject one of its members. Members may leave voluntarily or die, but they must not be removed. The ability to leave allows members who do not wish to live under certain laws the freedom to take refuge elsewhere. At the municipal level and above, this may involve physical relocation. The costs of which will have to be weighed against the strength of the individual’s beliefs. But we can very quickly see that the greater the scale, the more implausible this “freedom” becomes, and it is indubitably the case that without the actual opportunity for leaving no freedom exists.
It seems clear that any democratic libertarian socialist political architecture must be directly democratic at some point. The above assumes a directly democratic legislature, although not a directly democratic executive or judicial government. Dissent is healthy and should not be immediately suppressed, but at the same time, a large majority has a right to live how they choose and not under the anarchist tyranny of the minority veto. This compromise between our respective interests seems to offer us the best of these mutually exclusive positions.
Before we move on, I want to say a word on what a community can do to discipline its members for non-compliance. There will always be those who are disruptive and whose disruptions are either apolitical or simply criminal. For example, one may remain in a community and break the law merely to do so. Given that other avenues for dissent are available this member of the community is simply breaking the rules to break the rules. This is no less tyranny than usurping a political system to disenfranchising others or seizing power. The obvious manner for stopping such activity is to expressly forbid it by law and treat offenders in the customary manner, whatever form that takes. But if the behavior does not quite constitute a violation of the law, for example, something both disrespectful and disruptive but still within the bounds of political speech, the community must take care not to ostracize the member(s). However, they do not have to listen. A de facto excommunication may be acceptable whereas de jure excommunication is not. As long as the member is still allowed to speak and still allowed to vote and have their vote counted, a community is free to ignore them.
The Representation Problem
I want to return now to the issue of representation. In the first part of this series, I showed how the mere inclusion of representatives endangers the entire political architecture of democracy making it a de facto oligarchy or monarchy. What we need to prevent this is to devise an architecture that would not allow unauthorized power to slide into the representative’s hands. The first thing we have to do is understand exactly what the role of representatives is in a truly democratic government. So, let’s begin by recalling that the need for representatives doesn’t enter the picture until the scale of the municipality. As I said, communities are basic democratic units, anarchist in nature, and so do not require an internal representative. Thus, we only need representation to organized political bodies beyond our communities, viz. municipalities, counties, territories, districts, nations and universal. Representatives then are charged with carrying out the community’s bidding in its relations to other communities and relating the desires of other communities to the represented community.
We still face the problem of where the community may not be able to determine their own “bidding” explicitly or charge in a direct and personal manner their representative with the task of carrying it out. At the same time, the “representative” may just carry out their own bidding in the name of the community they represent. Ensuring the link between the will of the group and its representative is our task. To do this will require more–not less–political architecture. It would be instructive to revisit the separation of powers theory, represented by the branches of government, viz. the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. I argued above that it is the communities themselves, as the basic units of democracy, that should legislate directly. Let me add here that the communities should act as legislators at all scales of politics. This is important for representation because it takes away the power of the representative to volunteer their constituency’s voice or sell their vote without consent.
This locus of the legislative action in the community is essential to democracy. Legislative power cannot be delegated without changing the political architecture from democracy to something else. The representative’s role in wielding legislative power should be limited to functionary duties, e.g. preparing language, conducting votes, entering decisions, codifying laws, etc. Perhaps representatives may decide which laws to vote on and at what time, but such legislative authority should mark the utmost extreme end of their power to influence legislation.This is all that can be done to satisfy Edmund Burke’s admonition that representatives exercise their individual conscience rather than mindlessly following the uninformed opinions of their constituents. It is the legislative branch of government that belongs to the people and must remain directly with the people if the polity is to be considered democratic.
However, this is not true of executive and judicial power. These important roles can be delegated with particular structuring, so that a small minority may perform the function of governing, but do so without ruling. The role of representatives in government should then be largely limited to overseeing executive and judicial functions, such as the hiring and firing of administrators and judges and making of policy respecting the administration of law, but never, under any circumstances, the enactment or repeal of law itself.
Another duty of representatives is maintaining the flow of information. It is perhaps the most vital role of representatives to act as the eyes and ears of a community so that it may confront the issues of the day from an informed position. Obviously, information may come from other sources, but representatives, as they act in higher and higher scales, have access to the most direct information available. In other words, it is not just the role of the representative to serve as the voice of the represented, but as the voice of the government to the represented, empowering them with the information they need to make good decisions. They are an important pivot point between a community and all the greater scales of politics. The worst representatives will hide information from their constituents in an attempt to manipulate the situation how they think it ought to be handled. Trustworthiness will, therefore, be the most vital characteristic to consider in the election of a community’s representative. To guard against manipulation, a democratic architecture should require that all government activities be public.
How should representatives be selected at each scale? There are various schools of thought on this, but I favor election at the smallest scales. Each community should elect, with a simple majority vote, it’s representative to a municipal council. Each municipal councilor should elect, at the determination of the community they represent, their representatives to the county council. Beyond the county level, it’s hard to know who to trust. All candidates desire power as no one runs for offices who do not. However, a solution is available if we simply remove elections at this point. The territorial council and beyond could all be appointed by the drawing of lots from the pool of current county councilors in good standing.
Why introduce a chance here? Precisely because it checks overwhelming political ambition. We can still ensure that we are getting good people into office by additionally requiring that only those who have been elected to a county council more than one time are eligible for higher offices. We can also restrict the term of office to a single six-year period; along with the prohibition on being selected for more than one term at any particular appointed scale. Those representatives who are elected should be reelected frequently, say every two years, but could, of course, serve many terms up to some reasonable limit; say, a maximum of six terms. This will assure us that even if some rather bad apples get into positions of power, they needn’t be suffered indefinitely. Additionally, a list of impeachable offenses should be made into law that would allow the recall of anyone who abused their position. And any representative, even an appointed one should be recallable by their represented lower scale. Appointments would have a voluntary component, no one would be forced to serve and may resign at any time. And the vacancies could easily be filled by another round of elections or selections.
In its most abstract terms, the representatives of the communities serve as their surrogate in the daily administration of self-government.
In part three, I will attempt to flesh out the bare bones of this political architecture by exploring some of the more pragmatic considerations democratic libertarian socialism must confront.
In this series of posts, I will discuss aspects of political architecture consistent with democratic libertarian socialism. My purpose is to attempt to rationally plan a functioning democracy in relation to libertarian socialist ideals. This is counter to most libertarian socialism which is generally understood to be anarchist. What I will not be doing in this series is arguing why democratic libertarian socialism is superior to anarchist libertarian socialism. Neither will I be making the argument for libertarian socialism as a socio-economic system which I have done numerously elsewhere in different ways on this blog; e.g. here, here, here, and here. Also, see my prize-winning essayon the subject.
To keep with libertarian ideology, the structure I plan will be a limited state, voluntarily justified in the places it is coercive, and run on principle and law. The goal is to protect each other from the abuse of power that comes with a community by structuring the power, through principles, in such a manner that it cannot be overwhelmingly coopted. See my post on the different kinds of political discourse in philosophy for a more about the goal of political architectures.
