Prospects for Libertarian Socialism

Global capitalism is an overwhelming catastrophe, perhaps the most dangerous the human species has ever faced. As a result of Social-Darwinist economic policies, billions live in abject poverty and desolation; slowly dying from the moment of their birth from malnutrition and curable diseases; never allowed a chance to experience life as anything but torture, never given a chance to manifest their own creative human potential. Millions of others are massacred and annihilated by machine guns, tanks, and bombs; sacrifices to the ever-expanding, insatiable, hegemonic God that is capitalism. From General Suharto’s killing fields in East Timor, to the napalmed jungles of Vietnam; from the ghettos of apartheid Palestine, to the cities of El Salvador where death squads roamed the streets searching out peasants on which to prey; the bloody effects of capitalism have reverberated throughout the world.

The worldwide anticapitalist movement at the present moment is still only embryonic, but it is growing larger, and rapidly becoming more powerful. This movement will have the responsibility of confronting the capitalist beast, and therefore is responsible for presenting a critique of the capitalist system to the world and developing theoretical and actual alternatives to capitalism. Anticapitalists must answer fundamentally important questions: what ideals do we value that have not been realized under the current system, and can never be realized within a capitalist system? How can a society be created in which these ideals will be realized, and what tactics should we employ to help create such a society?

Central to socialist and classical liberal ideology (and indeed, nearly every ethical theory) is the fundamental principle that all people are of intrinsically equal merit, and thus, any material inequality between people is illegitimate and a direct result of exploitative socio-economic systems designed to allocate material goods to benefit one class of people at the expense of others. It is clear that capitalism is incompatible with the principle of equality, as it is encourages people to pursue infinite individual accumulation with total disregard for the environmental and human cost of these reckless actions, thus creating astronomical inequalities. Any person who believes in human equality has an obligation to overthrow capitalism. However, many socialist movements struggling against capitalist hierarchy during the 20th Century ended up not abolishing hierarchy, but only creating new autocratic systems, as the industrial elite were replaced by economic planners, party leaders, and bureaucrats who had direct control over the allocation of the state’s wealth and thus were able to expropriate capital from laborers and peasants, just as the industrial mangers, feudal lords, and slave holders had done before them.

These vanguard Marxist movements failed primarily because of their intrinsic authoritarian nature. They generally assumed that material wealth was the basic source of social power, and the focal point of all class contention, and did not recognize that the root cause of economic inequality is power inequality. While it is quite obvious that human history has been comprised substantially of struggles over the resources essential for subsistence and prosperity, these resources cannot be consolidated by a minority unless the minority posses consolidated power in other realms of human life—particularly the military and ideological spheres. Authoritarian Marxists designed their programs to eliminate material inequality, but failed to realize that such inequality was created by authoritarian social structures, such as the very structures they were attempting to create or take control of.

There is no room for vanguadists of any kind in the anticapitalist movements of the 21st Century. The idea that a morally pure vanguard elite could take over the bastions of ideological, military, and political power and use these tools autocratically to advance the interest of their society as a whole is outrageous and frankly illogical, in direct contradiction to the teachings of philosophical materialism, which suggest that no person can truly let a moral or ethical idea truly take precedence over his or her material self interest. No vanguard takeover will ever be able to address the fundamental injustices present in the capitalist system. The problem is not that absolute power is concentrated in the hands of the wrong group of elites; the problem is that power is centralized at all. Any group that consolidates absolute power will always abuse its privileges and exploit its subjects, as is obvious to anyone familiar with the ‘benign’ dictatorships of history. The only free society is one in which all people are equally empowered to defend and advance their own self interest, their own material needs.

