Why Do Social Anarchists Reject Individualist Anarchism?

Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


As James J. Martin notes, “paralleling” European social anarchism “chronologically was a kindred but nearly unconnected phenomenon in America, seeking the same ends through individualistic rather than collectivistic dynamics.” [Men Against the State, p. ix]

When the two movements met in America in the 1880s, the similarities and differences of both came into sharp relief. While both social and individualist anarchists reject capitalism as well as the state and seek an end to the exploitation of labour by capital (i.e. to usury in all its forms), both schools of anarchism rejected each others solutions to the social problem. The vision of the social anarchists was more communally based, urging social ownership of the means of life. In contrast, reflecting the pre-dominantly pre-capitalist nature of post-revolution US society, the Individualist Anarchists urged possession of the means of life and mutual banking to end profit, interest and rent and ensure every worker access to the capital they needed to work for themselves (if they so desired). While social anarchists placed co-operatives (i.e., workers’ self-management) at the centre of their vision of a free society, many individualist anarchists did not as they thought that mutual banking would end exploitation by ensuring that workers received the full product of their labour.

Thus their vision of a free society and the means to achieve it were somewhat different (although, we stress, not mutually exclusive as communist anarchists supported artisan possession of the means of possession for those who rejected communism and the Individualist Anarchists supported voluntary communism). Tucker argued that a communist could not be an anarchist and the communist-anarchists argued that Individualist Anarchism could not end the exploitation of capital by labour. Here we indicate why social anarchists reject individualist anarchism.

Malatesta summarises the essential points of difference as well as the source of much of the misunderstandings:

“The individualists assume, or speak as if they assumed, that the (anarchist) communists wish to impose communism, which of course would put them right outside the ranks of anarchism.

“The communists assume, or speak as if they assumed, that the (anarchist) individualists reject every idea of association, want the struggle between men, the domination of the strongest — and this would put them not only outside the anarchist movement but outside humanity.

“In reality those who are communists are such because they see in communism freely accepted the realisation of brotherhood, and the best guarantee for individual freedom. And individualists, those who are really anarchists, are anti-communist because they fear that communism would subject individuals nominally to the tyranny of the collectivity and in fact to that of the party or caste which, with the excuse of administering things, would succeed in taking possession of the power to dispose of material things and thus of the people who need them. Therefore they want each individual, or each group, to be in a position to enjoy freely the product of their labour in conditions of equality with other individuals and groups, with whom they would maintain relations of justice and equity.

“In which case it is clear that there is no basic difference between us. But, according to the communists, justice and equity are, under natural conditions impossible of attainment in an individualistic society, and thus freedom too would not be attained.

“If climatic conditions throughout the world were the same, if the land were everywhere equally fertile, if raw materials were evenly distributed and within reach of all who needed them, if social development were the same everywhere in the world ... then one could conceive of everyone ... finding the land, tools and raw materials needed to work and produce independently, without exploiting or being exploited. But natural and historical conditions being what they are, how is it possible to establish equality and justice between he who by chance finds himself with a piece of arid land which demands much labour for small returns with him who has a piece of fertile and well sited land?” Of between the inhabitant of a village lost in the mountains or in the middle of a marshy area, with the inhabitants of a city which hundreds of generations of man have enriched with all the skill of human genius and labour? [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 31–2]

The social anarchist opposition to individualist anarchism, therefore, resolves around the issues of inequality, the limitations and negative impact of markets and whether wage-labour is consistent with anarchist principles (both in general and in terms of individualist anarchism itself).

First, we must stress that individualist anarchism plays an important role in reminding all socialists that capitalism does not equal the market. Markets have existed before capitalism and may, if we believe market socialists like David Schweickart and free market socialists like Benjamin Tucker and Kevin Carson, even survive it. While some socialists (particularly Leninists echoing, ironically, supporters of capitalism) equate capitalism with the market, this is not the case. Capitalism is a specific form of market economy based on certain kinds of property rights which result in generalised wage labour and non-labour incomes (exploitation). This means that the libertarian communist critique of capitalism is to a large degree independent of its critique of markets and their negative impact. Equally, the libertarian communist critique of markets, while applicable to capitalism, applies to other kinds of economy. It is fair to say, though, that capitalism tends to intensify and worsen the negative effects of markets.

Second, we must also note that social anarchists are a diverse grouping and include the mutualism of Proudhon, Bakunin’s collectivism and Kropotkin’s communism. All share a common hostility to wage labour and recognise, to varying degrees, that markets tend to have negative aspects which can undermine the libertarian nature of a society. While Proudhon was the social anarchist most in favour of competition, he was well aware of the need for self-managed workplaces to federate together to protect themselves from its negative aspects — aspects he discussed at length. His “agro-industrial federation” was seen as a means of socialising the market, of ensuring that competition would not reach such levels as to undermine the freedom and equality of those within it. Individualist anarchists, in contrast, tended not to discuss the negative effects of markets in any great depth (if at all), presumably because they thought that most of the negative effects would disappear along with capitalism and the state. Other anarchists are not so optimistic.

