Archives for posts with tag: Libertarianism

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that taxes are theft. We work hard for our income, and the government just comes right in and takes the money that we earned without our consent! That’s stealing! The government steals. Now, the government can legally do many things that private individuals cannot do. It can confine and relocate people against their will. It can kidnap children. It can even commit violence if it deems it necessary for a safe society. However, the one thing people cannot abide over any other crime is theft. Nobody cares about foster kids, criminals, and immigrants, and so state intervention only matters where my finances are concerned!

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Big Government when it comes to people I don’t like; small government when it comes to me

One of the more prominent libertarian thinkers that popularized the concept of illicit taxation is Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (so titled because libertarianism, as an extreme reduction of state, is inherently anarchistic). Nozick presents a thought experiment which I will paraphrase in order to use really simple maths. You work 40 hours a week, making $100 an hour. You’re doing all right. That’s $4000 a week, but the government decides that it’s going to tax you 10% of your earnings, and takes away $400. What this essentially means is that for the last four hours of your work week, you’re working for free under the authority of the government. The higher the taxes, the more unpaid working hours. This isn’t just theft, it’s slavery! Maybe this is why people just fuck about on Friday afternoons, as a means of sticking it to the The Man for having to endure slavery wages just before the weekend.

While there are certainly problems with this argument, we’ll leave it as is for now.

Let’s turn to the feudal system. The peasant produces $4000 worth of goods, and has to pay his lord $400 each week. Similar to the slavery tax system illustrated above. Now, let’s mix it up a bit. The peasant is still producing $4000 worth of goods, but instead of paying the lord taxes, the lord collects the $4000, and pays the peasant $3600 for his labour. Ha! Ridiculous, right? Okay, let’s be a bit more realistic.

The peasant is still producing $4000 worth of goods, but instead of paying the lord taxes, the lord collects the $4000, and pays the peasant $400 for his labour.

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If that. Isn’t it nice having a say in how taxation will affect the community? Democracy sure is great. I wonder if such a concept has ever been imagined in the second scenario?

If the peasant’s labour really only costs $400 a week, then the extra $3600 is what famed beard-haver Karl Marx called surplus value: money that is added on to the cost of production basically so the person (or minority of people) who own that production can continue to grow their wealth without having to actually do anything. In a word, profit. This money, more or less equivalent to the stolen taxes of our initial example, does not go to community projects, however, but to the pockets of a private owner.

The issue that people are going to take with my examples is likely going to be that of consent. So you might think, well, I didn’t agree to no social contract, why should I abide by it and pay these exorbitant taxes!? And you’re right, that is a legitimate criticism of the social contract theory. Abide by the social contract under which you are born or go to jail is not a meaningful choice in any sense. Social contracts are not inherently just, and resistance against them may be legitimate. Universal acquiescence is no form of morality.

What about our second peasant who is paid wages instead of owning his own labour and paying taxes? Nozick and other libertarians would say that they agreed to this contract with the lord, and if they don’t like it, they could quit and get another job as like a blacksmith or something. Nozick says that not getting a livable wage is like being rejected by the prettiest girl at the dance. Everyone wants to date the prom queen, but if that doesn’t work out, you just keep going down the list of available women until finally you get to the partner that is manipulative and abusive, and you stay with them because nobody wants to die alone. Again, this is a paraphrase of his argument, but he literally says that since it’s fair for women to reject us (he’s big into hetero masculinity), it’s fair for companies to reject us from livable conditions too. Kind of important to consider this the next time the libertarians in the alt-right talk about being entitled to women’s bodies.

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Or the liberal media, apparently

Nozick’s argument makes all kinds of terrible assumptions. For example, ownership is often inherited or influenced by nepotism, even entrepreneurs typically come from already wealthy families, which would be the equivalent of the prom queen being passed down through the generations of prom kings rather than through any merit-based wooing process; women don’t have a systematic incentive to be abusive and manipulative the way profit-driven companies do; and nobody’s child will starve if their parent can’t get a date. If the dating system is rigged so that the suitor has only the most abysmal options available, and they’ll die if they don’t pick one, then the metaphor might be more appropriate. It would also make those dating shows that much more interesting to watch.

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But this time, if you’re voted off, you can’t afford your kid’s desperate medical operation

If we acknowledge that the “choice” between accepting the social contract or jail is not a choice, then it follows that the “choice” between accepting tyrannical labour conditions or death is not much of a choice either. If taxation is theft, it’s not much of a stretch to use the same argument against surplus value. Both involve others profiting off of labour in which they take no part.

