Micro Monopolies: When Exit Fails

Although monopolies typically evoke images of large corporations and governments, the concept of monopoly power is relative. That is, even a small entity can benefit at the expense of others depending on how individuals relate to it and the power it holds over them. Having numerous choices does not matter if an individual only cares about ones that are unavailable due to social constraints. Those with an inelastic demand for a certain social network or space may end up disproportionately bearing the cost of maintaining or terminating the social relationships therein. Hence, exploitation can arise within interpersonal social relationships; our lives intertwine in messy and often unaccounted ways; we embed ourselves in families, homes, and friend groups; we develop familiarity with certain spaces, people, and daily routines, where the cost of conflict and social breakdown is both high and unequally distributed, depending on internal social dynamics.

For example, abusive households are often held together by more than just financial dependence, people may care about others in the household and other aspects of their life there, and may even have strong emotional bonds with the abuser.  The sole right of exclusion over property in the hands of an abuser can be used as a coercive bargaining chip, making members of a household more likely to agree to unfavorable terms, which can amount to authority. Similarly, consider a household where one parent, the owner of the property, is unwilling to shelter and raise a child, and chooses to unilaterally dissociate with them through expulsion, despite the preferences of others who live there, and those of the child. Both cases amount to exploitative arrangements by way of externalizing costs onto others as trauma and shredded social networks. From the perspective of the other residents, the homeowner operates a micro-monopoly.  While exit may seem like the most obvious solution, it fails to map onto reality in many instances. Making a clean break is extremely difficult when there are competing affinities at play. Additionally, spaces like homes lack easy substitutes, and rebuilding the context necessary for social relationships to thrive requires additional labor from all stakeholders, which can be highly costly for them. In simple terms, people don’t leave abusive spaces, even when exit is an option, because the cost of exit is greater than the benefit.

The first solution that comes to mind is to lower the cost of exiting abusive social relationships, where people don’t get highly embedded in social networks in the first place. A major enabler of intrafamilial abuse, which constitutes the majority of cases of childhood abuse, is the state institution of legal custodianship over children, which limits the scope of exit. The state coercively embeds minors in prearranged social systems that are deemed good for them without their personal input. Therefore, choosing to leave state enforced institutions is highly costly for minors because it risks penalization for breaking the law. There also aren’t other places for them to go if they prefer not to live in state mandated environments. Abolishing legal custodianship over children enables exit in this regard. Also, actively developing other safe options further lowers the cost of exit, helping people overcome attachments to spaces they are embedded in by making the alternatives relatively more attractive.

But lowering the cost of exit is not a catch-all solution by any means, a “micro monopoly” ultimately depends on the individual, as how they relate to their social networks is subjective. In cases where the cost of exit remains persistently higher than the benefit, a refusal to engage in dialogue or negotiation is a form of absolutism. This is often rhetorically paved over by phrases like “free association,” which, in an uncontroversial sense, only applies on a peer-to-peer basis, not instances where an individual has significantly more power in a network due to institutions such as property rights, which may allow them to override others who share a space, by virtue of ownership. Of course, the same thing applies in the opposite direction, where forcing owners to associate with others on an ongoing basis requires authority, and offsets the cost of the decision onto them. Expropriating property is another possibility here, one that does not necessarily require authority, but creates a risk of it.

There is no simple solution to these problems, and proposing simple solutions like “leave” is a form of reductionism and erasure. Although for all practical purposes, some problems are intractable, and the best possible option is still harmful. People cannot be forced into association with each other and they cannot be forced into changing their behavior, an unequal distribution of costs stemming from any given course of action may be inevitable, albeit harmful, exploitative, and conducive to hierarchy — my concern here is for the many cases that can be resolved, but aren’t, due to people defaulting to absolutist approaches. Going back to the example of abusive households complicated by kinship and other affinities, absolutist approaches look like continued abuse, the victim being forced to leave against their will, or the expropriation of the household and the expulsion of the abuser. All these outcomes end up being extremely costly for stakeholders. The latter might seem like a favorable outcome, but may only be applied in fringe cases as it undermines possessory rights and possibly even the preferences of the victim (property is ultimately a social relationship with limits, and can only be maintained through goodwill). An alternative perspective, looking at this issue in terms of negative-sum, zero-sum, or positive-sum interactions, also effectively ignores individual subjectivity as we are summing gains and losses.

When it comes to abuse where exit is infeasible, a reciprocal, non-absolutist solution is to end the abuse, make abusers aware of the harmful nature of their actions, and request that they stop their behavior. Of course, this is easier said than done, and relies on a willingness to examine one’s behavior and change, but given the alternatives (the absolutist approaches listed above), it is worth working towards this outcome. More specifically, a better response in cases where exit is highly costly is dialogue, developing a more complex understanding of others, and working towards a solution. Valuing the subjectivity of others, even if we cannot relate to it, is a good rule of thumb when it comes to navigating conflict, not just something at which only abusers tend to fail. Projecting false narratives onto others and fueling social breakdown can be avoided through direct communication.

Authority is not limited to the state, but can creep into personal spaces such as households, affinity groups, co-ops, and so on. In the same vein as designing the architecture of a website or a currency, anarchist thought also applies when designing the “network architecture” of personal spaces. Valuing subjectivity is integral to such a framework. A society that always defaults to absolutism is likely to result in authority, and hence preclude anarchism, which not only concerns macro-structures, but also our everyday social relationships.

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Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory