Perceptions of Power

Parsing Political Divides in the Mainstream and in Anarchism

CNBC describes the Corporate Perception Indicator as “a far-reaching survey of business executives and the general population from 25 markets,” “research firm Penn Schoen Berland survey[ing] 25,012 individuals and 1,816 business executives.” The results of the survey show quite unsurprisingly that the general public associates government with words like “corruption,” “lies,” “incompetence,” and “thieves.” As for big business, the words that came to the minds of those surveyed included, again, “corruption” and “thieves,” also “monopoly” and “power.” Interestingly, overall perceptions of both corporations and government appear to be largely negative. In American political discourse, the political right is characterized by a perceptible overpraise of business, devoted to a view of corporations that sees them as essentially free market actors, “creators” and “doers” that give us progress and innovation. Even if this is not true of everyone on the American right, certainly such sentiments are important to the right’s narrative on free markets. The right looks on government, in contrast, as the bungling and inept meddler attempting to hold back our industrious and our productive, the supporter of the lazy and parasitic who would rather live on the government dole than work for a living.

On the left, corporations are perceived as putting profits above people, as willing to do anything to suck more and more of the world’s natural wealth into the hands of a grasping, extravagant one percent. Government, on the other hand, is treated as the agent of “the greater good” or “the public good,” a kind of benevolent, altruistic mother to us all.

In the United States, people who identify themselves as free marketers or libertarians are much more likely to align with the former of these competing narratives, the right’s assertion that the corporation is the home of the movers and the shakers, the creative and energetic champions of free enterprise. This relationship between self-identified libertarians and the American right helps explain the broader anarchist movement’s pardonable reluctance to accept individualist or market anarchists as the genuine article. Further, hostility toward communism has a long history in individualist anarchism, typified by Benjamin Tucker’s frequent denunciations, yet certainly preceding them.[1]

We may observe at this juncture that both the right and the left share the historically and empirically ridiculous theory that government and corporate power are locked in an eternal war. But it is a great politico-economic myth that governments and large corporations operate at variance with one another, that one must align herself in her political commitments with one or the other, never both, never neither. For left wing individualists, surveys which demonstrate dissatisfaction with and negative attitudes toward both actually make perfect sense. That big business should be associated with greed and governments with corruption is hardly astonishing or remarkable. Further, these results underline the problem with seeing corporate power and government power as rivals, rather than seeing them much more accurately as codependent partners in crime, mutually reinforcing components parts of a larger phenomenon we might call a ruling class or power elite.

We needn’t risk the cognitive dissonance that comes with treating the State as the great restraint upon the socially destructive avarice of multinational corporations. For we find, whenever we bother to look, that elites in the business community regularly work with the public sector to create conditions accommodating to monopolism. The ideal of free and open competition, however championed in corporate press releases and political campaigning, is nowhere to be found and indeed never has been. Thus do market anarchists prosecute our laissez faire critique of capitalism. We come from an older tradition of American libertarians, radicals who contemned capitalism as much as any communist, but understood the importance of individual rights and mutually beneficial trade.

It is interesting to witness anarchist communists and syndicalists develop strict, exclusionary criteria for anarchism, particularly insofar as the arguable father of our doctrine, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was neither, his mutualism containing many market-friendly if not outright pro-market elements. No less important for anarchism as it developed in America is Josiah Warren, whose first forays into anarchist thought antedate Proudhon. If market or individualist anarchism represents a form of “pseudo-intellectualism,” then some of the anarchist tradition’s brightest lights must apparently be relegated to the dustbin of history. Granting that opposition to not only political but also economic authority is a necessary condition for the true anarchist, individualists like Warren (and his followers such as Benjamin Tucker) more than qualify.

Whether our communist and syndicalist comrades admit it or not, free market ideas figured prominently in fledgling anarchist thought, regarded as perfectly consistent with and a natural outgrowth of, to quote Warren, “the absolute right of supreme individuality.” Considering Warren as an example, many contemporary anarchists may not know that anarchist luminary Peter Kropotkin acknowledged Warren as an inspiration and, in the words of Crispin Sartwell, “a precursor of (and influence on?) Proudhon.” In discussing Warren’s legacy, Sartwell observes one of the major, continuing tensions between the individualist and communist strains of anarchism, the debate on “lifestyle anarchism.” Sartwell argues, quite correctly in the author’s view, that Warren “belongs squarely in what is called by its opponents ‘lifestyle anarchism’: that strain concerned with creating alternatives within the interstices in the existing system rather than arming to overthrow it.” “Peaceful Revolutionist” that he was, Warren emphasized experiments in the creation of practical alternatives to dominant economic and social modalities. To Warren, the whole of life was open to and the subject of reform. This holistic approach, the universality of his critique of the existing state of affairs, he likely inherited from Robert Owen, even while dispensing with other aspects of Owenite thinking. Indeed, Warren’s departure from Owen and his ideas offers us an illuminative proxy for the tensions and debates that still divide individualist from communist elements within anarchism. Warren worried about the overwhelming of the individual within combinations and, paraphrasing Sartwell, imposed a priori schemes. Communists often tend to see the undisciplined “lifestylism” of Warren-type experimentation as essentially bourgeois, outside of or ancillary to genuine class struggle.

Discussing early figures in anarchism such as Warren opens opportunities to reflect on the similarities that unite all anarchists. We can pause to wonder what someone with Warren’s breadth of interests and hopes for reform might think of twenty-first century problems and perceptions thereof.

As all anarchists understand, politics is at bottom conquest, spoliation and rape. Everything else, everything peaceful, voluntary and consensual is something different, throwing the distinction between the “politics means” and the “economic means” once again into sharp relief. The economic means to wealth is defined by the normal, even obvious standards we refer to in interactions with merchants, our friends, and family, the mutually beneficial guidelines we use to cooperate and trade with coequals. The political means, by contrast, is the acquisition of wealth by aggression, by forcible extraction through systematic privilege. The State, being the organization with a monopoly on the legal use of force, is the wellspring of such privilege. As Josiah Warren pointed out in Equitable Commerce:

Theorists have told us that laws and governments are made for the security of person and property; but it must be evident to most minds, that they never have, never will accomplish this professed object; although they have had the world at their control for thousands of years, they have brought it to a worse condition than that in which they found it, in spite of immense improvements in mechanism, division of labor, and other elements of civilization to aid them. On the contrary, under the plausible pretext of securing person and property, they have spread wholesale destruction, famine, and wretchedness in every frightful form over all parts of the earth, where peace and security might otherwise have prevailed. They have shed more blood, committed more murders, tortures, and other frightful crimes in the struggles against each other for the privilege of governing, than society ever would or could have suffered in the total absence of all government whatever.

A deep, principled loathing of both big business and government unites all anarchists. Confronted with the alarming realities of the present moment, its authoritarian repressions and economic maladies, anarchists ought to help one another in peaceful projects to build a freer, better world. Data such as those contained in the Corporate Perception Indicator survey show a world fully primed for our anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist critiques. It falls upon us to communicate our message, to do the constructive work of inaugurating a new order.

[1] Relatedly, in True Civilization, Josiah Warren wrote, “What is called conservatism has all the time been entirely right in its objections to communism, and in insisting on individual ownership and individual responsibilities both of which communism annihilates; conservatism has also shown wisdom in its aversion to sudden and great changes, for none have been devised that contained the elements of success.”

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