ASR 74 (Summer 2018)

3. Wobbles: Grand Theft Paycheck, Right to Work, Fare-Free Transit, World Bank Attacks Labor Rights …
5. International Labor News Compiled by Mike Hargis
7. Stephen Hawking (1940-2018) And Us by Frank Mintz, translated by Maria Gil
8. Immokalee Workers Protest Wendy’s by John Kalwaic
9. Israelis Protest for African Refugees by Raymond S. Solomon
10. ARTICLES: Teachers Rise Up by Jon Bekken
13. Notes on Anarchist Economics by Iain McKay
14. Liberal Illusions & Delusions by Wayne Price
16. ‘It’s Like A Rainbow’: Australian Political Watermelons by Tony Sheather
19. Wobblies of the World Review essay by Jon Bekken
22. Yours for Industrial Freedom Review by Jon Bekken
23. The Dead End of Electoralism by Wayne Price
24. Some libertarian insights on fascism by Sarthak Tomar
25. REVIEWS: Overcoming the Politics of Division & Fear Review essay by Wayne Price
28. Anarchists Never Surrender Review by Iain McKay
32. The Anvil of War Review by Jeff Stein
32. Anarchists in the Bavarian Revolution Review by Thomas Klikauer
34. Bookchin’s Revolution Review by Iain McKay
36. Left of the Far Left Review by Raymond Solomon
37. Anarchism in Galicia Review by Jeff Stein
38. The Limerick Brigadistas Film review by John Kalwaic
39. LETTERS: Fighting on Every Front

Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchist Communism

LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW #11 (1992) pp 19-24

by Jon Bekken

Note: This is the second of a two-part article in our ongoing series on anarchist economics. Jeff Stein’s review of the book Looking Forward in this issue is also part of this series. We welcome articles and letters joining in this discussion.

Kropotkin believed that the purpose of anarchist economics, indeed of any viable economic theory, was to satisfy human needs as efficiently as possible-to promote “the economical and social value of the human being.” LLR #11 presented Kropotkin’s argument that capitalism fails miserably on this score; this issue briefly reviews Kropotkin’s conception of the economic framework of a free society.

Our comrades began developing the idea of anarchist communism in the 1870s, during the course of the struggle within the First International against Marx’s authoritarianism. Kropotkin did not originate the theory (though many of its elements can be found in his earliest writings), but he quickly became one of its most prominent advocates. His arguments were influential in convincing the anarchist movement to abandon earlier mutualist and collectivist economic theories in favor of the anarchist communist principles supported by most anarchists by the mid-1880s. [1]

Anarchist Communism

Economists, Kropotkin argued, made a fundamental mistake in beginning their studies from the standpoint of production. Instead, economics should be approached from the standpoint of consumption–of human needs. Needs should govern production; the purpose of anarchist economics is not so much to understand the workings of the capitalist economy (to the extent that it can be said to work at all), but rather to study “the needs of mankind, and the means of satisfying them with the least possible waste of human energy.” Although human needs are not met at present, there were no technical reasons why every family could not have comfortable homes, sufficient food, etc. The problem was not to increase productivity alone; rather, “production, having lost sight of the needs of man, has strayed in an absolutely wrong direction…”[2]

If the goal of an anarchist revolution was the well-being of all, then expropriation (of cities, houses, land, factories, etc.) must be the means. “This rich endowment, painfully won, built, fashioned or invented by our ancestors, must become common property, so that the collective interests of men may gain from it the greatest good for all.” Society, Kropotkin was convinced, must be reconstituted on a communist basis if humanity was ever to be truly free.

Everyone has, above all, the right to live, a free society must share the means of existence among all, without exception. “From the first day of the revolution the worker shall know that a new era is opening … that henceforth none need crouch under the bridges while palaces are hard by, none need fast in the midst of plenty… ”

In his monumental work, The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin devoted a lengthy chapter to rebutting such common objections as the notion that nobody would work without compulsion and that overseers were necessary to enforce quality standards. Free association, Kropotkin argued, was the solution to most of these objections. If sluggards and loafers began to proliferate, they should be fed to the extent that available resources permitted, but treated as “ghost[s) of bourgeois society.” But very few people would in fact refuse to contribute to society, “there will be no need to manufacture a code of laws on their account.”[3]

Economists’ arguments in favor of property actually “only prove that man really produces most when he works in freedom…” Kropotkin argued that, far from shirking work when they do not receive a wage, when people work cooperatively for the good of all they achieve feats of productivity never realizable through economic or state coercion.

Well-being, that is to say the satisfaction of physical, artistic and moral needs, has always been the most powerful stimulant to work … A free worker, who sees ease and luxury increasing for him and for others in proportion to his efforts spends infinitely far more energy and intelligence, and obtains first-class products in a far greater abundance.[4]

To the extent possible, all goods and services should be provided free of charge to all. Goods available in abundance should be available without limit; those in short supply should be rationed. Already, Kropotkin noted, many goods were provided based on need. Bridges no longer require tolls for passage; parks and gardens are open to all; many railroads offer monthly or annual passes; schools and roads are free; water is supplied to every house; libraries provide information to all without considering ability to pay, and offer assistance to those who do not know how to manage the catalogue. (That many of these services have been eroded in recent years does not invalidate his premise.)

New organizations, based on the same principle—to every man according to his needs—spring up under a thousand different forms; for without a certain leaven of Communism the present societies could not exist ….

Suppose that one of our great cities, so egotistic in ordinary times, were visited tomorrow by some calamity … that same selfish city would decide that the first needs to satisfy were those of the children and the aged ….

How can we doubt, then, that when the instruments of production are placed at the service of all, when business is conducted on Communist principles, when labor, having recovered its place of honor in society, produces much more than is necessary to all—how can we doubt that this force (already so powerful will enlarge its sphere of action till it becomes the ruling principle of social life?[5]

Neither corporate nor government control of the economy served any useful purpose. Already in the 19th century letters could be sent between most countries without any overarching authority whatsoever. Instead, free agreements between scores of autonomous postal systems together made up an integrated postal network. Kropotkin cited several such examples to demonstrate that voluntary and completely non-coercive organizations could provide a complex network of services without the intervention of higher authorities. To this day one can travel across Europe over the lines of a dozen railway systems (capitalist and state “communist”) coordinated by voluntary agreements without any kind of central railway authority.

There is no reason to imagine that similar principles could not be realized locally as well. As Colin Ward notes,

the whole pyramid of hierarchical authority, which has been built up in industry as in every other sphere of life, is a giant confidence trick …. Ossification began from the center …

Every kind of human activity should begin from what is local and immediate, should link in a network with no center and no directing agency, hiving off new cells as the original ones grow. If there is any human activity that does not appear to fit this pattern our first question should be “Why not?” and our second should be “How can we re-arrange it so as to provide for local autonomy, local responsibility, and the fulfillment of local needs.”[6]


The new society would not be built through gradualist strategies or through government-imposed reforms-it could only be constructed by the people themselves, through direct action. Social revolution could not be imposed from above; rather society should be organized from below, and the revolution made by “the creative genius of local forces.”[7] Kropotkin originally argued that strikes and other labor struggles could not substantially improve workers’ conditions, but later said the anarchist movement had

always advised taking an active part in those workers’ organizations which carry on the direct struggle of labor against capital and its protector—the State. Such a struggle… permits the worker to obtain some temporary improvements in the present conditions of work, while it opens his eyes to the evil that is done by capitalism and the State that supports it, and wakes up his thoughts concern the possibility of organizing consumption, production and exchange without the intervention of the capitalist and the State.[8]

Kropotkin called for expropriation not only of the means of production (land, mines, factories, etc.), but of all goods.

All is interdependent in a civilized society; it is impossible to reform anyone thing without altering the whole. On that day when we strike at private property… we shall be obliged to attack all its manifestations …. Once the principle of the “divine right of property” is shaken. No amount of theorizing will prevent its overthrow, here by the slaves of the soil, there by the slaves of the machine.

Since human beings “are not savages who can live in the woods without other shelter than the branches,” people will demand housing, food, clothing, and other items of consumption necessary to live any kind of decent life.[9]

Shorter Hours

Kropotkin argued that, based upon the technology of his day, people would need put in no more than five hours a day of labor (for 25 years or so of their lives) in order to satisfy their needs for food, clothing, housing, wine, transportation and related necessities.

When we take into account how many, in the so-called civilized nations, produce nothing, how many work at harmful trades doomed to disappear, and lastly, how many are only useless middlemen, we see that in each nation the number of real producers could be doubled. [Kropotkin was writing at the dawn of the 20th century, the proportion is certainly very much higher today.] … In fact, work could be reduced to four or even three hours a day, to produce all the goods that are produced now ….

