Posts Tagged ‘Positive Freedom’

(For the last couple of months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. We’re just starting to run blasts from the past from 2014 — this is the first — and will be posting them for the next few months; we’ll intersperse them with new material.)

Anarchism: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from the new [2015] Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges)

by Chaz Bufe

There are many popular misconceptions about anarchism, and because of them a great many people dismiss anarchists and anarchism out of hand.

Misconceptions abound in the mass media, where the term “anarchy” is commonly used as a synonym for “chaos,” and where terrorists, no matter what their political beliefs or affiliations, are often referred to as “anarchists.” As well, when anarchism is mentioned, it’s invariably presented as merely a particularly mindless form of youthful rebellion. These misconceptions are, of course, also widespread in the general public, which by and large allows the mass media to do what passes for its thinking.

Worse, some who call themselves “anarchists” don’t even know the meaning of the term. These people fall, in general, into two classes. The first, as the great Italian anarchist Luigi Fabbri pointed out nearly a century ago in Influencias burguesas sobre el anarquismo, consists of those who are attracted to the lies in the mass media. By and large, these people are simply looking for a glamorous label for selfish, antisocial behavior. The good news is that most of them eventually mature and abandon what they consider “anarchism.” The bad news is that while they’re around they tend to give anarchism a very bad name. As Fabbri put it:

[These are] persons who are not repelled by the absurd, but who, on the contrary, engage in it. They are attracted to projects and ideas precisely because they are absurd; and so anarchism comes to be known precisely for the illogical character and ridiculousness which ignorance and bourgeois calumny have attributed to anarchist doctrines.1

The second class consists of those who equate anarchism with some pet ideology having essentially nothing to do with anarchism. In modern times, the most prominent of these mislabeled beliefs have been primitivism and amoral egoism. Again, the identification of such beliefs with anarchism tends to give anarchism a bad name, because of, on the one hand, the absurdity of primitivism and, on the other, the obvious antisocial nature of amoral egotism. To put this another way, the identification of anarchism with chaos, mindless rebellion, absurdities (such as primitivism), and antisocial attitudes and behaviors (such as amoral egoism) has three primary undesirable effects: 1) it allows people to easily dismiss anarchism and anarchists; 2) it makes it much more difficult to explain anarchism to them, because they already think that they know what it is and have rejected it; and 3) it attracts a fair number of what Fabbri calls “empty headed and frivolous types,” and occasionally outright sociopaths, whose words and actions tend to further discredit anarchism.

So, if we’re ever to get anywhere, we need to make plain what anarchism is and what it isn’t. First, let’s deal with the misconceptions.

What Anarchism Isn’t

Anarchism is not terrorism. An overwhelming majority of anarchists have always rejected terrorism, because they’ve been intelligent enough to realize that means determine ends, that terrorism is inherently vanguardist, and that even when “successful” it almost always leads to bad results. The anonymous authors of You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism put it like this:

You can’t blow up a social relationship. The total collapse of this society would provide no guarantee about what replaced it. Unless a majority of people had the ideas and organization sufficient for the creation of an alternative society, we would see the old world reassert itself because it is what people would be used to, what they believed in, what existed unchallenged in their own personalities.

Proponents of terrorism and guerrillaism are to be opposed because their actions are vanguardist and authoritarian, because their ideas, to the extent that they are substantial, are wrong or unrelated to the results of their actions (especially when they call themselves libertarians or anarchists), because their killing cannot be justified, and finally because their actions produce either repression with nothing in return, or an authoritarian regime.2

Decades of government and corporate slander cannot alter this reality: the overwhelming majority of anarchists reject terrorism for both practical and ethical reasons. In the late 1990s, Time magazine called Ted Kaczynski “the king of the anarchists”; but that doesn’t make it so. Time‘s words are just another typical, perhaps deliberately dishonest, attempt to tar all anarchists with the terrorist brush.

This is not to say that armed resistance is never appropriate. Clearly there are situations in which one has little choice, as when facing a dictatorship that suppresses civil liberties and prevents one from acting openly, which has happened repeatedly in many countries. Even then, armed resistance should be undertaken reluctantly and as a last resort, because violence is inherently undesirable due to the suffering it causes; because it provides repressive regimes excuses for further repression; because it provides them with the opportunity to commit atrocities against civilians and to blame those atrocities on their “terrorist” opponents; and because, as history has shown, the chances of success are very low.

Even though armed resistance may sometimes be called for in repressive situations, it’s a far different matter to succumb to the romance of the gun and to engage in urban guerrilla warfare in relatively open societies in which civil liberties are largely intact and in which one does not have mass popular support at the start of one’s violent campaign. Violence in such situations does little but drive the public into the “protective” arms of the government; narrow political dialogue (tending to polarize the populace into pro- and anti-guerrilla factions); turn politics into a spectator sport for the vast majority of people3; provide the government with the excuse to suppress civil liberties; and induce the onset of repressive regimes “better” able to handle the “terrorist” problem than their more tolerant predecessors. It’s also worth mentioning that the chances of success of such violent, vanguardist campaigns are microscopic. They are simply arrogant, ill-thought-out roads to disaster.4

Anarchism is not primitivism. In recent decades, groups of quasi-religious mystics have begun equating the primitivism they advocate (rejection of science, rationality, and technology—often lumped together under the blanket term, “technology”) with anarchism.5 In reality, the two have nothing to do with each other, as we’ll see when we consider what anarchism actually is—a set of philosophical/ethical precepts and organizational principles designed to maximize human freedom. For now, suffice it to say that the elimination of technology advocated by primitivist groups would inevitably entail the deaths of literally billions of human beings in a world utterly dependent upon interlocking technologies for everything from food production/delivery to communications to medical treatment. This fervently desired outcome, the elimination of technology, could only come about through means which are the absolute antithesis of anarchism: the use of coercion and violence on a mass scale, as it’s inconceivable that a majority of human beings would voluntarily give up such things as running water, sewer systems, modern medicine, electric lights, and warm houses in the winter.6

Anarchism is not chaos; Anarchism is not rejection of organization. This is another popular misconception, repeated ad nauseam by the mass media and by anarchism’s political foes. Even a brief look at the works of anarchism’s leading theoreticians and writers confirms that this belief is in error. Over and over in the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, Ward, Bookchin, et al., one finds not a rejection of organization, but rather a preoccupation with it—a preoccupation with how society should be organized in accord with the anarchist principles of individual freedom and social justice. For a century and a half now, anarchists have been arguing that coercive, hierarchical organization (as embodied in government and corporations) is not equivalent to organization per se (which they regard as necessary), and that coercive organization should be replaced by decentralized, nonhierarchical organization based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. This is hardly a rejection of organization.

Anarchism is not amoral egoism. As does any avant garde social movement, anarchism attracts more than its share of flakes, parasites, and outright sociopaths, persons simply looking for a glamorous label to cover their often-pathological selfishness, their disregard for the rights and dignity of others, and their pathetic desire to be the center of attention. These individuals tend to give anarchism a bad name, because even though they have very little in common with actual anarchists—that is, persons concerned with ethical behavior, social justice, and the rights of both themselves and others—they’re often quite exhibitionistic, and their disreputable actions sometimes come into the public eye. To make matters worse, these exhibitionists sometimes publish their self-glorifying views and deliberately misidentify those views as “anarchist.” To cite an example, the publisher of a pretentiously (sub)titled American “anarchist” journal recently published a book by a fellow egoist consisting primarily of ad hominem attacks on actual anarchists, knowing full well that the “anarchist” author of the book is a notorious police narcotics informant who has on a number of occasions ratted out those he’s had disputes with to government agencies. This police informer’s actions—which, revealingly, he’s attempted to hide—are completely in line with his ideology of amoral egoism (“post-left anarchism”), but they have nothing to do with actual anarchism. Such amoral egoists may (mis)use the label, but they’re no more anarchists than the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was democratic or a republic.

The full absurdity of identifying amoral egoism—essentially “I’ll do what I damn well please and fuck everybody else”—with anarchism will become apparent in short order when we’ll consider what anarchism actually is.

Anarchism is not “Libertarianism.” Until relatively recently, the very useful term “libertarian” was used worldwide as a synonym for “anarchist.” Indeed, it was used exclusively in this sense until the 1970s when, in the United States, it was appropriated by the grossly misnamed Libertarian Party.