The point of this post is not to decide on a method of political activity, nor to find a method of resolving political disputes, but merely to ask how do we best organize ourselves into political structures as to maintain relative economic equality and liberty. I want to ignore the battle between monarchy and democracy, loosely defined, as over and done with; democracy I hold to be the clear favorite. However, democracy by its very nature comes in a multitude of configurations; from indirect republics, plutocracies, and aristocracies to more direct tribal democracy, congregations, contractual alliances and–at the bottom–simple friendships between individuals. The division I just drew stands in need of explanation, for the former represent larger forms of democracy, scaled all the way up as it were; while the latter tend to represent the smaller forms scaled down to the deliberative decision-making of individuals. Both scales have their positives and negatives. The large scale allows for mass action that generates truly miraculous feats, irrespective of whether those feats are right or wrong. The problem is that it is very hard to get decisiveness out of such a large body of people, that is to say, the greater the capacity for mass action, the lower the possibility for univocal agreement. The opposite is just the case with the smaller democratic forms. Here we see that mass action is limited by the smaller populations, but at the same time, a greater possibility for explicitly-voluntary concord among the members is still achievable. This is the nature of the dilemma for a political architecture of democracy. How best to organize a political population so that the best of both scales is preserved?
First, we must ask, is it even possible? No doubt there must be some form that maximizes the best of both scales even if it doesn’t completely resolve the issue. Every form of state even paying lip-service to the idea of democracy, like fascism, observes the rule that power is legitimated by the people. What is questionable about there highly authoritarian forms of democracy is whether or not the structure is in fact legitimated by the people. The test for the level of democratic influence is well known to political science: are the laws and decisions of the government in step with the opinions of the people at large, some larger association within the populace, or with an elite minority? On this scale, few if any real democracies exist in the world. Most republics can be defined by which association they serve. For example, the United State is plutocratic because the legislature, executive, and judicial branches of the government are more likely to enact policy following the desires of the wealthy than the general public, see the study here. My goal is to find a form that would be genuinely democratic. That is, where the policies of government closely represented the desires of the general public.
I will generally skip over a history of political forms and assume you have a working knowledge of past regimes. However, I feel compelled to speak briefly of the form known as a “republic”. This form is interesting because, in my opinion, it is a hybrid between monarchy and democracy. Republics attempt to solve the same stability problem we are. The republican solution is to preserve attributes of a monarchy inside a democracy. One way it does this is by limiting who “counts” in the population generally and the citizenry specifically. By reducing the number of decision-makers, either by explicitly forbidding certain populations access to public affairs or by diminishing the effect of their influence or by structuring certain domains of political discourse to a select group or single “head” or some combination of all these, republics reduce the instability of a mass of decision-makers. Limiting the decision-making capacity for the majority, (to voting for representatives, for example), or relegating it to minor and insignificant decisions (e.g. voting on the occasional ballot measure) are the most common method of republics. They work by paying homage to democracy while giving the real decision-making powers to an elite few or one. Over time, the need to pay homage to the people wanes and there is a tendency for this type of government to go from a de facto monarchy or oligarchy to an explicit monarchy. Think of the Roman Republic and its civil strife that lead to the formation of an autocratic Emporer. For our purposes then, a republic of any form is not a genuinely democratic option. I seek a stable form of democracy, not a tacit form of monarchy.
To form a democracy it is necessary that a forum for the full expression of every individual’s political concerns exists and that every individual has a turn to speak and be heard by their political peers. This I will call the short definition of deliberative democracy. Deliberative in this respect meaning simply a democracy where people come to talk to work out their respective political issues. Deliberation is essential for democracy for two reasons: (1) it is by definition voluntary and (2) it forces a recognition of the actual political issues confronting individuals and communities. Bounding the deliberative aspect of democracy effectively eliminates participation by its citizenry. This makes any action the state takes involuntary action on the part of those who either could not participate or were limited in their ability to participate. Similarly, no individual can rationally decide matters they have not had a chance to hear argued, neither could they empower a representative to do so on their behalf. Representation, even plenipotentiary representation, is possible in a democracy. However, it is not something someone can simply empower another to do without a specific outcome in mind. How could you represent my interests, if I don’t know what is going on or what would be best for me? I don’t want to digress too far down this path, except to say that representation is a necessity to large scale democracy, but without the opportunity for all individuals to confront the issues of the day, in both a direct and personal way, representation is illegitimate.
What often happens in republics is elected “representatives” are empowered with the entire decision-making capacity of their constituents, i.e. they do not represent the people so much as they replace them as though they were the only citizens of a democracy. This is oligarchy and the first step on the inevitable road back to monarchy; once the relationship between the representative and the represented has been usurped, so that the representative no longer needs any input from the represented to make decisions, then all “representation” has ceased, and the so-called representative has become an independent lord of their constituency (a member of the house of lords) and a patrician among plebians (senator of the Republic).
Let’s consider the notion of scale more closely. Here we should ask, what is the smallest unit of a political entity? Prima facie, the obvious answer would be the individual, but a little reflection reveals that the answer is flawed. The problem with the individual is that decisiveness and action collapse and become one and the same. Individuals, barring mental disease, are considered the master of themselves precisely because there is nothing political about them. In fact, the appeal of monarchy resides in its utilization this natural apoliticality to make decisions for everyone, which are then applied through authority or force over them. We see again on the individual level that the problem of political architecture is decision versus action. How are things to be decided (e.g. by whom?) and how much action is going to be brought to bear (i.e. how many individuals will be involved)? The greater the action; the greater the power, but the decision is how that power will be utilized and towards what. Monarchy is appealing precisely because so much power can be brought to bear so single-mindedly! This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the monarch that utilizes the full power of the population for their own self-aggrandizement is what we call a tyrant.
The individual’s apolitical nature means that a single individual cannot be the smallest unit of a polity. I would argue then that the smallest unit must be the individual as he or she stands in relation to others. The pair may be the smallest political unit then. A pair of friends, of lovers, parents, or children; even of bitter enemies are all examples of the smallest political unit. There is an effect of the pair that we can see continuing in larger and larger scales, up to a point. This effect is a need to work together toward some end. Even among enemies, there is a shared desire to eliminate the rivalry, albeit mostly following the strategy of eliminating the rival. Nevertheless, the end of the rivalry would bring about the end of the relationship as enemies and at the same time the end of the political unit. Thus, we could say that all political units are relationships between two or more individuals. We can see these relationships do not change as we scale them up, at first anyway. There is hardly a difference between two rivals and three or a team of six and a team of seven. But this direct relationship doesn’t scale up like that forever, and this is again owning to natural conditions. There are important differences between a company of seventeen and a company of seventeen million. In the latter, the “company” will hardly be able to recognize each other, and it is unlikely that a direct and personal relationship will exist between all the members as it would for the company of seventeen.
