Category Archives: Anti-capitalism/usury/STV

Mixing one’s labor does not prove property rights!

A common justification for property rights given to us is that one deserves to acquire property by “mixing one’s labor” with natural resources. It is this “mixing” which magically turns a resource from a property. This formulation comes to us from John Locke:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

I’ve already debunked self-ownership, so I won’t say anything further on Locke’s false assumption that “every man has a property in his own person.” Also note what we now call the Lockean proviso, “enough and as good,” which is another point of contention. But this entry is not about either of these things, so I will merely mention them here.

What concerns me is more specifically the belief that mixing one’s labor is a sufficient condition for turning a resource into property, from something small and consumed such as an apple to an entire piece of land:

As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common.

Locke believed that the proviso ensured that no one would be deprived because there has to still be “enough and as good” for everyone else. But even that is besides the point. The point here is, what is this magical transmutation that turns a piece of land into property?

In Qu’est-ce que la Propriété?, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon debunks the concept of property. He specifically refutes the argument that property is the result of mixing one’s labor:

I maintain that the possessor is paid for his trouble and industry in his doubled crop, but that he acquires no right to the land. “Let the laborer have the fruits of his labor.” Very good; but I do not understand that property in products carries with it property in raw material. Does the skill of the fisherman, who on the same coast can catch more fish than his fellows, make him proprietor of the fishing-grounds? Can the expertness of a hunter ever be regarded as a property-title to a game-forest?…

To change possession into property, something is needed besides labor, without which a man would cease to be proprietor as soon as he ceased to be a laborer. Now, the law bases property upon immemorial, unquestionable possession; that is, prescription. Labor is only the sensible sign, the physical act, by which occupation is manifested. If, then, the cultivator remains proprietor after he has ceased to labor and produce; if his possession, first conceded, then tolerated, finally becomes inalienable, — it happens by permission of the civil law, and by virtue of the principle of occupancy.

He also argues that if the principle that labor-mixing led to property was valid, it could only lead to equality of property:

Admit, however, that labor gives a right of property in material. Why is not this principle universal? Why is the benefit of this pretended law confined to a few and denied to the mass of laborers?…

If the laborer, who adds to the value of a thing, has a right of property in it, he who maintains this value acquires the same right. For what is maintenance? It is incessant addition, — continuous creation. What is it to cultivate? It is to give the soil its value every year; it is, by annually renewed creation, to prevent the diminution or destruction of the value of a piece of land. Admitting, then, that property is rational and legitimate, — admitting that rent is equitable and just, — I say that he who cultivates acquires property by as good a title as he who clears, or he who improves; and that every time a tenant pays his rent, he obtains a fraction of property in the land entrusted to his care, the denominator of which is equal to the proportion of rent paid. Unless you admit this, you fall into absolutism and tyranny; you recognize class privileges; you sanction slavery.

Obviously libsocs do not dispute that a person owns the product of their labor, but disagree that one can claim a piece of land as property and thus demand rent from anyone else deciding to mix their labor with that land. Proudhon makes clear that the reality of land ownership has no relation with labor-mixing, since one can own a piece of land and stop laboring on it, either by sitting on it or by hiring others to do it instead. This leads to rent and the inherent contradictions of “property.”

Proudhon was talking about the cultivation of land, but this rebuttal of labor-mixing applies to capitalist work contracts as well. From ethicist Brian Zamulinski:

Now, suppose that two people work together. Although it may be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the shares of the two in the product in practice, if people acquire property by mixing their labour with things, it must be the case that each owns a share proportional to the labour performed that actually went into the product. Otherwise, one is appropriating the property of the other.

If one of the two is the employee of the other, the problem is that the share that the employee receives will be determined not by the amount of labour he contributes but by competition with other potential employees, assuming that there is freedom of contract. Occasionally, he will receive proportionally more than he should but other times, he will receive proportionally less. The latter outcome will occur far more frequently than the former. Either way, the employee will almost never get what he deserves in light of the labour-mixing theory of property acquisition. It will be a fortunate accident if he does.