Except, in order for a community to function as a community, participation in its maintenance is required. Communities are a collective. It’s not something that’s debatable. Taxation is a fairly straightforward and simple measure to extract funding for that maintenance, and income tax is a fairly equitable way of going about it. Universal acquiescence is certainly dumb, but thinking for two seconds about how a community works and what that would require very quickly reveals the need for public options funded by the collective.

The theft of the ownership class has no other motive beyond personal gain. If you had to choose between one theft or the other, why are we so quick to pounce on taxes instead of the exploitation of labour? Denouncing the community while advocating greed is the whispered maxim of capitalists.

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Maybe not so much whispered as shouted from the rooftops. Remember when unbridled avarice was considered a bad thing?

Or you could abandon both forms of theft and embrace true anarchism. Not the anarcho-capitalism of modern libertarianism, but left libertarianism. Libertarian socialism. Anarchy. Take it for a spin. See how you feel.

For full effect, listen to this as you read.

In the West, most people see communism as a failed social enterprise, relegated to the dustbin of history after its atrocious implementation during the 20th century. People look at the oppressive Stalinist regime, the brutality of the Maoist revolution, and the devastation of Pol Pot, and argue that while it works nicely on paper, communism is far too appalling, evidenced by precedent, to be taken seriously in any kind of discussion for the future.

Of course, no one seems to know what communism actually means. People use the term “cultural Marxism” to denounce pretty much anyone on the left that they disagree with, since the term is vague to the point of meaninglessness, making it easy to apply. It boils down to modern day McCarthyism against groups of people who probably don’t even identify as Marxist at all. People associate communism and socialism with welfare spending, and Big Government interfering in the economy, staying the invisible hand. In actuality, socialism is the equivalent of industrial democracy, and means that workers run their businesses as a collective, rather than under the autocratic rule of a monarch. Engels actually wrote that once socialism was in place, there would be a “withering away of the state” as it became obsolete, with people becoming more and more involved in the maintenance of their own communities. Communism, once realized, doesn’t involve Big Government at all, and is actually libertarian in principle. The difference is that power is diffused among the people, rather than maintained in tyrannical, non-governmental structures as in contemporary libertarianism. For the record, government interference to guide the economy is called Keynesian Economics, and is responsible for such things as FDR’s New Deal which incidentally brought the Americans out of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, this misinformation isn’t just propagated by the neo-McCarthyists on the Right, since Bernie Sanders, who essentially promotes New Deal-styled policy ideas, proclaims himself a socialist. Not to say that they’re bad ideas in the current economic and political climate, they’re just not socialist.

What separates communism from anarchism (or libertarian socialism, if you prefer), is the method of implementation, and here is where the problems start. Marx, Engels, and Lenin advocated the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which is the transitional state between capitalism and communism. In order for the transition to be successful, there must be centralized power which enforces the new ideological system, as outside forces will continuously threaten the newly established way of life. They give the example of the Paris Commune, which showed promise as a communist paradise, but was overthrown by hostile capitalists not long after its implementation. Had the Commune bolstered its power to enforce its ideals more effectively, it could have survived. Thus, the necessity of centralized power. Of course, once the threats dissipate, the state will allegedly wither away, but the anarchists believed that oppressive power is oppressive power, regardless of who wields the stick of oppression, be it the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. The anarchists wished to abolish all structures of power at the outset, without resorting to authoritarian methods to do so.

If the USSR never actually achieved full communism (a stateless, democratically organized society), and never even implemented any socialist initiatives (democratically organized businesses), how did it becomes the scapegoat for the so-called even-minded critiques of those doctrines? The blame mostly rests on the shoulders of the “liberal media” that has been propagating the capitalist imperative for decades.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published possibly the first thoroughly researched look at what has now become Fake News, in their book Manufacturing Consent. In it, they look at how the media portrays the objectives of capitalist elites as morally honourable, while demonizing those who disagree with the accepted model. For example, everyone knows about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, they even made a movie about it, and everyone knows that Pol Pot and communism in general are responsible for all those deaths. What is less known is that from 1969 to 1973, the Americans had been bombing Cambodia, creating a death toll comparable though slightly less than the numbers of dead under Pol Pot, and then after the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot’s regime, the Americans covertly supported the Khmer Rouge since Vietnam was seen to be the worse evil of the two. When measuring outrage against atrocity, context is important.

For additional context, there is also the Indonesian genocide of the East Timorese which happened concurrently to the Cambodian one. The difference between the two genocides was that the Indonesian government was being supplied by the Americans, and were slaughtering those with left-leaning principles. Media outcry could very easily have ended the genocide, given America’s involvement in its process, but the outcry never happened, and many of those involved in the massacre are still a part of the contemporary Indonesian government. There was actually an independent film documenting the effects of the genocide today, The Act of Killing (2012), but its accusations of US complicity were pretty much ignored.

Chomsky and Herman give many more examples, such as media comparisons between a priest being killed in Poland and four religious American women killed in El Salvador. Or the media’s attempt to pin the assassination attempt on the Pope onto Soviet communists, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Their criticism of the media’s portrayal of the Vietnam War, commonly associated with media hostility to power, is that the media decried American casualties, and American blunders within the war, but it never criticized America’s right to intervene militarily in foreign nations, nor the devastation wrought to the Vietnamese. Similarly today, the legitimacy of the War on Terror is simply assumed, and weeping over American casualties and condemning certain methods remain the only viable criticism. The deaths of Middle Eastern civilians are basically shrugged off.

Capitalist propaganda is why we associate Russian Gulags with communism, but not the Western assassination of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953 with capitalism. Mosaddegh was trying to limit the powers of Western oil companies in his country while trying to keep the profit derived from his nation within his nation, and was killed for it. That’s not capitalism. Or the Great Bengal famine, when the British East India Company implemented crop policies that reduced the production of edible crops for those that were more viable on the international market. The food shortage that erupted resulted in the deaths of 10 million people. Again, not the fault of capitalism. Donald Trump today wants to reinvigorate the Afghanistan war, instate an American Viceroy, and claim ownership of Afghan mineral deposits as compensation for the 16 year war that America started. Using war, death, and destruction to enrich resource-driven oligarchs could never be categorized as a staple of capitalist doctrine. Those who denounce Venezuela as a failed socialist state ought to maintain that Haiti, the Philippines, Guatemala, Chile, Iran, and many, many others should be capitalist utopias due to the intervention into their politics that emphasized private power over public ownership. A system where the ultimate goal is profit at any cost could never result in anything terrible. But it does, obviously, since that doesn’t make sense at all. Communism at least works on paper.

Where does propaganda end and reality set in? The USSR, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and Maoist China all resulted in terrible atrocities, and that is something that no one will deny. But are they appropriate examples of communist principles in action, or even socialist ones? If you are going to criticize socialist states, there are examples where the ideal was realized. Israeli Kibbutz, starting before Israel was even a thing, are socialist communities that still flourish today. Catalonia, Spain, prior to Franco’s attempt at fascism, was a successful anarchist society. It was even described with reverence by famed author of Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell, in his book Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, being an ardent socialist, was quite fond of the experiment. The Diggers in 17th century England are another example. Today, Marinaleda, also in Spain, admits to being a successful communist utopia, and economically speaking, far surpasses the surrounding cities which gives credence to its claim. There are certainly criticisms that exist of these places; the Kibbutz are mired in Judaic and Israeli cultural/political intrigue, there are few opportunities for ambition in Marinaleda, and the Diggers and Catalonians were wiped out by their ideological opponents (Is being wiped out a criticism? Marx thought it was, but perhaps these examples exist better as a condemnation of an ideology, ironically driven by competition, that cannot abide competition. Fukuyama’s End of History is essentially the monopoly of a system that claims such a development is a destructive failure).

We shouldn’t dismiss misunderstood ideas without proper analysis, and we shouldn’t read Animal Farm and assume that the solution is to leave Mr Jones in charge. Communism is certainly associated with a sordid history, but how much of that is reality and how much is propaganda? How does it fare against the reality and propaganda of capitalism? There are reasonable precedents that we can learn from without being blinded by the grotesque theatre of the common strawmen. We don’t have to strive for an anarcho-communist utopia, but neither should we dismiss it out of hand.

Competition is supposed to be the whetstone with which society continually betters itself. Society will flourishes when companies go head to head, as the free market will determine, based on what each of them offers against the other, which will succeed and which will flounder. We revel in the competitive, with combative (both figuratively and literally) sporting events being subscribed to with almost religious dogmatism. Competition appears to be the foundation of Western civilization, supporting the capitalist doctrine of invisible-hand economics.

In Ancient Greek philosophy, the competitive ideologues were called Sophists. The Sophists sought not to reach any kind of philosophical epiphany, but rather only to use language and rhetoric to convince their audience of their deliberative victory, regardless of the weakness of their arguments. The Sophists were derided by the classical philosophers whose names everyone knows, and now sophistry is used in common language to mean “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.” History has already shown its preference.

