The Accumulation of Freedom

Deric Shannon, Anthony J. Nocella, II, and John Asimakopoulos, Editors. The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics (Oakland: AK Press, 2012)

The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics, edited by anarchist scholars Deric Shannon, Anthony J. Nocella, II, and John Asimakopoulos, treats a controversial realm of radical thought, one that has led to divisions and mutual dubiety within the anarchist tradition. In their opening essay Anarchist Economics: A Holistic View, the editors acknowledge that, for many contemporary anarchists, captive to “the assumption that ‘economics’ is capitalism,” the notion of anarchist economics itself is an oxymoron, at variance with anarchism’s commitment to opposing capitalism and therefore destined to prove abortive from the start.

In a vital collection of essays from contemporary anarchists writing in a range of academic disciplines, The Accumulation of Freedom challenges the idea that anarchists should not be concerned with economics. Divided into six parts, the collection moves from history to vision, first sketching the diverse backstory of anarchist economic thought and then both suggesting critiques of contemporary, global capitalism and advancing promising ways of resisting and escaping it, replacing it with something better.

As it surveys the assorted landscape of anarchist economics, the book is at its most penetrative in the acknowledgement — which appears as a thread throughout the essays — that “economic life intersects with all other aspects of social life.” Having thus reasserted the importance of economics for anarchists, the book situates the anarchist approach as considering a broad scope of analyses that, in Caroline K. Kaltefleiter words, are “not simply focused on the rationalized and instrumental processes most often studied by economists.” The emphases of the authors included in the survey, while almost uniformly unsympathetic to markets, share a theme of decentralization, “of an economy based on popular participation rather than profit.” This is a juncture at which the individualist and social statements of anarchism can and do meet.

Among the many sapient, forward-looking moments in the collection is Uri Gordon’s examination of Anarchist Economics in Practice. Gordon catalogs a number of the ways that anarchists can subvert capitalism and inaugurate new manners of dealing economically, methods outside of and independent from the status quo economy and the wage system. The links connecting many of the practices Gordon outlines are often quite clear. Withdrawal, for instance — “abstain[ing] from participation in the central institutions of the capitalist economy” — is rendered more practicable by the development and proliferation of, inter alia, local currencies and avenues for mutually supportive practitioners of do-it-yourself culture (both of which, I ought to add, have been recurring focal points for C4SS writers Darian Worden and Kevin Carson). The DIY ethic and the ability to exchange goods and services in the fringes that even now remain beyond the reaches of the corporate oligopolists represent the inceptive forms of the economies that will come after this one.

Interestingly, in his discussion of Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS), Gordon recognizes just the kind of “exchange … without profit” that market anarchists believe would prevail in a genuine, anti-capitalist free market. Indeed, among the practical benefits of competitive free markets, resting on labor-based property rights, is their preclusion of (or at least their subversion of) usury, in which category Benjamin Tucker placed “profit in exchange.”

If anarchists take skepticism toward “visioning” seriously per the book’s recommendation — then it becomes difficult to see why “markets are,” as Chris Spannos says, “antithetical to anarchism.” It seems likely that in any stateless society, even one governed by the strictest communistic repudiation of “property” and “markets,” trade and exchange relations are bound to find their place; what matters is not so much that they continue, but rather that they do so within a paradigm that actively prevents the accumulation of the kinds of vast fortunes that, in turn, give way to the bargaining power disparities we find today.

Individualists have supported markets and property precisely because they are the means through which labor comes to its full reward — its product. A great part of the economic question for anarchists, then, is the inquiry into what actually causes economic injustice, broadly conceived. And this is tricky region of the topography, one that continues to divide anarchism. For market anarchists, monopoly is the approximate answer, the source of the disempowerment of the worker and the impediment to solving the economic question.

As Henry George wrote regarding the causal connections of economics: “I have stopped to determine the real cause and justification of interest, and to point out a source of much misconception — the confounding of what are really the profits of monopoly with the legitimate earnings of capital” (emphasis added). The tenor of George’s statement was simple enough, that an abstract principle (for anarchists, the opposition to interest, rents, profit, or whatever other economic injustice/problem) is to be distinguished analytically and logically from the factual relationships or conditions that either frustrate or facilitate the reinforcement of that principle.

To offer one thought on a widespread worry about market-friendly forms of anarchism, capitalism as we know it could perhaps endure without the state, at least given a certain definition of the state.[1] And in that case, market anarchists would still oppose it as a permutation of authority. Our concern is the same as that of social anarchists, opposing authority and promoting human freedom. As Shawn Wilbur observed not so long ago about “free market economics,” “The relations are very different from the labels,” and it is the relations that all anarchists ought to be interested in and thinking about.