So here we have our first two architectural principles: political units begin with relationships and so require at least two individuals and these relationships cannot scale up beyond a certain point. I leave it to science to determine that point, and I highly suspect that it would vary with the individuals and cultures. A group of people with excellent memories, for example, might be able to maintain a direct and personal relationship with everyone else at a higher population than a group of people with faulty memories. That said, I feel we should put some rough number to this point that is generally manageable for an average human being. For the sake of mathematical ease, I’m going to say one hundred is the threshold of direct and personal political relationships for the sake of the scaling problem. Essentially, I’m suggesting that under a hundred individuals most groups could manage their own affairs through direct democracy, without the need for written laws, procedures, representation, or much political architecture at all. This is the threshold of anarchism. Talking and relying on each other would be all that it would take to resolve nearly all of the group’s problems. So, let us call this anarchist unit of one hundred or fewer, the basic unit of democracy. My goal is to introduce political architecture so that these units can combine and scale upwards with similar stability, all the way up to the incorporation of humanity as a whole.
The Scaling Problem
My guess would be that each democratic unit would require a representative in the next scale up. So, let’s call this basic democratic unit a “community”, we might imagine a municipality that consisted of representatives from each community of one hundred or fewer individuals. But again, we encounter the same scaling problem. Fifty community representatives could all know each other and function as a community of representatives, but fifty thousand would just lead us back to the same instability we saw before. The obvious solution then is to repeat the same process again and limit “municipalities” to groups of one hundred community representatives. And so forth, we might see this same scale repeat so that a “county” consists of the representatives of a hundred municipalities, a “territory” of a hundred counties, a “district” of a hundred territories, a “nation” of a hundred districts, and “world” of a hundred nations. But there is a problem with this model, several in fact.
One problem is that each scale up removes the representative from those they officially represent. Another problem is who elects these representatives or who are these representatives ultimately accountable to? How does information flow in both directions in this system? And there is the problem of jurisdiction, how are laws geographically applied? What if I want to be part of a “community” made up of individuals spread across the globe? We may not even have the same political concerns. Another problem involves the politicization of other forms of human distinction, such as race, class, gender, age, etc. Doesn’t a demographic identity, say black males aged twenty to thirty in the southern United States, have shared political needs that form a kind of quasi-relationship even if no direct and personal relationship exists between them? All these problems point to the fact that our political architecture requires more than simply scaling representation up at the threshold of direct relationships. It’s not enough to have direct democracy at all scales and that each scale is likely to require its own unique design.
In the next part, I will address these problems as I paint a picture of how representation may be managed on a rising scale.
“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
I have already made the argument that Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde share a particularly libertarian vision of socialism. I have also already speculated what Wilde’s socialism would have to look like. In this final part, I want to explore the view of individualism under socialism that makes it libertarian, particularly in the words of Wilde and Marx. Let’s begin with the question Wilde asks:
But it may be asked how individualism, which is now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development, will benefit by the abolition of such private property?
Under [socialism], individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now… For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.
Wilde’s answer reveals an existentialist’s view of socialism. For Wilde, individualism is self-making, rather than self-acceptance as is the individualism of Ayn Rand. That left-wing libertarianism is existentialist comes as no shock to anyone familiar with the neo-Marxist work of the nineteen sixties and their near obsession with young Marx. It is young Marx, the humanist, who celebrates the individual to come under socialism. The individual under capitalism is reduced to the base animal functions since the wages of a worker are reduced to subsistence, only these animal functions may be expressed. The norm then for the worker is to be a brute, an animal, for those are the only pleasures allowed for them. Marx writes,
[M]an (the worker) feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions–eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment–while in his human functions, he is reduced to an animal. (99)
Individuality is not a given, it must be cultivated and requires resources to develop it. The goal of socialism, as we saw in part one, is to provide the resources that will satisfy the animal requirements and allow for the human individuality to emerge. The argument presented against this is that a fully realized individual, e.g. a Lord Byron, must have wealth to be fully realized and there is not enough wealth for everyone to be fully realized. Some people will have to content themselves with pushing the dirt around. Wilde argues against this that socialism is not interested in taking away opportunity as it is in extending it to everybody.
The question then becomes how? Right-wing advocates of capitalism argue that this is simply wishful thinking. It cannot be done. Not everyone can be a poet and philosopher. However, this argument is made on a particular set of unfortunate assumptions about the nature of humankind that amount to an anti-existentialism. The most important of these for our purposes surrounds the confusion between being and having, that is confusing self-realization for the possession of private property. Wilde writes,
[Under capitalism, humankind thinks] that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.
This division between possession and essence is best described by the existentialists a half-century later. Using them to understand Wilde, we can conclude that individualism is living an authentic life, where possessions are merely possessions, things to be used in the pursuit of your life’s goals, not necessities that are merely useful. One must have a personality in order to decide what is useful, it cannot be defined for you by an outside agency, capitalist, socialist, or anything else. Individuality is authenticity and socialism is the necessary condition for it.
[Jesus] said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot… And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.
Individualism is the call to be authentic, to author your own life, to care little for the direction others would have over your life. Contra religion, Wilde emphasizes that there is no set path to authenticity, no prescribable way to live your life.
Father Damien was Christlike when he went out to live with the lepers, because in such service he realised fully what was best in him. But he was not more Christlike than Wagner when he realised his soul in music; or than Shelley, when he realised his soul in song. There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.
Individualism is what you make of yourself when you no longer have to labor for mere survival. The rich and the middle classes have to think about money all the time, it is how they make it, keep it, and spend it. When you have to think about money all the time you are unable to develop yourself, to become an individual. You are, in effect, reduced to making yourself whatever is easiest, most convenient, and most attractive to those upon whom your happiness depends. And under capitalism, this class includes everybody.
There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor. What Jesus does say is that man reaches his perfection, not through what he has, not even through what he does, but entirely through what he is.
This notion of individualism echos Marx’s idea of freedom from alienated labor. As Erich Fromm said of Marx, “Socialism… was never as such the fulfillment of life, but the condition for such fulfillment… Marx says quite clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, ‘communism as such is not the aim of human development.’ What, then, is the aim? Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man,” (60). Alienated labor is the particularly capitalist organization of labor which isolates rather than individuates human beings. It breaks people up into specializations, but it also breaks them down into parts, making laborers out of people, or, in a few cases, capitalists. No one is free to be who they want, everyone is compelled by a system designed from without. As Marx said, “alienated labor… alienates man from himself, from his own active function and from other men,” (101). Subjected to our alienated needs human beings become “mentally and physically dehumanized… the self-conscious and self-acting commodity.” In other words, we come to see ourselves and each other as things.
What makes capitalism dangerous is precisely the fact that owning capital seems to fully compensate for the loss. Possessions can be lost, but capital, self-replicating possessions, appear to be just as permanent as authentic being itself. Capitalism, like the Christian ideology it came from, emphasizes an asceticism that forbids individuality because this allows you to replace an authentic existence for a treasure trove of self-creating wealth. Of course, this only works if everyone is made, by incentive or force, to bow to their role in the system. Marx writes,
[The political economy of capitalism] is… [also] the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave…. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. (144)
For Marx, the aim of socialism then is liberation from this system. He writes in the manifesto,
All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.