Such a society could in return guarantee wellbeing more substantial than that enjoyed today by the middle classes. And, moreover, each worker belonging to this society would have at his disposal at least five hours a day which he could devote to science, art, and individual needs which do not come under the category of necessities, but will probably do so later on, when man’s productivity will have been augmented and those objects will no longer appear luxurious.[10]

This latter point was, for Kropotkin, of the greatest importance. It was not enough merely to meet people’s material wants-human beings must also be free to pursue their artistic and aesthetic senses. Kropotkin believed that luxury, far from being wasteful, was an absolute necessity. But if these joys, “now reserved to a few … to give leisure and the possibility of developing everyone’s intellectual capacities,” were to be obtained for all, then “the social revolution must guarantee daily bread to all.”[11]

Tastes, Kropotkin recognized, varied widely. Some people required telescopes and laboratories to complete their lives, others require dance halls or machine shops. But all of this activity was best removed from the confines of capitalist production and carried out on a voluntary, cooperative basis after participants had completed their few hours of necessary labor. Freed from the drudgery of capitalist production, we would all be free to develop our creative instincts. Kropotkin was certain that the result would be finer art, available to all, and dramatic scientific advances (science was, after all, until relatively recently an entirely voluntary endeavor),

Work Need Not be Painful

Under current conditions, Kropotkin recognized, to do productive labor meant long hours in unhealthy workshops, chained to the same task for 20 or 30 years—maybe for one’s entire life. It means living on a paltry wage, never sure what tomorrow will bring; and little opportunity to pursue the delights of science and art. But it was overwork, not work itself, that was repulsive to human nature:

Overwork for supplying the few with luxury—not work for the well-being of all. Work is a … necessity which is health and life itself. If so many branches of useful work are so reluctantly done now, it is merely because they mean overwork, or they are improperly organized… As to the childish question, repeated for fifty years: “Who would do disagreeable work?” frankly I regret that none of our savants has ever been brought to do it… If there is still work which is really disagreeable in itself, it is only because our scientific men have never cared to consider the means of rendering it less so. They have always known that there were plenty of starving men who would do it for a few cents a day.[12]

Kropotkin welcomed mechanization, so that “those who are now the beasts of burden of humanity [may] raise their backs … to become at last men.” But at the same time he recognized that capitalism often introduced machinery in ways destructive both to human life and to the environment. Kropotkin was an early critic of factory farming in the midwestern United States, noting its propensity to exhaust the soil. Machinery must be integrated with rational cultivation practices and small-scale production.[13]

For Kropotkin, the purpose of agriculture—­as all economic activity—was to meet human needs. Today, of course, production has little if anything to do with meeting human needs. A study of famines around the world, for example, has found no correlation between food production and starvation—indeed food is often exported from areas where people are dying of hunger and hunger-related diseases.[14] Even in Kropotkin’s day, entire cities produced nothing but shoddy, second-rate goods, while other towns specialized in the manufacture of luxury goods out of reach of the bulk of the population.

Production must be reorganized on a new basis, and shifted from luxury and export goods to meeting genuine human needs. But it was not simply a matter of producing different goods—the way work was organized and carried out must be fundamentally transformed. When workers controlled their own workplaces, they would no longer tolerate poor conditions or allow their energies to be squandered in anti-social production.

Kropotkin felt it was also necessary to attack the division of labor that both Marxist and capitalist political economists have extolled as a prerequisite of improved productivity (although Marx did argue that ultimately labor should be reintegrated). Kropotkin was prepared to concede that it might well be the case that a person who did only one thing, over and over again, might indeed become quite proficient at it. But such a worker “would lose all interest in his work [and] would be entirely at the mercy of his employer with his limited handicraft.”

It is not enough, after the revolution, to simple reduce the hours of labor. Kropotkin found the notion that workers should be confined to a single repetitious activity a “horrible principle, so noxious to society, so brutalizing to the individual…” The Social Revolution must abolish the separation between manual and brain work, give workers control of their workplaces, abolish wage labor. “Then work will no longer appear a curse of fate; it will become what it should be-the free exercise of all the faculties of man.”[15] Under the rubric of the division of labor, those who actually make things are not supposed to think or make decisions, while others “have the privilege of thinking for the others, and … think badly because the whole world of those who toil with their hands is unknown to them.”

The division of labor means labelling and stamping men for life—some to splice rope in factories, some to be foremen in a business, others to shove huge coal baskets in a particular part of a mine; but none of them to have any idea of machinery as a whole, nor of business, nor of mines. And thereby they destroy the love of work and the capacity for invention… [16]

It would be far better, Kropotkin argued, for teachers to share in the duties of washing the floors, sweeping the school-yard, and the myriad of other tasks essential to school operations, than to allow the formation of an intelligentsia, “an aristocracy of skilled labor.”[17]

And much of the advantage derived from the division of labor is in any event lost through the necessity it creates to cart goods from place to place, and to create enormous bureaucracies to coordinate production of disparate parts that must ultimately be integrated into a single machine. “It is foolish indeed to export wheat and to import flour, to export wool and import cloth, to export iron and import machinery; not only because transportation is a waste of time and money, but, above all, because … the industrial and technical capacities … remain undeveloped if they are not exercised in a variety of industries.”[18]

Kropotkin argued that work duties should be rotated, that agricultural and industrial production should be integrated, that towns should (insofar as possible) produce their own food, and their own industrial products. The division of labor, in industry and in international trade, has been used as a mechanism for despoiling the great majority. With economic self-reliance, Kropotkin argued, people would be able to ensure that their needs were met. The advantages of centralized production are similarly illusory. While it is sometimes convenient for capitalists to bring their operations under central control (although even they increasingly find it necessary to encourage local initiative), this is not because of any technical advantages. Industry is centralized to facilitate market domination, not because of often non-existent economies of scale.[19] To this day the high-tech, advanced industries so often held up to demonstrate the superiority of centralized control are often carried out in small-scale, dispersed operations. Decentralization is, in fact, more efficient.

Abolish the Wage System

Kropotkin argued that the coming social revolution’s “great[est] service to humanity” would be “to make the wage system in all its forms an impossibility.”[20] In Kropotkin’s day, most socialists acknowledged the need to abolish the wage system, but argued for its replacement by labor tokens representing either the “value” of people’s labor or time put in on the job. Kropotkin, too, argued for such a system in 1873.[21] But he soon concluded that such schemes were both wildly impractical and thoroughly reformist:

Once the abolition of private property is proclaimed, and the possession in common of all the means of production is introduced, how can the wages system be maintained in any form? This is, nevertheless, what collectivists are doing when they recommend the use of the ‘labor-cheques’ as a mode of renumeration for labor.[22]

Today labor vouchers are out of favor, but most socialists still accept the wage system and money, often disguised as consumption credits, as inevitable. Proponents of such schemes argue that they are needed “in order to avoid systematic and massive misallocation of time and resources.” The marketplace is, of course, a time-tested mechanism for ascertaining social needs and preferences for goods. The reason there is mass starvation in Africa is not because the market doesn’t work to meet human needs, but because our fellow workers prefer not to eat.

Such devices make sense only within the framework of a market economy where goods are produced and distributed not on the basis of need, but on ability to pay. Whether such an economic system maintains wage differentials (the arguments against these were reviewed in the first installment) or proclaims equal wages (or, perhaps, wage differentials favoring those engaged in “disagreeable or unhealthy work”), it nevertheless upholds an organization of production and consumption which originated in private property and which is realizable only within its constraints.[23]

Kropotkin refuted such arguments 100 years ago, when they were still fresh:

They say, “No private property,” and immediately after strive to maintain private property in its daily manifestations ….

It can never be. For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe voices will call our: ‘Bread, shelter, ease for all!’ And those voices will be listened to; the people will say: ‘Let us begin by allaying our thirst for life, for happiness, for liberty, that we have never quenched. And when we shall have tasted of this joy, we will set to work to demolish the last vestiges of middle class rule: its morality drawn from account· books its “debit and credit” philosophy … and we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.[24]

If there was a genuine shortage of necessities, Kropotkin argued that it was more just to ration goods than to maintain mechanisms for exchange. The wage system, in all its forms, should be rejected in favor of communist principles; for if wages are to be maintained (whether based on labor, or any other measure) a State apparatus is perforce necessary as well.

But the fundamental point, for Kropotkin, was that people must seize control of their economic destiny—must be prepared to experiment with new processes and new methods of organization while taking advantage of the existing methods to meet immediate needs. The technical means of satisfying human needs, Kropotkin was convinced, were at hand,

The only thing that may be wanting to the Revolution is the boldness of initiative …. Ceasing to produce for unknown buyers, and looking in its midst for needs and tastes to be satisfied, society will liberally assure the life and ease of each of its members, as well as that moral satisfaction which work gives when freely chosen and freely accomplished… [25]

The Social Revolution would build on the basis of what was—seizing the existing industries and goods to meet immediate needs and as the building blocks from which we would construct a free society. And while it is neither possible nor desirable to spell out in every detail how such an economy might operate, Kropotkin argued that it was in fact essential to think about its general outlines in advance, so that we might build with a purpose.