So, two key issues between social and individualist anarchism are the related subjects of property and competition. As Voltairine de Cleyre put it when she was an individualist anarchist:

“She and I hold many differing views on both Economy and Morals ... Miss Goldmann [sic!] is a communist; I am an individualist. She wishes to destroy the right of property, I wish to assert it. I make my war upon privilege and authority, whereby the right of property, the true right in that which is proper to the individual, is annihilated. She believes that co-operation would entirely supplant competition; I hold that competition in one form or another will always exist, and that it is highly desirable it should.” [The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, p. 9]

The question of “property” is subject to much confusion and distortion. It should be stressed that both social and individualist anarchists argue that the only true property is that produced by labour (mental and physical) and capitalism results in some of that being diverted to property owners in the form of interest, rent and profits. Where they disagree is whether it is possible and desirable to calculate an individual’s contribution to social production, particularly within a situation of joint labour. For Tucker, it was a case of creating “the economic law by which every man may get the equivalent of his product.” [quoted by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince, p. 279] Social anarchists, particularly communist ones, question whether it is possible in reality to discover such a thing in any society based on joint labour (“which it would be difficult to imagine could exist in any society where there is the least complexity of production.” [George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, Op. Cit., p. 280]).

This was the crux of Kropotkin’s critique of the various schemes of “labour money” and “labour vouchers” raised by other schools of socialism (like mutualism, collectivism and various state socialist systems). They may abolish wage labour (or, at worse, create state capitalism) but they did not abolish the wages system, i.e., payment according to work done. This meant that a system of individualist distribution was forced upon a fundamentally co-operative system of production and so was illogical and unjust (see Kropotkin’s “The Collectivist Wage System” in The Conquest of Bread). Thus Daniel Guérin:

“This method of remuneration, derived from modified individualism, is in contradiction to collective ownership of the means of production, and cannot bring about a profound revolutionary change in man. It is incompatible with anarchism; a new form of ownership requires a new form of remuneration. Service to the community cannot be measured in units of money. Needs will have to be given precedence over services, and all the products of the labour of all must belong to all, each to take his share of them freely. To each according to his need should be the motto of libertarian communism.” [Anarchism, p. 50]

Simply put, wages rarely reflect the actual contribution of a specific person to social well-being and production nor do they reflect their actual needs. To try and get actual labour income to reflect the actual contribution to society would be, communist-anarchists argued, immensely difficult. How much of a product’s price was the result of better land or more machinery, luck, the willingness to externalise costs, and so on? Voltairine de Cleyre summarised this problem and the obvious solution:

“I concluded that as to the question of exchange and money, it was so exceedingly bewildering, so impossible of settlement among the professors themselves, as to the nature of value, and the representation of value, and the unit of value, and the numberless multiplications and divisions of the subject, that the best thing ordinary workingmen or women could do was to organise their industry so as to get rid of money altogether. I figured it this way: I’m not any more a fool than the rest of ordinary humanity; I’ve figured and figured away on this thing for years, and directly I thought myself middling straight, there came another money reformer and showed me the hole in that scheme, till, at last , it appears that between ‘bills of credit,’ and ‘labour notes’ and ‘time checks,’ and ‘mutual bank issues,’ and ‘the invariable unit of value,’ none of them have any sense. How many thousands of years is it going to get this sort of thing into people’s heads by mere preaching of theories. Let it be this way: Let there be an end of the special monopoly on securities for money issues. Let every community go ahead and try some member’s money scheme if it wants; — let every individual try it if he pleases. But better for the working people let them all go. Let them produce together, co-operatively rather than as employer and employed; let them fraternise group by group, let each use what he needs of his own product, and deposit the rest in the storage-houses, and let those others who need goods have them as occasion arises.” [Exquisite Rebel, p. 62]

And, obviously, it must be stressed that “property” in the sense of personal possessions would still exist in communist-anarchism. As the co-founder of Freedom put it:

“Does Anarchism, then, it may be asked, acknowledge no Meum or Tuum, no personal property? In a society in which every man is free to take what he requires, it is hardly conceivable that personal necessaries and conveniences will not be appropriated, and difficult to imagine why they should not ... When property is protected by no legal enactments, backed by armed force, and is unable to buy personal service, it resuscitation on such a scale as to be dangerous to society is little to be dreaded. The amount appropriated by each individual, and the manner of his appropriation, must be left to his own conscience, and the pressure exercised upon him by the moral sense and distinct interests of his neighbours.” [Charlotte Wilson, Anarchist Essays, p. 24]

To use an appropriate example, public libraries are open to all local residents and they are free to borrow books from the stock available. When the book is borrowed, others cannot come along and take the books from a person’s home. Similarly, an individual in a communist society can take what they like from the common stocks and use it as they see fit. They do not need permission from others to do so, just as people freely go to public parks without requiring a vote by the local community on whether to allow access or not. Communism, in other words, does not imply community control of personal consumption nor the denial of individuals to appropriate and use the common stock of available goods. Socialised consumption does not mean “society” telling people what to consume but rather ensuring that all individuals have free access to the goods produced by all. As such, the issue is not about “property” in the sense of personal property but rather “property” in the sense of access to the means of life by those who use them. Will owner occupiers be able to exclude others from, say, their land and workplaces unless they agree to be their servants?

Which brings us to a key issue between certain forms of individualist anarchism and social anarchism, namely the issue of wage labour. As capitalism has progressed, the size of workplaces and firms have increased. This has lead to a situation were ownership and use has divorced, with property being used by a group of individuals distinct from the few who are legally proclaimed to be its owners. The key problem arises in the case of workplaces and how do non-possessors gain access to them. Under social anarchism, any new members of the collective automatically become part of it, with the same rights and ability to participate in decision making as the existing ones. In other words, socialised production does not mean that “society” will allocate individuals work tasks but rather it ensures that all individuals have free access to the means of life. Under individualist anarchism, however, the situation is not as clear with some (like Tucker) supporting wage labour. This suggests that the holders of workplaces can exclude others from the means of life they possess and only allow them access only under conditions which create hierarchical social relationships between them. Thus we could have a situation in which the owners who actually manage their own workplaces are, in effect, working capitalists who hire others to do specific tasks in return for a wage.

The problem is highlighted in Tucker’s description of what would replace the current system of statism (and note he calls it “scientific socialism” thus squarely placing his ideas in the anti-capitalist camp):

“we have something very tangible to offer , . . We offer non-compulsive organisation. We offer associative combination. We offer every possible method of voluntary social union by which men and women may act together for the furtherance of well-being. In short, we offer voluntary scientific socialism in place of the present compulsory, unscientific organisation which characterises the State and all of its ramifications.” [quoted by Martin, Op. Cit., p. 218]

Yet it is more than possible for voluntary social unions to be authoritarian and exploitative (we see this every day under capitalism). In other words, not every form of non-compulsive organisation is consistent with libertarian principles. Given Tucker’s egoism, it is not hard to conclude that those in stronger positions on the market will seek to maximise their advantages and exploit those who are subject to their will. As he put it, “[s]o far as inherent right is concerned, might is the only measure. Any man ... and any set of men ... have the right, if they have the power, to kill or coerce other men and to make the entire world subservient to their ends. Society’s right to enslave the individual and the individual’s right to enslave society are only unequal because their powers are unequal.” In the market, all contracts are based on the ownership of resources which exist before any specific contracts is made. If one side of the contract has more economic power than the other (say, because of their ownership of capital) then it staggers belief that egoists will not seek to maximise said advantage and so the market will tend to increase inequalities over time rather than reduce them. If, as Tucker argued, “Anarchic associations would recognise the right of individual occupants to combine their holdings and work them under any system they might agree upon, the arrangement being always terminable at will, with reversion to original rights” then we have the unfortunate situation where inequalities will undermine anarchism and defence associations arising which will defend them against attempts by those subject to them to use direct action to rectify the situation. [The Individualist Anarchists, p. 25 and p. 162]

Kropotkin saw the danger, arguing that such an idea “runs against the feelings of equality of most of us” and “brings the would-be ‘Individualists’ dangerously near to those who imagine themselves to represent a ‘superior breed’ — those to whom we owe the State ... and all other forms of oppression.” [Evolution and Environment, p. 84] It is clear that wage labour (like any hierarchical organisation) is not consistent with general anarchist principles and, furthermore, in direct contradiction to individualist anarchist principles of “occupancy and use.” Only if “occupancy and use” is consistently applied and so wage labour replaced by workers associations can the inequalities associated with market exchanges not become so great as to destroy the equal freedom of all required for anarchism to work.

Individualist anarchists reply to this criticism by arguing that this is derived from a narrow reading of Stirner’s ideas and that they are in favour of universal egoism. This universal egoism and the increase in competition made possible by mutual banking will ensure that workers will have the upper-hand in the market, with the possibility of setting up in business themselves always available. In this way the ability of bosses to become autocrats is limited, as is their power to exploit their workers as a result. Social anarchists argue, in response, that the individualists tend to underestimate the problems associated with natural barriers to entry in an industry. This could help generate generalised wage labour (and so a new class of exploiters) as workers face the unpleasant choice of working for a successful firm, being unemployed or working for low wages in an industry with lower barriers to entry. This process can be seen under capitalism when co-operatives hire wage workers and not include them as members of the association (i.e. they exercise their ownership rights to exclude others). As Proudhon argued:

“I have shown the contractor, at the birth of industry, negotiating on equal terms with his comrades, who have since become his workmen. It is plain, in fact, that this original equality was bound to disappear through the advantageous position of the master and the dependent position of the wage-workers. In vain does the law assure the right of each to enterprise ... When an establishment has had leisure to develop itself, enlarge its foundations, ballast itself with capital, and assure itself a body of patrons, what can a workman do against a power so superior?” [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 202]

Voltairine de Cleyre also came to this conclusion. Discussing the limitations of the Single Tax land reform, she noted that “the stubborn fact always came up that no man would employ another to work for him unless he could get more for his product than he had to pay for it, and that being the case, the inevitable course of exchange and re-exchange would be that the man having received less than the full amount, could buy back less than the full amount, so that eventually the unsold products must again accumulate in the capitalist’s hands; and again the period of non-employment arrives.” This obviously applied to individualist anarchism. In response to objections like this, individualists tend to argue that competition for labour would force wages to equal output. Yet this ignores natural barriers to competition: “it is well enough to talk of his buying hand tools, or small machinery which can be moved about; but what about the gigantic machinery necessary to the operation of a mine, or a mill? It requires many to work it. If one owns it, will he not make the others pay tribute for using it?” [Op. Cit., p. 60 and p. 61]

As such, a free market based on wage labour would be extremely unlikely to produce a non-exploitative society and, consequently, it would not be socialist and so not anarchist. Moreover, the successful business person would seek to secure his or her property and power and so employ police to do so. “I confess that I am not in love with all these little states,” proclaimed de Cleyre, “and it is ... the thought of the anarchist policeman that has driven me out of the individualist’s camp, wherein I for some time resided.” [quoted by Eugenia C. Delamotte, Gates of Freedom, p. 25] This outcome can only be avoided by consistently applying “occupancy and use” in such as way as to eliminate wage labour totally. Only this can achieve a society based on freedom of association as well as freedom within association.

One of the worries of individualist anarchists is that social anarchism would subject individuals to group pressures and concerns, violating individual autonomy in the name of collective interests. Thus, it is argued, the individual will become of slave of the group in practice if not in theory under social anarchism. However, an inherent part of our humanity is that we associate with others, that we form groups and communities. To suggest that there are no group issues within anarchism seems at odds with reality. Taken literally, of course, this implies that such a version of “anarchy” there would be no forms of association at all. No groups, no families, no clubs: nothing bar the isolated individual. It implies no economic activity beyond the level of peasant farming and one-person artisan workplaces. Why? Simply because any form of organisation implies “group issues.” Two people deciding to live together or one hundred people working together becomes a group, twenty people forming a football club becomes a group. And these people have joint interests and so group issues. In other words, to deny group issues is implying a social situation that has never existed nor ever will. Thus Kropotkin:

“to reason in this way is to pay ... too large a tribute to metaphysical dialectics, and to ignore the facts of life. It is impossible to conceive a society in which the affairs of any one of its members would not concern many other members, if not all; still less a society in which a continual contact between its members would not have established an interest of every one towards all others, which would render it impossible to act without thinking of the effects which our actions may have on others.” [Evolution and Environment, p. 85]

Once the reality of “group issues” is acknowledged, as most individualist anarchists do, then the issue of collective decision making automatically arises. There are two ways of having a group. You can be an association of equals, governing yourselves collectively as regards collective issues. Or you can have capitalists and wage slaves, bosses and servants, government and governed. Only the first, for obvious reasons, is compatible with anarchist principles. Freedom, in other words, is a product of how we interact with each other, not of isolation. Simply put, anarchism is based on self-management of group issues, not in their denial. Free association is, in this perspective, a necessary but not sufficient to guarantee freedom. Therefore, social anarchists reject the individualists’ conception of anarchy, simply because it can, unfortunately, allow hierarchy (i.e. government) back into a free society in the name of “liberty” and “free contracts.” Freedom is fundamentally a social product, created in and by community. It is a fragile flower and does not fare well when bought and sold on the market.

Moreover, without communal institutions, social anarchists argue, it would be impossible to specify or supply group or public goods. In addition, occupancy and use would, on the face of it, preclude such amenities which are utilised by members of a community such as parks, roads or bridges — anything which is used but not occupied continually. In terms of roads and bridges, who actually occupies and uses them? The drivers? Those who maintain it? The occupiers of the houses which it passes? Those who funded it construction? If the last, then why does this not apply to housing and other buildings left on land? And how are the owners to collect a return on their investment unless by employing police to bar access to non-payers? And would such absentee owners not also seek to extend their appropriations to other forms of property? Would it not be far easier to simply communalise such forms of commonly used “property” rather than seek to burden individuals and society with the costs of policing and restricting access to them?

After all, social anarchists note, for Proudhon there was a series of industries and services that he had no qualms about calling “public works” and which he considered best handled by communes and their federations. Thus “the control undertaking such works will belong to the municipalities, and to districts within their jurisdiction” while “the control of carrying them out will rest with the workmen’s associations.” This was due to both their nature and libertarian values and so the “direct, sovereign initiative of localities, in arranging for public works that belong to them, is a consequence of the democratic principle and the free contract: their subordination to the State is ... a return to feudalism.” Workers’ self-management of such public workers was, again, a matter of libertarian principles for “it becomes necessary for the workers to form themselves into democratic societies, with equal conditions for all members, on pain of a relapse into feudalism.” [The General Idea of the Revolution, p. 276 and p. 277]

In the case of a park, either it is open to all or it is fenced off and police used to bar access. Taking “occupancy and use” as our starting point then it becomes clear that, over time, either the community organises itself communally or a park becomes private property. If a group of people frequent a common area then they will have to discuss how to maintain it — for example, arrange for labour to be done on it, whether to have a play-ground for children or to have a duck pond, whether to increase the numbers and types of trees, and so forth. That implies the development of communal structures. In the case of new people using the amenity, either they are excluded from it (and have to pay for access) or they automatically join the users group and so the park is, in effect, common property and socialised. In such circumstances, it would be far easier simply to ignore the issue of individual contributions and base access on need (i.e., communistic principles). However, social anarchists reject attempts to coerce other workers into joining a co-operative or commune. Freedom cannot be given, it must be taken and social anarchism, like all forms of anarchy, cannot be imposed. How those who reject social anarchism will gain access to common property will depend, undoubtedly, on specific circumstances and who exactly is involved and how they wish to utilise it. As such, it will be difficult to generalise as each commune will determine what is best and reach the appropriate contracts with any individualist anarchists in their midst or vicinity.

It should also be pointed out (and this may seem ironic), wage labour does have the advantage that people can move to new locations and work without having to sell their old means of living. Often moving somewhere can be a hassle if one has to sell a shop or home. Many people prefer not to be tied down to one place. This is a problem in a system based on “occupancy and use” as permanently leaving a property means that it automatically becomes abandoned and so its users may be forced to stay in one location until they find a buyer for it. This is not an issue in social anarchism as access to the means of life is guaranteed to all members of the free society.