Under socialism, one must not err into thinking that capital is somehow a substitute for individuality, but at the same time, one must not confuse individualism with selfishness. Long before Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of selfishness, Wilde argued that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.” Selfishness for Wilde is what altruism is for Ayn Rand. I have already shown that Wilde would have agreed that altruism is bad, but he would have disagreed that selfishness was any different. He condemns egoism, saying,
For the egotist is he who makes claims upon others, and the Individualist will not desire to do that. It will not give him pleasure.
This is because:
Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.
And therein lies the great difficulty with individualism, for the freedom to be oneself, is all too often accompanied by the desire to restrict the freedom of others. It was in the name of freedom that slave-holders denounced the abolitionists. “What right have they to take away my freedom to own slaves?” Or as Marx put it, “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even it opponents realize it… No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.” Freedom requires the rights of all to freedom. It is not up to the capitalist to decide what a worker’s needs should be, and yet that is exactly what happens. For the capitalists require workers, as much as possible, to resemble the “self-acting commodities” they need them to be. Wilde writes,
[A] man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realisation of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live… Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses. Under Individualism people will be quite natural and absolutely unselfish, and will know the meanings of the words, and realise them in their free, beautiful lives.
“The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
Socialism is not the first thing I associate with Oscar Wilde. In fact, it’s not the fifth thing. The man in my mind is first a playwright, then a poet, novelist, artist, dandy, homosexual, Irishman, celebrity, and finally–with mild dubiousness–a social critic. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde is exactly the socialist thinker we need today. His essay on socialism, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, offers a particular analysis of capitalism written with Wilde’s usual jaunty wit. While less theoretically precise than the work of, say, Peter Kropotkin, who presents anarcho-communism in a dense manner that was–consistently–a heavy influence on Wilde, the spirit of Man Under Socialism is more moving and more profound than the writer of TheConquest of Bread. Wilde’s picture of socialism is, perhaps, a trifle less anarchistic than Kropotkin, but still heavily emphasizes individual liberty and autonomy.
I think Oscar Wilde best fits the model of a libertarian socialist. The term may be apocryphally applied, but as is clear from his writings on socialism, individual freedom is an essential part of his socialist idyll. Wilde’s position, briefly summed, is that individuality is not to be taken as a given, as many right-wing libertarians would, but instead, individuality can only develop under a system that promotes general fairness and relative equality, viz. socialism. Wilde’s fascination with individual expression led him away from authoritarian socialists, like those that would only a few decades later come to power in Russia. It is dubious that Marxism leads only to the Bolshevik model of socialism, in fact, I would go farther and argue that Wilde’s brand of libertarian socialism is more consistent with Marx’s ideas than Bolshevik theory.
The Bolshevik’s denounced individuality because of its relationship to private property. They felt that it was an example of false consciousness, rather than a valid perspective. Wilde on the other said that socialism is valuable “simply because it will lead to individualism.” Like Marx, Wilde saw that individualism is the goal of socialism and that capitalism, for all its talk of individuality, really makes the vast majority of people live for the betterment of a few. For Wilde, the poor under capitalism are degraded by their relative poverty and so cannot be fully individuated, they must live for others (viz. the capitalists) or perish altogether.
Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community.
This is not unlike Karl Marx’s vision in the Communist Manifesto:
In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, shall we have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
But looking after the well-being of each member requires that each member be treated individually and not as a mere member of the community. Wilde writes,
What is needed is individualism. If socialism is authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.
Wilde is taking aim here at what Dr. Richard Wolff will later call “state capitalism”. It is a form of capitalism that retains the aspect of private property ownership but resolves to make the state the sole owner of all property. In effect, this is “concentrated capitalism”, and it is far worse than private capitalism. This concentrated form of capitalism–monopoly capitalism–is no better off when the monopoly is the state. And its failures are replete in the twentieth century.
It is clear, then, that no authoritarian socialism will do. For while, under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.
Wilde introduces a need for freedom into the idea of socialism. Authoritarian socialism, while good for the defense of the socialist state from the teeth of capitalist rivals, is ultimately self-defeating. Despite this, the attempt to force socialism without liberty was as popular in Wilde’s time as it was in the twentieth century.
But I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question… It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.
But still, the abolition of private property remained central:
With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
Compare this to Marx, writing nearly half a century earlier:
A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. (138)
Marx, especially early on, was greatly concerned for the life of the individual. Socialism and communism were meant to liberate the individual, rather than dictate to individuals their duties and needs. Marx writes,
Alienation is apparent not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desires are the unattainable possession of someone else, but that everything is something different from itself, that my activity is something else, and finally (and this is also the case for the capitalist) that an inhuman power rules over everything. [Emphasis his] (151)
It does not matter to Marx if our life belongs to a private master or a public one, to live in the service of a lord, a landlord, or a capitalist is no worse than to live in the service of a state, a society, or a community. If it is wrong for one person to steal what is yours (your surplus value) it is just as wrong for ten-thousand people to steal it. And this is just as true when society is “free” as when it is controlled and directed by a governing body.
The “inhuman power” in Marx’s quote above is his name for the action of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. The action governs the behavior of both capitalist and laborer so that neither is truly free. Wilde, like Marx and Smith, emphasizes this freedom for individual expression as necessary for a good life. Marx is a staunch individualist and his socialism is designed to bring about more, not less, individual expression. It is the same for the wealthy capitalist as it is for the working poor according to both Marx and Wilde. Although Marx merely mentions this fact as an aside in the parenthetical (above), Wilde puts it much more cheekily,
If [private] property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich, we must get rid of it.
The real antagonist to individual expression is, according to Marx, the political economist, who reduces people to base functions in an economic system:
First, by reducing the needs of the worker to the miserable necessities required for the maintenance of his physical existence, and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movements, the economist asserts that man has no needs for activity or enjoyment…; and yet he declares that this kind of life is a human way of life. Secondly, by reckoning as the general standard of life… the most impoverished life conceivable, he turns the worker into a being who has neither senses nor needs, just as he turns his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. Thus all working class luxury seems to him blameworthy, and everything which goes beyond the most abstract need (whether it be a passive enjoyment or a manifestation of personal activity) is regarded as a luxury.
Property creates roles, duties, and even the ideas of idleness and luxury. “What does a worker need ‘free time’ or ‘income beyond necessity’ for? Nothing as far as we can see?” But workers never feel the things they want are “luxuries”, they are simply the things necessary for a good life. Private property, for both men, was entangled with a notion of social rank from which it must be freed before it can be fair. Wilde writes,
In a community… where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things… man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of… considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him—in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.
Rich or poor, your life under capitalism is not free to develop its own character. You inevitably live for others. You are forced into a set of classes, which according to Marx, narrow to a set of two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While I doubt we will ever come to see ourselves merely as class interests, as Marx predicted, there is no doubt that we do come to live in the “groove in which [we] cannot freely develop”. Wilde defines “class” as a social script, the deviation from which is difficult at best and deadly at worst. Anyone in contemporary America who is not white, straight, healthy, wealthy, and male knows what I am speaking of all too well. The point here is that it is capitalism which establishes what “success” looks like, and to succeed without fitting the model becomes increasingly improbable as capitalism becomes the hegemonic economic system.
