TOP 2014-08-17

Anarchism is Off the Scale

The modern left-wing/right-wing political spectrum is often a source of controversy. I sense that there are significant differences between the European and U.S. points of view, and I remain unfortunately ignorant of perspectives from other parts of the world. Much of the problem relates to how economic, social and political issues are all conflated with each other into a single one-dimensional model, where in fact a two or three-dimensional model is more appropriate. Here I will focus on the left-right spectrum as a purely economic scale.

I define it as follows. As you go further left on this spectrum, economic policy involves greater intervention from the state: social security, nationalised industries, state health care and education, regulations on business and commerce and rights for workers and tenants. As you go further right on the spectrum, there’s less state intervention, meaning less social security, more privatised industries and a less regulated market. If we imagine this as the horizontal axis on a two-dimensional grid, then we can use the vertical axis for an independent aspect of society - usually, social freedoms. So, as you go further up the vertical axis, the government is more authoritarian and conservative, with greater restrictions on individual liberty, and as you go further down, society is more libertarian.

There’s a website called the political compass where you can see this grid and take a quiz to determine where your views would allegedly be positioned on it. But this site makes a mistake, I think, in trying to include anarchism and communism within this framework. Supposedly, “Communism” is at the extreme left, with two variants: Stalinism being the “authoritarian” brand of communism and libertarian communism (which is another name for social anarchism) being the “libertarian” brand. However, this would imply that there are no economic differences between Stalinism and libertarian communism, since they are both at the same position on the horizontal axis. As such they should only differ on social issues. But this is completely untrue, since there are huge differences between these two systems in economic terms as well. In Stalinism, the state controls the economy; in libertarian communism, it is controlled by workers and communities themselves in a network of federated assemblies and councils. The Stalinist economy features (or featured) money and prices; libertarian communism has no monetary system at all (at the most, a vouchers or rationing system which is quite different from money). Enterprises in the Stalinist system were supposed to make profits and the entire system was geared towards growth. There was wage labour and a two-class system of workers on the one hand and members of the Party on the other. There were taxes. Libertarian communism, on the other hand, is not geared towards growth, has no wage labour, has no need of money or taxation and is based on the abolition of class altogether. Economically, libertarian communism is exactly how communism itself is supposed to be. Marx would not have regarded Stalinism as a kind of communism at all - how could anyone, when it is a two-class system with both wage labour and capital? (We know it has capital because it has a growth imperative and a profit motive. As Marx explains, the defining feature of capital is the growth dynamic.)

To get around this, it might be argued that the left-wing is defined not by “state intervention in the economy”, but rather by “collectivist” forms of property, whether these be vested in the state or in free councils. But I don’t think we should try to get around this problem, and I’ll propose what I think is a better solution in a moment. For now, let’s suppose we accept the fudging tactic that the left is defined by collectivist property and the right by private property, with libertarian communism (anarchism) in the bottom left corner. Then, we have to assume that at some point on the vertical axis, the state is abolished, since in libertarian communism there is no state. Where should that point be? Regardless of where it is, you end up with a discontinuity. If you try “moving” from the top-right quadrant to the bottom-left quadrant, then you’ll probably start off by giving more power to the state in the form of banking regulations, nationalised industries and rights for workers, and then suddenly, at the discontinuity, the state itself is abolished and everything is organised completely differently. Banking regulations are no longer needed because money is abolished; nationalised industries have to be re-expropriated by workers and communities; and giving rights to workers makes no sense because workers make the rules now.

It’s also still disingenuous to claim that anarchism and Stalinism both involve some kind of collectivist property. In fact, anarchists oppose private property altogether. Arguably, if an authoritarian state has total control of the economy, then it is, by definition, their private property. Using the “collectivist” idea obscures all of this. One might similarly say that a multinational corporation is more “collectivist” and therefore more left-wing than a small business, just because more property is under the control of a single entity. The difference between mutualisation and nationalisation also gets obscured. Nationalising an industry is clearly a left-wing policy, but mutualising it, so that it is owned directly by workers or consumers, is also a way of collectivising it, but both would count as left-wing, despite major economic differences.

