Climate Charades

from asr 84

As this issue goes to press, diplomats are meeting in Glasgow to make their contribution to the climate crisis: a barrage of hot air. Even as they “pledge” to reduce greenhouse gases at some point in the distant future new coal-burning plants are being built, oil wells drilled, forests cleared, more of the earth buried in concrete.

Climate change is inflicting catastrophe on a daily basis. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world’s governments have stalled on meaningful action for so many decades that it is no longer possible to avoid intense global warming. This summer, blistering heat waves killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada, floods devastated Germany and China, and wildfires raged out of control in Siberia, Turkey and Greece.  Continue reading

Death Squad America

Editorial, ASR 81

As we write the U.S. election is still impending, and so we cannot know which candidates won. What we do know is that once again workers have lost.

We faced a grim choice between a president who cheers on police and neofascist thugs as they shoot down protesters and a former vice president who suggests it would be better to merely maim us; a president who encourages his followers to ram their cars into anti-fascist protesters and his opponent’s suggestion that instead “anarchists and arsonists” be arrested and prosecuted for our thought crimes; a president who loots the treasury for his personal benefit and a man who spent his entire career shilling for the banks and insurance firms, helping them pick our pockets and shielding them from being held culpable for their crimes. Continue reading

We are the 99%

by Jon Bekken, ASR 57

We are, or so the boss press insists, in the midst of an economic “recovery” that began in July 2009, ending the 19-month American recession. Unemployment rates are now down to “just” 8.5 percent (a figure that does not include millions who have given up looking for work, or been forced to settle for part-time jobs). At current rates of job growth, we’ll all be back to work in another 15 years or so.

When hard times hit, the bosses always demand that working people bear the costs of economic policies we had no hand in shaping. Nothing is different this time around. Continue reading

The Zombie Stomp

ASR 53 (2010)

The economists are nearly unanimous in proclaiming that the U.S. recession has ended, and the economy is now expanding. Ordinary people disagree, but that’s because we look at the question entirely the wrong way. We ask how well the economy is meeting our needs, when we should be asking how well it’s doing at enriching our bosses. That, after all, is the fundamental purpose of a capitalist economy.

And from that vantage point, the infusion of trillions of dollars of society’s hard-built wealth has successfully revived the zombies. The Dow Jones average has been promenading around 10,000 for months, Continue reading

Bakunin & the Historians Revisited

Review essay by Jon Bekken, ASR 63 (2015)

When I reviewed the English-language literature on the pioneering Russian-born anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in 1992, there was only one decent biography in print, and it focused almost exclusively on his (very productive) final years in Italy. As we conclude the Bakunin bicentenary two new histories have been published – Mark Leier’s excellent Bakunin (reviewed in ASR 47, which while sometimes overly casual is far and away the best comprehensive work in English – I still prefer Ravindranathan’s Bakunin and the Italians for the final years), and John Randolph’s intriguing study of the intellectual life that surrounded Bakunin as he came of age. PM Press will release in March an English translation of Wolfgang Eckhardt’s The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Eckhardt argues that this represented a schism between parliamentary party politics and social-revolutionary concepts that continues to resonate to the present day.

While the quality (if not the quantity) of this literature is far superior to that which inspired my original essay, Bakunin still has not received his due. English-readers have access to only a small sample of Bakunin’s writings. However, new English-language translations of Bakunin’s essays and letters are being regularly posted to Shawn Wilbur’s (some are working drafts, others completed), even if one often wishes for more contextual information (which might well be provided when his eagerly awaited Bakunin Reader is published by PM Press).

There has also been a bit of a flurry of denunciations by academics (largely post-modernists), much of it part of a larger war on rationalism and social revolution. Exemplary in this regard is Saul Newman, who drags a largely imagined Bakunin into his postmodernist analysis of power. Brian Morris has issued a pamphlet for the bicentenary of Bakunin’s birth, Bakunin and the Human Subject (building upon his 1993 Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom), which succinctly refutes this post-modern school of falsification.

Randolph’s The House in the Garden is a richly documented account of the intellectual currents that swirled around the Bakunin family estate. We see here a young Bakunin, beginning to work out his philosophy (albeit already influential in introducing contemporary European philosophy to what was an intellectual and economic backwater) and like his peers somewhat inclined to interpret daily life through rather idealized lenses. Randolph offers a nuanced account of Bakunin’s effort to liberate his sister Varvara from her unhappy marriage, which makes it clear (though some reviewers argue otherwise) that throughout this episode he worked to support her in her efforts to realize her own destiny, even if he did not fully appreciate the social constraints which limited her ability to do so. Randolph offers a valuable exploration not only of the influences that shaped Bakunin, but of wider themes in Russian intellectual history in a period when it was increasingly clear that the old order could not be sustained.

Morris’ Bakunin and the Human Subject offers a spirited defense of its subject. “Harassed, denigrated, jailed, ridiculed and misunderstood in his own day, [Bakunin] was now being intellectually assaulted by liberal and Marxist scholars in the most appalling … fashion.” (3) Morris first responded with his 1993 book explicating Bakunin’s theory of social revolution, and now with this pamphlet which unfortunately must engage not only these longstanding detractors, but a new torrent of misrepresentation by writers who purport to be anarchists.

Much of the pamphlet is devoted to the assault on Bakunin by “post”-anarchists, who rather than embracing Bakunin’s sophisticated, humanist approach instead propose to build a denatured anarchism upon the bones of the sterile philosophy of the likes of Stirner. These professional theorists misrepresent Bakunin and the anarchist tradition so systematically that it is difficult to attribute the results to a failure of the intellect. They reject even the idea that human beings (to quote Todd May, a pioneer in this line of obfuscation) “possess characteristics that enable one to live justly with others in society.” (Morris, 8)

Morris (10), like Saltman, sees Bakunin as an evolutionary naturalist, who saw a world in a constant creative process of becoming, albeit within material constraints arising out of the past and the inter-relatedness of the natural world. While post-ies deny the fundamentally social character of humanity, instead suggesting “like Ayn Rand… that societies do not exist, but only individuals” (Morris, 20), Bakunin noted that we were so much social animals that is is impossible to think of humanity apart from society. Bakunin articulated both negative and positive conceptions of liberty – of the development and full enjoyment of our capacities – which he contrasted to the illusory freedoms extolled by the liberals of his day. “All his life,” Morris (27, 29) concludes, “Bakunin … [worked] to outline the kind of society that was conducive to human liberty and solidarity – a truly human society. It was one that was both socialist and libertarian, and no one as far as I am aware has improved on Bakunin’s essential ideas. … As a social theorist as well as a political thinker, Bakunin was well ahead of his time.”

So far ahead that the post-anarchists find themselves returning to concepts which Bakunin and the broader anarchist movement long ago rejected, finding their conception of human freedom too limited, and their reliance upon abstractions like nation and state too dangerous. Thus, Newman (one of many in this tradition) rejects class analysis, rationality, sociability, even humanity itself. (Instead we are urged to embrace the void and develop a “politics” of disruption and unpredictability – explicitly abandoning any notion of emancipation. It is an arid philosophy which has found no social base outside of the academy, where it appeals precisely because it poses no danger to established centers of power.)

Saltman’s book, not widely available and which escaped my notice in the original essay, argues that political theorists would do well to stop ignoring Bakunin; “his work can serve as a powerful corrective to the tendency of twentieth-century regimes to sink into bureaucratic and repressive forms of authority.” (xi) Saltman sets out to correct common misperceptions, to systematically present Bakunin’s political theory, and to explore Bakunin’s revolutionary strategy.

Many of their misconceptions appear to be based upon these critics’ unfamiliarity with Bakunin’s actual writing, attempts to impose life-long theoretical consistency (something rarely found in any serious thinker), and efforts to view his life and work through psycho-historical lenses. Saltman concludes (16), “these authors were [evidently] more interested in dismissing Bakunin’s arguments for political reasons than they were in assessing his thought…”

Saltman argues that Bakunin was a deeply materialist philosopher who made important contributions to our understanding of the nature of the state, bureaucracy, science, revolutionary vanguards and the potential of the peasantry as a revolutionary force. His thought was grounded in a materialist approach that challenged the abstractions imposed by actual and aspiring rulers (with often fatal consequences) with lived experience, a humanist orientation, and respect for the evolving constraints of our natural environment. Bakunin, he concludes, “provide[s] a theoretical grounding that places collectivist anarchism well within the mainstream of useful political analysis… With Bakunin’s work, … [anarchism] gained the stature of a full-fledged political philosophy, worthy of equal consideration among the various political perspectives on the modern world.” (170)

And yet, as Morris demonstrates, philosophers and political scientists have been unable to rise to the challenge, preferring to fall back on their shibboleths and epithets – on their fundamentally religious acceptance of the state, capitalism, and other authoritarian institutions – rather than confront the world as it is, as Bakunin sought to do.

Discussed in this essay:

Jon Bekken, “Bakunin and the Historians,” Libertarian Labor Review 13 (1992), pages 30-32.

Mark Leier, Bakunin: The Creative Passion. Thomas Dunne Books, 2006. Reviewed in ASR 47.

Brian Morris, Bakunin and the Human Subject. Published by the author for the Anarchist Federation, pamphlet, 2014.

Saul Newman, From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lexington Books, 2007.

John Randolph, The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism. Cornell University Press, 2007, 304 pages, hardcover.

Richard Saltman, The Social and Political Thought of Michael Bakunin. Greenwood Press, 1983.

Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchist Communism

LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW #12 (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.

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.

The Information Railroad

by Jon Bekken, LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW #17 (1994)

Everywhere you turn, nowadays, you bump into the information “revolution.” Politicians prattle about information “super-highways,” national competitiveness and better jobs. Trans­national corporations shift data-entry and computer programming work to Barbados and Ireland, using computers, fiber-optic lines and satellites to move data back and forth. Cable companies promise 150, 300, 500 cable channels – and have scores of Home Shopping Network imitators in development. Computer workstations automatically monitor the number of key strokes per minute in many workplaces, and report that information to the boss. Computer networks make it possible for labor activists and others to keep in almost-instantaneous contact with each other, to coordinate international campaigns and to access a wealth of information.

Vice President Albert Gore speaks of “a planetary information network that transmits messages and images with the speed of light from the largest city to the smallest village on every continent.” This, Gore promises, will lead to

robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solution to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care…. help educate our children… It will be a means by which families and friends will transcend the barriers of time and distance. It will make possible a global information marketplace…

Gore advocated five principles upon which “information highways” should be based: private ownership, competition, minimal regulation, open access and universal service. The U.S. effort would “be built and maintained by the private sector,” Gore said, and he encouraged other countries to do the same. Gore concluded by exulting that telecommunications links “strengthen the bonds of liberty and democracy around the world. By opening markets to stimulate the development of the global information infrastructure, we open lines of communication…”[1]

Similarly, Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown issued a report, “Putting the Information Infra­structure to Work,” which promises “a fundamental change in the way we work, the way we learn, the way we communicate.” Brown looks to information technology to enhance U.S. competitive­ ness, speed electronic commerce, improve health care, improve the environment, sustain libraries “as agents of democratic and equal access to information,” and provide government services faster and more efficiently.[2] President Clinton’s science advisor agrees: “Information highways will revolutionize the way we work, learn, shop and live.”[3] And Gore promised Communications Workers of America members 500,000 new information jobs in the next 18 months.[4]

Computer, cable television and telephone services are. converging – today it is technically possible to deliver similar services over each of these networks, at much higher volumes than  was possible just a decade ago. Hype about the “information superhighway” is nearly inescapable. Whether we like it or not – and we are told that we will like it –corporations are wiring the land, developing a host of new information and video “services,” and deploying information technologies in our workplaces. Indeed, they began deploying earlier versions of these technologies more than ten years ago. But these systems have not been developed with our needs in mind, and to the extent that workers have been consulted at all it has been only as potential consumers. Now the government is trying to speed the course of these developments in ways that would strengthen the corporate stranglehold on what could be an invaluable community resource.

Highways, Webs & Railroads

A great deal of energy has been expended debating the most appropriate metaphor for dis­cussing the evolving system, which the Clinton administration originally described as a National Information Infrastructure. This never caught on, whether because it’s an awkward phrase or because people couldn’t figure out just what was being proposed (after all, infrastructure includes everything from schools to sewers). Instead, politicians, corporate officials and journalists began speaking of an “Information Highway” (which quickly metamorphosed into a superhighway), a much more concrete metaphor, and one that quickly spawned a host of associated metaphors (Highway Robbers, Potholes, Road Kill, Toll Booths, On Ramps, etc.)

At a recent labor conference many people challenged the “superhighway” metaphor, arguing that highways are lifeless, ugly, unfriendly places (they preferred to think of the emerging information systems as a web – a living, interdependent organism). Others favor “superhighway” precisely because the emerging system looks to be lifeless, a fiber-optic scar across the land. Others thought the emerging systems looked more like a Shopping Mall where everything is for sale and people and ideas are tolerated only if there is money to be made off of them.

This debate over metaphors is an argument over how we should think about the emerging system – its possibilities and dangers, its structure, how it is controlled. To see it as a Shopping Mall is to position it as an abomination; a Web is a much friendlier concept (and one that proponents hope would shape policies in a more congenial direction). Each of these visions is technologically possible, but none really captures the essence of what is presently being built. Thus we are offering our own metaphor, the Railroad.

While railroads and highways both get people and goods from place to place, there are important differences. Ugly as they may be, highways are accessible to any automobile or truck (most exclude bicycles and motor scooters) on equal terms. You might be required to pay a toll (particularly out east), but you go where you want, carry what you will, and move at your own rate of speed (subject, of course, to speeding laws and the highway patrol – restrictions which have led some to favor lnfobahn as a metaphor, after the German autobahns which are reputedly free of such annoyances). Highways are owned by the public.

Railroads, on the other hand, are privately owned. (Passenger service is provided by a government-owned company, Amtrak, but it leases access to rail lines.) The companies which operate them generally have a monopoly over their particular routes, and they can set rates and policies subject only to the constraints of the capitalist marketplace. The owners determine the routes, which towns will be served and which (the vast majority) will  not. They decide which services they will make available. You don’t drive on a railroad, you are cargo – just like the coal and other goods being hauled from place to place.

The railroads have organized their business in such a way as to make it practically inaccessible for the majority of the population (the railroads don’t handle small freight, many communities lack train service, passenger trains run so infrequently, and so poorly, that they are impractical for most people). The service the rail­ roads provide the general public is impoverished and centralized, but this way of running railroads has proven highly profitable to those in charge.

The railroads are like the emerging information system in another important way – they were built on the wholesale theft of valuable public resources. Railroads received massive land grants from the government in exchange for building railroads. By right the railroads ought to belong to us, the entire population, since they were built on our land (often land still held by native Americans) by ill-paid workers with money largely raised from the sale of more of our land. Similarly, the Information Railroad is being built on the back of a publicly owned network of computer networks, the Internet (so called because it is less a physical network than a system for coordinating the informational resources of hundreds of computer systems across the country and the world). Much of the financing for building the system is coming, directly or indirectly, from our taxes, and much of the information being bought and sold is ours as well.

As communication scholar Herbert Schiller notes, the Clinton plan is “a blueprint for corporate domination” sold through the same empty promises that were earlier used to sell radio, television and cable:

The nation’s information/media/culture sector is currently the site of sweeping transformations… Stunning corporate mergers and acquisitions among telephone, computer, cable and entertainment companies, each of them already dominant in their field, are preparing the way for … an unprecedented corporate enclosure of national social and cultural space.[5]


It seems clear that many people will be kept off the Information Railroad routes. A growing number of people – about 7 percent – do not even have basic telephone service, let alone the computers, modems and high-quality lines needed to hook into computer networks. Far fewer people are hooked up to cable television – the other distribution system. Industry is urging the government to abandon even the pretense of universal access for new communication services. Although Vice President Gore suggested that connections to libraries and public schools should be subsidized in the name of universal access (though this would at best set up a distinctly second-class access system for the poor, particularly in an era where both are being starved of the resources to provide even their present functions), a former Federal Communications Com­mission research director argues that universal service policies would discourage investment (in­deed he advocates letting rates for local phone service rise to market levels).[6] Plans filed by four telephone companies with the Federal Communications Commission for “video dial-tone” networks (which would upgrade telephone networks to also deliver movies, television and information services) illustrate why telecommunications companies want to dump universal access requirements. Pacific Bell, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic and U.S. West propose to build their networks almost entirely in wealthy areas. Similarly, when Nynex decided to test the market for interactive services it chose three luxury apartment buildings in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods.[7] The reason is very simple, that’s where the money is.

Information has traditionally been available to the general public through a relatively democratic institution, the public library. Those with money could get information more conveniently (and sometimes more quickly) by buying their own copies of books, magazines and specialized publications, but vast amounts of information were made available through libraries free of cost to anybody able to read it. The Internet is organized on the same principle, but with the difference that anyone can make information available. Increasingly information is being withdrawn from this free public sector and being trans­ formed into a good for sale. Private information vendors have made more information available, but at a price that puts it out of reach of all but the wealthiest. Much of their products are simply electronic compilations of government information that was once available free of charge through government documents libraries; the government is eliminating many of its publications and much of this information, gathered with our tax dollars, is now available only to those who can buy it.[8]

Big Money, Small Dreams

These technologies could easily be used to create a truly public information system, with terminals available to all at public locations (libraries, post offices, stores, schools, workplaces, and union halls) containing a wealth of information (about employers, social services, local events, political concerns, etc.) that people could use to help them in their daily lives. Such a system could provide useful information and, more importantly, it could provide an opportunity for people to communicate with each other – to distribute alternative information, to air their views, to make contact with like-minded people. A truly democratic communication system is technically quite feasible.

But that is not what the corporations have in mind. They see the Information Railroad as a means to deliver products and advertisements to a passive consuming (and paying) audience.

On this point the cable operators, phone companies, computer makers and broadcasters are all agreed. Although they are battling to achieve their cut of the traffic on the highway, they are unanimous in seeking to exclude the public’s participation and interest….

In the long run … hardware sales will be dwarfed by the golden flows that will be extracted from the viewing public for the shows, games, films and specialized data that will be transmitted. Private ownership of the electronic highway confers the right to determine who and what will be given access…

While the electronics and cable companies… claim, for example, that interactive TV heralds the arrival of viewer participation and autonomy already announced plans for the new services belie this promise. Most of the interactivity, in a corporate­ owned and sponsor-supported system, will inevitably be directed to the future invasion of the home with marketing messages …

In addition to the established home shopping networks, cable programmers are waiting in the wings with channels devoted to advertisements, game shows, food and the Macy’s catalogue.[9]

A trade magazine recently listed scores of new cable channels – among them TACH: The Auto Channel, Television Shopping Mall, Lincoln Mint Network (an interactive shopping “service” complete with coupon-dispensing device in your home), Catalog 1 (a Time Warner-Spiegel joint venture featuring 16 upscale catalogs), and a host of music, movie, talk and sports channels.[10] Cable companies talk of 500-channel systems, but most of these channels would be devoted to advertising, to home shopping (even though industry surveys show that 71% of cable subscribers reject such “services”),[11] and to pay-per-view services. There is no money to be made by developing systems – labor channels, public access, dossiers on major corporations with information on their labor and environmental policies (as distinct from information on credit-worthiness and stock prices, which find a ready market), etc. – in which people can talk to each other about our common problems, and therefore they will be put on line only if we buy the bandwidth (inevitably the corporations will be able to outbid us) or we force the owners to open up spaces for the  public.

The Information Railroad is not being built by public interest groups, it is being developed by the giant corporations that already provide telephone and cable television. A $26 billion merger between the Bell Atlantic telephone company and cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. that would have given the merged firm control over phone or cable lines going into more than 40 percent of American homes (and a good deal of the programming carried over those lines) has fallen through. But plenty of other corporations are lining up at the trough looking for a piece of the action.[12] The recent Viacom/Paramount merger, for example, brings together a distributor (Viacom is one of the largest cable operators in the country) and a content provider (Paramount makes films, publishes books and owns sports teams), positioning them to own and control both what we receive and the channels we get it over.[13]

Companies already make about $12 billion a year, primarily by selling information on a pay­-per-use basis to computer users (lawyers, stock and currency brokers and similarly well-heeled interests are the primary customers, and most of the commercial services now available are targeted to their needs – thus there are two competing services providing the full text of all U.S. court decisions and other information for lawyers, but none targeting the more numerous homeless population). They hope to expand in part by broadening the range of information made available and marketing it to new audiences, but also by getting us to pay for information which is presently available for little or no cost.

The High-Tech Jobs Machine

Much of the money driving the Information Railroad isn’t seeking to communicate with the general public, however. Rather, corporations and other institutions have been investing heavily in telecommunications for several years in order to develop and control global business operations and increase the flow of profits by moving work, goods and money around the world almost instantaneously.[14] A recent AFL-CIO Executive Committee statement on Telecommunications Policy embraced Clinton’s national information infra­-structure proposal, but urged “policies to encourage a unionized, high-skill, high-wage workforce … [and] to promote a positive trade balance…”[15] This is precisely what Clinton and the corporations do not have in mind.

While corporations have good reason to believe that these technologies will help improve profitability, there is no reason to believe the claim that high tech jobs will restore American “competitiveness” or create secure, well-paid jobs. Although a handful of high-tech workers (engineers, computer programmers, etc.) are well paid, most workers in computer and other high-tech firms earn miserable wages working in unsafe conditions for subcontractors driven by ruthless competition. Thousands of workers in California’s Silicon Valley, for example, work with toxic chemicals for about $6 an hour (no benefits). If they object or try to unionize their plants are closed and the work transferred to a new sweatshop, whether in the U.S. or any other country where cheap workers can be found. Sometimes these electronic sweatshops go bankrupt owing thousands of dollars in back wages to workers. These workers are prisoners of the “virtual corporation,” where manufacturers such as IBM, Digital Microwave and other industry giants contract out their manufacturing operations to fly-by-night contractors; the resulting corporate “flexibility” is highly profitable to the bosses, and helps keep U.S. workers “competitive” with our fellow workers around the globe.[16]

Nor are engineers and programmers immune from “competitiveness.” Telecommunications, computer and other information industry firms are laying off hundreds of thousands of workers around the world as they turn their technology to the task of eliminating high-paid workers. And much of the surviving work is being transferred to countries like India and Ireland where skilled workers can be hired much more cheaply than in the U.S.[17]

Universities and schools are also succumbing to the lure of high tech exploitation. The State University of New York, for example, is trying to increase faculty “productivity” by offering courses and even entire academic programs via the information railroad. Lectures can be carried by video or as computer files, class discussions and papers by email, and students’ progress monitored by computer. One lecture can be shown to thousands of students around the world, exams can be graded automatically, classrooms and libraries can be phased out, and faculty can be laid off as students are increasingly “taught” by cheap, automated systems.[18]


The Internet is essentially a cooperative. Although it was started with Defense Department funds to link researchers around the country, the Internet now links over 1.5 million computers in 50 countries. Users can scan libraries for obscure books or locate a unionist in another country who shares an interest in a particular corporation’s plans. “The Internet’s structure encourages participation and involvement. User contributions have sustained resources like bulletin boards and archives, which offer others easy access to information… And it is run democratically, with users on diverse sites participating in network administration and maintenance.”[19]

The Internet also suffers from shortcomings. Aside from the handful of cities with established “FreeNets” (local access centers allowing people to hook into the internet by phone), users must pay hourly access charges unless they are affiliated with a University or other institution connected to the Internet. As a result, most Internet users are affiliated (as students, workers, etc.) to universities or other government agencies, hundreds of thousands of other users are on commercial networks (CompuServe [owned by H&R Block], America OnLine, Prodigy, etc.) that al­ready charge for information on a pay-per basis and reserve the right to control the types of information they distribute. In addition to charging users, Prodigy (owned by IBM and Sears Roebuck) sells advertising on the bottom of each screen. People on these corporate networks pay more than do Internet users, but while they don’t always have access to the full range of Internet materials they can access a variety of for-profit databases not available over the Internet including the full text of many newspapers,[20] latest stock prices, weather and travel info, and special­ interest discussion groups similar to, but not interconnected with, those on the Internet.

In any event, federal funding of the Internet ($12 million) is scheduled to end next year, as the feds award new contracts for information networks to private vendors. The Internet will continue for several years even if it is displaced as the primary system, but as more and more people sign on and the funds for maintaining and expanding the system dry up it will increasingly become unreliable. And, of course, much of the information currently available over the Internet is likely to be shifted to the for-profit systems, where providers can charge for access. Indeed, the National Science Foundation recently announced that it is awarding five key contracts to telephone companies  (Pacific Bell,  Ameritech, Sprint, MFS and MCI) to operate Internet Network Access Points and the new Internet high­ speed backbone. Many users fear the telephone companies will seek permission to price service by usage (presently Internet-connected institutions pay a flat fee for connection) and are lobbying against metered pricing in order to preserve the free flow of information through the Internet.

Stopping the Railroad

If current developments continue, the Information Railroad will develop much as radio, television and cable before it – as a system for selling goods and deadening minds with an endless stream of corporate-produced programming. The economic benefits will largely be limited to the handful of giant corporations that provide the programming and own the railroad lines that deliver the endless stream of advertisements and pay-per-view offering to our homes. And the alternative communication systems that have been developing on the Internet and on similar non­profit networks will be forced to the margins.

But there are other possibilities. Many labor and other social movement activists are using computer networks to coordinate their efforts nationally and internationally, to mobilize inter­ national solidarity, to share information. When the Chinese government massacred its citizens near Tianamen Square, dissidents transmitted detailed, vivid reports instantly by fax, telephone and computer networks to activists throughout the world. During Yeltsin’s recent coup, activists countered the official lies with first-hand reports which were distributed over networks affiliated to the Association for Progressive Communications (in Canada the WEB, in the U.S. LaborNet and PeaceNet). Rank-and-file workers in the auto, airline and trucking industries share information and ideas over LaborNet computer conferences. Workers in Mexico, Indonesia, Russia and other countries post news of their struggles, ask for (and distribute) information about transnational corporations operating in their area, share information about toxic chemicals and other hazards. The IWW’s Industrial Worker is produced by groups scattered across the U.S. and Canada, using electronic mail to find information, edit and discuss articles, and transmit the final articles to Chicago for printing.

In the 1980s, Spanish dockworkers in the Coordinadora union proposed developing a computer network that would link all the European ports (and would be accessible not only to union officials but to any dockworker), and which would make available information on all the major ship­ ping companies, on working conditions, and on labor disputes (thereby preventing shippers from moving from port to port to unload scab goods or to play workers off against each other). That proposal was never implemented, but as computer networks become more widespread it is quite feasible to link workers in every plant companies operate around the world. Such networks could help rank-and-file workers to counter the bosses’ international strategies with their own and to mobilize nearly instantaneous international campaigns.

Several years ago, Sam Dolgoff pointed to the decentralizing and democratic possibilities opened up by the “cybernetic revolution.” Computers and modern telecommunications networks make de­ centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making more feasible, and indeed more efficient than centralization and bureaucracy. Dolgoff noted the vast amount of information even then being distributed over the Internet by scientists, educators and others “who are now already self-organized into local, regional, national and international federations [which] freely circulate information…”

The unfoldment of the new society will depend greatly upon the extent to which its self-governing units will be able to speed up communications; to understand each others’ problems, and thus better coordinate their activities…. The new technological revolution could expedite the disappearance of the parasitic institutions of the state and representative government. …

The organization of the new society will not, as in the state or other authoritarian associations, emanate from “the bottom  up” or from  “the top down” for the simple reason that there will be no top and there will be no bottom. In this free, flexible organization power will naturally flow, like the circulation of the blood, throughout the social body, constantly renewing and revitalizing its cells.[21]

Dolgoff noted that the very same technologies which could open new roads to freedom could be used (and were being used) for very different ends – to regiment individuals and obliterate human values. The new society is not technologically determined, rather we must develop and fight for our own vision of the future.


  1. Albert Gore, Remarks prepared for delivery to In­ternational Telecommunications Union, March 21, 1994, emphasis added. (Distributed electronically over IAMCRNet, International Association for Mass Com­munications Research)
  2. “Brown Releases Report Highlighting Benefits, Barriers of National Information Highway,” News Release, Department of Commerce, distributed electronically. The full report (which I have not read – there is no mention of barriers in the news release) is available for a charge from the National Technical Information Service or electronically under the documents/papers subcategory of the speeches/testimony/ documents category on the gopher.
  3. John Gibbons, quoted in John Burgess, “Can U.S. ride to prosperity on ‘information highway?”‘ Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 10, 1993, lOD.
  4. Harry Jessell, “Gore stumps for superhighway  bill,” Broadcasting  & Cable, June 20 1994, p. 36.
  5. Herbert Schiller, “Highway Robbers,” The Nation, Dec. 20 1993, p. 753.
  6. Peter Pitsch, “Disconnect the Universal Subsidy,” Wall Street Journal , April 4 1994, p. Al2. This position is shared by many in the industry, but is by no means uncontroversial. The head of QVC, a home-shopping company that operates two cable channels and recently tried to buy Paramount, calls for building two competitive information highways. “If you have one wire, then you better have it be a common carrier [like the telephone] and regulated within a true inch of its life.” He seemed quite shocked when his interviewer argued for a single, unregulated wire. Don West and Mark Berniker, “Barry Diller: TV’s Smart Agent,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 231994, pp.19-30, esp. 26-28.
  7. Mary Lu Carnevale, “Coalition Charges Four Phone Firms With ‘Redlining’ in Adding Networks,” Wall Street Journal, May 24 1994, p. B7; Leslie Cauley, “Interactive Trials Are Trials Indeed-Tough to Start and Tough to Judge,” Wall Street Journal, May 18 1994, p. Bl.
  8. This discussion borrows heavily from an interview with Herbert Schiller, “The Information Superhighway: Paving Over the Public,” published in Z Magazine, March 1994, 46-50. ·
  9. Herbert Schiller, “Public Way or Private Road?” The Nation, July 12 1993, 65. Similar prospects await computer users, from the advertisements built into the Prodigy system to the “Internet Ad Emporium” promised in a recent press release from Multimedia Ink Designs of Poway, California.
  10. Broadcasting & Cable, May 23 1994, special section “NCTA ’94.”
  11. Harry Jessell, “Cable ready: The high appeal of interactive services,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 23 1994, p. 75. The article reports that cable subscribers are willing to pay a few dollars more a month for interactive services such as video on demand or information services. The text claims there is widespread interest in interactive TV shopping as well, but 71.1% said no when asked “Would you be willing to shop from your home using interactive TV?” This even though other questions held out the possibility of lower prices.
  12. Though there is a lot of hype too – the Yankee Group found that would-be builders of the information high­way aren’t spending nearly as much money as they claim on interactive media. Pacific Telesis, for ex­ample, claims to be spending $16 billion over seven years, all but two billion of that was already slated for routine maintenance and upgrading of its facilities. Ameritech claims to be spending $33 billion, Yankee says it’s closer to $4.5 billion. John Keller, “They’ll Spend Lots But Lots Less Than They Say,” Wall Street Journal, May 18 1994, pp. Bl, B3.
  13. Erika Wudtke,  “Who’s  watching  the  wires?” MediaFile,  April/May  1994, 10.
  14. These issues were explored in several books by communication scholars (long before information be­ came a subject for politicians’ speeches) including Herbert Schiller’s Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500 (Ablex 1981) and Vincent Mosco’s Pushbutton Fantasies (Ablex 1982). For a discussion of the impact of computerization on jobs see Harley Shaiken’s Work Transformed: Automation and Labor in the Computer Age (Lexington Books, 1986).
  15. Statements Adopted by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Bal Harbour, Florida, February 15-18, 16. Elizabeth Kadetsky, “High-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret,” The Nation, April 19 1993, pp. 517-20. These issues are also addressed in Glenna Colclough and Charles Tolbert’s Work in the Fast Lane (State University of New York Press, 1992).
  16. For a running list of these layoffs and detailed discussions of working conditions in the industry see CPU: Working in the Computer Industry.
  17. For a generally optimistic assessment of these developments see “Potholes along the information highway,” The Voice (United University Professions, AFT), April 1994, 8-9, 15.
  18. Betsy Reed, “The Wealth of Information,” Dollars and Sense, March/April 1994, 9.
  19. The National Writers Union has filed suit over this, noting that newspapers and magazines are not paying the freelance and syndicated writers who provide the bulk of their copy for the right to republish their work in electronic form.
  20. Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Mod­ern Society, Third Edition, Charles H. Kerr, 1989, 30-31.

Information & Power

The following excerpt from a proposal by the Spanish Coordinadora dockworkers union, “Information and the Construction of Socialism,” presented at a conference of alternative dock workers unions in Ham­ burg, Germany in 1985, was translated by Carlos Betancourt and Peter Waterman.

He who has information has power. The collection and use of data and information about objects, persons, groups or peoples one wishes to dominate or exploit – this is the secret of the accumulation of power, the manipulation of persons, groups and peoples, the exploitation of natural resources, of natural and human behaviours at the end of the 20th century….

The alternative to the monopolistic accumulation of information is the socialization of information: access to data centres by those persons, groups or peoples about whom information is accumulated in such data banks. Against monopoly, diffusion….

The existence of secret data banks is not only dangerous for the ‘informatised’ (not the same as the ‘informed’) but is as – or more – dangerous than the existence of arsenals of weapons …

In so far as wages and conditions demands are concerned, we need, in the first place, to emphasise the necessity for access to information. In the same way as there exist health and safety committees, there is an undeniable necessity for information-access committees….

In relation to the ports movement

The transport of commodities is the point in the chain of control least dominated by the capitalist structure. Production is strictly controlled by the rigid structure of the enterprise. Consumption is fully dominated by the extreme vulnerability of the isolated individual. Spatial mobility in the transportation of commodities implies a certain distance from immediate control by the instruments of the enterprise structure. And it is here where world capitalism is currently fighting its fundamental battle. And, within transportation, it is precisely in the movement of commodities within ports that there continues a possibility for exercising some kind of counterpower with a certain degree of autonomy and strength….    ·

[The alternative port workers movement should] create information centres which can be used by the base at different points: ports, autonomous trade union organisations, national and international coordination. Such information centres, characterized by their openness, accessibility, participation, and by their ascending, descending and horizontal diffusion, should be administered by representatives of the base, or those serving them, and supplied with the necessary material equipment (computer information bulletins, magazines, data centres, etc.).

We would also suggest that the contents – the data to be worked upon, stored, systematised, analysed, distributed – should be the following: Working conditions, skills, wages, collective agreements, standards, laws and working rules, etc.; Trade union experiences, organization, strategies, campaigns – especially solidarity campaigns –coordination, etc.; …. Documentary archives, magazines, articles, documents relative to matters of interest….

Labor Resources Online

(This section is largely obsolete, based upon a network of list-serves and bulletin boards long since superseded by more powerful technologies also more susceptible to corporate control.)

LaborNet – Particularly strong on international labor news from Russia and Asia, this rank-and-file net also offers industry and union specific conferences in airlines, auto, graduate employees, IWW, National Writers Union, teaching, Teamsters, etc. Inter-connected to the Internet, shares conferences with EcoNet and PeaceNet (and with APC systems around the world), $3 to $10 per hour on line. In Canada many of these same services are available on the WEB. email:; in Canada,

AFL-CIO Labor Net – Several AFL-CIO unions operate conferences on CompuServe, a commercial information vender owned by H&R Block.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility – among other projects, they publish a useful free electronic newsletter: CPU: Working in the Computer Industry email:

RSI Network – A major industrial hazard of the Information Railroad is repetitive stress injury for keyboard workers. This bimonthly electronic news­ letter discusses treatment, workstation design, case studies, etc. Email: The message should read: Subscribe RSI

Economic Democracy Info Net – EDIN maintains a Labor Issues section containing government documents, labor law, and files on U.S. and international labor issues. It is accessed via gopher. Type gopher 1250

Spunk Press maintains an anarchist/alternative (rather broadly defined) electronic contact list which includes newsgroups, archives, electronic newsletters, mailing lists and email addresses for publications. Requests to:

1-Union – a syndicalist list (loosely speaking), where IWWs, DeLeonists, anarcho-syndicalists and assorted Marxists discuss a range of issues and share information on current labor struggles. Like most electronic discussion lists, this is unmoderated, which means that the quality of the debate is un­even and some participants are hostile to the list’s stated goals. But the discussion is more productive (and more civilized) than that found on lists such as the Anarchy list. email:

The Amateur Computerist – a quarterly newsletter of historical and theoretical arguments on computing and its utility to workers. For electronic subscriptions:  For the printed edition send $5 (1 year) to R. Hauben, PO Box 4344, Dearborn MI 48126.