In the third part of this series, I will look into this idea further, examining what it means to be an individual and how capitalism interferes with that process according to Wilde and Marx. For now, suffice it to say that Wilde, unlike the Bolsheviks, shared Marx’s underscoring of individuality and his disdain for life under the authority of another, be it the bourgeoisie or the state. The need for individual freedom, for both men, sprouts under any political economy but it flowers only in the soil of equality. In the next part, I will examine the pragmatics of socialism as Wilde and Marx saw it.
In the neoliberal picture of economics, it is a common assumption that workers are indirect beneficiaries from the saving and reinvestment of capitalists in their privately owned businesses. Capitalism thereby provides these laborers with jobs, income, and indeed their very lives. This notion can be found from Bernard de Mandeville (The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits) to Friedrich Hayek (The Fatal Conceit), and popularized in the war cry of Gordon Gekko, “Greed is… good. Greed is right, greed works.” Of course, we are not really talking about “greed” here but “savings and investment”. Put simply, the idea is that by following their own self-interests the capitalists, inadvertently and out of necessity, provide for an army of workers who would otherwise be unable to survive. This all sounds straightforward enough, but there is a problem. This argument is curved three hundred and sixty degrees.
The neoliberalism assumes that the act of saving for new capital expenditures must be the product of the lone action of the enterprises’ owners. Part of the reason for believing this is cultural. The law and most people have–without good reason, mind you–assumed that the product of an enterprise’s efforts belongs exclusively to the owners of its capital. This is the fundamental assumption of capitalism. It is from this assumption that it seems to follow that the reinvestment in an enterprise’s capital is an act of its “owners”. Another reason, more classist and derogatory, comes from a long history of intellectual’s belief that lowly wage-workers were incapable of managing money. The stereotype of the drunken field hand or dock worker embodies the sentiment. Given them more money, according to this classist logic, and they would thoughtlessly spend it on gambling games, booze, and prostitution. This prejudice lingers on centuries later the wreck of capitalist poverty created such desperate people for whom a minutes entertainment was the best they could hope for, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is nevertheless the source but not the problem with the neoliberal argument. To see why we’ll need to examine the process of profit from sales.
The neoliberal’s capitalist model looks something like this: the owner of the capital (material components) of an enterprise is assumed to be “owner” of the enterprise itself, and this is true whether or not they work for the company or have ever even laid eyes upon it. As the “owner” of the enterprise, they have rights that extend to the products of the enterprise’s industry. The owners of capital then, own the fruits of labor’s efforts based squarely on the strength of the assumption. As “owners”, they are at liberty to sell these items, (including service labor) for any price they can get and keep all of the profits thereof for themselves. The labor of workers has been assumed to have been contracted out, paid in advance, through fair and just negotiations, before the manufacture and sale of the “product”. The risk of a failure at the market is assumed also to belong entirely to the capitalist and is often invoked as the justification for their keeping the “surplus-value” or profit from sales, over and above the costs of production. If you accept this model, then it does follow that capitalists are saving for the future good of all of society and therefore what is good for the capitalists is the best anyone, capitalist or otherwise, can hope for.
I, obviously, do not accept a neoliberal capitalist model. Against it, I offer the following alternative: when a “product” is sold at the market the price is fixed by the consumers, that is the proceeds of the sale are ultimately set by demand for the product and have nothing whatsoever to do with the way the product was brought about. Consumers lack knowledge of production methods and set price based on relative utility over the cost of a product or service to themselves (this is the Austrian theory). But from the manufacturers’ point of view, the profit of sale comes back somewhat mysteriously, set entirely by the market, with little (including advertising) they can do to change it. It is impossible to tell from this perspective whose productive contributions made the product profitable. The labor of one person and the materials of another are so combined that both were equally necessary for there to be realized any profit at all. If we don’t just assume the capitalist tradition of arbitrarily favoring the material owners of the things in an enterprise as the legal owners of the enterprise itself (and hence its products), we would have to ask ourselves how the profits, set by the market, ought to be divided among the respective contributors to production.
If we make the uncontroversial assumption that the rewards of group efforts ought to be shared evenly with respect to individual effort then there seems to be no reason to accept the fundamental assumption of capitalism. What gives capitalists the priority claim except for mere arbitrary tradition? And if we reject their claim, then the notion that workers owe their lives and livelihoods to capitalist’s self-interest goes right out the window; for if the profit is evenly shared then so too would be any saving and reinvestment in the capital of the enterprise. Worker’s can be seen to have been forced to save, so that money could be invested into the capital of an enterprise which they will benefit from only in the sense that the grist mill benefits from laboring because then its owners’ oil its parts. In short, if the profits are evenly shared, the savings are also.
But the stereotype persists, so that were the workers not “forced” to save, they would be very unlikely to reinvest, choosing instead to drink away their profits. I find this notion laughable, as I think of all the sodden millionaires, slurping Moet & Chandon, at some gala or another; no one accuses them of monetary impropriety. The fact is that laborers have more reason to invest in a company they own and work at than either an investor or an employee. The point here is that seen my way, the saving-act is really just as or even more legitimately an effort of laborers. We could view and should view laborers as the legitimate owners of the product, and so they either should have been paid more for their labor or they forwent the enjoyment of that income to invest it in the enterprises’ capital. It’s the assumption that capitalists should be considered the rightful owners of the products of industry and not all the members of that company that makes the neoliberal argument circular. The neoliberal cannot both assume the ownership of the products and use that assumption to justify the ownership of the means of production. This argument fails to prove that it is the capitalist who is really providing for the livelihood of the workers. It may just turn out that it is the workers who are really saving the money thus providing not only for themselves but all of the capitalist’s excessive wealth in addition.
It would surprise few on the left to learn that a similar kind of argument was used in defense of slavery in antebellum America. The idea was that slaves, being nearly as dumb as animals, couldn’t be expected to provide for themselves outside their native habitats. Being now caught up in an “extended order” (to use Hayek’s term for a society where almost none provide everything for themselves a bit anachronistically) they would not be able to survive without the slave-masters to provide for them. They owe their livelihoods and their very lives to the master’s efforts. So, the well-intended sympathies of intellectual elites and moralists who would abolish slavery can’t see that they would destroy the very material foundations that made the slave’s lives possible in the first place. But we know better today! It was not the slaves who depended on the masters’ benevolence for their livelihood, it was the masters who depended on the slave’s labors for theirs. It was mere contrivance that–like a funhouse mirror–makes it appear upside-down. Sadly, the “funhouse” is the “courthouse” and the “mirror of distortion” is the “law”.
The neoliberal argument pits an ideological morality against a supposed material economic necessity but is itself a reversal of the truth. The ideological morality is an empty vision that all too conveniently enables the mechanisms of economic oppression. The material economic necessity is built with the sweat of labor. The laborers provide the material necessity and the capitalists appropriate the excess with ideological morality.
To save money is exactly the same thing as to earn money, profit is savings and savings is profit, from an individual point of view. It is only when we consider society as a whole that we can see that the two are not the same. This Keynesian insight has largely been forgotten, but it plays a role both in the need to establish a guaranteed income and in arguing against the neoliberal conception of capitalism.