Zamulinski goes on to rightly point out that the end product of capitalist work contracts is incompatible with labor-mixing theory, and that in order to make any sense of their own position, capitalists must logically abandon labor-mixing as their justification for property. In this he again joins Proudhon. I don’t know if Zamulinski believes there is any valid justification for property, but Proudhon definitely did not, at least at the time he wrote Qu’est-ce que la Propriété? (his opinions did change quite a bit as his thought evolved).

No such thing as market failure?

The concept of market failure divides the two kinds of capitalists, the extremist capitalists (free market fanatics) and the moderate capitalists (or as they like to call themselves, the “progressives”). “Progressives” (a code-word for moderate capitalists) vaguely understand that the free market is suspicious, although they couldn’t tell you why beyond “because there are poor people and somebody’s responsible.” They believe that markets usually work but that they can experience periods of failure which are caused by monopolies or some other lack of competition, the free rider problem, externalities, lax “property rights,” and so on. Extremists, on the other hand, don’t believe in market failure; they do believe that lax “property rights” are bad for business, but that such a cause is not part of the market proper.

I should probably specify that I am using the term “markets” in the same way capitalists do, as an economic system where supply and prices are mostly fixed by giant corporations.

Why don’t they believe that there can be such a thing as market failure? Extremists believe that markets always “work,” and they determine that they “work” based on a view of trade in a vacuum. They posit a situation where a person X buys something from a person Y, person X having decided that ey would benefit from buying the object at that price, and person Y having decided that ey would benefit from selling the object at that price. The conclusion is that any trade is necessarily to the advantage of both parties, since value-judgment is subjective and they both subjectively believe they have gained from the exchange.

Obviously there is a great deal wrong with this picture. For one thing, value-judgment is not subjective and therefore one cannot conclude that a person’s opinion of their interests necessarily proves that they are acting in their own interests, since people can be mistaken about what’s in their interests. There is no clear reason to believe why our beliefs about our own interests must be infallible, which is the logical consequence of believing that value-judgments are subjective.

But by far the most important, you could say all-encompassing, problem with this scenario is that it posits that trade exists in a contextless vacuum. In reality, person X and person Y operate under pre-existing conditions which force them to a certain extent to act in certain ways. In reality, price is not determined by dialogue between two people, but usually by organizations of disproportionate power compared to any individual. In reality, a person’s value-judgments are distorted by the pressures operating on one’s life.

Let’s take one random, innocuous example, like a person deciding what kind of vegetables to buy at the grocery store. The price was not set by a dialogue, but by a group of people setting price points in accordance with policies enacted by their superiors. The “choice” of the customer is not based on some abstract comparison of preferences between that amount of money and the product, but is mediated by one’s economic status. It is also dependent on what stores are available to the consumer (if ey lives in a food desert, for example), on how much cooking one has the time to do, on dietary or ethical restrictions. Finally, the whole system is contingent upon the nature of the food supply, what the stores put on their shelves, marketing and consumerism, the exploitation of the workers involved in the food supply, the application of mass murder (e.g. the Chiquita Death Squads, the massacres involved in extracting the fuel that is used to transport the produce), and so on.

Taken to its logical extent, the context of any given trade is the totality of everyone’s work and of all relations between people, at the individual and the geo-political level. If you want to be poetic, you could say that any exchange embodies the entire world.

Let’s move on to a logical consequence of exploiting food for profit, which is starvation. According to the capitalist narratives, people deserve to starve because they don’t contribute enough value to the market through their labor. Of course this is completely false from an ethical standpoint: no one deserves to starve; but it is also false from a factual standpoint. In general, we observe that the return people get on their labor is not dependent on the value they contribute, but rather on education. People who work hard, who extract the resources upon which we all depend, make less. People involved in less demanding work requiring a high level of education, which can only be attained through privileged families or crumbs given by the privileged, make more.