Expropriation, direct action, federalism and self-management were, for Kropotkin, the means. But a society not built upon communist principles would inevitably succumb to the central power it established to oversee production and distribution. Only the free distribution of necessities, in all their variety, on the basis not of position or productivity, but of need, was compatible with a free society.


  1. Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 41-67.
  2. Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, New York University Press, 1972 (reprint of 1913 edition), pp. 190-92. Kropotkin raised similar arguments in his early (1873) essay, “Must We Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?” In: M. Miller (ed.) Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution (MIT Press, 1970).
  3. Conquest of Bread, pp. 55, 170,174.
  4. Conquest of Bread, pp. 161-63.
  5. Conquest of Bread, pp. 63-65.
  6. Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action, Freedom Press, 1982, pp. 54, 58.
  7. Kropotkin, Letter to Lenin (1920), p. 337. In: Miller.
  8. Kropotkin, “Modern Science and Anarchism” (1903), p. 171. In: R. Baldwin (ed.): Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, Dover Publications, 1970.
  9. Kropotkin, “Expropriation” (1895), pp. 171-72. In: Miller.
  10. Conquest of Bread, pp. 122-23.
  11. Conquest of Bread, p. 124.
  12. Kropotkin, “Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles” (1891), p. 71. In: Baldwin.
  13. Conquest of Bread, pp. 70,75-76.
  14. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines (Clarendon Press, 1981). I take this summary from Ralf Dahrendorf’s The Modern Social Conflict, p. 9 (University of California Press, 1988).
  15. Conquest of Bread, p. 164.
  16. Conquest of Bread, pp. 198-99.
  17. “Must We Occupy Ourselves … ?” p. 56. In: Miller.
  18. Conquest of Bread, p. 206.
  19. Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow (1899), pp. 153-54 (Freedom Press, 1985).
  20. “Expropriation,” p. 180. In: Miller.
  21. “Must We Occupy Ourselves … ?” pp. 68-69.
  22. Kropotkin, “The Wage System,” pp. 94-96. In: V. Richards, Why Work (Freedom Press). Conquest of Bread, p. 176.
  23. For an example of one such approach see Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty-First Century, reviewed this issue. Similarly, the WSA’s Richard Laubach argues, in the Discussion Bulletin (#23, May 1987, p. 21; #25, Sept. 1987, pp. 17-22), for “giving all workers a set of votes on what to produce … ‘consumption credits'” used “to acquire goods and services [and thereby] provide information about the community’s cumulative preferences.” (He does not mean that we would inform central planners of our consumption plans for the coming year; an unwieldy system, though not a market economy. Instead, consumers would be provided with an equal number of “consumption credits” which they would use to buy things from stores, just as with money.) We are clearly talking about money here, and an economic system which must quickly either revert to a full-fledged market economy or to central planning—in either case one that has little if anything to do with meeting human needs and promoting human freedom.
  24. Conquest of Bread, pp. 179, 189.
  25. Conquest of Bread, p. 229.

Kropotkin’s Anarchist Critique of Capitalism

Libertarian Labor Review 11 (1991) pp 19-24.

by Jon Bekken

Introduction: This is the second installment in our ongoing overview of anarchist economic ideas. (For an outline of the project, see the introduction to “Proudhon’s Economic Legacy” published in LLR #10.) As noted last issue, we welcome contributions of articles and letters to this discussion.

Peter Kropotkin devoted a major part of his prolific anarchist writings to two related themes: examining the actual workings of capitalist economies and developing the broad outlines of an anarchist-communist society. Kropotkin was not satisfied to merely assert that’ a free society was possible, he sought to show how such a society could be constructed from the materials at hand-realizing that a revolutionary movement that failed to consider the problems of production and distribution would quickly collapse. This installment outlines Kropotkin’s critique of capitalist political economy; next issue will turn to his positive economic program. This distinction, however, is somewhat arbitrary, as Kropotkin always preferred to illustrate what might be by pointing to what already was.

Economic Doctrine

For Kropotkin, the purpose of political economy was to study society’s needs and the means available (either currently in use, or which could be developed with present knowledge) to meet them.

It should try to analyze how far the present means are expedient and satisfactory … [and] should concern itself with the discovery of means for the satisfaction of these needs with the smallest possible waste of labor and with the greatest benefit to mankind in general. [1]

It was this task that Kropotkin took on.

Rather than engage in the abstract theorizing that dominated, then as now, the field, he carried out detailed studies of the agricultural and industrial techniques practical in his day (whether they were in general use or not) and their capacity to meet human needs.

Unlike most economists, Kropotkin insisted on subjecting economic theories to the same rigorous inquiry he would apply to any “scientific” theory:

When certain economists tell us that “in a perfectly free market the price of commodities is measured by the amount of labor socially necessary for their production,” we do not take this assertion on faith …. We not only find most of these so-called laws grossly erroneous, but maintain also that those who believe in them will themselves become convinced of their error as soon as they come to see the necessity of verifying the[m] … by quantitative investigation.

While there certainly was a relationship between the price of commodities and the amount of labor necessary for their production, Kropotkin argued, they were by no means proportional to one another (as the Labor Theory of Value would imply). Nor had socialist economists troubled themselves to investigate whether or not the theory was true by actually gathering data to test the alleged relationship. Anyone who took the trouble to engage in such an investigation would quickly learn that the theory was false. We need only consider the price of oil or gold to realize that these prices are set not by the amount of labor power required to extract and process them, but rather by external market and social conditions. Most so-called economic laws, Kropotkin concluded, were mere suppositions. And although socialist economists “criticize some of these deductions … it has not yet been original enough to find a path of its own.” [2]

Thus, when Marx argued against Proudhon that all products exchanged at (or, at least, fluctuated around) their labor value, he was implicitly arguing for what has been called the Iron Law of Wages (though Marx later refuted himself by conceding that union activity could decrease the level of exploitation). The Socialist Party of Great Britain and similar tendencies are wholly correct when they maintain that a Marxian analysis ,requires that all commodities– including labor power–are valued under capitalism at the cost of their reproduction, which in tum is determined by the most-productive available methods. (Thus a shirt that take 60 minutes to make by hand or five minutes to make by machine sells for the same price on the world market.)

There is, of course, an element of truth to this–which is why the theory was widely accepted by the labor movement. But, as we shall see, it mistakes an association for a causal relationship. The commodity theory of labor would indicate that only by increasing productivity can workers make possible an improved standard of living, and only through socialist revolution can those possible improvements be actually realized. (Otherwise, the benefits merely accrue to the capitalists and their underlings.)

This doctrine leads inevitably to the conclusion wage struggles are essentially a waste of time and energy (though workers, through hundreds of years of struggle, have proved the opposite), and that the only alternative to competing against each other into ever-greater immiseration is a state-managed, planned economy which can determine labor values and ensure their equitable distribution. But this doctrine is wholly false. I tum, below, to Kropotkin’s proof that wage levels have nothing to do with the cost of reproduction. But the essential point is that wage levels, like the price of all commodities, are set not by their cost of production or the amount of labor they require, but by the relative economic, military and social power held by the respective parties. Monopolies, cartels, police clubs, prisons, labor organization, co-operative associations–these and other power relationships skew the relative “value” of commodities, or at least of the price that can be gotten for them. (And it really matters very little whether a canteloupe has a theoretical, labor-derived value of 25 cents if all the stores charge a dollar.)

Capitalism Not Productive

Like most socialists, Kropotkin initially assumed that an abundance of goods was being produced–and thus that the primary problem facing socialists was arranging their distribution. But when Malatesta suggested that this could not be true, Kropotkin investigated the matter, and found that (quoting Malatesta):

this accumulation of products could not possibly exist, because the bosses normally only allow for the production of what they can sell at a profit … Some countries were continually threatened by shortages.

In fact, there was only enough food on hand in most major cities to sustain the population for a few days. Yet upon further investigation, Kropotkin established that the shortages, economic crises and general distress endemic to his age (and which continue to this day) did not result, as was widely believed, from overpopulation, poor soil, or other such material causes. Rather, they resulted from a failure to utilize the means already at hand to meet society’s needs.[3]

Kropotkin presented his findings in Fields, Factories and Workshops—an anarchist classic that proved that people using then-existing technologies could meet all their needs with just a few months of labor per year. Space precludes anything more than the briefest summary of a volume with which every anarchist should have long since made themselves familiar.