Marx wrote: “Political economy, the science of wealth, is, therefore, at the same time, the science of renunciation, of privation and of saving, which actually succeeds in depriving man of fresh air and of physical activity. This science of a marvelous industry is at the same time the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave… The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the savings of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth.” (Marx’s Concept of Man, 144)
If the saving that enables both the reinvestment and the profits of the wealthy is, in fact, a forced saving on labor, then they are the “ascetic but productive slave” Marx mentions. And as I said above, the strength of the neoliberal argument for savings is carried entirely by assumption. We need only ask ourselves, by what right can capitalist’s claim ownership if we do not accept the neoliberal argument from tradition? Here I think is where the argument for private property ownership laid out in Locke, based on both a need for exclusive use and expenditure of labor to acquire comes into play. It is from this justification that we can see the neoliberal assumption to be false. And what is more, it not only reveals the assumption to be false but proves that it is laborers that are or could be the true owners of the means of production. They alone could meet both of the necessary conditions for private property ownership.
Every man speculates upon creating a new need in another in order to force him to a new sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence, and to entice him into a new kind of pleasure and thereby into economic ruin. Everyone tries to establish over others an alien power in order to find there the satisfaction of his own egoistic need.
– Karl Marx, Marx’s Concept of Man, 140
It should be noted in the above quote, taken from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, that Marx indicates that it is “[e]very man” and not just capitalists who have an interest in exploitation. The capitalist is not unique in the desire to exploit others, that is common to us all, says Marx. What separates capitalists from everyone else is that they have the means to exploit. If we are not all free, then none of us are, and this is precisely why.
In this post, I want to give a libertarian socialist defense of universal basic income. This will require some specific definitions to the notion of “universal” and “basic” and it will require a defense that is not reliant on consequences. In other words, to be a libertarian socialist defense, it cannot say “hey, see how this, and this, and this would be better with a UBI!” Such arguments are all well and good and have been made repeatedly by others with better data and research than I care to possess. See here, here, and here for arguments of that kind. Instead, I want to present us with a socialist argument for, what I will call a guaranteed income. The reason for a socialist argument is that without a rupture with capitalism, a universal basic income would really just subsidize wages for employers.
Before I present the argument I need to be clear about what I’m suggesting. The “guaranteed income” is not really universal and “basic” is too abstract to be of any value. What I intend is an income for people whose labor is less traditionally rewarding in a capitalist society, but is nevertheless important. The first and foremost of these types of labor is what I’m calling austerity. Austerity is the labor of making do with less. Austerity is the job of the poor. They learn to live with less so everyone else can have more, more cheaply. This is thrift and it is so often exploited that I don’t think another living soul has ever even suggested that the rich exploit the poverty of the poor. They take the benefit of being poor, which is free time, and remove the ability of the poor to be industrious for their own gain. I will spare us the details but suffice it to say that it takes a lot of work to be poor in a capitalist society, see Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich for why. Other types of labor are better known as labor if still unpaid or underpaid. Domestic labor is at the head of this class, followed shortly by child-rearing and education, and the copious amounts of internships and art gigs people do in the hope of building a portfolio.
Free labor that benefits another is another class like austerity that I’ll be mentioning. This one already has a name. It is called slavery. A guaranteed income, as we will see, conforms slavery into austerity, where one has little but their free time is, in fact, their own. However, it is not necessary to be fair that everyone would receive this income, it is only necessary that everyone could receive this income and merely for being alive. In this sense, it’s not really universally applied despite being guaranteed to all. Everyone is guaranteed some income if they choose to take it and don’t already make more than it offers. But how much should it offer?
I recommend that the price of the income be pegged to some sort of productivity index. There are several to choose from: the Gross Domestic Product, Gross National Happiness, Genuine Progress Indicator, the Happy Planet Index, and more. Whichever index we light on, we’ll want to set a standard level for the guaranteed income, say around a quarter to a third of the per-capita distribution. This would vary, year by year, and have the important fact of driving people back onto the labor market when productivity slacks. It will no doubt find a reasonable equilibrium and the point at which comes to rest will mark the divide between the interest in free time and that of affluence.
That brings me to my argument. We might start by graphing these mutually exclusive human interest: free time and affluence. They represent the twin concerns of political economy: how to maximize non-labor time while also maximizing prosperity. The Marx quote above echos the understanding of the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians before them: if you want to be free and prosperous, then you must have slaves, which, morality aside, makes complete sense. The only way to exist in a state of wealth and ease is to have others produce the wealth without their enjoying it so that you can. Capitalism supposedly offered a way to avoid this economic truth, but it was Karl Marx and his theory of exploitation that pointed out that capitalism only nominally abolishes slavery. Marx showed that what appears to be contracting between free individuals is actually coerced and ultimately exploitative, i.e. wage-slavery. This form of slavery only paints a patena of voluntary decision-making over the forced slavery of explicit slave-society.
This entire system of human interests can then be mapped out for us. (Forgive the crudeness of my graphs.) In figure one below I have place affluence or relative wealth on the vertical axis and the amount of time one would need to spend laboring versus the amount of time one has free on the horizontal axis.
In a capitalist system, the red line represents everyone’s prospects giving the uncheck desire to place all others in a state of laboring for their own benefit and not the benefit of the laborer. You can see near the equilibrium point (0,0) the line is diagonal showing that the more you work, the more you make, the less you work, the more free time you might enjoy, but at some point, and that point is arbitrarily illustrated here, the line bends around in both directions. So that we might extrapolate four classes of individuals in a capitalist society. Those that labor little to none at all we might call the capitalist class, or what Marx called the bourgeoisie, depicted below in blue. Those that work excessively and yet “enjoy” intolerable poverty we call the slave class, depicted in black below. The two in the middle, which could conceivably be seen as one class (under socialism) is characterized by the idea that the more they labor, the more wealth they enjoy or the less they work the more free time they enjoy, these are the laboring class or proletariat and the austere class respectively, depicted in purple and green below.
We can see that there is an artificial arc here against what our morality would tell us; that the more you work the more prosperity you ought to enjoy. We can then divide the graph into four zones along the axes.
Each zone in figure three represents a potential set of individual interests. Here, the capitalist zone is the most desirable since it works the least and enjoys the highest degree of wealth. However, having a capitalist class necessitates a slave class, and what is more, the capitalist class will always be pushing every other into the slave class. This is similar, but not exactly the same as, what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma. Every individual having an interest in being a capitalist will naturally result in the overwhelming number of people existing in the slave class. A constant pressure to rise on the line will force everyone else down the line. But also like the prisoner’s dilemma, a simple solution exists: make a rule. In this case, we must eliminate the ability to make money from another’s effort.
On the one hand, doing this must involve abolishing the form of rent which I have spoken of before. But that is not enough. Even with the mechanisms of the exploitation of labor removed, the mechanism for exploitation of free time would still exist. The result would be a “capitalism of the proletariat”, a new kind of socialist dystopia. This is why we need a guaranteed income, it effectively straightens out the curve so that every individual is left free to choose between the level of free time and the level of affluence they would like to enjoy. If the curves we saw on the line represent exploitation, then their elimination under socialism entails a lack of exploitation.
