Some Basic Leftist Politics
There seems to be a bit of misunderstanding regarding various leftist political stances. As well as a few misunderstandings about libertarians and anarchists. I’m not sure where to start and I’m far from an expert in these subjects but if I can notice these discrepancies and help educate some folks a little then hopefully they can go on to learn a bit more on their own from actual experts.
First I want to talk about socialism, I know this word has a lot of meanings these days. For people on the political right it seems to mean literally anything left of total unregulated free market capitalism. There’s obviously a world of difference between a Marxist-Leninist, a Democratic Socialist, and a neo-liberal capitalist, though all of these people would be to the left politically of the pure free market capitalists in America. (Side note: for some reason these far right capitalists are also pretty staunchly conservative when it comes to social issues, it’s very confusing). Socialism to some people means government control of various programs. To these people roads, schools, and police are all forms of socialism. This isn’t what socialism is to people who identify as Marxists, Communists, or Socialists however. This is kind of what some people mean when they identify as democratic socialists. For Marxists, Communists, or most straight up Socialists the word means that the workers control the means of production and are invested in it on every level as well as having some form of say in the way their labor is used.
Many socialists of various stripes still believe in a form of centralized government that can manage and work with citizens. This seems to be where they diverge from anarchists. Anarchists believe in cooperative control of production and labor by those performing the labor as well as sharing the outcomes from that labor among the citizenry. I hope this doesn’t seem too confusing. I’m trying to express it in appropriate terms but also use language that most people can understand.
Essentially socialism is when the citizens are in control of the economy and labor. This is in contrast with capitalism where investors who have money invest that money into companies and purchase labor. Being a socialist is more like working for a company you own shares in and everyone you work with has equal shares and you all have a say in the things your company does. Being a capitalist means investing in a company enough to control it and paying employees a wage while pulling profits out of the company to pay back your investment and also incentivize you to invest more. In a very real sense, if a capitalist has enough money to invest and enough control over a company then they can decide on the price of a product such that they can pay the expenses for production, they can pay the employee, and they can live a life off of the profits without ever actually having to do any work under the assumption that they have earned those profits by the act of investing.
This actually doesn’t speak much to the question of anarchism. It simply pits socialism against capitalism. Anarchism is based (to my understanding) on the rejection of hierarchies and any form of coercive controlling force. We often call this force, the state and often it is embodied by government. It is conceivable that a society could have a government that is comprised of citizens cooperating without coercion and thus we could have a government in a stateless society. So long as the government isn’t a coercive force that controls the citizenry. When one talks about a stateless society of cooperation where citizens control their labor and benefit from the things their labor produces then you have an anarchist society with a socialist economy. This would not necessarily be some form of utopia. People are after all, still people. There would still be some folks who wanted to keep things for themselves that could be shared and the citizens of that society would still have to figure out a way to deal with those people and to encourage them to not behave in that way. Better thinkers than I have tackled this issue and I recommend one go take a look at more sources for information on that.
So, what the hell is libertarianism? Well, it really depends on where you are in the world. In the USA and Canada the word libertarian has been adopted by capitalists to promote their idea of free markets and no government regulation. This is also known by some as anarcho-capitalism and those who follow this ideology are known as anarcho-capitalists or an-caps for short. This ideology is pretty simple. The rich control everything and they negotiate various things through voluntary negotiation and contracts. The only laws would be those holding various parties to the contracts that they have voluntarily agreed to. This all breaks down pretty quickly in my opinion because these companies all still rule over the citizens. The entire system is profit driven, if an employee cannot negotiate a wage with a company that would gain the company enough profits from that employee’s labor then that employee would have to accept a dictated wage or simply not work. This is a form of coercion when food, water, shelter, and other basic needs are part of the profit driven system. Prices for food would be set so that production costs are covered plus a significant enough profit to justify continuing production. This also incentivises companies to reduce wages to increase profits. Increasing profit margins being the ultimate goal, leads to increasing prices and decreasing wages. Without some form of control or regulation it would lead to greater and greater wealth inequality. We’re seeing much of that now. Where people who produce nothing are hoarding billions and billions of dollars while workers in sweatshops in third world countries are making pennies each day to produce goods.
Anarchists of nearly every type that aren’t capitalists reject the identity of an-caps as anarchists because capitalism maintains hierarchies and enforces them through various economic forms of coercion. In short, capitalism is not compatible with anarchism. If one wants a small or non existent state then one needs a society that affords each individual control over their own labor without higher entities controlling their access to basic needs. A starving citizen isn’t free from coercion if they must sell their labor to avoid death.
Libertarianism kind of goes hand in hand with anarchism. It is a philosophy that is left wing and focuses on liberty and freedom and often focuses on abolishing capitalism. In this way, libertarians from the USA and Canada are not adhering to the philosophic roots of libertarianism or anarchism. Rather than having a society with a state, they trade the state for corporations. They replace state coercion with coercion from the capitalist class and they replace the libertarian ideal of eliminating private property with a fixation on maintaining private property. They are not anarchists and they are not libertarians. They are upper class authoritarians who masquerade under the guise of libertarianism.
There seems to be a lot I still need to mention in this. Private property versus personal property. The idea of why housing shouldn’t be controlled but should instead be free. Why it’s so hard to let go of possessions and why we even think of things as belonging to us. There are many aspects to anarchist philosophy and socialist philosophy that seem to get lost in the discussions because of our deep roots in capitalism and the ways we’ve been taught to think of human nature. Part of me relates it to learning about patriarchy. We can point to various ways that patriarchy is oppressive and overt but there are also many ways that patriarchy has infiltrated our thinking that we don't really recognize and it takes a massive cultural shift in order to unlearn them. Capitalism has deep roots but humans have lived in alternative ways and we perhaps can again. It just takes a massive shift.
I just want to add a short summary to this so that if the structure of my explanations is bad people can still understand the basic premises of what I’m getting at.
1.Socialism is the idea that workers should be in control of the means of production and should benefit from their labor.
2.Anarchism is the idea that we can have a society built on cooperation without hierarchies or coercion
3.There are a number of suffixes that can follow the prefix anarcho (which just speaks to the anarchism aspect) some of these suffixes can include syndicalist, communist, feminist, naturist, or any number of other philosophies that can be attached to anarchism. In this blog I have only addressed socialism and capitalism.
4.Libertarianism is historically a left wing philosophy that centers on liberty and freedom, as well as the abolition of capitalism and private property. North American right wing style libertarianism is a subversion of that in which wealthy capitalists lobby existing governments to reduce limitations on corporate power.
5.Anarcho-capitalists and right wing libertarians are not anarchists or libertarians.
Finally I just want to say that this is just a fraction of leftist philosophy and I might be wrong about a bunch of this. I’ve done a lot of reading about anarchism and a little bit about socialism. I’ve talked to people who seem to know what they’re talking about. I’ve watched videos and listened to podcasts and done a ton of learning over the last few years but I’m still far from an expert. I’m hoping to talk to some actual experts on the philosophy of anarchism and socialism as well as experts on the history of these movements, in the near future and I will correct anything that I have wrong. My friend Mike once said to me, “There are no easy outs in political philosophy”, and he was not wrong. Anarchism alone is a complex set of ideas with critiques and rebuttals and different branches of thought. It’s probably worthy of a university class all on it’s own. For more information on socialism, anarchism, and libertarianism I will include links below to some wiki pages that can give you the start to understanding these ideas a bit better.