He demonstrated that the technical means then existed to produce abundant and healthful food with relatively little effort or expense (a vision quite distinct from today’s factory farms—the precursors of which already existed, but which, he noted, destroyed the soil for generations to come, as well as displacing people who might otherwise derive a comfortable living from the land). Contrary to many economists, Kropotkin argued for decentralizing agriculture and industry, noting that huge industrial establishments were both less common than generally believed, and established less to realize largely dubious economies of scale than to facilitate managerial control. The doctrine of national specialization or competitive advantage±then coming into prominence, and which has since been used as an excuse to ravish “third world” economies—was demonstrably harmful to the interests of the population. (As is well known to peasants compelled to grow coffee beans and sugar cane on land that could otherwise feed their families.) If the debilitating influences of capitalist control and ignorance could be ended, abundance for all was well within reach.

All this has been proved … despite the innumerable obstacles always thrown in the way of every innovative mind …. For thousands of years … to grow one’s own food was the burden, almost the curse, or mankind. But it need be so no longer … To grow the yearly food of a family, under rational conditions of culture, requires so little labor that it might almost be done as a mere change from other pursuits … And again, you will be struck to see with what facility and in how short a time your needs of dress and of thousands of articles of luxury can be satisfied, when production is carried on for satisfying real needs rather than for satisfying shareholders … [4]

And yet, everywhere workers lived in misery. Contrary to the teachings of every economic school, Kropotkin argued that overproduction was far from a problem:

Far from producing more than is needed to assure material riches, we do not produce enough …. If certain economists delight in writing treatises on over-production. and in explaining each industrial crisis by this cause, they would be much at a loss if called upon to name a single article produced by France in greater quantities than are necessary to satisfy the needs of the whole population …. What economists call over-production is but a production that is above the purchasing power of the worker, who is reduced to poverty by capital and State … [5]

Only exploiters, he concluded, were in abundant supply. Today, 94 years later, there may well be overproduction of some goods (nuclear weapons, toxic chemicals, and products that must almost immediately be replaced)–but it is just as obscene today to talk of, for example, an overproduction crisis in agriculture when millions face immediate starvation.

Thus, rather than celebrating capitalism’s development of society’s productive capacity, as Marxists do, Kropotkin demonstrated that capitalism resulted in chronic underproduction and deprivation. Capitalists not only do not equitably distribute the fruits of our production, the entire development of technology is distorted by their short-term profit calculations. Employers faced with the possibility of new labor-saving technologies, for example, often move to drive down labor costs rather than invest in developing the means of production (their historic role, according to Marx). The Social Revolution, then, would not merely expropriate the means of production developed by the capitalists–it would be forced to rapidly develop those means in order to meet even the most basic social needs.

Fortunately, the means for doing so have long been in place, and workers are more than capable of meeting the challenge.

Wage Slavery

Like all socialists, Kropotkin recognized the self-evident truth that workers work for the employing class because they are forced to—without their weekly wages they and their families must starve.

Whence come the fortunes of the rich[?] A little thought would suffice to show that these fortunes have their beginnings in the poverty of the poor. When there are no longer any destitute there will no longer be any rich to exploit them … [7]

If people had the means to support themselves—if they were capable of meeting their daily needs without hiring out their labor—no one would consent to work for wages that must inevitably be (if the capitalist is to derive any profit) a mere fraction of the value of the goods they produce. Even an independent artisan, the labor aristocracy of Kropotkin’s day, could not hope to do better than to support his family and put together an (almost certainly inadequate) pittance for his old age, should he rely on his own effort and diligence:

Assuredly this is not how great fortunes are made. But suppose our shoemaker … takes an apprentice, the child of some poor wretch who will think himself lucky if in five years time his son has learned the trade and is able to earn his living. …

Meanwhile our shoemaker does not lose by him; and if trade is brisk he soon takes a second, and then a third … If he is keen enough and mean enough, his journeymen and apprentices will bring him in nearly a pound a day over and above the product of his own toil … He will gradually become rich … That is what people call “being economical and having frugal temperate habits.”

At bottom it is nothing more nor less than grinding the face of the poor.[8]

Today, to be sure, workers have after a hundred years succeeded in improving their condition–and the apprentice system, already declining in Kropotkin’s time, has all but disappeared. But saving one’s earnings is no more the route to real wealth than it ever was–at best workers can hope to buy a house, afford some time off from the hated job, and put a little money aside for retirement or hard times. To become wealthy, in economic term, requires exploitation—either directly, from workers’ labor, or indirectly, by exploiting workers’ need for the necessities of life.

Under capitalism, “the harder a man works the less he is paid.” But the solution to this manifest injustice could not be found in reversing this equation–in payment according to the service each renders to society. For who is to determine the value of another’s service?

We know what reply we shall get … The bourgeois economists–and Marx too–will be quoted … to prove that the scale of wages has its raison d’etre, since the “labor power” of the engineer will have cost society more than the “labor power” of the laborer …

[But] the employer who pays the engineer twenty times more than the laborer makes the following simple reckoning: if the engineer can save him a hundred thousand francs a year on his production costs, he will pay the. engineer twenty thousand. And when he sees a foreman, able to drive the workers and save ten thousand francs in wages, he loses no time in offering him two or three thousand .. He parts with a thousand francs where he counts on gaining ten thousand, and this in essence is the capitalist system.

So let no one come up with this talk about production costs of the labor force, and tell us that a student who has cheerfully spent his youth at a university has a “right” to a salary ten times that of a miner’s son who has been wasting away down a mine from the age of eleven. [9]

Wage differentials, whether under capitalism or in some future “socialist” society, must be condemned as unjust. Nor is it possible to determine a “just wage” based on an individual’s contribution (even if such a system could be tolerated on ethical grounds, which it cannot).[10]

Production is Social

Production is not carried out by isolated individuals whose economic contribution can be isolated from that of each other worker so that its value can be determined. To illustrate this, Kropotkin turned to coal mining. (At that time, miners worked either individually or in gangs at the coal face, and were paid piece rate. In today’s coal mines, of course, the issue of individual production would never arise.)

One man controls the lift, continually rushing the cage from level to level so that men and coal may be moved about. If he relaxes his concentration for an instant the apparatus will be destroyed, many men killed, and work brought to a standstill. If he loses as little as three seconds at each movement of the lever, production will be reduced by 20 tons a day or more.

Well, is it he who renders the greatest service in the mine? Or is it perhaps that boy who from below signals to him when it is time to raise the cage to the surface? Is it instead the miner who is risking his life at every moment of the day … Or again is it the engineer who would miss the coal seam and have the miners dig into stone if he made the smallest error in his calculations? …

All the workers engaged in the mine contribute within the limits of their powers, their knowledge … and their skill to mine coal. And all we can say is that everybody has the right to live, to satisfy their needs, and even their fantasies, once the most pressing needs of all have been satisfied. But how can one estimate their labors?[ll]

Obviously you can’t–no one but a Marxist would attempt such an absurdity. And yet we still have not identified everyone who contributes to the production of that coal.

What of the construction workers who built the railways to the pit head, without which the coal would sit useless. What of the farmers, who raise the food the coal miners eat? What of those who build the machines that will bum the coal–without which coal is merely a rather useless dirt.

There was a time, Kropotkin concedes, when a family could support itself by agricultural pursuits, supplemented with a few domestic trades, and consider the com they raised and the cloth they weaved as products of their own, and no one else’s, labor.

Even then such a view was not quite correct:

there were forests cleared and roads built by common efforts … But now, in the extremely interwoven state of industry of which each branch supports all others, such an individualistic view can be held no more.

If the iron trade and the cotton industry of this country have reached so high a degree of development, they have done so owing to the parallel growth of thousands of other industries, great and small; to the extension of the railway system; to an increase of knowledge … and, above all, to the world trade which has itself grown up …

The Italians who died from cholera in digging the Suez Canal … have contributed as much towards the enrichment of this country as the British girl who is prematurely growing old in serving a machine at Manchester… How can we pretend to estimate the exact part of each of them in the riches accumulated around us?[12]

And if there is no individual production, then how can private ownership of property be justified? Just as it is impossible to argue that anyone person created a lump of coal or a bolt of cloth, so it is impossible to justify private ownership of buildings or land. Homes, after all, are not built by their owners. Their construction is a cooperative endeavor involving innumerable workers in forestry, timber yards, brickyards, etc.

Moreover—and it is here that the enormity of the whole proceeding becomes most glaring—the house owes its actual value to the profit which the owner can make out of it.

Now, this profit results from the fact that his house is built in a town … which the work of twenty or thirty generations has gone to render habitable, healthy, and beautiful. [13]

Like the ground they stand upon, buildings are a common heritage.