I have argued so far that the narrative presented by capitalists to justify the contradiction of market failure is invalid, but I still don’t subscribe to the concept of market failure. To understand why, you simply have to examine what this term “market failure” implies. The word “failure” implies that there is such a thing as a “successful market” or “well-functioning market.” The extremist position is that markets are always well-functioning, the moderate position is that markets are well-functioning most of the time, and my position is that markets are never well-functioning.

The very nature of a market can be expressed succinctly as “profits before people.” The primary drive for economic activity is to generate as much surplus value as possible, and that our economic units are set up and structured with this goal as sole standard. And because in a capitalist society money is power and money is status, workers likewise value money over other people. As a consequence, modern capitalist markets are inherently, and virulently, anti-egalitarian to the point of slavery, mass murder and torture.

I have seen the objection that, while profit is important, it’s not the only objective one can have in a market. I don’t dispute that, but extensive practical experience around the world teaches us that any economic unit set up along socialist lines will rapidly drown or forever teeter on the brink of drowning. Acting ethically costs extra money, and extra costs cut into surplus value, which affects the viability of any business. The only way to flourish is to compromise. This is not, I think, particular to capitalism: I expect that trying to go counter to the values of a local economic system, whatever it is, would be very difficult; I imagine a giant capitalist corporation would fare very poorly in a society where economic equality is mandated and enforced.

Note that I am not making any argument about efficiency here, or trying to argue that capitalism represents efficiency and that socialism represents fairness (although I do think the latter is true). Competition as a driving principle is extremely wasteful, and capitalism is no exception to this rule:

Many goods and services once made in the US and western Europe for those markets are now produced elsewhere and transported back to them. That wastes resources spent on the costly relocation and consequent return transportation. The pollution (of air, sea and soil) associated with vast transportation networks – and the eventual cleaning up of that pollution – only enlarges that waste.

The factories, offices and stores abandoned by departing capitalist corporations increase the waste of resources and of workers’ lives. In the surrounding communities, tax bases eroded by capitalists’ departures mean reduced social services, public spaces, and qualities of life for all but the richest. Those vast wastes of resources and damages to lives offset whatever small efficiency gains corporate relocations only sometimes achieve…

Efficiency did not and does not deliver what its supporters claim. That is because efficiency was not and is not what drives capitalists’ decisions. The structure of a capitalist economy – exclusive power in the hands of major shareholders and boards of directors, competitions, tensions, and unequal resources among enterprises, shareholders, directors, managers, and workers – drives the decisions made by shareholders and directors. Those decisions primarily advance capitalists’ interests in greater profits, growth and market shares.

Within the totalizing worldview of the free market extremists, the free market is the ultimate solution to everything. These just so stories usually rely on a misunderstanding of the Tragedy of the Commons mixed in with starry-eyed fantasies about the intentions of business owners (i.e. that they pursue some other objective than profit). So we get told, despite all the contrary evidence of history, that the market can magically solve the problem of bigotry because there’ll always be some corporation ready to snag workers who are discriminated against and to offer them better working conditions, since corporations compete against each other for workers. The market can also solve environmental issues because corporations have an interest in maintaining natural resources, unlike non-market societies, where people just try to get as much money out of the resource before it’s depleted by everyone else (which actually sounds more like the way capitalism deals with natural resources than anything else that has ever existed in history).

From the extremist perspective, we have never had a free market because of State intervention, and this is a regrettable fact. From the moderate perspective, we have a free market but that freedom must be balanced with the needs of the State. Both positions are predicated on the error of believing that the market and the State have contrary aims. But the State is the handmaiden of the power elite, which is mostly composed of market leaders and policy leaders; their aims are not, on the whole, contrary. Political conflicts are almost alwasy between ultra-conservative and moderate conservative factions of the power elite (for more on this, see Who Rules America? by G. William Domhoff).