Returning to the overarching themes of the book, the need to evaluate economics within a broader context that accounts for manifestations of injustice and parochialism that are at least facially unconnected to the existence of the state alone is underscored throughout. Arguing that, as anarchists, we must be “opposed to all relations of domination,” Deric Shannon cautions that reducing anarchism to mere anti-statism “leads to sloppy and ill-considered theory.” In so contending, Shannon makes the case for a thick libertarianism that properly addresses the role of “relations of domination” that we cannot so clearly impute to the state.

All market anarchists (the writer included) would do well to heed Shannon’s admonition. In point of fact, an important part of the role groups like the Center for a Stateless Society and the Alliance of the Libertarian Left are trying to fill within the broader freedom movement is to thoroughly articulate just those critical issues that Shannon broaches. He notes that even the anarchist movement has not escaped, for example, the stain of marginalizing women. The route forward, then, must confront the ways that many separate forms of subjugation and mastery interact and underpin one another, eschewing the kinds of reductionism that hamper a nuanced analysis. And although — for reasons explained through this review — I would gainsay some of Shannon’s conclusions about modern mutualists and mutualism, his insights are indispensable if we’re to progress toward a more free future.

In Situating Anarchist Economics, Chris Spannos offers an instructive narrative expounding anarchist ideas on economic issues of property, class, and remuneration. His section on property relations should be of particular interest to market anarchists, and sets forth “two equally satisfactory and equivalent ways” of “abolish[ing] not only private ownership, but also state or other central control.” The first of the two would abolish the very “concept of ownership over productive assets … so that ownership becomes a non-issue.” The second possibility would grant “all productive property” to “[s]ociety as a whole,” with ownership “convey[ing] no special rights or privileges.” Market anarchists judge the latter the more viable and more promising option, and we see free markets as a way to consummate that option. Paraphrasing Kevin Carson, market anarchism would see the free market create socialism by allowing it distribute the power of productive resources through society.

We maintain that the essential character of capitalism — with all of its recognizable trappings from centralized, hierarchical social relations, to exploitation of workers, to widespread poverty and deprivation — are not per se related to or resultant of private ownership frameworks and market exchange in themselves. At least insofar as market anarchists share the same goals as collectivist, communist and/or social anarchists (granting that there are differences attributable more to individuals’ predilections than to any ascertainable gulf dividing the former from the latter), a significant portion of the ongoing debate between them might be connected to questions about, as noted above, causality — or else to the loss of meanings and theses during the untidy fusillade of argument. Further, given the many “internal controversies” within anarchism, noted in the anthology by the brilliant Uri Gordon and many of which having nothing at all to do with the old individualist/communist schism, it seems at least odd that so much emphasis ought to be placed on that divide. The dissimilarities between, for instance, traditional or classical anarchism and the movement’s “post-left” elements seems at least as important and as ardently contended, implicating questions that drive at the core of what anarchism actually is.

Many of the more derisive and caustic dismissals of market or individualist variants of anarchism[2] have thus seemed to embody the quality of Benjamin Tucker’s photonegative diatribes against communist anarchism[3], uncritical vilifications of a thing to be disregarded as unworthy of thoughtful consideration. I fall in with those anarchists who, like Joseph Labadie, saw anarchism as “the sovereignty of the individual over his own actions,” embracing “no principle . . . that denies the right of free contract,” and yet saw no necessary conflict between communism and anarchy. And in light of their very evenhanded ventilation of the mutualist idea, whose echoes, they observe, resonate within organizations such as the Center for a Stateless Society, the editors seem open to a genuine dialogue regarding the place of individualism within anarchism. It is refreshing to find “the strong tradition of revolutionary pluralism in anarchism” underlined in the lead essay, particularly where Voltairine de Cleyre is commended as a champion of that tradition.

I realize this wasn’t much of a review for a book so brimful with compelling reasoning around the idea of a full, functional anarchist economics. My hope is that anyone and everyone who cares about the accumulation of freedom — whether mutualist, individualist, syndicalist, communist, collectivist, or otherwise — will discover and wrestle with the questions raised by a book like this, assigned to what is a monumental task. Anarchism needs more scholarship, more respectful and gracious dialogue, and books like The Accumulation of Freedom are just the thing to provide the germ. Anarchists ought to keep in mind that there are likely many pathways up the mountain, toward a free society, and that many ideas that at first appear contradictory may in fact prove to be two sides of the same coin.


[1] I should note here that there seem to be divergent views within the book regarding the question of whether capitalism could exist without the state. Some of the authors featured seem to think it could not. Others tend to analyze them as two exemplifications of authority that, while existing together and reinforcing one another today, could indeed exist separately from one another.

[2] The dismissals in “The Accumulation of Freedom” decidedly do not fall within that category, though they are put in strong terms.

[3] E.g., “We individualist hold the original title”; “Had he known, he would have drawn his line of discrimination in a very different direction,—between real Anarchists like P.J. Proudhon, Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and their followers, .. and miscalled Anarchists like Kropotkine and the Chicago men, who deny that liberty”; “The Beast of Communism”; “Liberty avoids both forms of robbery — monopoly on the one side and Communism on the other”; etc.

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