To sum up: anarchism can’t be on the political compass at all because there are clear economic differences between a state-owned economy and a stateless one. Furthermore, Stalinism is not Communism. As the analysis above implied, Stalinism is a variety of capitalism. It is, however, an extremely left-wing kind of capitalism (by my original definition) because it involves maximum state control over the “market”. You could say there is only one capitalist, which is the state itself (or the Party).

In my preferred model, the political compass is most useful when it restricts itself to describing capitalist politics only. The top-left quadrant is still Stalinism, but the bottom-left quadrant is just a more socially liberal version of Stalinism, which would be something like a more extreme version of Gorbachev’s latter-day USSR or a “more friendly version of Cuba”. Again, the defining feature of the extreme left is that the state has tight control over the (market) economy. Social democracy, or Keynesianism, are more moderate systems on the left-wing. On the far right is neo-liberalism.

Now let’s take a brief look at the bottom-right quadrant. In the political compass, the bottom-right corner (right-wing libertarian) is occupied by anarcho-capitalism, which is again a system where the state supposedly does not exist. The implication, again, is that the state vanishes at some point as you go down the vertical axis. From my perspective, the right-wing is defined simply as “less state intervention in the market”. You could therefore suppose that the bottom-right corner would be a system where the state is completely redundant, since no state intervention is desired for either economic or social reasons. That would imply that the state has to “pop into existence” at some point as you move further left at the very bottom of the grid, since in my system the left desires state intervention in the market economy. Perhaps that isn’t problematic, because this time it isn’t a discontinuity: in this case, you can imagine the state having gradually more influence as a body that regulates the market. However, anarcho-capitalism itself is quite contradictory. Arguably, you can only uphold and defend a private property regime at all by having it legislated and enforced by a state. That’s why, in practice, many people in this part of the political landscape are “minarchists”, who advocate for a very minimal state, rather than being true anarchists. So it seems more reasonable to say that the entire grid is a system where both capital and the state exist, and the left-right axis is nothing more than the degree by which the state regulates and controls capital (inverted so that more control is on the left). I think this system is much better at capturing the policies of political parties and countries in the real world today, as well as the political horizons of modern party politics. But it completely excludes communism by design.

Anarchism and communism aren’t covered by this model because they reject the state and capital altogether. That raises the question - is there a different spectrum that deals with these systems? I think there is. In other words, I think that we can make a new spectrum for a communist political landscape, one which also has a left-wing and a right-wing. Personally I’m not so interested in the social dimension, so I will just deal with economic issues.

The Anarchist-Communist Spectrum

“Left-wing communism” is the kind of communism dominated by a strong community federation. Community assemblies and their delegate councils make practically all of the economic decisions: what to produce, how to produce it and how to divide up the labour among community members. Meanwhile, “right-wing communism”, absurd as it sounds, would be characterised by largely autonomous production units, organised either as peer projects or as self-managed workers’ co-operatives, who pretty much don’t answer to anyone. It’s unlikely that we’d have a communist society without any “autonomous” projects, nor a society without any community federation at all. Most kinds of anarchism will fall between the two extremes - for example, the community federation could decide what to produce and workplaces could decide how to produce it. This mirrors the capitalist landscape where the non-existence of the state and capital are impossible or unlikely. In my vision article, I characterised the left- and right-wing economic institutions as “syndicates” and “guilds” respectively.

The difference, I think, comes down to a difference in how to interpret the absence of private property - either collectively (left-wing) or distributively/individualistically (right-wing). Imagine that private property ceases to exist and you stumble upon an unused piece of land. What would you say? You might say “oh, this piece of land belongs to no-one - therefore I can do whatever I like with it”. That would be the right-wing view. Or you might alternatively say, “this piece of lands belongs to no-one - therefore it is part of the commons and must be shared among anyone who wants it according to the rules of the community”. In other words, the “right to use” something (usufruct) can be interpreted either as applying distributively to every single individual in the world, or collectively so that the whole community has to decide what to do with it. In centrist anarchist societies, an autonomous project would probably have to “apply” to the community council, or directly to the community assembly, before it could use a community resource. The more left-wing societies would probably place more restrictions on what they could do with them (such as stricter ecological stewardship), while more right-wing versions would give away resources with no restrictions so long as there is no risk that they would run out.