A free market, in the sense of a market being completely unregulated, has never existed and will never exist, since it would collapse into itself in short order. All modern large-scale markets crucially depend upon the infrastructure, the subsidies, the laws (including “property rights”) and the indoctrination provided by the State. This applies as much to the most abstract financial transactions as to two individuals exchanging an object for money, but obviously to the former to a much, much greater extent.

Cheerful submission to one’s enemies.

Above: Cheerful submission to one’s enemies.

People who have an attitude, not of humiliated submission, but of cheerful, willing submission, represent a strange puzzle which doesn’t seem to fit human behavior. But we know it does happen. Black slaves took sides with their master against other masters, and had lively arguments about it. Kidnapping victims can experience Stockholm’s Syndrome. So it’s not entirely unknown, but these situations are rather extreme.

But in the past decades it seems that we are seeing a surge in cheerful submission from people who are not in extreme situations at all, but rather in every day life. Two examples which come to my mind are the Tea Party and funfeminism. Despite being politically distant, these two movements have a lot in common.

1. Complete and utter failure to identify the enemy.

The Tea Party and funfeminists are absolutely unable to identify their real enemies, the people who do them harm or wish to do them harm. Instead, they point to straw men opponents: the Tea Party rails against poor people and “immigrants,” who have little to no power in our society, instead of the CEOs and other economic agents who seek to exploit them; funfeminism rails against radfem and other ideologies that are against female exploitation, instead of attacking the men who seek to objectify them. In short, my enemies are my friends.

[Pornography icon Jenna] Jameson comes to a very different conclusion than Farley. She writes, “Though watching porn may seem degrading to some women, the fact is that it’s one of the few jobs for women where you can get to a certain level, look around, and feel so powerful, not just in the work environment but as a sexual being. So, fuck Gloria Steinem.” One has to wonder how she puts it together this way. If she feels so powerful as a sexual being, why can’t she watch her own sex scenes? If her work environment is so satisfying, why does she say that if she had a daughter, she would lock her in the house before she’d let her get involved in the sex industry? Why does she refer to her vagina as a “ding-ding”? I’m not sure any of this is Gloria Steinem’s fault.
Female Chauvinist Pigs, p183

In some cases, the very concept of exploitation and objectification is so outlandish or passé to them that they could not recognize any oppression anyway; in general I find that this incapacity of connecting actions with ethics is true of any status quo ideology, not just those two (indeed they must disconnect the two if they are to rationalize their beliefs at all).

Both cases of ignorance can be explained by games conditions. Tea Partiers are mostly working class stiffs competing for jobs and promotions, and it’s not in their interest to fight against the source of their meager power. Funfeminists, like most non-feminist women, compete for male attention and credibility to the male gaze, and fighting against the need for male attention would go counter to their objective.

2. Misdirected jealousy/admiration.

Misidentification of the enemy entails a misdirection of our emotions. Lying to ourselves is a full time job, and in order to prevent relapse, we necessarily have to reverse the flow of our emotions: our praise must stop going to the praiseworthy and instead go to that which helps us cover up the truth.

Funfems admire women who are amongst the most dispossessed people in our societies (strippers, porn actresses, prostitutes, trafficked children), and refuse to help them on the grounds that helping people is arrogant, while they are jealous of the made-up power of radfem to dictate policy. Tea Partiers are jealous of poor people and “immigrants” for attacking the economy, despite the fact that these people have no power to change the economy.

Even though they seem absurd and irrational on the face of it, these emotional connections serve the main purpose of helping them hide the truth from themselves. Tea Partiers could not hold the party line (no pun intended) if they sympathized with poor people, and funfems could not keep being funfems if they wanted to help “sex workers” instead of admiring them for their “power.” So they have to keep looking away in order to maintain their lie.

3. The enthusiastic pursuit of their own exploitation.

This is mostly a corollary of the previous two points: if they are unable to identify exploitation or objectification done against them, and ally with those who exploit or objectify them, then they will enthusiastically pursue their own exploitation or objectification in the name of their own “freedom.” In short, slavery is freedom.