There is a fundamental philosophical flaw in both authoritarian Marxism and liberal capitalism; namely, both fail to understand that all people in a society cannot be equal unless they are all free from oppression, and that all people in a society cannot be free from oppression as long as there is material inequality and a hierarchical distribution of the tools of power. Freedom, for the purpose of this essay, will be defined as “the capacity to exercise the widest potential range of action without physical restraint,” thus encompassing both positive freedom—freedom from material need—and negative freedom—freedom from violent human coercion. Social equality will be defined as “a state at which all members of a population have equal opportunity to enhance their own wellbeing,” not necessarily a state in which all members of a population experience material equality.

Social inequality—that is, arbitrarily enforced inequality of opportunity among people of different classes, as opposed to a natural inequality of ability—can be sustained only by suppression and coercion; so, any socio-political system which exhibits inequality is not free, if one sector of the population is more or less subject to institutional oppression as a consequence of exercising their own autonomy. Similarly, a socio-political system has not truly achieved equality among its citizens if power is highly centralized and its institutions can act coercively. Therefore, it would be a mistake to say that equality could ever be realized under a Stalinist regime in which an elite group of economic planners, party leaders, and bureaucrats wield absolute economic, military, and political power over the rest of society; or that freedom could ever be realized in a liberal capitalist country where those at the top of the hierarchy have more opportunity than those at the bottom and relatively greater license to exercise their autonomy. The working class will never be free so long as it depends on the employing class for the means of subsistence.

For an example of the inequality of freedom present in a liberal capitalist society, consider the penal systems in these countries that are designed to severely punish members of the working class for theft or a single case of homicide, while members of the capitalist class are rewarded for expropriation that, in principle, is identical to working class theft, and will never be held accountable for the thousands of deaths their actions indirectly cause. The social apparatuses in these societies are designed to arbitrarily restrict the freedom of some and enhance the freedoms of others based upon their position in the economic hierarchy. Such a society, in which varying degrees of liberty exist, is not in the least bit freer than any feudal, monarchist, or otherwise dictatorial society; in every case, those at the top of the social system have always had complete freedom to act, while those at the bottom were subject to repression and coercion, and were often severely punished for acting on their own autonomy. So, for a socio-political structure to truly realize the ideals of equality or liberty, it cannot only be only socialist, and it cannot only be libertarian; it must be libertarian-socialist, or anarchist. It must make the defense of its citizen’s freedom to act in any way that does not infringe upon the rights of another its utmost priority. In such a society, freedom would not be a commodity to be purchased, but would be inalienable for all citizens.


Decentralization of power


All the greatest human tragedies in history, without exception, have occurred when excessive power became centralized at the disposal of an elite minority. These plutocrats utilized their tyrannical power to exploit the masses of people in the desperate pursuit of material wealth, ideological goals, and further centralization of power. All the most vicious and egregious empires have been ruled despotically in this manner, by elites who were committed to infinite accumulation of material wealth, even to the point of self destruction. In the modern era, the capacity for such centralization of power is far greater than ever before, and the murderous consequences of such centralization are far more extreme, as was proven most infamously by the regimes of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, which consolidated totalitarian power and utilized modern technology to systematically execute millions of people they deemed threatening to their power.

The terms centralization and decentralization will be used as opposed to more common terms such as authoritarianism as opposed to liberalism or inequality versus equality, in keeping with the earlier thesis that a society can only be free if it is equal, and vice versa. In a centralized socio-political system, power is highly concentrated in a hierarchical manner, with select ruling nobility, a tiny minority, wielding dictatorial power while the vast majority of the population is kept in an economically inferior and politically disempowered position by policing systems, military power, religious institutions, propaganda, and other instruments of oppression and social control. In a decentralized socio-political system, every individual wields an equal amount of power, instruments of oppression have been destroyed, hierarchy has been abolished, and people are free to act on their individual impulses.

Today, the crisis of capitalism is again in essence a crisis of an excessive amount of extra-economic and economic power concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of the world’s population. This crisis can be seen both internally in specific capitalist countries, and on a global scale in the relationship of nation-states, in which all international diplomatic interaction occurs in the shadow of a single capitalist hegemon, the United States, and all economic interaction occurs under the shadow of corporate tyrannies and their financial institutions. The struggle for decentralization of power in individual nations and the struggle for international decentralization are not necessarily one in the same, and in some cases may appear to be contradictory. An authoritative domestic state such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia or totalitarian China may be more successful in breaking up the monopoly of power on the international field than a more democratic state in some instances, so in the pragmatic interest of furthering both goals, a compromise between the two struggles must be achieved.

The best example so far in this century of a regime that has balanced the need to develop a non-authoritarian internal structure and an assertive international position has been that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Venezuela under his rule has become one of the most democratic societies in the world, and yet Chavez has still been able to be authoritative in his absolute refusal to bend to Washington’s neoliberal agenda. Subsequent socialist experiments in countries with formal democracies ought to be modeled after Chavez’ Venezuela, with a vibrant participatory democracy in control of the government, democratic nongovernmental labor unions and worker-owned cooperatives, and an international policy of belligerent refusal to accept hyperpower rule. Domestically, it is crucial in any socialist society that there be democratic institutions outside the sphere of the government, such as labor unions, which can be used to check the power of the government should it deviate from democratic mandate and seek to reinstitute autocracy.

In the immediate future, revolutionary communist movements such as the Maoist rebellion in Nepal can also play an important role in decentralizing power both internationally and domestically, especially in countries where democratic institutions are nonexistent or are nonfunctional. The Maoist guerrillas have launched armed insurrection, declaring war on the dictatorial Nepalese monarchy, capitalism, land lords, and institutionalized gender and caste supremacy. Like Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, a Maoist victory in Nepal, a quite feasible scenario, could have radical regional impacts, potentially inspiring others in Southern Asia to take up arms against oppressive elitist regimes and fight for equality and against capitalism, creating a powerful anti-capitalist bloc.

There is, to some extent, a role for revolutionary Marxists, populists, third-world nationalists, socialists, social-democrats, and anarchists in the movement towards a world in which absolute power rests in the hands of the entire human population, in which all people have the same tools of power at their disposal; and it would seem that intellectuals overly concerned with distinction between the various political labels on the left are in many cases only focusing on minutiae to avoid taking direct action. The struggle will be a long and enduring one, as it is necessary to build new voluntary institutions before the old institutions, such as the state, can be abolished. However, if we fail to take action now, the world and the human race may suffer permanent damage at the hands of the uncontrollable capitalist system.

It is absurd to suggest that anticapitalists should not attempt to take control of state power—this is absolutely essential in any pragmatic campaign towards a decentralized world. We must take control of governments, as governments are the only institutions currently capable of limiting the power of capital—through democratic elections where this is possible, or through popular armed insurgency in countries with undemocratic governments. However, our work must not be limited to the official sphere alone, and we must also construct non-mandatory nongovernmental community organizations which will eventually replace coercive governmental institutions.


Libertarian Socialism


The ideal decentralized society would be one in which all hierarchic institutions have been abolished and the institutions that are still necessary have been specifically designed to prevent them from coming under the control of an elite minority. Any and all violent institutions such as police and military forces would be dissolved, and every person would have equal access to the tools of violence as well as to information on the workings of the world. People would be encouraged to participate in communal institutions and work towards the common good, but would have the freedom to reject such institutions and lead a more individualistic life style. Contrary to misconceptions found in mainstream discourse, an anarchist or libertarian-socialist society would not be without any institutions or any form of organization; people in anarchist societies would still form mutually-beneficial communal institutions. An anarchist society would simply have abolished mandatory institutions and organizations. Only in instances where the society decided that a person was infringing on the fundamental liberty of another person would public decision take precedence over individual autonomy, and only when a mutually acceptable compromise was not readily available. In other instances, participation in public projects would be strictly voluntary.