Certainly the classical philosophers sparred over ideas. Aristotle is quoted as saying, “Piety requires us to honour truth above our friends” in regards to his philosophical criticisms of his tutor and friend, Plato. The difference however is this: the goal of Plato and Aristotle was never to be “right,” their goal was the truth. The Sophists had no goal other than to win, competition being their only motivation.

Competitivism as an ideology prefers to focus on winners, but by its very nature necessarily requires losers. The selfish could theoretically hoard to their heart’s content without impacting anyone else; the competitive need someone else to lose. Consider the outcome of the Sears corporation attempting to promote company profits by splitting everyone up into units and pitting them against each other. Unsurprisingly, they collapsed into chaos. The groups spent more time sabotaging each other than actually contributing anything toward the company’s well-being. Though in theory there could be Pyrrhic winners within the Sears organization, the main takeaway is that regardless of how the individual units did on their own, Sears as a whole failed catastrophically. The only thing stopping the Sears model and its consequences being a symbolic microcosm of society as a whole are the government regulations stopping competing corporations from burning the whole country to the ground. Competition is not a whetstone, but rather the motivation to slice the Achilles tendon of your opponent.

Unfortunately, those likely to win in a libertarian battle-royale, based on their already accumulated wealth and status, seek to drive us toward its unforgiving hellscape: the celebration of competition and the illusion of meritocracy allows them to exude the moral nobility of a cultural hero, no matter how many dead they’ve left in their wake. Who doesn’t love being a hero? From here, competitivism becomes a means of control. The winners have already won a game rigged in their favour, so they have nothing to fear, while the losers fight for scraps. Those who have noticed the problem can do nothing; to stop competing means to starve. We cannot stand with our neighbours because our neighbours are after the same scraps we need to feed our family.

In my own personal experience, I had a practicum at a Senior’s Resource Centre that provided information and other resources to those over the age of 65. All of the Senior’s Activity Centres in town got their funding from the same government grant, which means helping senior citizens is a zero-sum game. Some Activity Centres would come to the Resource Centre for a letter of commendation, little realizing that the Resource Centre too was seeking the same funds. If the goal was the improvement of the lives of seniors, then there would be an emphasis on dialogue and collaboration. Even if there were disagreements over the best methods, the goal would drive the collective forward. But because competitivism forced them against each other, they each now only have the goal to keep their own heads above the water, senior citizens be damned. The heads of the Activity Centres could not be in the same room together. It is my very own Sears Corporation anecdote. However, this is slightly different. Whereas the failure of one company might not have a huge impact on society overall, the collapse of the care for seniors in this city would devastate the local population. And due to the incumbent cutthroat competitivism, there is no possibility of political solidarity to stand against it.

The same applies to the private sector. I’m sure anyone with half a brain and half a heart has asked themselves why corporate executives seem to disregard the future of the human species for the sake of a short-term profit. Surely they must have grandchildren? The same systemic ideology that applies to Senior Activity Centres applies to corporations. A CEO that cannot provide immediate gains will simply be replaced by one who can; the corporation must remain competitive or it will sink. Though I’m sure greed certainly plays a part, it is the rules of competitivism that create the destructive myopia. “Winning” triumphs over common sense.

Competitivism: Where the means justify the end

What’s the point of being better than someone else? An evolutionary psychologist might make an argument for a biological mating drive, comparing us to male birds who advertise their virility with flamboyant plumage in competition with the other males. Hobbes’ state of nature paints humanity as brutal and selfish at our core, and he argues that for civilization to work we must be stringently regulated by a governing body. Though perhaps, just as libertarian goddess Ayn Rand suggests we condition altruism out of our social psyche, we could condition out competitiveness instead, which would reduce the need for oversight.

Alternatively, an anthropologist might argue that our natural state is far more collaborative, and that competitivism is what is conditioned into us rather than its opposite. Things like sporting events would be less like cultural memes indicative of our biological impulses, and more like propaganda for a systemic imbalance alien to our intrinsic nature. The only reason our society functions the way it does would be because the winners have told us this is the way it must be. In either case, be it our natural state or not, competitivism needs to be wrested from our civilization, lest it turn it into ash.

Post-script: I am directly related to athletes, so I’m going to answer the question about whether the elimination of competition would eliminate sport altogether. It is a question of goals. Is testing the human capacity for speed and endurance a reasonable goal? Sure. Why not test our limits. Is putting a ball in a net a reasonable goal? No. That’s entirely arbitrary and pointless. Sports entertainment is sophistry in its original sense. If it is something worthwhile, then it ought to be worked towards collectively and collaboratively. Can you imagine what a collaborative hockey match would look like? It would be a bunch of players standing in front of an empty net trying to see how many pucks they could put in during the span of three 20 minute periods.