The word “freedom” is always interesting to analyze. In this case, it means that one can support the dominant paradigm. But this is trivial, since supporting the dominant paradigm will never be opposed by one’s rulers; it is always heterodoxy which needs to be protected and which must be granted the freedom to exist.

One does not need the “freedom” to kowtow to the male gaze, since such “freedom” is by and large accepted (except when it comes to prostitution). One does not need the “freedom” to enter in capitalist work contracts or manufacture profits for one’s bosses, because doing this is expected and encouraged. This is why the “freedom” that these people preach is a pointless dead-end.

4. They want to work the system to effect change.

Because they think and operate within the status quo, funfems and Tea Partiers cannot imagine working outside the system. This would require them to reject their own exploitation which, as I’ve already pointed out, they cannot do because that would expose their lie.

So you get the strange spectacle of self-professed rebels, who take the name of a group which today would be seen as anarchists or worse, trying to elect people to office. You get the strange spectacle of self-styled feminists who promote “feminist” objectification (including so-called “feminist porn”) and promote male violence against women to be the result of a woman’s “choice.”

Obviously there are big differences between funfems and Tea Partiers in other areas; for instance, the former are usually liberals and the latter are usually conservatives (although in both cases they tend to be less authoritarian than their respective political ideologies). But they share the attributes of other people who have right intentions but are unable to identify what is in their interests.

The unholy triad of the little god…

Image from Something Awful.

It is often said that all philosophical discussions eventually reduce themselves to the free will versus determinism debate. The same could be said about political discussions and the concept of self-ownership. But what is not often said is why that should be the case.

The importance of the debates derives from the fact that everything we think or do is at its core thought and done by human beings. This is a fundamental implicit premise of any philosophical reasoning, and the debates just make it explicit. We have two basic options: either human beings are “little gods” that self-generate everything, which means reality takes a back seat to human action, or human beings are engaged in a process of discovery and reality is primordial.

They are all part of what one might call (to borrow a Creationist term) “human exceptionalism,” the delusion that humans are somehow exceptional by being exceptions to natural law. “Mere animals” do not have free will, are not self-owners, do not construct their own morality, but humans do, somehow, in some vague, fuzzy way.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I call this mindset “self-generation,” and we can easily see how it applies to the three members of the free will/relativism/self-ownership triad (which I broached on in my earlier entry on free will as an ideological weapon):

* Free will can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate (“choose”) their decisions.
* Relativism can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate their morality.
* Self-ownership can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate ethics (“I own myself so I decide what’s right for me to do in society”).

What about God-belief? Some people include it as a primary element of the self-generation mindset, but I don’t think it’s primary. Every sect of Christianity has a different conception of what God is and how to follow God’s (subjective) laws, and which set of beliefs one adopts is purely subjective. Christian belief is relativist because the moral rules one adopts is not based on facts but rather on sectarian preference (not to mention that each sect has as much evidence for their moral position as any other).

So relativism is necessary before we even have a conception of God, at least in Christianity. As other thinkers have noted, relativism and subjectivism go hand in hand; a subjective moral principle is not likely to connect to any standard that transcends the individual point of view (e.g. to exhibit moral realism and not moral relativism).

And the Christian belief in God itself leads to belief in free will and self-ownership. An atheist may still hold such beliefs, but that’s usually because they’re holdovers from Judeo-Christian thought. Still, the possibility of a consistent atheistic adherence to the triad cannot be rejected, which means Christianity cannot be its fundamental basis.

Christianity is relativist in two ways. One is what I’ve already pointed out, that the sects’ moral principles are all equally valid on the sole basis of their supposed adherence to the Bible. The other is in the belief that God created everything, including morality. Whatever God decides is good, is good, regardless of existing facts.