Most social anarchists also are critical of the means which individualists anarchists support to achieve anarchy, namely to abolish capitalism by the creation of mutual banks which would compete exploitation and oppression away. While mutual banks could aid the position of working class people under capitalism (which is why Bakunin and other social anarchists recommended them), they cannot undermine or eliminate it. This is because capitalism, due to its need to accumulate, creates natural barriers to entry into a market. Thus the physical size of the large corporation would make it immune to the influence of mutual banking and so usury could not be abolished. Even if we look at the claimed indirect impact of mutual banking, namely an increase in the demand of labour and so wages, the problem arises that if this happens then capitalism would soon go into a slump (with obvious negative effects on small firms and co-operatives). In such circumstances, the number of labourers seeking work would rise and so wages would fall and profits rise. Then it is a case of whether the workers would simply tolerate the slump and let capitalism continue or whether they would seize their workplaces and practice the kind of expropriation individualist anarchists tended to oppose.

This problem was recognised by many individualist anarchists themselves and it played a significant role in its decline as a movement. By 1911 Tucker had come to the same conclusions as communist-anarchists on whether capitalism could be reformed away. He “had come to believe that free banking and similar measures, even if inaugurated, were no longer adequate to break the monopoly of capitalism or weaken the authority of the state.” [Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices, p. 6] While admitted that political or revolutionary action was required to destroy the concentrations of capital which made anarchy impossible even with free competition, he rejected the suggestion that individualist anarchists should join in such activity. Voltairine de Cleyre came to similar conclusions earlier and started working with Emma Goldman before becoming a communist-anarchist sometime in 1908. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one historian argues that as the “native American variety of anarchism dissolved in the face of increasing State repression and industrialisation, rationalisation, and concentration of capital, American anarchists were forced either to acquiesce or to seek a more militant stain of anarchism: this latter presented itself in the form of Communist Anarchism ... Faith in peaceful evolution toward an anarchist society seemed archaic and gradually faded.” [Kline, The Individualist Anarchists, p. 83]

So while state action may increase the degree of monopoly in an industry, the natural tendency for any market is to place barriers (natural ones) to new entries in terms of set-up costs and so on. This applies just as much to co-operatives as it does to companies based on wage-labour. It means that if the relation between capital and labour was abolished within the workplace (by their transformation into co-operatives) but they remained the property of their workers, it would only be a matter of time before the separation of the producers from their means of production reproduced itself. This is because, within any market system, some firms fail and others succeed. Those which fail will create a pool of unemployed workers who will need a job. The successful co-operatives, safe behind their natural barriers to entry, would be in a stronger position than the unemployed workers and so may hire them as wage labourers — in effect, the co-operative workers would become “collective capitalists” hiring other workers. This would end workers’ self-management (as not all workers are involved in the decision making process) as well as workers’ ownership, i.e. “occupancy and use,” (as not all workers’ would own the means of production they used). The individual workers involved may “consent” to becoming wage slaves, but that is because it is the best option available rather than what they really want. Which, of course, is the same as under capitalism.

This was why Proudhon argued that “every worker employed in the association” must have “an undivided share in the property of the company” in order to ensure workers’ self-management. [Op. Cit., p. 222] Only this could ensure“occupancy and use” and so self-management in a free society (i.e. keep that society free). Thus in anarchism, as de Cleyre summarised, it is “a settled thing that to be free one must have liberty of access to the sources and means of production” Without socialisation of the means of life, liberty of access could be denied. Little wonder she argued that she had become “convinced that a number of the fundamental propositions of individualistic economy would result in the destruction of equal liberty.” The only logical anarchist position is “that some settlement of the whole labour question was needed which would not split up the people again into land possessors and employed wage-earners.” Hence her movement from individualism towards, first, mutualism and then communism — it was the only logical position to take in a rapidly industrialising America which had made certain concepts of individualism obsolete. It was her love of freedom which made her sensitive to the possibility of any degeneration back into capitalism: “the instinct of liberty naturally revolted not only at economic servitude, but at the outcome of it, class-lines.” [Op. Cit., p. 58, p. 105, p. 61 and p. 55] Such a possibility can be avoided only by a consistent application of “occupancy and use” which, in practice, would be nearly identical to the communalisation or socialisation of the means of life.

This issue is related to the question of inequality within a market economy and whether free exchanges tend to reduce or increase any initial inequalities. While Individualist Anarchists argue for the “cost principle” (i.e. cost being the limit of price) the cost of creating the same commodity in different areas or by different people is not equal. Thus the market price of a good cannot really equal the multitude of costs within it (and so price can only equal a workers’ labour in those few cases where that labour was applied in average circumstances). This issue was recognised by Tucker, who argued that “economic rent ... is one of nature’s inequalities. It will probably remain with us always. Complete liberty will every much lessen it; of that I have no doubt.” [“Why I am an Anarchist”, pp. 132–6, Man!, M. Graham (ed.), pp. 135–6] However, argue social anarchists, the logic of market exchange produces a situation where the stronger party to a contract seeks to maximise their advantage. Given this, free exchange will tend to increase differences in wealth and income over time, not eliminate them. As Daniel Guérin summarised:

