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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Column: Anti-capitalist thought

The Anarchist

Last week I introduced the broad overview of the anarchist approach. In short, we should be skeptical of all hierarchical institutions and any information that they produce or disseminate.

This is because hierarchies are controlled by those at the top, those who make the decisions. Naturally, they will use the power of the whole institution to increase their own personal power, and this will lead to their relative power increasing and increasing. The natural trajectory of any hierarchical institution is toward completely centralized power, absolute despotism.

Now, we may have to have some hierarchical structure at some point; it may be inevitable. The anarchist is not committed to the possibility of absolute elimination of hierarchies. They’re agnostic on that and on the existence of governments. It is an open question whether we will ever reach a point where governments could be completely eliminated.

Merely, we are committed to reducing hierarchies as much as possible (because of their natural tendency to centralize power at the top), and we are committed to eliminating hierarchies whenever they do not uphold our core political values. Different anarchists take this differently. I, as well as a large section of modern anarchists, take fairness to be the central political value.

Feudal hierarchies evolved, over millennia, complex and far-reaching mechanisms for upholding the power of those at the top. Ideologies such as racism, xenophobia and religion, for example, evolved because they uphold power. The prime example of feudal times is the Christian ideology, which states and the Catholic church propagated so that they could convince peasants to support wars of acquisition, which it could use to justify killing dissenters against its power, etc.

After feudalism was finally overcome it was replaced by another hierarchical system, and this system evolved even more complex and far-reaching mechanisms for centralizing power at the top. Capitalist firms outmoded feudal firms.

They evolved faster. And this is just how we should think of institutions: in evolutionary terms. There are selective forces which cause institutions to succeed or fail, and over time certain features are selected for by these Darwinian institutional forces.

Capitalist firms, just like any hierarchical institution, impose the will and ideology of the elites at the top of the hierarchy. Only they are far more adaptive, so they do it much more effectively.

Capitalist firms have evolved a vast array of complex methods for imposing the ideology which is beneficial to those at the top. And, very importantly, it is not the work of anyone intentionally. It is what firms are selected for, if they are to dominate. A firm which destroys ideas hostile to its power will survive.

So capitalist firms have a supercharged version of the ideological coercion which existed in feudal societies. Since they control the means of distributing all information, this ideological control runs all the way deep in us.

So what are some of the obvious criticisms of capitalism which have been beaten out of us then? That is the glaring question at this point. I intend to spend a few articles addressing these in coming weeks. For now, I only have space to introduce the single, most viciously suppressed anti-capitalist idea.

The central argument from the work of Marx is just not allowed in the discourse, and it is because it opens up a whole line of thought, which, if people were to be exposed to, would cause them to act in very hostile ways towards capitalist hierarchies. Capitalist firms naturally, and very effectively, suppressed this idea.

Those of us with no capital are forced to work for someone who does have it. What is our alternative? Death. That is the only alternative. What does this do? It puts us in the worst bargaining position possible. We accept the conditions offered by the capitalist or we die.

The bargaining position is such that the capitalist can use his comparative advantage to increase his comparative advantage. The capitalist only becomes more powerful relative to us the more we work for him.

But you do not have to work for any particular capitalist. You can choose. So it’s not slavery right? I mean, you’re forced to do someone’s bidding or die, but you can choose between a few. That’s the great advantage of capitalism. We can choose our owner. Pick the best slave-master.

The fact that people can be born into a society in which their only alternatives are death or slavery to their favorite capitalist makes it clear that it is so unfair that no anarchist can accept it. Capitalist institutions are the most refined and effective power centralizing machines, and they are, therefore, the greatest enemy of anarchists. This is but one of a plethora of reasons that capitalism is anti-fairness and anti-human.

BRIAN MOEN thinks that capitalism is not in this season. He can be reached at bkmoen@ucdavis.edu.


  1. It is true, that in a free society, if you choose not to work (and no one cares enough to give you help via charity), you die. This does not mean that you are *forced* to work for capitalists in the relevant sense of coercion. In a society, people act in certain, definite ways. This causes society to be arranged in certain, definite ways. I cannot be “free” from the fact that my best job options might be working as a janitor or a factory worker. These are facts, resulting from the independent work of independent people in society pursuing their goals. You do not I cannot be free, similarly, from the fact that my body needs food, from the fact that I need self-esteem and reason and freedom from government interference to pursue my values.

    There are two ways to deal with other men: by voluntary mutual agreement, where you are free, *politically free* to accept their offer, or not. You are not forced to work for anyone. The capitalist is not forced to hire anyone.

    There are two ways to deal with men: by reason and persuasion, respecting their autonomy as an individual human being (i.e. trade) or by physical coercion. In a free society, the initiation of the latter is made illegal.



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