For instance, take the town of Paris—a creation of so many centuries, a product of the genius of a whole nation … How could one maintain to an inhabitant of that town who works every day to embellish it, to purify it, to nourish it, to make it a center of thought and art—how could one assert before one who produces this wealth that the palaces adorning the streets of Paris belong in all justice to those who are the legal proprietors today …. It is by spoliation that they hold these riches! [14]

That this remains so can readily be seen by examining the value of today’s office buildings and shopping complexes. Without even the slightest improvements their value rise so long as the local economy prospers. But no sum of money invested in maintenance or beautification is sufficient to maintain their value when the local economy fails. For their value is not derived from the money invested, or from the bricks and mortar (and plastic, steel and cement) of which they are constructed. Not even the labor of the workers who build and maintain these modem temples to capital determines their value. Their value, in the final analysis, depends almost entirely upon the wealth and prosperity of the greater society. The most luxurious hotel built in a dying city will soon fade with its surroundings, while the meanest hovel increases in value as surrounding properties are developed.

We enrich each other–not only spiritually, but materially as well—as we work, contemplate and play together; and without the efforts of society as a whole, no one prospers.

Private Ownership Absurd

Private ownership, then, is not merely unjust±it is absurd. As early as 1873, when he was only beginning to become active in revolutionary circles, Kropotkin recognized that true equality was impossible under capitalism.

It is desirable that a person beginning to work not enslave himself, not yield part of his labor, his strength, his independence … to private individuals whose arbitrariness always will determine how great that part should be, then it is necessary that private persons control neither the instruments of labor … nor the … earth … nor the means of existence during work … Thus we arrive at the elimination, in that future society whose realization we desire, of any personal property … [16]

All property, no matter how it was created, must become the property of all, available to all who contribute to society through their labor. This was, and remains, necessary not only on grounds of social justice, but because all production is necessarily social.

Production for Needs

Kropotkin refused to separate his analysis of what was from what could be. He insisted on asking not merely if the present economic order worked on its own terms but whether:

the means now in use for satisfying human needs, under the present system of … production for profits, [was] really economical?

Do they really lead to economy in the expenditure of human forces. Or are they not mere wasteful survivals from a past that was plunged into darkness, ignorance and oppression, and never took into consideration the economical and social value of the human being? [16]

The “economical .and social value of the human being,” for Kropotkin, was the key to anarchist economics–to the building of a free society. I will turn to that question in the next issue.


  • 1. ”Modern Science and Anarchism,” p. 180. In: R. Baldwin (ed.), Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets (Dover. 1970).
  • 2. “Modem Science and Anarchism,” pp. 177-79.
  • 3. Errico Malatesta, “Peter Kropotkin—Recollections and Criticisms.” In: V. Richards (ed.), Malatesta: Life & Ideas. Freedom Press, 1977, p. 266. Malatesta went on to argue that Kropotkin’s revised view was also wildly optimistic in its assessment of what could be realized. History, however has confirmed that agriculture can indeed produce much greater yields than was generally believed at the time–yields that in fact exceed those Kropotkin discussed.
  • 4. Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow edited by Colin Ward. Freedom Press, 1985, pp 194-97. (This is an abridged and annotated version of Kropotkin’s second edition, eliminating whole chapters of statistical data eclipsed in the 91 years since this work first saw print.)
  • 5. “Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal,” pp. 126-27. In: Baldwin.
  • 6. See, e.g., The Great French Revolution. (Elephant Editionsm 1983) Freed from the landlords, peasants dramatically Increased production. “A new France was born … For the first time in centuries the peasant ate his fill” and the country was immeasurably strengthened. (p. 594)
  • 7. “Expropriation,” p. 162. In: M. Miller (ed, Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution. (MIT Press, 1970)
  • 8. ibid. p. 166.
  • 9. “The Wage System,” pp. 101, 99. In: V. Richards (ed.), Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society. (Freedom Press, 1983)
  • 10. Many Marxists, and even some who consider themselves anarcho-syndicalists, continue to argue for maintaining the wage system in such a guise. Their arguments will be presented, and refuted, in the next installment. ‘
  • 11. “The Wage System,” pp. 103-04. Emphasis in original.
  • 12. “Anarchist Communism: ‘Its Basis and Principles,” p. 57. In: Baldwin.
  • 13. “Expropriation,” p. 197. In: Miller.
  • 14. “Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal,” p. 125.
  • 15. “Must We Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?” p. 50. In: Miller.
  • 16. Fields, Factories and Workshops, p. 193.

ASR 73 (Spring 2018)

3. EDITORIAL: Who Believes in the Deep State?

4. WOBBLES: Union Scabbing, Billionaires Fear Revolt, Trickle-Down Economics, Handouts for Bosses …

4. Farewell, Fellow Workers: Jeff Reeder, Harold Barclay

5. International Syndicalist News Compiled by Mike Hargis

8. Argentina: Four lessons from the fight against ‘reform’ policies by Federico Abal

9. ARTICLES: Rail Workers Building Solidarity Interview with Ron Kaminkow, Railroad Workers United

12. Mind the Gap! by Iain McKay

14. ‘Roll Up the Boss to Win’: Organizing After the Fight for $15 by Jeff Shantz

15. The Hidden Terror by Tony Sheather

18. Ursula Le Guin & Utopia by Iain McKay

22. Crawling Out from the Depths of Economic Despair by Jon Bekken

24. Four Aspects of Contemporary Fascism by Shane Burley

26. Peter Kropotkin on War and Revolution

27. Private Government Review Essay by Iain McKay

30. REVIEWS: A Realizable Utopia Review by Jon Bekken

32. From Debt to Crisis Review by Jeff Stein

32. War Against War Review by Jon Bekken

33. Anarchist Immigrants Review by Martin Comack

34. Romancing the Revolution Review by Iain McKay

35. American Socialism Review by Steve Kellerman

37. Marx, Bakunin & the International Review by Iain McKay

38. Berta Caceres, Elvia Alvarado & the Honduran struggle by Raymond Solomon

38. Letters

40. Ursula Le Guin & the Revolution Poster by Alexis Buss

The Impossibility of Just Prices

Review by Jon Bekken, ASR 41 (2005)

Frank Ackerman & Lisa Heinzerling, Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. The New Press, 2004, 277 pages, $25.95 hardcover.

Everything important can be bought and sold. Advertisers tell us this every day, offering to solve our most intimate problems (or imagined problems) for a fee. Corporations put price tags on everything as they decide what to make, what towns to destroy, how unsafe they want our workplaces to be, and the extent to which they will poison our communities. (Indeed, there is now a thriving, entirely legal market buying and selling the “right” to pollute our air.) Health insurers decide how much our life, and our pain, is worth as they decide which procedures and drugs to cover, and which to reject. And governments increasingly use cost-benefit analysis to decide everything from environmental regulations to whether to allow the bosses to force workers to put in unlimited overtime. Everything has a price – even our lives.

Even many “leftists” agree. The entire edifice of Participatory Economics is built upon the premise that we can set prices that capture the full social costs (materials and labor, of course, but also externalities such as damage to the environment and the lost opportunities that otherwise could have been met) of fulfilling any need. Anything we truly value, one Parecon advocate haughtily explained, we can put a price on. Would that they were alone (with the capitalists and politicians) in their insanity, but no. An entire school of environmental economists has arisen who develop ever-more-complex formulas to try to measure the value of externalities – less, I think, out of a belief that this is the best way to make decisions than from despair. These economists insist that our calculations take account of the central role of nature in the economy (the natural resources upon which we depend, the interaction of a species within its environment, the competing uses to which nature could be put). Yet while such methods may be better than the profit-based calculations that drives most economic analysis, they still leave us in a world where prices determine what matters and what is worth protecting.

It is against this backdrop that environmental law professor Lisa Heinzerling and Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman have written Priceless, which the publishers describe as “a combative, no-holds-barred debunking of cost-benefit analysis and the derelict logic used to defend it.” While they proceed entirely within the logic of (enlightened) capitalism, the authors nonetheless provide a wealth of examples of just how dangerous (and how commonplace) the absurd notion that a price tag can be put on everything is. They track the most common cost-benefit formulas down to their dubious origins, illustrate just how easily these calculations can be manipulated to obtain the desired result, and challenge the logic that the value of human life or a healthy ecosystem can be measured in dollars and sense in terms that should be accessible to a very wide audience indeed.

While much of the book frames its arguments against a backdrop of Bush-Reagan deregulation, there is enough information presented to make it clear that price-tag analysis is a bipartisan enterprise. Thus, while the current Bush regime’s number crunchers slashed the value of a human life to $3.7 million, who among us would willingly sell their life for even the $6.1 million the Clinton analysts thought it was worth? And who would be willing to give the world’s billionaires the right to kill as many of us as they please, so long as they pay whatever the going rate is determined to be?

