I recently stumbled upon this debate between Patrick Smith, a vulgar libertarian, and Mike Shipley, a comrade and libertarian who does great activist work. Smith, unsurprisingly, says some very dumb things that require rebuttal. This is not to say, of course, that Mike did an inadequate job explaining things. I just want to strike back myself, because doing so means asserting my individuality.
A main point that Smith makes early on, and the point which “anarcho-capitalists” seem fundamentally wired to repeat, regardless of how ridiculous it is, is the following one: Workplace hierarchy doesn’t exist in capitalism because the worker-capitalist interactions are voluntary. A worker who doesn’t like his conditions can quit anytime, and a boss who doesn’t like their workers can lay them off and replace them at any time. Both groups agree to the conditions and can secede from the agreement at any time. So, why is this view horribly misguided, and why does it confuse a free market with a market based on statist interference?
The True Nature of Voluntaryism
Smith’s point about the worker-boss agreement being voluntary on the part of the boss is understandable enough. After all, the labor market is incredibly vast, and there are probably many people who could fill a position if an enterprise’s manager decided to lay off a worker. But what about the worker? If we’re talking about a worker who doesn’t own capital and has no means to acquire it, yet needs capital to live and produce, then his options are really two. He can find a job and boss at all costs, or he can starve. Starvation is not a legitimate choice, and so he is effectively left with one option. It is true that he may have some decision-making power when looking for a boss to prostrate himself before (though many workers don’t even have that), and yet the choice to not subordinate himself to a boss is one he doesn’t have. Dispossessed workers have no choice in their subordination, and yet bosses have a variety of choices. They can fill an empty position with any number of people. Or they can fill the position themselves. Or they can force one of their current employees to do additional work. Or they can find a way to eliminate the need for such a position, etc. They are at no disadvantage due to the surplus of labor that resides within existing capitalism. Smith tries to make the case that the labor market is competitive, and that employers must compete harshly among one another for the workers. He equates this as being on par with labor competing for access to capital. His brain is evidently broken. The amount of laborers who need work is FAR greater, in current society, than the number of employers seeking workers. For workers, finding a job is a complicated and dehumanizing process, one that could take months and where success is never guaranteed. For employers, finding a worker is as simple as putting up a sign or an online ad. Oh how tough they have it!
I think us left-libertarians need to change the way we talk about voluntary associations, as the meaning of the term voluntary has been hijacked by vulgar libertarians like Smith. To them, voluntary simply means anything that the government doesn’t force you to do at gunpoint. The best argument they have, embarrassingly enough, is that the choice between participating in the wage system and starving is legitimate, as starvation is technically a choice. This is laughable. To counter it, I propose amending our use of the term “voluntary” by adding an adjective. We must ask, is a decision making process meaningfully voluntary?
For something to be meaningfully voluntary, there must be a variety of options that an individual has. If, among a large or at least decent array of choices, someone makes a decision, and that decision is not subject to any notable external pressure, then we can say that a decision is meaningfully voluntary. This is where Smith’s “vulgar libertarianism” comes out in full force. He talks about his own experiences as a capital-owner in the marketplace as being indicative of free-market capitalism’s voluntary nature. Sorry Patrick, but we don’t live in a free market society. I know because, were it not for the state monopolies on money, patents, and banking, then workers would have a variety of legitimate options and would probably not choose to slave themselves for you. Let us examine the options workers have under capitalism, and then see what options they would have in a free market:
- Work for a boss who exploits you every second of the day, decides every facet of your economic life, and has the power to fire you at any time for any reason
- Starve to death
- Work for an exploitative boss
- Get a low/zero interest loan from a mutual-credit bank and acquire the capital you need to become self employed
- Join a worker-coop, a truly democratic workplace, as such institutions would be far more prevalent in a free market
- Join with others to participate in a labor-exchange economy, similar to that described by Josiah Warren, which severs one’s dependence on capital entirely
- Join a commune where everyone hates wage labor and where, again, there is no dependence on capital
There are likely other options one would have in a truly free market, but the point is this: When the uniformity of economic arrangements that are permissible under capitalism is destroyed, and the marketplace becomes an arena of social experimentation, then there would be no one option that workers would need to depend on. It would be far easier for them to acquire capital, to seek alternative arrangements, and to compete with the same capitalists who used to rent them. As I once heard an advocate of mutualism say, the following truism should not be forgotten: “Capital wants labor to compete against itself. They do not wish to compete against labor.” For, when worker-coops and other non-exploitative economic institutions enter the marketplace, then the labor market will be adequately accommodated and the stranglehold that current property owners have over the market will dissolve alongside the state authority that such owners used to uphold their dominance. Would exploitative wage labor still exist in a free market? Possibly to some limited degree. But the wage system would lay in ruin, supplanted by the free arrangements of producers. For Smith to act as if current market interactions, interactions within markets that have been warped and ruined by statist intervention on behalf of the capitalist class, have anything to do with what individuals would voluntarily do under conditions of freedom, is a notion as absurd as it is harmful to the libertarian cause.
Workers as a Collective?
One point that Smith makes that is slightly less absurd, though still incorrect, is that libertarian socialism remains necessarily collectivist because it considers the freedom of workers (a collective) as important. He makes such an argument after Shipley says that libertarian socialism focuses on the workers as individuals. Shipley then correctly points out that it is not he, but rather the capitalist system, that relegates workers to a collective role. Shipley is largely right here, though I would state my position somewhat differently. As an individualist anarchist, I think my variety of libertarianism does differ somewhat from Shipley’s. To respond to Smith, it is not necessarily the case that advocacy of worker-run enterprises propagates collectivism. Worker-coops would be entirely based on free association, and democratic participation within said association. This would be authoritarian (or collectivist) only if workers had no other viable options. In a free market, however, they would have other options, such as self employment or participation in a Warrenite labor exchange economy. Worker-coops are, on their face, already freer and less hierarchical than boss-run enterprises. However, the free nature of their existence would be compounded by the fact that no individual would be so choice-deprived as to subordinate themselves to democratic order that they disagree with. As long as worker-run enterprises exist in a free market, they will only serve to promote a decentralized economy by competing against and lessening the power of capitalist enterprises. It is inconceivable that worker organizations would ever be able to supersede individuals in a liberated marketplace.
As an individualist, I understand that every person’s temperament is different. Are there some people who hate compromise, to the point where worker-coops wouldn’t suit them? Certainly. I consider myself such a person. Yet, for others, worker-coops offer an effective means of socially engaging with others and situating production within a meaningfully voluntary, democratic sphere. I say: To each their own!