This party has almost nothing to do with anarchist concepts of liberty, especially the concepts of equal freedom and positive freedom—that is, access to the resources necessary to the freedom to act. (Equal freedom and positive freedom are discussed in the following section of this essay.) Instead, this “Libertarian” party concerns itself exclusively with the negative freedoms, pretending that liberty exists only in the negative sense, while it simultaneously revels in the denial of equal positive freedom to the vast majority of the world’s people.

These “Libertarians” not only glorify capitalism, the mechanism that denies both equal freedom and positive freedom to the vast majority, but they also wish to retain the coercive apparatus of the state while eliminating its social welfare functions—hence widening the rift between rich and poor, and increasing the freedom of the rich by diminishing that of the poor (while keeping the boot of the state firmly on their necks). Thus, in the United States, the once exceedingly useful term “libertarian” has been hijacked by egotists who are in fact enemies of liberty in the full sense of the word, and who have very little in common with anarchists.

This is what anarchism isn’t.

What Anarchism Is

In its narrowest sense, anarchism is simply the rejection of the state, the rejection of coercive government. Under this extremely narrow definition, even such apparent absurdities as “anarcho-capitalism” and religious anarchism are possible.7

But most anarchists use the term “anarchism” in a much broader sense, defining it as the rejection of coercion and domination in all forms. So, most anarchists reject not only coercive government, but also religion and capitalism, which they see as other forms of the twin evils, domination and coercion. They reject religion because they see it as the ultimate form of domination, in which a supposedly all-powerful god hands down “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” to its “flock.” They likewise reject capitalism because it’s designed to produce rich and poor and because it’s designed to produce a system of domination in which some give orders and others have little choice but to take them. For similar reasons, on a personal level almost all anarchists reject sexism, racism, and homophobia—all of which produce artificial inequality, and thus domination.

To put this another way, anarchists believe in freedom in both its negative and positive senses. In this country, freedom is routinely presented only in its negative sense, that of being free from restraint. Hence most people equate freedom only with such things as freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of (or from) religion. But there’s also a positive aspect of freedom, an aspect which anarchists almost alone insist on.8

That positive aspect is what Emma Goldman called “the freedom to.” And that freedom, the freedom of action, the freedom to enjoy or use, is highly dependent upon access to the world’s resources. Because of this the rich are in a very real sense free to a much greater degree than the rest of us. To cite an example in the area of free speech, Bill Gates could easily buy dozens of daily newspapers or television stations to propagate his views and influence public opinion. How many working people could do the same? How many working people could afford to buy a single daily newspaper or a single television station? The answer is obvious. Working people cannot do such things; instead, we’re reduced to producing ‘zines with a readership of a few hundred persons or putting up pages on the Internet in our relatively few hours of free time.

Examples of the greater freedom of the rich abound in daily life. To put this in general terms, because they do not have to work, the rich not only have far more money (that is, access to resources) but also far more time to pursue their interests, pleasures, and desires than do the rest of us. To cite a concrete example, the rich are free to send their children to the best colleges employing the best instructors, which the rest of us simply can’t afford to do; if we can afford college at all, we make do with community and state colleges employing slave-labor “adjunct faculty” and overworked, underpaid graduate students. Once in college, the children of the rich are entirely free to pursue their studies, while most other students must work at least part time to support themselves, which deprives them of many hours which could be devoted to study. If you think about it, you can easily find additional examples of the greater freedom of the rich in the areas of medical care, housing, nutrition, travel, etc., etc.—in fact, in virtually every area of life.

This greater freedom of action for the rich comes at the expense of everyone else, through the diminishment of everyone else’s freedom of action. There is no way around this, given that freedom of action is to a great extent determined by access to finite resources. Anatole France well illustrated the differences between the restrictions placed upon the rich and the poor when he wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Because the primary goal of anarchism is the greatest possible amount of freedom for all, anarchists insist on equal freedom in both its negative and positive aspects—that, in the negative sense, individuals be free to do whatever they wish as long as they do not harm or directly intrude upon others; and, in the positive sense, that all individuals have equal freedom to act, that they have equal access to the world’s resources.

Anarchists recognize that absolute freedom is an impossibility, that amoral egoism ignoring the rights of others would quickly devolve into a war of all against all. What we argue for is that everyone have equal freedom from restraint (limited only by respect for the rights of others) and that everyone have as nearly as possible equal access to resources, thus ensuring equal (or near-equal) freedom to act.

This is anarchism in its theoretical sense.

In Spain, Cuba, and a few other countries there have been serious attempts to make this theory reality through the movement known as anarcho-syndicalism. The primary purpose of anarcho-syndicalism is the replacement of coercive government by voluntary cooperation in the form of worker-controlled unions coordinating the entire economy. This would not only eliminate the primary restraint on the negative freedoms (government), but would also be a huge step toward achieving positive freedom. The nearest this vision came to fruition was in the Spanish Revolution, 1936–1939, when huge areas of Spain, including its most heavily industrialized region, came under the control of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. George Orwell describes this achievement in Homage to Catalonia:

The anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was in full swing. . . . the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the anarchists; . . . Every shop and café had an inscription saying it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. . . . The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. . . . All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

This is anarchism. And Orwell was right—it is worth fighting for.9
1. Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism, by Luigi Fabbri. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2001, p. 16.

2. You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 1998, p. 20.

3. It may be that now due to apathy, but in violent/repressive situations other options are cut off for almost everyone not directly involved in armed resistance.

4. For further discussion of this matter, see You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism and Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism.

5. Ted Kaczynski is in some ways quite typical of this breed of romantic. He differs from most of them in that he acted on his beliefs (albeit in a cowardly, violent manner) and that he actually lived a relatively primitive existence in the backwoods of Montana—unlike most of his co-religionists, who live comfortably in urban areas and employ the technologies they profess to loathe.

6. For further discussion of this topic, see Anarchism vs. Primitivism, by Brian Oliver Sheppard. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2003. See also the “Primitive Thought” appendix to Listen Anarchist!, by Chaz Bufe. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 1998.

7. Indeed, there have been a fairly large number of admirable religious anarchists, individuals such as Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day (and the members of her Catholic Worker groups, such as Ammon Hennacy), though to most anarchists the advocacy of freedom on Earth while bowing to a heavenly tyrant (no matter how imaginary) seems an insupportable contradiction.

To the best of my knowledge there have been no such shining examples of anarcho-capitalists other than Karl Hess.

8. To be fair, marxists also tend to emphasize positive freedom, but for the most part they’re also curiously insensitive, and often downright hostile, to “negative” freedom—the freedom from restraint (especially when they have the guns and goons to do the restraining).

9. Of course, this discussion of anarchism is necessarily schematic, given that this pamphlet is intended as an introductory 10-minute read. For elaboration upon these themes, see Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism, by Rudolf Rocker; What Is Communist Anarchism?, by Alexander Berkman (republished by AK Press as What Is Anarchism?); Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, by Peter Kropotkin; and Anarchy in Action, by Colin Ward.

You Call This Freedom? coverby Chaz Bufe


Positive Freedom

Leaving this dismal situation behind for a moment, let’s consider a very important aspect of freedom that is virtually never mentioned in the United States: what Emma Goldman called “the freedom to,” that is, the access to the resources necessary to making the “negative” freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of travel, etc.) meaningful—to put this another way, access to the means necessary to the freedom to act.

Without this “positive” freedom, freedom from restraint becomes nearly meaningless. As an extreme example, freedom of the press is a mockery to someone who is starving to death. But let’s consider a less extreme example: the situation of the majority in the present-day United States. The top 1% of the population owns considerably more of the national wealth (40%) than the bottom 90% of the population combined (30%, with most of that concentrated toward the top); the top 10% own more than twice as much as the bottom 90% (70% versus 30%); and the bottom 50% own almost nothing—under 10% of the wealth, with almost all of it concentrated in static assets such as cars and heavily mortgaged houses.

As should be blindingly obvious, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are much more real for the rich than for the rest of us. If the rich have something to say and want to make use of freedom of the press, they can simply go out and buy newspapers, publishing companies, radio stations, TV stations, even TV networks and cable and satellite providers. The rest of us, if we have something to say, are reduced to publishing xeroxed ‘zines and pamphlets, putting low-wattage “pirate” radio stations on the air (while running the risk of being fined, having our equipment confiscated, and just possibly going to jail), putting up blogs and web sites, producing cable-access TV shows seen by a minuscule number of viewers, and, if we’re willing to make major economic sacrifices, publishing small amounts of paperback books which we’ll have trouble distributing. (Small publishers are at a huge competitive disadvantage vis a vis the few huge corporations that dominate the publishing field.)