Each element of the triad is dependent on the other two, so disproof of one of them casts serious doubts on the others. To take an easy example, when (not if) free will is conclusively disproven, Austrian economics, which for decades has been a major support for capitalism, will also have been conclusively disproven, since it holds “choice” as its foundation (see the Axiom of Human Action). Likewise, a radical position against self-ownership means that free will is rather unlikely, since self-ownership is predicated on (the self) being in control of one’s body.

In this way, it seems relevant to me that Wikipedia describes the sense of agency as being intertwined with the sense of (self-)ownership:

The “sense of agency” (SA) refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world.[1] It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is me who is presently executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts. In normal, non-pathological experience, the SA is tightly integrated with one’s “sense of ownership” (SO), which is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that one is the owner of an action, movement or thought.

The three concepts all depend on each other for justification, because they represent different interconnected facets of a coherent (if nonsensical) mindset.

I call the triad the “little god” because each of its parts involve giving humans some kind of element that goes beyond the natural world. When we look at the natural world, we come to certain moral or ethical conclusions, such as that genocide is evil. Indeed, most “little god” believers will usually agree with these conclusions. But when we apply the conclusions to their belief systems (for example, genocide in the Bible narratives), they balk and argue that God decided that genocide was good and that’s that. But for this new conclusion to also be true requires there to be something more than the natural world, some supernatural process or entity that can somehow overrides normal morality (in this case, God).

This sort of contradiction does not only apply only to Christianity, but to all forms of relativism. Take for example cultural relativism and its justification of atrocities such as footbinding, female circumcision, suttee or the Inquisition. Academics have an almost endless fountain of justification available to them (for examples, see Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly). And yet equivalent acts, but acts which do not perpetuate the status quo, would be considered atrocious by most, if not all, people.

Suppose, for instance, that gangs of theologians were going around torturing and murdering women, or that parents started chopping off their babies’ ears a few days after their birth. I’m pretty sure that everyone, except the offenders, would be outraged (when the police or jailers do the torturing, on the other hand, we’re not outraged because this maintains the status quo).

In the case of free will, the non-natural element is obvious: for there to be something contra-causal, there must be something non-natural, whether it is a soul or a quantum process in the brain (or some other kind of “pure randomness”).

God himself is said to have complete free will (but also omniscience, however that’s supposed to work), to be the supreme owner, and the ultimate relativist (whatever he says, goes). So he’s a perfect fit for the unholy triad.

The funny thing is that many people engaged in worshipping “little gods” insist that they are being “objective” (others, like New Agers, don’t really care and only want to indulge in their pretend divinity as much as possible). A lot of the demonization and political rationalizations going around actually exist to try to prove that the profound subjectivism of the triad is actually an inexorable law of nature or is based on laws of nature. So you get absurd positions which state that it is a law of nature that there is this domain (the human mind, morality, politics) where there are no laws of nature.

This then provides the opportunity for the “experts” to affirm the absolute truth of the lack of truth, the freedom of tyranny. Self-ownership “proves” voluntaryism, which “proves” capitalism, which “proves” the need for neo-liberalist policies (which crush the lives of the dispossessed around the world). Free will “proves” total personal responsibility, which “proves” the evilness of the dispossessed (poor, “immigrants,” people persecuted by the government, invalids, and so on), which grounds hatred against the dispossessed (for an example, here is an entry from Femanon discussing how this is applied to women). Cultural relativism “proves” the validity of evil cultural practices, which grounds implicit or explicit approval of those practices (said practices being mostly used against the dispossessed).

Another property they share is their chilling effect on scientific inquiry and intellectual curiosity. This is especially true with free will, as its proponents are outright hostile to the examination of the causes of human actions (especially criminal ones). Through voluntaryism, self-ownership blocks awareness of the effects of people’s “voluntary” actions on others. Relativism prevents one from examining the validity of other people’s moral principles and measuring them to ours. In all cases, we are enjoined to stop thinking and stop evaluating. We are invited to cheer for “freedom” and are told that anyone who objects to these magical, contra-causal ideas is against “freedom.” We are told that systemic analysis is intolerant and wrong, that only the individual creative intent matters.