An extremist right-winger in an anarchist world might argue that if the community federation controls the resources, doesn’t that mean that they are their “property”? My answer is that property is chiefly defined by the owner’s ability to control something whilst it is being used or occupied by somebody else. In the left-wing version of events, shared resources are used and occupied by all the people sharing them, and they are controlled by this same group of people, institutionally embodied as the community federation, so there is no contradiction. Similarly, an extremist left-winger might claim that if an autonomous group has complete sovereignty over their use of a particular resource, doesn’t that make it their property? But in the right-wing version of events, the people in their project are the ones using those resources and they are also the ones controlling them. Since they have a right to use those resources, because they’re unowned, there is no problem. If their project were to fail, so that they ceased to use or occupy the resources, they would also lose their control over them. In a left-wing anarchist world, these resources would immediately return to community stewardship. In the right-wing counterpart, they would just exist in an unowned state until somebody else came along and started doing something else with them. In all cases, you cannot speak of “private property”. Just as all capitalist societies and all societies on the capitalist political grid have private property, so all anarchist societies have an absence of private property. In the communist world there is only possession, or usufruct.

The left would probably want the community federation to provide for everybody’s needs unconditionally, so that all can live with a guaranteed high quality of life. Meanwhile the right would emphasise personal responsibility, as well as individual flair and freedom. What that would mean economically is that if you’re living in a left-wing anarchist world, you know that you’ll get everything you need - all you need to do as a responsible citizen is turn up to the assembly, vote on council planning decisions and do your share of the work that has to be done in order to provide everything. And if you’re living in a right-wing anarchist world, you can’t be so sure that you’ll get everything you could possibly want: if you’re missing something, it’s up to you to join together with other people who feel that need in order to make it a reality. To make sure that you get everything you need, you’d probably need to be a member of dozens of different projects and associations, contributing labour according to a variety of potentially very complex rules (if the associations can’t agree on standardised ones). Left-wing anarchists would probably stereotype right-wing anarchists as dangerous lunatics who are extravagant and egotistical. Meanwhile, the right-wing anarchists would stereotype the left-wing as being bureaucrats obsessed with calling meetings to discuss the slightest details.

My intuition is that Kropotkin was a fairly right-wing anarchist according to this analysis, while Murray Bookchin was probably extremely left-wing. This deserves some justification, and it’s important, I think, because it shows that anarchism and communism are not unified political positions at all, and branding someone a communist, or anarchist, is a bit like branding every political party in Europe as “capitalist” with the implication that they’re all the same. Now it’s not immediately obvious that there was any contradiction between these two great anarchist thinkers, but it is significant that Bookchin’s later writings reveal all kinds of tensions which ultimately led him to reject the label “anarchist” and adopt new terminology - first “libertarian municipalism” and then “communalism”. Bookchin argued against individualism, firmly believing in the right of the community to override any misguided notion of individual autonomy. To that end, he defended majority decision-making, which many anarchists often reject in favour of consensus. Bookchin very explicitly identified the municipality as the proper and desired locus of community control, even advocating participation in municipal elections as a first step towards this kind of society. Therefore his conception of the community federation (“commune of communes”) was strictly territorial, and he specifically warned against the separation of vocational interests from the interests of the community.

In contrast, Kropotkin’s idea of the commune eventually became very broad, so that it was “a Commune of interests whose members are scattered in a thousand towns and villages”. He was a proponent of “free association” and “voluntary agreements” - those were the defining features of his vision of anarcho-communism. And in The Conquest of Bread, the examples he uses to illustrate the concept are drawn largely from voluntary and charitable organisations like the Lifeboat Association, but other examples come from the market economy itself, including the voluntary agreements between “competing” railway companies. To anybody identifying as “left-wing” in today’s world, these examples would seem somewhat mystifying. Bookchin flags them up as “troubling”, and remarks: “The “anarcho”-capitalists would doubtless exult in this view … but allow me to dissent from it.” He clearly recognised the apparent ‘right-wing’ character of Kropotkin’s ideas. Now consider these words from Kropotkin’s work:

“…if we observe the present development of civilized nations, we see, most unmistakably, a movement ever more and more marked tending to limit the sphere of action of the Government, and to allow more and more liberty to the individual. This evolution is going on before our eyes, though cumbered by the ruins and rubbish of old institutions and old superstitions. Like all evolutions, it only waits a revolution to overthrow the old obstacles which block the way, that it may find free scope in a regenerated society.”

This perfectly fits my definition of “right-wing” as involving less intervention of the state. For Kropotkin, the organic and freely-organised nature of the increasingly powerful market economy probably seemed like a harbinger of a future utopia, albeit shackled and held back by the nature of capital and the harsh reality of wage labour it entailed.

There doesn’t need to be any contradiction here. There are two “planes” of political thought, one in which private property and the state exist - two mutually-reinforcing institutions which together give rise to an economy sui generis, that of capitalism; and the other in which they do not exist, giving rise to anarchism and communism, also mutually-reinforcing. But in both planes there is a spectrum of economic thought - at one end, the belief in centralising institutions, democracy, community and economic planning; at the other, the belief in individual liberty and responsibility, autonomy, emergence and self-organisation. As such, we would expect left-wing anarchists to have a slight bias towards left-wing economic policy today, and that in criticising modern society they would focus on attacking capitalists and the market. Although they reject the state ideologically, the state is institutionally comparable to the community federation which they espouse, though of course there are many differences. Meanwhile, right-wing anarchists can be expected to criticise the state more than anything else, and for them, the market is institutionally comparable (but still essentially different) to the system of freely associating organisations they would favour. Both types of anarchists are unified by their rejection of the state and the market, but their left- and right-wing identities will persist with new personas in the anarchist political spectrum.

The open source and open content movements have a concept of “peer projects” which I think is exactly what Kropotkin was getting at when describing free associations - even realising his vision that they would be geographically dispersed. Indeed, at first glance, one might wonder why the open source and creative commons movements seem to have nothing to do with the anarchist movement when both of them clearly espouse principles of communism (the absence of private property) and anarchism (the abolition of hierarchical authority). With the model I’ve presented here, we can understand this fact very easily: the open source and commons movements are “right-wing anarchist”. Based on my anecdotal experience with these movements, I’d say that nobody involved in these peer projects identifies as communist or anarchist, and if any of them identify as left-wing, it is probably quite incidental and largely based on social libertarianism rather than economic issues. They probably see themselves as economically liberal.

Now the open source and commons movements are strong. They emerged spontaneously, independent of any political movement, and are achieving real economic goals all the time, quite in contrast to the anarchists, who seem to be scattered, weak and unwilling to create any economic institutions until capitalism has already been abolished. That’s the plight of the left-wing in general. They are weak in both political planes. Since the defeat of Keynesianism, our world has become neo-liberal. The right-wing has won. Because of this double problem - the weakness of the left in power coupled with their comparative weakness in the counter-culture - we might expect that any anarchist revolution we see is perhaps more likely to be a right-wing anarchist revolution than a left-wing one. It would arguably be easier, after all, to go from a right-wing capitalist world to another right-wing world.

This way of thinking should give us hope. It’s easy for someone who is anti-capitalist and anti-state to look at the pitiful state of the left-wing and despair in the hopelessness of it all, but if they broaden their horizons to the “right wing of anarchism”, the prospects actually look pretty good. Moreover, a recognition of the common ground that anarchists can or could share with the current political right could be useful in coming to terms with life in a right-wing world.

I suspect that many would be overwhelmed by the apparently confusing usage of the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” to describe different types of anarchism and communism. I hope that my discussion of the similarities makes this usage at least understandable. Other terminology is possible, to avoid potential confusion, such as “communitarian” versus “individualist” or “concentrated” versus “distributed” systems.

Some might claim that I’m fomenting tension and conflict in a hypothetical anarchist society. They might like to believe in utopian ideals that there would be no political disagreements in an anarchist society, and that by pointing out potential differences of theory or ideology it would become more difficult to make any progress at all in an anarchist direction. I disagree, however, and I think it is far better to admit that there are many differences of opinion and to recognise that these will persist into a new economic order. Furthermore, by presenting anarchism as a diverse political ideology, we can make it sound more normalised; otherwise people will continue to see it as a fringe, extremist political persuasion way down in the corner. In reality it’s a completely new system in its own right, a system with its own political spectrum, and a new world of debates, questions and possibilities to go with it.