Then, if the corporate elite feel the slightest bit threatened, they’ll have no compunction about suppressing the independent press—and, indeed, anyone who dares to publicly disagree with the elite’s political agenda—via their bought-and-paid-for government. And, to add insult to injury, the corporate mass media will be howling for the blood of the accursed dissenters, blathering tired non sequiturs about “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” and the like to stampede the herd.

To put this another way, lack of positive freedom, lack of equal access to resources, makes a mockery of all of the freedoms from restraint—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of travel, etc.—because unequal access to resources is itself a tremendous restraint. If freedom is to be real, equal freedom—in both its positive (access to resources) and negative (freedom from restraint) aspects—is mandatory. Absolute freedom is impossible (though the rich enjoy something close to it, at everyone else’s expense); the best that we can hope for is equal freedom.

The Freedom of The Rich

The foregoing applies to the “pursuit of happiness” as well. The rich are much freer than the rest of us in that area, too; in fact they’re freer in virtually all areas of life. They’re far freer not only to exercise their civil liberties, but to travel, to send their kids to the best schools, to live where and how they choose, buy any consumer goods they want, eat the best, most expensive foods, etc., etc. And they have much more time to do all these things than the rest of us, because they do not have to work. Some do, but it’s a matter of choice for them.

The rich are also very nearly free to flout the law. William F. Buckley provided a flamboyant example of this a number of years ago when he sailed his yacht outside U.S. territorial waters so that he could smoke pot without fear of the authorities, and then bragged about it on his TV show.

In day-to-day life, the rich are much less likely than the rest of us ever to be bothered by the police, as cops are always much more reluctant to kick in the doors of the wealthy than they are the doors of those who do useful work. And, in those rare instances in which the rich are charged with crimes, they can hire “expert witnesses” and private investigators, and they can hire the best defense lawyers to get them off, sometimes on what seem like open-and-shut murder charges. (In contrast, the poor often have to rely on overworked public defenders who normally plea bargain cases9; as a result, a large number of poor people are convicted of, or plead guilty to, crimes of which they’re innocent.)

The rich enjoy an extraordinary degree of freedom at everyone else’s expense. There is no way around this, given that freedom depends on access to resources, that the world has finite resources, and that, though these resources are great, they’re almost entirely in the hands of the rich.

The “Freedom” of Those Who Work

For the rest of us, things are very different than for the rich. Most of us have very little control over our daily lives. We’re forced to work long, numbing hours, often at jobs we hate, just to pay the bills. With the real unemployment rate around 15% (counting “discouraged workers”—those who, often after months or years, have given up trying to find work—and the “underemployed”), those of us who work for a living have a powerful incentive to continue working, even at jobs we despise. The fear of homelessness and destitution is ever lurking in the background, with millions upon millions of us one paycheck away from being out on the street.

At work, we have virtually no control over our lives—freedom is almost totally absent from a good third of our waking hours on work days. On the job, we’re often subject to a myriad of idiotic rules (even as to when and how often we can go to the restroom); we usually have no say in the decisions about what we produce; we usually have no say, either, on how we produce things; we have very little control over our pay, and because of the fear of unemployment and the pathetic state of the U.S. unions we often have to take insultingly low wages; we’re often forced to work overtime (and sometimes cheated of overtime pay); and we’re often subjected to humiliating intrusions into our private lives (especially drug tests and, sometimes, forced participation in 12-step religious-indoctrination programs under the guise of “treatment”).

The near-total lack of control of most Americans over their work lives can be seen in the fact that productivity has been steadily rising since World War II (1% to 3% per year, according to Juliet Schor’s excellent book, The Overworked American), while the average number of hours worked per year in the U.S. is among the highest in the industrialized world, and median wages (in constant dollars) have actually fallen approximately 12% since 2001.

To make matters worse, taxes fall most heavily on those who work for a living. Average taxpayers now pay over one-third of their wages as taxes, while many of the rich pay far lower taxes or, in some cases, no taxes at all thanks to their ability to take advantage of loopholes and dodges (overseas accounts, the very low taxes on capital gains income, etc.). The end result is that there is a steadily widening gap between the rich and the rest of us,10 and that the day to day lives of a good majority of Americans are becoming less and less free: our time is being eaten up by one of the industrialized world’s longest work weeks (when we’re fortunate enough to have jobs); we have fewer and fewer resources with which to exercise our scant “negative” freedoms; and, indeed, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to make choices in any aspect of our lives.