You’ll note in figure four above, that the red line never enters either the slave or the capitalist zones. This is necessary, should there be a capitalist, there must be slaves. Thus the only way we will all be free is if none of us are allowed to be capitalists. To guarantee an income would be one of two steps necessary to effectively and actually abolish slavery for the first time in recorded human history.
Dr. Richard D. Wolff is a prime example of that critically endangered species known as Marxian economists. His critique of capitalism centers mostly on Marx’s theory of surplus-value and it is, at least since the financial crisis of 2007, increasing useful. Wolff made his case for a new model of socialism back in 2012 when we were still coasting off the Occupy movement’s meager momentum and with a nearly-sympathetic ear in the White House. In his book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, he lays out his plan to replace capitalism with genuine socialism, which he distinguishes based on how the surplus-value of labor is allocated in a society. He dismisses Soviet-style socialist programs as “state capitalism”, where the surplus-value of labor is extracted by the state-apparatus in precisely the same way that capitalist do in what he terms “private capitalism”. I make similar distinctions, calling Soviet-style communism, a truly refined, monopolistic capitalism for the same reasons Dr. Wolff articulates.
For Wolff, there is only one way for a state to become truly socialist and that is to have what he calls “worker self-directed enterprises” or WSDEs. (He may be Marxian, but he shares the economists’ penchant for acronyms.) Such enterprises he concludes allow all the decisions and all the surplus-value to be wholly controlled by the workers engaged in the enterprise itself. This is what Marx intended by “socialism”, although not “communism”. It was self-controlled workplaces that required the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which Marx saw as an intermediary between capitalism and communism. Wolff agrees, stressing that WSDEs will sufficiently resolve capitalism into genuine socialism.
To some extent, I believe Wolff is correct. The step he outlines is absolutely necessary for the evolution of capitalism (whether private or state, in his terms) to socialism. However, it is not sufficient. It does not address other forms for rent, such as landlordism and interest-driven banking. Neither does it treat the action of all workers, taken as a whole, as the monopoly Marx does. This oversight would leave the pressure to make a living off of one’s labor intact. Under Wolff’s plan, the proletariat inherits the role of the bourgeoisie, not so much replacing the political role of capitalism but collapsing the two Marxian economic classes into one. Again, this is a necessary first step, but the problem should be obvious: if you didn’t work, you would be oppressed by those who do, and a new sort of forced austerity would be exploited by the proletarians.
The laborers would enact a kind of “capitalism of the proletariat” which would perhaps be the worst kind of socialist dystopia because it would be a form of capitalism that looks more like genuine socialism than any other yet conceived. It would prove too difficult to suss out the difference for many on the left and make its systemic problems hard to overcome than capitalism. The “capitalism of the proletariat” would look socialist because of the working class would be in charge, but only the working class as it was formerly conceived of by capitalists. The unpaid laborers, the sick, the old, the dreamers, the drifters, the poets and–dare I say it–the philosophers might all too soon feel themselves to be the new underclass in a world were “labor” is the new capital. We would have to look at other interests, such as our stake in having free time, and adjust our economic models accordingly if we were to escape this new nightmare. I don’t mean to sound upset with Wolff. Frankly, I think his work is brilliant. It’s just that we need more than WSDEs to convert capitalism into socialism.
[Economists] forget that… it is use which determines the value of a thing, and that use is determined by fashion.
– Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts
The left has been suspicious of private property since Pierre-Joseph Proudhon brazenly declared it to be nothing more than theft in 1840. His friend, Karl Marx, saw it as the root of capitalism’s exploitation, a superfluous invention of the bourgeoisie that would be dispensed with in the future. Anarchists’ generally see it as an agent of control. Even the most sympathetic socialists treat private property as a necessary evil. Those on the left who refuse to denounce private property are all-too-quickly labeled as faux-socialists, unwitting capitalist apologists, or even disingenuous counter-revolutionary agents.
On the right, private property rights are often so strongly enforced that they trump even the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such a strong defense of private property is ironic, precisely because the justification for private property is typically based on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, especially the right to life. These “background rights” perform the justificatory work for private property rights.
I want to engage this conversation from a third direction. I want to begin from a neutral position, neither assured of private property’s virtue nor its defamation. To start, I think we need a tight definition of what private property is. Then, I think we need to explain the fact that so many independent societies throughout history have lighted on the idea of private property. What particular problem did property solve? Then can it be justified to the satisfaction of socialism? To avoid suspense, I’ll sum my conclusions now: 1) private property is no different from personal property, 2) private property is common to many cultures because it solves the problem of how to divvy up the common world, and 3) private property can be justified for socialists when it is based on the background right to life and the pursuit of happiness.
The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
– Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2
There is, in the leftist tradition, an important metaphysical division of the concept of property. The first, largely implicit in Marx’s work, is the split between productive property and consumables. Marx paid little attention to the latter if he mentioned them at all. He, like all the great economists of his day, focused almost exclusively on the “means of production”. The productive property were the things you needed to produce consumables, which included the tools, machinery, and raw and pre-fabricated materials of which the consumable consisted. When Marx speaks of abolishing private property in the above quote, he intends only this productive property. He is also quick to defend the productive property of the “petty artisan and of the small peasant”, saying, “There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it and is still destroying it daily.” Marx is saying there is no need to abolish the camera of the photographer or the laptop of the freelance writer. So he means only the large-scale productive property, i.e. the factories, great machinery, and other types of great capital that requires a social body to utilize it. The consumable property goes by the name of “personal property” while the large-scale productive property goes by the name “private property”.
This division saves the left from the accusation that communism or socialism removes your right to use your tooth-brush exclusively. In other words, you have to share your tooth-brush with other people. This argument is devised to reduce socialism to absurdity. If you wouldn’t want to share your toothbrush, you couldn’t even share food-stuffs or water or air, at least not as you eat, drink, and breathe it. So it does make a compelling argument against which socialism must resolve. The division of property into personal and private is the traditional solution. However, the division of property introduces its own problems. The most important of these and the only one I will treat here is the indistinguishability of personal from private property.
We can see the crack in precisely where Marx claimed there is no need to take away the private property of the individual proprietor. Here Marx is admitting that the tools of the individual crafter should belong to the individual crafter; their productive powers are thus not sufficient reason to socialize them. The common understanding is that it is then only those tools that require social operation which must be socialized–I am ignoring here a similar argument that certain types of property of, e.g. land, must be socialized irrespective of how it is used for the simple reason that Marx did not make this argument. The problem with the argument that only social operations must be socialized is that even socially operated machinery is individually exclusive as it is used. To make this concrete imagine an assembly line of ten persons. Each person has a specific spot on the line and performs their unique task. Each spot on the assembly line then may legitimately be conceived of as the exclusive property of the individual proprietor.