Ackerman and Heinzerling conclusively demonstrate that this business of putting prices on our world is fundamentally arbitrary.

Take the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, for example. Many studies have been conducted to try to determine how much the environmental damage was “worth.” Surveys determined that the average household would be willing to spend almost $100 to put in place controls that would prevent another spill like the Exxon Valdez, indicating that the price should be set at $9 billion (a figure that assumes only U.S. residents were affected; one suspects Russians and Canadians, to mention only those most closely impacted, might see things differently).

But if you ask those same people how much they would accept in order to allow Exxon to dump more oil in the ocean, the numbers get much higher – indeed, many people say they would refuse to allow such a thing at any price. And that’s the only sane position to take. Unfortunately, the people who run our society are not sane. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (a Clinton appointee), for example, has published a book that severely criticizes out present system for protecting health, safety and the environment not on the grounds that it fails to do so effectively, but rather because it is not cost-effective. Tobacco companies agree, and have given millions to support “risk analysis” studies that – because they value prices and money above all else – usually find that public health measures just don’t make sense. Which brings us to the question of just how much a human life is worth. It’s been illegal for quite some time to buy and sell the right to kill people, so analysts have to figure this out indirectly.

Often they pluck figures from thin air, as in the case of a 1995 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which decided lives in the U.S. were worth $1.5 million, but those in low-income countries were worth only $ 100,000. (The 2001 report uses an international average of $ 1 million to decide whether it is cost-effective to allow the capitalists to continue destroying our planet through global warming.) Many economists estimate how much a person would earn over a lifetime, and figure that’s the value of his or her life. (We are, after all, wage slaves, of no intrinsic value to our masters except for the money they can make off our labor.) Or, to determine how workers value their own lives, they compare two “similar” jobs with different risks of causing death, compare the pay rates, and then figure the difference reflects how much workers are willing to sell our lives for.

That this is an absurd undertaking goes without saying, but when economists take this idea seriously and crunch the numbers, they find that union members value their lives much more than do non-union workers. You have to pay blue-collar and service sector male workers $2.6 million more over the course of a lifetime for a job likely to kill them ($13 million for women); but unionized men get $6.1 million (women $42.3 mill). (The authors show how these figures are arrived at from differences of just pennies an hour on pages 76-81; there is actually a certain twisted logic to it, if you ignore factors like power, how desperate someone is to land a job, and the like.) So we’ve established that non-union workers are either dolts who don’t value their own lives, or who lack the organized power necessary to do so. Policy-makers don’t worry about such questions, they strike an average and voilà: we have the value of a statistical human life.

There are alternative measures of human life, ranging from $900,000 to a bit more than $7 million, which policy makers use to run cost-benefit analysis on workplace safety regulations, the level of poisons that should be allowed in our food, the value of school lunch programs. diseased social order, and environmental regulations. (Somehow the very real costs of maintaining the world’s most deadly military machine and inflicting untold carnage on our fellow workers around the world are never measured by these tools.) Statisticians then discount the figures because many victims will be older, some deaths will occur in the future, etc., in order to arrive at a number that justifies whatever horror is being contemplated. (Not that they deliberately fudge the numbers; people with anti-human proclivities are hired for this sort of work.)

The drive to put a price tag on everything does not stop there. Elaborate surveys have been conducted to determine how much a crippling illness is worth, many of which manipulate data from a study of denizens of a North Carolina shopping mall to determine the value of a case of chronic bronchitis. Researchers didn’t ask what people would charge to be infected, of course, since few would agree at any price. Instead, they described the effects of chronic bronchitis and asked questions about which of two imaginary communities the shoppers would prefer to live in: one with the same cost of living as their actual residence and a specified risk of bronchitis, and the other with a higher cost of living but a lower risk of bronchitis. The interviewers kept changing the numbers until they reached a point where each subject was equally happy with both communities (or perhaps desperate to escape). Researchers then figured the trade-off between higher risk and higher costs – $883,000 per case of chronic bronchitis – was the value people placed on avoiding a crippling disease.

One-third of the people they asked to participate refused to have anything to do with this macabre exercise, and so are not included in the data. Environmental Protection Agency analysts then statistically manipulated the data, dropping the people who valued their health the most (and also those at the bottom of the scale) to arrive at an average of $260,000, which they now use to value health risks such as coming down with a nonfatal case of bladder cancer. (You’d agree to have a mad scientist induce cancer in your body for a quarter-million bucks, wouldn’t you?)

Similar research has been done to determine the value of preserving entire species, of people’s “quality life years,” of an I.Q. point (lead poisoning stunts children’s intelligence, so the manufacturers need to know how much that’s worth), of living with crippling injuries, etc. It is all quite insane, and U.S. law requires this sort of analysis be performed on new regulations.

Priceless does a very good job of explaining how cost-benefit analysis is being employed and whose interests it serves. They demonstrate that even on its own terms, such analyses necessarily exaggerate costs and minimize benefits. And they offer a richly deserved repudiation of the entire scheme, instead calling for policies that reflect human values: “The alternative is not a different formula. The multitude of priceless values [life, health, nature, beauty, etc.] that we have identified cannot be measured on a single scale… At best, such methods can provide useful background information on multiple environmental impacts. At worst, when they offer their own bottom-line evaluations, they make hidden judgments about the relative importance of different impacts – judgments that can be every bit as arbitrary and indefensible as the process of monetization.” (208-09) There is no formula, they conclude; what is needed is public debate and participation, and a value system that does not gamble with the ecosystem on which future generations will depend.

These are useful cautions, so far as they go. But they do not go nearly far enough. Ackerman and Heinzerling seem to believe that capitalism and the state could be reconciled with environmental and human values, with regulatory agencies serving to keep their anti-human (and anti-environmental) tendencies in check. This attempt to reassert a liberal politics – a politics that endeavors to harness the state to human needs – may help Priceless reach a wider audience, but in the real world this sort of politics is everywhere in retreat. States serve power, and those who rule have concluded that they no longer need the welfare state.

The price tag system is utterly incapable of serving human needs in the arena of policy-making. The authors do not address this, but the evidence is overwhelming that it serves no better in determining the production of food and other human necessities, and making sure they reach the people who need them. The attempt to put a price tag on everything is a reflection of a diseased social order, and its symptoms permeate our entire social system. And even if the authors do not draw out the implications, the arguments (and evidence) presented here can be marshaled to support a broader radical project.

The price system does not protect our time from the depredations of the employers. It does not reward effort or skill; quite the contrary, it richly rewards anti-social behavior while condemning the most industrious among us to dire poverty. Capitalism indeed “know[s] the price of everything and the value of nothing,” as the subtitle puts it. We must rid our minds of the notion that a free society can rely upon prices (for our labor, or for our necessities); rather, we must proceed from the basis of identifying real human (and ecological) needs, and rebuild our economy around meeting those needs.

The Torture State

Editorial, ASR 41 (2005)

It is perhaps a sign of advancing age when one thinks fondly back to the days of one’s youth, when you could march down the streets without having to worry about the snipers on the roof tops; when you could join a union demonstration, at least, without worrying about police firing upon you with rubber bullets and wooden blocks; when the government had to at least pretend you had committed some crime in order to lock you up; and when torture was universally condemned.

To be sure, torture was widely practiced, and not only by the brutal military dictatorships the U.S. and Soviet governments propped up around the world. In Chicago, it seems police routinely tortured suspects in order to extract convictions used to send them to jail or death row. But officials dared not admit to the world that they practiced torture, and when it became clear that the fruits of torture (among other violations of basic human rights) had sent several people to death row, Illinois’ governor felt compelled to lift the death sentences of every inmate facing execution in that state. In short, torture, while practiced in back rooms and secret cells, was universally acknowledged to be abhorrent.

Today, torture is official U.S. government policy. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez issues legal opinions ostensibly prohibiting torture, but allowing methods including sleep deprivation, psychological abuse (lasting, but not permanent, mental damage is OK), and the infliction of pain up to (but not including) the point of death or major organ failure. International human rights agreements, he says, do not apply. Gonzalez was among the top contenders for a recent opening on the U.S. Supreme Court, but was apparently blocked by conservatives who thought he was too soft on moral values.

Homeland Security Czar Michael Chertoff required convicted Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh to sign a gag order promising not to reveal the systematic torture (the severely wounded Lindh was blindfolded and duct-taped to a stretcher for days in an unlit shipping container; denied medical care, food and water; and threatened with death to elicit his confession) to which he was subjected as a condition of his plea agreement. If U.S. citizens are treated this way by the U.S. military, one can only imagine the conditions inflicted upon Afghan or Iraqi prisoners.

Even a few “civil libertarians’’ now say torture is inevitable, and so call for a system of torture warrants which would allow torture so long as a judge somewhere said it was OK.