“Competition and the so-called market economy inevitably produce inequality and exploitation, and would do so even if one started from complete equality. They could not be combined with workers’ self-management unless it were on a temporary basis, as a necessary evil, until (1) a psychology of ‘honest exchange’ had developed among the workers; (2) most important, society as a whole had passed from conditions of shortage to the stage of abundance, when competition would lose its purpose ... The libertarian communist would condemn Proudhon’s version of a collective economy as being based on a principle of conflict; competitors would be in a position of equality at the start, only to be hurled into a struggle which would inevitably produce victors and vanquished, and where goods would end up by being exchanged according to the principles of supply and demand.” [Op. Cit., pp. 53–4]

Thus, even a non-capitalist market could evolve towards inequality and away from fair exchange. It was for this reason that Proudhon argued that a portion of income from agricultural produce be paid into a central fund which would be used to make equalisation payments to compensate farmers with less favourably situated or less fertile land. As he put it, economic rent “in agriculture has no other cause than the inequality in the quality of land ... if anyone has a claim on account of this inequality ... [it is] the other land workers who hold inferior land. That is why in our scheme for liquidation [of capitalism] we stipulated that every variety of cultivation should pay a proportional contribution, destined to accomplish a balancing of returns among farm workers and an assurance of products.” [Op. Cit., p. 209] His advocacy of federations of workers’ associations was, likewise, seen as a means of abolishing inequalities.

Unlike Proudhon, however, individualist anarchists did not propose any scheme to equalise income. Perhaps Tucker was correct and the differences would be slight, but in a market situation exchanges tend to magnify differences, not reduce them as the actions of self-interested individuals in unequal positions will tend to exacerbate differences. Over time these slight differences would become larger and larger, subjecting the weaker party to relatively increasingly worse contracts. Without equality, individualist anarchism would quickly become hierarchical and non-anarchist. As the communist-anarchist paper Freedom argued in the 1880s:

“Are not the scandalous inequalities in the distribution of wealth today merely the culminate effect of the principle that every man is justified in securing to himself everything that his chances and capacities enable him to lay hands on?

“If the social revolution which we are living means anything, it means the destruction of this detestable economic principle, which delivers over the more social members of the community to the domination of the most unsocial and self-interested.” [Freedom, vol. 2, no. 19]

Freedom, it should be noted, is slightly misrepresenting the position of individualist anarchists. They did not argue that every person could appropriate all the property he or she could. Most obviously, in terms of land they were consistently opposed to a person owning more of it than they actually used. They also tended to apply this to what was on the land as well, arguing that any buildings on it were abandoned when the owner no longer used them. Given this, individualist anarchists have stressed that such a system would be unlikely to produce the inequalities associated with capitalism (as Kropotkin noted, equality was essential and was implicitly acknowledged by individualists themselves who argued that their system “would offer no danger, because the rights of each individual would have been limited by the equal rights of all others.” [Evolution and Environment, p. 85]). Thus contemporary individualist anarchist Joe Peacott:

“Although individualists envision a society based on private property, we oppose the economic relationships of capitalism, whose supporters misuse words like private enterprise and free markets to justify a system of monopoly ownership in land and the means of production which allows some to skim off part or even most of the wealth produced by the labour of others. Such a system exists only because it is protected by the armed power of government, which secures title to unjustly acquired and held land, monopolises the supply of credit and money, and criminalises attempts by workers to take full ownership of the means of production they use to create wealth. This state intervention in economic transactions makes it impossible for most workers to become truly independent of the predation of capitalists, banks, and landlords. Individualists argue that without the state to enforce the rules of the capitalist economy, workers would not allow themselves to be exploited by these thieves and capitalism would not be able to exist ...

“One of the criticisms of individualist economic proposals raised by other anarchists is that a system based on private ownership would result in some level of difference among people in regard to the quality or quantity of possessions they have. In a society where people are able to realise the full value of their labour, one who works harder or better than another will possess or have the ability to acquire more things than someone who works less or is less skilled at a particular occupation ...

“The differences in wealth that arise in an individualist community would likely be relatively small. Without the ability to profit from the labour of others, generate interest from providing credit, or extort rent from letting out land or property, individuals would not be capable of generating the huge quantities of assets that people can in a capitalist system. Furthermore, the anarchist with more things does not have them at the expense of another, since they are the result of the owner’s own effort. If someone with less wealth wishes to have more, they can work more, harder, or better. There is no injustice in one person working 12 hours a day and six days a week in order to buy a boat, while another chooses to work three eight hour days a week and is content with a less extravagant lifestyle. If one can generate income only by hard work, there is an upper limit to the number and kind of things one can buy and own.” [Individualism and Inequality]

However, argue social anarchists, market forces may make such an ideal impossible to achieve or maintain. Most would agree with Peter Marshall’s point that “[u]ndoubtedly real difficulties exist with the economic position of the individualists. If occupiers became owners overnight as Benjamin Tucker recommended, it would mean in practice that those with good land or houses would merely become better off than those with bad. Tucker’s advocacy of ‘competition everywhere and always’ among occupying owners, subject to the only moral law of minding your own business might will encourage individual greed rather than fair play for all.” [Demanding the Impossible, p. 653]

Few social anarchists are convinced that all the problems associated with markets and competition are purely the result of state intervention. They argue that it is impossible to have most of the underlying pre-conditions of a competitive economy without the logical consequences of them. It is fair to say that individualist anarchists tend to ignore or downplay the negative effects of markets while stressing their positive ones.