While such a conception is dangerous because each individual proprietor, save the first and the last, would be faced with a monopoly on either side of themselves, that is a single provider of the materials they need to do their work and a single consumer of their finished product (viz. the unconsumable, partially-worked commodity). It is more harmonious to conceive of them as all part of a single entity, each cooperating rather than competing. Still, even under the auspice of cooperation, each has an exclusive need to be able to use their part of the whole. The right to exclude others from their part is no different for the workers on the assembly line than it is for the individual proprietor whom Marx exonerated from the abolition of private property. We have only two ways of resolving this inconsistency: either abolish all private property, including the photographer’s camera and the writer’s laptop or do away with the distinction between personal property and private property altogether. As we agreed above that the former is absurd, we are left only with the latter.
What does this mean? It means that we cannot, as Marx commands, abolish private property. This means that capital and capitalist can’t simply be dispensed with. This is not a vindication of capitalism, as those on the right would like to assert. While getting rid of capitalists is not an option, what is left open to us is the modification of what can and cannot be done with private property. That is precisely what the rights of property owners entails them to do. The rights of private property ownership have their limitations, even the most right-wing libertarian will agree. For example, your “right” to own a gun and your “right” to do with your private property as you please, cannot be combined to justify any homicide you may like to commit.
What lies behind the left’s condemnation of private property is the capitalist’s claim of a right to the surplus-value of a worker’s labor. This claim is justified, according to the apologists of capitalism, by the “ownership” of the means of production. Ownership then it is implied, entails the right to allow others to use said means to produce products for less than the value those products fetch at market. The chief problem the left has with private property then is that it can be used as a means for the exploitation of other people’s labor. Marx details of the process in the first volume of Capital. But even there, private property does not so much create the exploitation as it is simply the vehicle for it. Property relations are social relations, not between human beings and things, but between human beings and other human beings. This is what makes economics political in the first place.
Given this, our question becomes: can the capitalist really justify the right from ownership? To answer this question we will need to examine what justifies private ownership in the first place. I’ll start with John Locke’s justification of private property. In brief, Locke argued that the private consumption of the material world was vital to every individual. We cannot consume in common, even if we produce that way. This makes private property necessary in order to be enjoyed. The question for Locke then became, how is it that I come to exclude the whole of humanity in order to enjoy this or that particular thing? Or more concretely, by what right do I pluck an apple from the common tree so that I may eat it and by eating it, exclude all others from its enjoyment? When did it become mine alone to enjoy? We all agree that after digestion, it is exclusively mine, but when did it first become so? He traces back the right to my act of plucking the apple. With this labor expenditure, I have the right to that apple. So, generalizing from this, it is my labor that makes things mine. Locke would go on to lay the foundations of the first labor theory of value, but it is his labor theory of property that concerns us. This theory is the basis of private property rights upon which capitalism is founded.
Unfortunately for the bourgeoisie and Marx alike, the private property right established by Locke is not one based solely upon labor. Labor identifies which particular things are justified, but it does so under the pretense that we are going to use them. Locke himself said that one cannot claim a thing, merely to deprive others of its enjoyment. Ultimately then, it is the need to eat, in conjunction with the labor of plucking that justifies my claim to the apple and so the right to exclude the rest of humanity from the apple’s enjoyment.
Marx misses this. Elaborating in Capital that the value of commodities comes entirely from the labor required to produce them. We may deduce from this that the justification for using commodities according to Marx would come entirely from having labored to acquire a thing, either by producing it or trading “dead labor” for it. Use, the consumption element of commodities, plays little to no role in Marx, who argued that either goods and services have a use-value or they do not, there are no quantifiable degrees of use-value. Equally, there would be no reasoning for use in owning, only labor. For Marx ownership is derived merely from labor and trade.
But no one asserts this claim more than the bourgeoisie. The capitalist claim of ownership is justified entirely by the idea of labor exchanged for a good. That Marx and capitalism agree so completely on this subject is the greatest tragedic irony of the post-enlightenment history. Locke, as I said, founded the labor theory of property and of value on the unquestionable human need to consume individually. Labor alone is therefore insufficient to justify ownership of anything, and correspondingly, it is insufficient to justify the total value of anything. We lack the consumptive side, the input of use-value. This is where Marx made his most fatal error. He said that “use” could not be counted in the final estimation of value. He assumed more than argued that “use” has no quantifiable value because it is a quality, i.e. things either have a use-value or they do not. This is wrong.
Use-value, it turns out, is quantifiable, and what is more, it is quantifiable in units of labor. I have made the argument for use-values quantifiability before, see The Genius and Folly of Karl Marx, Part Two. What is confusing for us is that the labor-units for use-value are inverted from units of labor in exchange. They act like negative numbers to positive ones, so that use-value functions more like “labor saved” while an exchange-value represents “labor expended”. For example, to make a hammer, it might take X amount of total (socially-necessary) labor to produce and bring the hammer to market, this–according to Marx–would be the hammer’s value, assuming there was someone out there with a use for a hammer. However, this is just the minimum that the hammer’s manufacturer would want to sell it for, it does not represent the value of the hammer to the user. The final value is how much labor it saves its consumer over the amount of labor that consumer would have to shell out for it. A hammer’s cost then is subjectively determined by the consumer, not by the producer, and it is never objectively derived as Marx hoped to prove.
But all is not lost for Marx, because both use-value and exchange-value are determined as units of labor. In other words, labor remains the sole source of value for everything in exchange, just as Marx said. Private property becomes justifiable in the twin aspects of labor: labor-spent and labor-saved. I ignore here a metaphysical discussion of labor-saved, except to say that Marx himself saw labor-saved as the “value of capital”. It was the private aspect of capital that Marx and the left railed against. The “means of production” of which most capital consists is problematic only when in private hands.
This, however, is where libertarian socialism breaks with Marxism. It is not the private nature of the ownership of the “means of production” that is the problem. The problem is the fact that capitalists are not and never were the rightful owners of them. Capitalism is contradictory because it violates the justification for private property ownership established by Locke. Capitalists maintain their claim to rightful ownership through the justification of expenditure of labor, but since they have neither the desire nor a possibility of using the “means of production” exclusively their claim of ownership over them is wholly unjustified. It is, in fact, the workers and ONLY the workers who can meet both necessary conditions for ownership. First, they do have an exclusive need of the materials in question, and second, they (through the extraction of surplus-labor) have paid for them. This argument holds true for other forms of “rent”, for example, the tenant who uses the house has the priority claim to ownership of the house if they pay rent.
What is exploitative about capitalism is that the rightful owners of the means of production are not the “legal owners” according to the political structures drafted by capitalists. The inherent villainy of private property is a Marxist red herring, no pun intended. The upshot of this concept of private property is that we have a clear path and reason for removing capitalism’s exploitative element. It will require workers to become the rightful owners of the enterprises in which they work, as is suggested by Dr. Richard Wolff. But it goes beyond just that, it will require the abolition of the form of rent everywhere in society, except where the rentee is the public. It will also require a guarantee of income, but for reasons that are not expressly clear here. But that is all. We needn’t abandon private property nor do we need outlandish distinctions, (e.g. private property vs. personal property or labor vs. “socially necessary” labor) that prove only necessary to bolster the failings in Marx’s theory. The solution is more simple and more elegant, ownership of property is the right of the people who need it, who use it, and who paid for it; and not the state, the community, the government, or investors.