All sectors of the economy would be radically transformed, with all goods and services produced in nonhierarchical work places, instead of by privately owned businesses, and by self-employed and self-managed workers. Laborers would receive all of the profit from their products, if they preferred, or could strike an agreement with their coworkers to divide all profits equally.

Communities would develop their own system of social welfare, and would purchase the services of doctors, educators, artists, and others from collective community funds. All community expenditures and policy would have to be decided upon in democratic municipal meetings attended by all citizens of the community and ratified by more than just a simple majority, but an unequivocal majority or a consensus, depending on the situation.

The local councils would elect representatives to serve on larger representative bodies which would make decisions concerning issues of importance to larger populations of people. These representatives could be recalled at any time by the local council and replaced. In turn, these regional councils could elect representatives to larger assemblies with jurisdiction over larger areas, and these larger assemblies could elect representatives to even larger assemblies, perhaps with international jurisdiction. Such an international assembly would resemble the United Nations, and would have jurisdiction only over issues of global importance such as human rights issues, war and peace, medical pandemics, and humanitarian aid. For any decision by the larger assembly to take effect at the community levels, the decision would have to be ratified by local assemblies.

Because international solidarity is such a vital component of libertarian-socialism, frequent interaction between communities around the world would be promoted as a way to increase multiculturalism and combat racial supremacy. Such interaction would also serve practical purposes, and would give different communities an opportunity to exchange technological information that would allow both to increasing living standards.

All members of a community would be encouraged to work in different sectors of the economy and to split time between intellectual and physical labor. A system that encouraged laborers to work in all sectors of the economy would inspire greater innovation, as different workers with different abilities perfected techniques for performing necessary tasks. At the same time, people who were uniquely talented in one area would have the freedom to work only in that area. Machines, instead of being used by employers to wage class warfare, would be utilized to perform route tasks found undesirable by people.

In a society in which all tools of production and service were publicly owned, and in which all workers were skilled enough to work in a variety of different sectors of the economy, it would be unproblematic to allow market forces to determine the prices of goods and services, and thus the wages a worker should receive; if employers no longer existed, the market would no longer be a tool of elites and would no longer promote the “cutting of labor costs.” Such market forces would ensure that the economy worked in the interests of the people who depended on it; if a certain good or service was being widely demanded, the price of the good or service would increase and thus it would be more profitable for a worker to employ himself or herself in the ways that would be most beneficial to the society as a whole. This would also ensure that workers who employed themselves in the most onerous work would receive the greatest compensation. At the same time, it is absolutely vital that all market be under democratic control, with community assemblies in power to enact any restrictions deemed necessary to promote the interest of the society as a whole. Alternatively, a community could decide to base its economy on democratic central planning. Economic planners would draw up several potential plans for the economy, and the community could choose which plan to follow for a certain period of time.

In a libertarian socialist society, the idea of fundamental rights will not make logical sense, as rights can only be understood in contrast to restrictions on fundamental autonomy. With the destruction of all dictatorial and hierarchic institutions including the state, whose primary function is to forcibly ensure that human autonomy is limited and curtailed so as to prevent actions that challenge the material status quo, the vast majority of restrictions on liberty will have been abolished. The only remaining situation in which autonomy would be curbed by the society would involve the irreconcilable clash of autonomous human wills. A society must have mechanisms for dealing nonviolently with conflicts of interest, and ought to promote bargaining and compromise to settle disputes.

While elitist reactionaries would most certainly attempt to reinstitute hierarchic institutions to compete against the anti-hierarchical institutions, the threat of a group establishing centralized and hierarchic institutions would be a greatly diminished, as establishing such an institution would require a large body of people to knowingly and willingly subject themselves to exploitation. Freed slaves do not typically renounce their freedom. However, the struggle against oppression and centralization will never entirely end, and people living within libertarian-socialist societies would have to remain vigilant to ensure that their society was not subverted.



David Bake, 16, lives in Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his weblog at . Comments on this piece would be much appreciated.


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