Competition results in economic forces developing which those within the market have to adjust to. In other words, the market may be free but those within it are not. To survive on the market, firms would seek to reduce costs and so implement a host of dehumanising working practices in order to compete successfully on the market, things which they would resist if bosses did it. Work hours could get longer and longer, for example, in order to secure and maintain market position. This, in turn, affects our quality of life and our relationship with our partners, children, parents, friends, neighbours and so on. That the profits do not go to the executives and owners of businesses may be a benefit, it matters little if people are working longer and harder in order to invest in machinery to ensure market survival. Hence survival, not living, would be the norm within such a society, just as it is, unfortunately, in capitalism.

Ultimately, Individualist Anarchists lose sight of the fact that success and competition are not the same thing. One can set and reach goals without competing. That we may loose more by competing than by co-operating is an insight which social anarchists base their ideas on. In the end, a person can become a success in terms of business but lose sight of their humanity and individuality in the process. In contrast, social anarchists stress community and co-operation in order to develop us as fully rounded individuals. As Kropotkin put it, “the individualisation they so highly praise is not attainable by individual efforts.” [Anarchism, p. 297]

The capitalist state intervenes into the economy and society to counteract the negative impact of market forces on social life and the environment as well as, of course, protecting and enhancing the position of itself and the capitalist class. As individualist anarchism is based on markets (to some degree), it seems likely that market forces would have similar negative impacts (albeit to a lesser degree due to the reduced levels of inequality implied by the elimination of non-labour incomes). Without communal institutions, social anarchists argue, individualist anarchism has no means of counteracting the impact of such forces except, perhaps, by means of continual court cases and juries. Thus social issues would not be discussed by all affected but rather by small sub-groups retroactively addressing individual cases.

Moreover, while state action may have given the modern capitalist an initial advantage on the market, it does not follow that a truly free market will not create similar advantages naturally over time. And if it did, then surely a similar system would develop? As such, it does not follow that a non-capitalist market system would remain such. In other words, it is true that extensive state intervention was required to create capitalism but after a time economic forces can usually be relied upon to allow wage workers to be exploited. The key factor is that while markets have existed long before capitalism, that system has placed them at the centre of economic activity. In the past, artisans and farmers produced for local consumers, with the former taking their surplus to markets. In contrast, capitalism has produced a system where producers are primarily geared to exchanging all goods they create on an extensive market rather simply a surplus locally. This implies that the dynamics of a predominantly market system may be different from those in the past in which the market played a much smaller role and where self-sufficiency was always a possibility. It is difficult to see how, for example, car workers or IT programmers could produce for their own consumption using their own tools.

So in a market economy with a well developed division of labour it is possible for a separation of workers from their means of production to occur. This is particularly the case when the predominant economic activity is not farming. Thus the net effect of market transactions could be to re-introduce class society simply by their negative long-term consequences. That such a system developed without state aid would make it no less unfree and unjust. It is of little use to point out that such a situation is not what the Individualist Anarchists desired for it is a question of whether their ideas would actually result in what they wanted. Social anarchists have fears that it will not. Significantly, Tucker was sensible enough to argue that those subject to such developments should rebel against it.

In response, individualist anarchists could argue that the alternative to markets would be authoritarian (i.e., some form of central planning) and/or inefficient as without markets to reward effort most people would not bother to work well and provide for the consumer. So while markets do have problems with them, the alternatives are worse. Moreover, when social anarchists note that there is a remarkable correlation between competitiveness in a society and the presence of clearly defined “have” and “have-not” groups individualist anarchists would answer that the causation flows not from competitiveness to inequality but from inequality to competitiveness. In a more equal society people would be less inclined to compete as ruthlessly as under capitalism and so the market would not generate as many problems as it does today. Moreover, eliminating the artificial barriers erected by the state would allow a universal competition to develop rather than the one sided form associated with capitalism. With a balance of market power, competition would no longer take the form it currently does.

Yet, as noted above, this position ignores natural barriers to competition The accumulation needs of a competitive market economy do not disappear just because capitalism has been replaced by co-operatives and mutual credit banks. In any market economy, firms will try to improve their market position by investing in new machinery, reducing prices by improving productivity and so on. This creates barriers to new competitors who have to expend more money in order to match the advantages of existing firms. Such amounts of money may not be forthcoming from even the biggest mutual bank and so certain firms would enjoy a privileged position on the market. Given that Tucker defined a monopolist as “any person, corporation, or institution whose right to engage in any given pursuit of life is secured, either wholly or partially, by any agency whatsoever — whether the nature of things or the force of events or the decree of arbitrary power — against the influence of competition” we may suggest that due to natural barriers, an individualist anarchist society would not be free of monopolists and so of usury. [quoted by James J. Martin, Men Against the State, p. 210]

For this reason, even in a mutualist market certain companies would receive a bigger slice of profits than (and at the expense of) others. This means that exploitation would still exist as larger companies could charge more than cost for their products. It could be argued that the ethos of an anarchist society would prevent such developments happening but, as Kropotkin noted, this has problems, firstly because of “the difficulty if estimating the market value” of a product based on “average time” or cost necessary to produce it and, secondly, if that could be done then to get people “to agree upon such an estimation of their work would already require a deep penetration of the Communist principles into their ideas.”[Environment and Evolution, p. 84] In addition, the free market in banking would also result in its market being dominated by a few big banks, with similar results. As such, it is all fine and well to argue that with rising interest rates more competitors would be drawn into the market and so the increased competition would automatically reduce them but that is only possible if there are no serious natural barriers to entry.

This obviously impacts on how we get from capitalism to anarchism. Natural barriers to competition limit the ability to compete exploitation away. So as to its means of activism, individualist anarchism exaggerates the potential of mutual banks to fund co-operatives. While the creation of community-owned and -managed mutual credit banks would help in the struggle for a free society, such banks are not enough in themselves. Unless created as part of the social struggle against capitalism and the state, and unless combined with community and strike assemblies, mutual banks would quickly die, because the necessary social support required to nurture them would not exist. Mutual banks must be part of a network of other new socio-economic and political structures and cannot be sustained in isolation from them. This is simply to repeat our earlier point that, for most social anarchists, capitalism cannot be reformed away. As such, social anarchists would tend to agree with the summary provided by this historian:

“If [individualist anarchists] rejected private ownership of property, they destroyed their individualism and ‘levelled’ mankind. If they accepted it, they had the problem of offering a solution whereby the inequalities [of wealth] would not amount to a tyranny over the individual. They meet the same dilemma in ‘method.’ If they were consistent libertarian individualists they could not force from ‘those who had’ what they had acquired justly or unjustly, but if they did not force it from them, they perpetuated inequalities. They met a stone wall.” [Eunice Minette Schuster, Native American Anarchism, p. 158]

So while Tucker believed in direct action, he opposed the “forceful” expropriation of social capital by the working class, instead favouring the creation of a mutualist banking system to replace capitalism with a non-exploitative system. Tucker was therefore fundamentally a reformist, thinking that anarchy would evolve from capitalism as mutual banks spread across society, increasing the bargaining power of labour. And reforming capitalism over time, by implication, always means tolerating boss’s control during that time. So, at its worse, this is a reformist position which becomes little more than an excuse for tolerating landlord and capitalist domination.

Also, we may note, in the slow transition towards anarchism, we would see the rise of pro-capitalist “defence associations” which would collect rent from land, break strikes, attempt to crush unions and so on. Tucker seemed to have assumed that the anarchist vision of “occupancy-and-use” would become universal. Unfortunately, landlords and capitalists would resist it and so, ultimately, an Individualist Anarchist society would have to either force the minority to accept the majority wishes on land use (hence his comments on there being “no legal power to collect rent”) or the majority are dictated to by the minority who are in favour of collecting rent and hire “defence associations” to enforce those wishes. With the head start big business and the wealthy have in terms of resources, conflicts between pro- and anti-capitalist “defence associations” would usually work against the anti-capitalist ones (as trade unions often find out). In other words, reforming capitalism would not be as non-violent or as simple as Tucker maintained. The vested powers which the state defends will find other means to protect themselves when required (for example, when capitalists and landlords backed fascism and fascist squads in Italy after workers “occupied and used” their workplaces and land workers and peasants “occupied and used” the land in 1920). We are sure that economists will then rush to argue that the resulting law system that defended the collection of rent and capitalist property against “occupancy and use” was the most “economically efficient” result for “society.”

In addition, even if individualist mutualism did result in an increase in wages by developing artisan and co-operative ventures that decreased the supply of labour in relation to its demand, this would not eliminate the subjective and objective pressures on profits that produce the business cycle within capitalism. In fact, it would increase the subjective pressures considerably as was the case under the social Keynesian of the post-war period. Unsurprisingly, business interests sought the necessary “reforms” and ruthlessly fought the subsequent strikes and protests to achieve a labour market more to their liking. This means that an increase in the bargaining power of labour would soon see capital moving to non-anarchist areas and so deepening any recession caused by a lowering of profits and other non-labour income. This could mean that during an economic slump, when workers’ savings and bargaining position were weak, the gains associated with mutualism could be lost as co-operative firms go bust and mutual banks find it hard to survive in a hostile environment.

Mutual banks would not, therefore, undermine modern capitalism, as recognised by social anarchists from Bakunin onward. They placed their hopes in a social revolution organised by workplace and community organisations, arguing that the ruling class would be as unlikely to tolerate being competed away as they would be voted away. The collapse of social Keynesianism into neo-liberalism shows that even a moderately reformed capitalism which increased working class power will not be tolerated for too long. In other words, there was a need for social revolution which mutual banks do not, and could not, eliminate.

However, while social anarchists disagree with the proposals of individualist anarchists, we do still consider them to be a form of anarchism — one with many flaws and one perhaps more suited to an earlier age when capitalism was less developed and its impact upon society far less than it is now. Individualist and social anarchism could co-exist happily in a free society and neither believes in forcing the other to subscribe to their system. As Paul Nursey-Bray notes “linking all of these approaches ... is not just the belief in individual liberty and its corollary, the opposition to central or state authority, but also a belief in community, and an equality of community members.” The “discussion over forms of property ... should not be allowed to obscure the commonality of the idea of the free community of self-regulating individuals.” And so “there are meeting points in the crucial ideas of individual autonomy and community that suggest, at least, a basis for the discussion of equality and property relations.” [Anarchist Thinkers and Thought, p. xvi]




Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 4.0 International License.