To reiterate: lack of resources is making us less and less free. If we had even the most minimal control of our work lives and the products of our labor, there’s no way that we would put up with such appalling realities.11

Corporate Justifications

There’s no lack of bought-and-paid-for intellectuals and pundits to justify this state of affairs, and to a great extent they’ve succeeded in doing so. They’ve even (with plentiful help from the miseducation system, corporate media, and patriarchal religions) managed to convince a good majority of Americans that the status quo is “freedom.”

One of their main, and particularly grotesque, arguments is that private property in general and capitalism in particular (and the extreme inequality in access to resources that comes with it) are necessary to freedom. We’ve already seen that unequal access to resources (that is, lack of positive freedom) makes a mockery of civil liberties and that it destroys freedom in day to day life. But let’s take a closer look at private property and capitalism.

In the first place, private property consists largely of land and natural resources. Who created these? No one. So why should only a few benefit from them? The other part of what makes up private property is primarily the product of the collective labor of hundreds of generations: houses, factories, workshops, mines, mills, machines, railways, airports, dams, power plants—in sum, everything produced by the members of dead-and-gone generations. Again, why should only a few—especially a few who by and large do no useful work—be the primary beneficiaries of this massive amount of collective labor?

To say that they inherited their wealth and that it’s therefore rightfully theirs is to say no more than that the sons and daughters of those who have unfairly benefitted should also unfairly benefit. And that original unfair benefit was based on land grabs, violence, the enslavement of others, the swindling of others, the suppression of competition, and other forms of low cunning and thuggery. Should such behaviors be rewarded in perpetuity?

But what of “self-made men”? In the first place, a majority of wealth is inherited rather than “made.” In the second place, “self-made men” benefitted tremendously from the labor of past generations. And third, if you look closely you’ll find that most “self-made men” had a head start on the rest of us—they came from the upper income strata. And fourth, most of these individuals’ success comes not from innovative genius and hard work (though some of the rich are innovative and do work hard), but from taking advantage of the work of others. Bill Gates, the richest man on Earth, is a good example of this. Gates succeeded largely by recognizing and buying the intellectual products of others on the cheap (e.g., DOS), and through monopolistic practices, exploitation of labor (e.g., the “permatemps” who often work for years at Microsoft, but with no job security and no benefits), and the ruthless suppression of competition (e.g., Netscape).12 Linus Torvald, the inventor of Linux, has arguably made a greater contribution to computing than Gates, but we all know which of the two is incredibly wealthy. Gates aim was always to make money; Torvalds made Linux a public domain operating system. (Today it’s a backbone of the Internet; most servers run Linux.)

In the end, “self-made men” not only normally have an economic head start on the rest of us, but they also normally make their money by taking advantage of the work and talents of others; and so they’re no more deserving of great wealth than the parasites (such as the Koch brothers) who inherit it.

Advocates of Freedom

Many groups and political tendencies are concerned with civil liberties, with freedom from restraint. The most prominent are left liberals (social democrats) and the so-called libertarians. Both have the same defect: their vision of liberty is incomplete. Liberals are often at least dimly aware of the necessity of resources to the achievement of freedom, but they do not draw the logical conclusions from this. Instead of attempting to rid the world of undeserved privilege, they simply seek to mitigate the worst abuses of capitalism via governmental means. Even at best, as in the Scandinavian countries, such an approach leaves a large majority of the people with limited access to resources (in comparison with the rich) and saddles them with an intrusive government bureaucracy.

The other group concerned with civil liberties, the so-called libertarians, are entirely blind to the relationship of resources to freedom. In fact, they glorify the mechanism that denies equal positive freedom to all: capitalism. (The stilted, bloated novels by the literarily challenged cult figure Ayn Rand provide good examples of this.) In recent years, this group’s political party has even retreated from its earlier calls for the abolition of the state (so as to bring on the “paradise” of unfettered, cutthroat capitalism), and now wants to retain the police and military functions of the state, while eliminating its social welfare functions (further widening the already huge gap between the freedoms of the rich and the poor). This is in apparent recognition of the fact that capitalism requires institutionalized violence to maintain itself,13 that the state is a convenient form of such violence, and that the state has historically been a faithful servant of the rich. In sum, the “libertarians” are not concerned about (and in fact are antagonistic to) the freedom of the vast majority; the only freedom they’re interested in is that of capitalists. They confuse freedom of capital with human freedom, and if push ever comes to shove, one knows in advance which side they’ll come down on—they’ll fight to the death to preserve capitalism and to prevent real, full freedom from ever taking root.