Fortunately, even if it has become official government policy, most people continue to reject torture. Human Rights Watch has called for criminal action against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA Director George Tenet in a report titled Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees. Human Rights Watch says there is overwhelming evidence that U.S. mistreatment and torture of prisoners took place not merely at Abu Ghraib but at facilities throughout Afghanistan and Iraq as well as at Guantanamo, and at secret locations around the world. Where U.S. torture was not rough enough, the CIA “rendered” detainees to countries where they would be subjected to more aggressive torture.

In these difficult times, the criminality of the state can be overwhelming. Yet we must continue to confront it, even as we work for the abolition of this brutal, force-propped system.

Long ago, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that no crime was so terrible that it could not be justified “for reasons of state.” In this, as in so many things, history continues to prove him right.

Freedom, Anarchism, or Social Ecology

Review essay by Tony Sheather, ASR 41 (2005) pp 34-35

Murray Bookchin’s significance as a leading thinker, writer and spokesman for the contemporary radical movement is still generally acknowledged. However, the past fifteen years has seen a rancor and division that threatens to challenge Bookchin’s contribution and place in history. The man acknowledged by Roszak as a philosopher to rank with Thoreau has been critiqued and criticized. Repudiated, even.

Crucial to his “deconstruction” has been Bookchin’s espousal the opposition of advocates of deep ecology like anarchist essayist David Watson, whose Beyond Bookchin: A Primer for a Future Social Ecology tears at the very fabric of Bookchin’s ideas. There is vituperative attack at times from both sides in this debate (e.g., Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – The Unbridgeable Chasm). Watson is a theorist, if one who eschews dogma. His activities would seem guided by liberatory reflection, perhaps a spontaneous dialectic. The poet, the artist, in contrast with the prosaic thinker. The man of metaphor challenging the advocate of coherence. Watson’s emphasis on metaphor, intuition, art and poetry as ends in themselves, and as a neglected dimension of Bookchin’s critique, is refreshing. Undoubtedly, in pursuing a coherence attuned to rationality, Bookchin ignores a sensibility crucial to a broad and diverse liberatory consciousness. The Renaissance man is too close to his own “ism,” as Watson observes.

However, Watson’s sympathy toward these neglected areas in Bookchin’s perception creates its own problems. His desire to view human uniqueness as a reflection of the acknowledgment of non-human identity as much as its own, leads to its own uneasiness. Citing the Dakota Black Elk approvingly that “unless human beings humble themselves before the entire creation, before the smallest ant, realizing their own nothingness… (human) knowledge of their oneness with the universe… can not be realized” (pp. 55-56), Watson invokes an obeisance to “unity” (here spirituality/mysticism) similar in intent, if not form, to the man he condemns.

Watson’s evocation of a diversity and fulfillment in aboriginal communities serves as an antidote to Bookchin’s sometimes dismissive musings. Yet again, one wonders if a catholic embrace of “primal, archaic and modern” (Beyond Bookchin, p. 72) invites confusion as much as continuity. Does necessary humility become deference: “I must add that sometimes creeping on all fours might be precisely what is called for.” (p. 60)

“Revolution will be a kind of return.” (p. 154) As wise and incisive as many of Watson’s reflections are, to conclude his chapter “The Social Ecologist as Technocrat” in this manner conveys a disturbing sense of regression. Do we explore the past humbly, with an “authentically dialectical understanding that reorients life around perennial, classic and aboriginal manifestations of wisdom … we have yet to address fully” (p. 154), or do we thus mire ourselves in new litanies of contradiction?

Watson fears Bookchin’s marriage of capitalist-sponsored computer technology and a municipalist utopia, indicating his incapacity to comprehend the full matrix of hierarchical and segmented social and psychological organization inherent in modem society; the Marxist economist within the anarchist philosopher and social ecologist. Nonetheless, Bookchin’s espousal of a nature rendered self-conscious through humanity’s realized potential retrieves and generates a spark of authentic personhood from mankind’s often dark journey. For Watson, progress is regress – unmitigated.

Bookchin’s role in demystifying Marxism (“Listen Marxist,” Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 1971) may be less certain 20-30 years on, but his analytical passion in Post-Scarcity Anarchism and The Ecology of Freedom (1982) were stepping stones, sign posts for a generation. Watson sees a paralysis or decline in Bookchin’s progress (!) over time. There are such signs. Yet Re-making Society (1990) still inspires and Re-enchanting Humanity (1995) – uncited by Watson – depicts in bold strikes the ambiguous heritage of post-modernism and deconstruction. Here awareness of “the sentinel of reason” is not an instrumentalist naiveté but a crucial intellectual reference to guide critique. Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism may be guilty of the selective trivialization Watson, personally offended, alleges. It may perceive treason where idealism is equally apparent. It is unquestionably accurate in discerning and decrying the tendency toward privatized retreat so manifestly observable within the left-liberal political spectrum (and attendant culture). For all their erstwhile (at times contemporary) nobility and integrity, the Greens elaborate this secure, middle-class compromise – Rousseau and Mill in perfect harmony.

It is no surprise to see Watson at odds with Bookchin’s illustrative libertarian heritage and his depiction of a utopian future. “Bookchin’s Civitas; from here to where?” (Chapter 6) exemplifies the divide. Watson queries the significance attributed to the Athenian polis and Bookchin’s evocation of Vermont as a current shining light, and challenges the authenticity of his envisaged participatory municipality as a beacon of the future.

David Watson’s criticisms again offer breadth and the value of an alternative perspective. His error again is to misunderstand, hence disregard, the essential conviction of humanity’s striving for freedom and the need for a passionate, if at times indulgent, vision. His glaring omission as an anarchist writer, in an otherwise comprehensive discussion, is to almost totally ignore the contribution of the anarchist tradition itself. As a reflection, Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists is conspicuous by its absence.

Is it possible that Watson’s dismissive response to Bookchin’s mention of his past experience as a foundry worker intuits more than a contextual dismissal? Without knowledge of the man’s antecedents, one can but surmise. His coming of age during the Vietnam War (both literal and political) suggests the middle-class student radicalism of the time. A deep gulf with earlier radicals like Bookchin influenced, if not shaped, by Depression and war. Personal experiences of enforced drudgery or marginalization inspires a different zeal from that created within a chosen realm of romanticized reminiscences.

It seems possible to locate some of the tension existing between the two writers in relation to the appropriate anarchist interpretation of autonomy and freedom, within these personal and social origins. Autonomy, precious to a child of the ‘60s, under suspicion from a man cherishing the best of “The Left That Was” (Part Two, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism).

As someone of Watson’s era (and perhaps background) – certainly someone changed by Vietnam and radicalized by anarchism – I see in Beyond Bookchin more systematic echoes of thoughts, reservations I expressed in a response to a brief left-wing resurgence (and Brisbane seminar) in 1989. My “Four Paths” drew attention to Bookchin’s virtues, but also his occasional lack of subtlety and complexity, his unawareness of nuance and ambiguity. My reference, with some asperity, to Bookchin’s favorite word, “coherence,” clearly mirrors a similar unease emerging overseas.

Bookchin’s virtues, nonetheless, are considerable. My own intellectual and ethical debt spans 25 years of awareness and enjoyment of his work. Janet Biehl’s brief but gracious acknowledgment of correspondence two years back (conveying her unwell companion’s best wishes), a pleasant telephone call with his comrade Dan Chodorkoff, these may be slight indications of affinity. They did earn my respect as responses to a communication both complimentary and critical – and erase an understandable annoyance at the silence greeting a letter four years earlier.

Courtesy and conviction need not be at odds. Passionate adherence to principle and belief are qualities to admire, but vitriol to the degree exhibited in the Graham Purchase – Bookchin exchange (Deep Ecology and Anarchism – A Polemic, 1993) is sad, even demeaning.

Within the compass of Watson’s critique we witness a decline from “(Bookchin is) a unique figure in twentieth century radicalism” (Chapter 1, p. 7) to “my original sympathies for Bookchin’s work waned during the writing of this essay (Chapter 7, p. 189). He speaks of its early flaws, its “unsound and inadequate … ‘maturity,’” “the saddest moment and the nadir of his career” represented by “his recent writings.” Watson salvages something – “the radical intent and virtues (of) his early contributions” – but the deconstruction is near total.

We may wonder if “after examining his work repeatedly and intensely,” Watson has inherited some of his subject’s messianic zeal; if the analysis has become something of an obsession, as much as a probing appraisal. Watson is gracious, even detached, at the end: “Only time will tell whether I have sledgehammered a flea or shot peas at an elephant” (Chapter 8, p. 245). Yet the contrast portrays extremes inappropriate to a more balanced perception of the roles of both. Watson’s insight and caveats are necessary to elevate social (or deep) ecology to a more complex, catholic conception. To diminish or caricature Bookchin’s seminal role, however, is to do less than justice to a man Watson himself acknowledges “revived valuable chapters of neglected social history for many radicals (through his) utopian concerns and exploration of the ideas of a social ecology” (p. 67).

The broader canvas – and conversation – is suggested: “I agree with Bookchin that an authentically radical social ecology beyond the ‘bare bones’ of the scientific discipline, an ecological sensibility and ethical perspective that discerns the connections between natural and social history, between social crisis and ecological crisis, is essential in halting humanity’s present inertia towards social and ecological apocalypse. I share his hunger for a social movement that can become the seed of the new society within the shell of the old, for a redemption of desire and imagination, his insistence on the possibility of a different kind of organic reasoning.” (p. 243)

Does the ultimate decision, the final truth, lie not between individual philosophers, their assertion and denial, but between the centuries-old quest for human freedom, inspired by dreams, visions and philosophical questions and the inevitable attempts to locate, confine and codify, be it in the name of anarchism, humanism, animism or ecology?

As we strive and yearn for transformation, we need to explore the writings of all contributors to the panorama of that transformation; to understand their differences, contradictions and insights. Their role – be it fundamental, reflective, provocative. Their intent – didactic, intuitive; their approach – analytical or discursive; their style – literal, metaphorical.

Ultimately, however, we find a freedom – hence love – that is individual and social, ordinary and extraordinary, existential and thoughtful, passionate and intelligent, theirs and ours. I may be you, but I am indisputably me. So, too, anarchism and social ecology, visions of utopia, maintain their heritage, their unique essence, their identity, their strength, flexibility and frailty. They illustrate and articulate freedom, sometimes explain or encapsulate it. But comprehend and define it – never.

Freedom is its own domain, while our quest – neither faith nor justice nor peace nor hope, though at times it may seem one or all of these. Their participation in this quest, their acknowledgement of this domain, measures the ultimate value of the Bookchins and Watsons of the world.

Flying Squads & Self Defense Now

By Jeff Shantz, ASR 71/2

Fascist times are periods of open, brutal, class war (when the sheets quite literally slip off). Events of the last year, including the killing of three people opposing a white supremacist shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two women on a mass transit train in Portland and the murder of IWW fellow worker Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville show the desperate need for working class self-defense of our communities.

In this we can draw on examples of rank-and-file self-defense organization. I would suggest, in particular, the rank-and-file flying squad provides an existing model for a rapid mobilization defense force for community protection.

I grew up in an autoworker family and in my family union, UAW (then CAW, now UNIFOR) Local 444, there was a very active and militant flying squad. It was deployed to defend workers and the community against a range of social threats, including, of course, during strikes, but also beyond. In Toronto, CAW flying squads were mobilized to defend immigrant and people facing deportation. Flying squads also defended unemployed workers and homeless people from attacks by police and rightist vigilantes during protests and demonstrations. A rank-and-file Canadian Union of Public Employees flying squad mobilized to defend Indigenous land protectors against racist mobs.

Flying Squads

The flying squad structure operates along the lines of affinity groups with which anarchists are so familiar and which many prefer. The structure allows members to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, preferences and discomforts. The active relationships of the flying squad reinforce accountability and commitment.

In Toronto, anarchists, some of whom were union members, formed an autonomous flying squad. The autonomous flying squad was organized typically to do strike support for workers on picket lines. Flying squad members could engage in activities, such as violating injunctions or strike protocols, that the striking workers did not feel they could do. The autonomous flying squad also mobilized for support of community groups during political actions.

In Vancouver, unionists have organized a self-defense unit, the Peacekeepers. They train together and organize to defend protesters against opponents including fascist groups such as the Soldiers of Odin. This is one model of mobile self-defense organizing that combines explicit self-defense with a flying squad structure for rapid mobilization and coordinated action.

In some cases flying squad members, as members of unions, can draw on additional established working class resources, such as legal support and defense funds for members who might need them based on their flying squad self-defense activities. These resources might not be available to more precarious or vulnerable people who might be targeted by fascists or police.

As self-defense practices spread, other groupings can take on some of these roles but the flying squad offers an already existing body of workers ready, willing and able to do some of the work of self-defense. IWW branches could organize for this work, as Vancouver Wobblies are beginning to strategize around.


That anarchists and antifascists have been attacked with force at demonstrations (as in Vancouver and Seattle, where an antifascist syndicalist was shot) has made this a pressing concern. The murder of Heather Heyer brought home that these attacks on antifascists are not one-off events.

In Vancouver, unfortunately, in the absence of organized and effective self-defense formations, antifascists have had to rely on limited, and hierarchical, union marshals for defense at rallies. While this is fine up to a point and shows the necessity of flying squads, it means that the antifascists became dependent on groupings of which they are not integrally a part (even if their interests are the same and they work in solidarity).

In Vancouver, the IWW branch is making a possibly significant turn towards self-defense training and organizing to act as a defense squad for public mobilizations and potentially for community self-defense, but their numbers are small. A broader flying squad drawing on experiences and participation of already organized working class flying squads, could provide more extensive defense.

Fascist Attack in Charlottesville

from ASR 71/72

Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, attacked protesters and murdered a protester widely reported to be an IWW member – part of a group of Wobblies and others mowed down when one of the neo-Nazis plowed his car into the crowd.

The Industrial Workers of the World issued this statement: “Heather Heyer, the 32-year old murdered by fascists on August 12, 2017, lost her life protesting the fascists. She should be alive with us today. We carry her in our hearts, and move forward with the struggle determined to realize the hopes she held when she faced down the fascists.

“On the internet, it has been widely reported that Heather was a member of our union, the IWW. It does not appear that she ever joined our union, but we would have welcomed her. She was a courageous woman and we should all seek inspiration from her and work to amplify her message. Members of the IWW were on the scene and were among the wounded. Like Heather, they courageously stood up to the forces of hate in one of the largest fascist gatherings in decades. We are grateful that they remain with us, and we are furious that Heather is with us no longer.”

The violence began the night before as hundreds of neo-Nazis and other white nationalists descended on the city, chanting fascist slogans and attacking protesters. Many of the neo-nazis were carrying assault rifles and other weapons; police stood by as one fired in the direction of protesters and then walked past a police barricade. (He was arrested two weeks later on charges of discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, after the ACLU released video footage of the incident they had earlier shared with police.)

Police allowed the fascists free reign to terrorize the city, refusing to protect Congregation Beth Israel, where gun-toting neo-Nazis stood watch at the entrance, and hundreds of fascists paraded past chanting “Sieg Heil” and other anti-Semitic slogans. (Forty worshippers ultimately escaped through the rear of the synagogue.) Cornel West, part of a group of clergy and civil rights activists standing arm-in-arm in an attempt to block the fascist march, noted that the police made no effort to protect them. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists who approached, over 300, 350 antifascists. We just had 20. … They saved our lives.”

A Virginia state trooper interfered with a street medic who was trying to save Heyer’s life. As the medic administered CPR, the trooper forcibly removed an EMT who was assisting in resuscitation. The trooper continued ordering the medic and protesters who were assisting her to leave – stopping only when a firefighter arrived on the scene and took over chest compressions.

This brazen display of fascist violence triggered renewed calls to tear down Confederate and other race-baiting monuments across the country. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters took matters into their own hands, toppling a memorial to Confederate soldiers erected in 1924, as a resurgent Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing African-Americans, Jews, and labor activists. Four people were arrested for this act of civic improvement, and hundreds lined up outside the jail to turn themselves in as participants.

In Minneapolis, performers and bar workers walked out of Clubhouse Jäger after learning that its owner was financially supporting former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, now a white supremacist Republican. Workers quit en masse after learning that their labor was supporting racists and fascists. The owner told a local television station the donation was a matter of “free speech.”

ASR & the Challenges Facing the Syndicalist Movement

Several ASR editorial collective members met July 22, for our first face-to-face meeting in several years. We talked about working to include more topical articles about what is going on in the labor movement and expanding ASR’s online presence (something that would require assistance from supporters with technical expertise). Although we are committed to continue publishing historical articles and reviews, the balance has shifted too far in this direction in recent issues. We need more articles on tactics and strategies for building strong syndicalist movements today, on the challenges posed by corporate globalization, labor and other social “reforms,” and the increasingly precarious nature of work. We need more writers, especially women, young people, and anarcho-syndicalists who are active in non-English speaking countries. We need reviewers, translators and artists. If you can help, let me know.

In addition to our website, ASR maintains an increasingly active FaceBook page. We are working to revamp our email newsletter (technical obstacles are blocking it from reaching most subscribers, and so we need to develop a new platform).