But what about equal freedom? What about positive freedom (equal access to resources)? Doesn’t anyone advocate these things?

Only two political tendencies are concerned with achievement of equal positive freedom. The first is marxism. However, for the most part marxists conceive of freedom only as positive freedom, that is, only as access to resources, and, routinely violated paper guarantees aside, they’re by and large indifferent or actively hostile (invariably so once in power) to the negative freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. To make matters worse, once in power marxists don’t even deliver on the promise of positive freedom (just as their capitalist counterparts don’t deliver on the promise of the negative freedoms). Instead, they become, to use Milovan Djilas’s term, “the new class,” that is, the new privileged class. So, under marxism freedom in both its negative and positive senses is illusory.

Anarchists14 alone insist on both equal positive and equal negative freedom, that is equal access to resources and equal freedom from restraint, limited only by the similar freedom of others. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to consider this matter in any detail, but it’s well worth noting that anarchists have considered these things at length and have written a number of very useful books on how to achieve real freedom.17


For the vast majority of us, American “freedom” consists of unremitting regimentation at school and work; unremitting indoctrination from the miseducation system, corporate media, and authoritarian religions; working at jobs we often loathe; having no control over our work lives (our pay, work hours, working conditions, what we produce, how we produce it); stress from being overworked, underpaid, and in constant fear of job loss and homelessness; humiliating intrusions into our private lives by employers and the government (goaded on by religious zealots); lack of the time necessary to taking real advantage of the “negative” freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc.); and lack of the resources necessary to making real choices in virtually all other areas of life (schools, housing, transportation, travel . . . ).

And, in compensation for all this, we have the “freedom” to enter the voting booth every two years to vote for the millionaires who will become our new masters.


9. A common, sleazy prosecutorial practice is to pile baseless or nearly baseless charges on a defendant (who doesn’t have the resources to fight all the charges) to coerce the defendant into pleading guilty to one or two of the charges. As a result many innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

10. At the time Ronald Reagan took office, the top 1% of the population owned approximately 30% of the national wealth. Since then there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom and middle to the top economic strata, with the wealth of the top 1% increasing over the past quarter century by more than the combined worth of the bottom 50%. To put this another way, the extremely wealthy are becoming far wealthier, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, and the already wretched condition of the poor is becoming ever worse.

11. Self-employment is a largely illusory alternative. Most self-employment attempts fail, due in large part to inadequate capitalization (that is, lack of economic resources); the self-employed often work more hours than those employed by others; they often work seven days a week; and cash flow (that is, lack of steady income) is a constant nightmare for many, probably most, self-employed people.

12. Microsoft attempted to destroy Netscape by integrating Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, into the Windows operating system. (At the time, Netscape’s flagship product was its web browser.) There was no logical reason to do this, unless one counts attempting to destroy a rival as “logical.”

13. Earlier “Libertarian” theorists, such as Murray Rothbard, were well aware of capitalism’s need for institutionalized violence. Rothbard’s solution, in the absence of the state, was the creation of private police forces and private prisons. 14. “Anarchists” refers to those who understand the theory and work to make it real, and not to those foolish souls who are attracted to the type of “anarchism” portrayed in the corporate media, an “anarchism” that equals chaos and amoral egotism.

14. “Anarchists” refers to those who understand the theory and work to make it real, and not to those foolish souls who are attracted to the type of “anarchism” portrayed in the corporate media, an “anarchism” that equals chaos and amoral egotism.

15. To list only a few: Looking Forward, by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel; Moving Forward, by Michael Albert; What Is Anarchism?, by Alexander Berkman; Remaking Society, by Murray Bookchin; Redefining Revolution, by Cornelius Castoriadis; The Anarchist Collectives, by Sam Dolgoff; Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow, by Peter Kropotkin; Workers’ Councils, by Anton Pannekoek; Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, by José Peirats; Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, by Rudolf Rocker; Anarchy in Action, by Colin Ward.