So it’s important to keep in mind what these concepts lead us to. Free will leads us to pride, but it also leads to demonization and revenge. Self-ownership leads us to a feeling of control, but it also leads to voluntaryism and free market capitalism. Relativism leads us to tolerance, but it also leads us to genocide. In all cases the negatives are many orders of magnitude more important than the positives.

Contract theory as an attack against human rights

(above: a contract of indentured servitude)

Contract theory is at the center of voluntaryism. This alone should be enough to make it suspect. Strangely, despite its centrality, voluntaryists talk very little about the nitty-gritty of contracts and how they are to be enforced. Molyneux fans blather on and on about defense contracts as a substitute for law, but the enforcement and limitations of such contracts, which raise numerous questions, remain unexamined.

As I’ve pointed out in the case of the child renter argument and Block’s corollary, voluntaryists who uphold contracts as absolute must therefore reject the concept of human rights. This is a very difficult dilemma for them: either they reject human rights or they reject contracts as absolute standard. Voluntaryists fail to give a satisfactory answer to this dilemma, because they know very well that giving up either is the death knell for their beliefs.

Consider the concept of self-ownership, which treats living, thinking bodies as pieces of property. If something is property, then it can be given away or exchanged at will. But this must be done by contract, since any person could otherwise retract their agreement at will, since the person is the body. The contract provides a written binding agreement that continues to exist beyond consent.

The most obvious example would be the constitution of any country. Constitutions bind people who are long dead, and yet they are still assumed to legally hold today, despite the lack of consent from people currently living. The only way to make sense of this contradiction is to assume that citizens are, to some degree, property of the State through the expired agreement of “their” constitution. But this only makes sense to us because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe in self-ownership and in absolute contracts. In no other context would the concept of a constitution make any sense: as Lysander Spooner points out, most contracts we enter into are not this absurd.

Suppose an agreement were entered into, in this form:

We, the people of Boston, agree to maintain a fort on Governor’s Island, to protect ourselves and our posterity against invasion.

This agreement, as an agreement, would clearly bind nobody but the people then existing. Secondly, it would assert no right, power, or disposition, on their part, to compel their “posterity” to maintain such a fort. It would only indicate that the supposed welfare of their posterity was one of the motives that induced the original parties to enter into the agreement.

[T]hese men who claim and exercise this absolute and irresponsible dominion over us, dare not be consistent, and claim either to be our masters, or to own us as property. They say they are only our servants, agents, attorneys, and representatives. But this declaration involves an absurdity, a contradiction. No man can be my servant, agent, attorney, or representative, and be, at the same time, uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me for his acts. It is of no importance that I appointed him, and put all power in his hands. If I made him uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me, he is no longer my servant, agent, attorney, or representative. If I gave him absolute, irresponsible power over my property, I gave him the property. If I gave him absolute, irresponsible power over myself, I made him my master, and gave myself to him as a slave. And it is of no importance whether I called him master or servant, agent or owner.

Lysander Spooner, The Constitution of No Authority

The notion of a contract, while not by far ideal, is not in itself absurd; the union of contracts and self-ownership is what leads to absurdities. It led to the belief, which has only recently been dispelled, that marriage contracts make uxorial rape logically impossible. It leads to the belief that work contracts make all sorts of attacks against human rights valid, and the belief that the social contract (as instantiated by the Constitution) makes assault and murder valid, although as time goes on, the range of possible attacks gets narrower.

If this reminds you of the way Christians approach the Bible, that’s no coincidence. The more that permissible contracts lag behind social mores, the more incentive there are for legal reforms, just like how religious doctrines get progressively left behind as social mores change. Sexual harassment used to be an accepted (implicit) part of a work contract: nowadays, not so much, because sexism is somewhat more toned down from where it was a hundred years ago. In the case of political crimes, it’s hard to say that there’s really been any progress, and that’s because people still have as much faith in the law and law enforcement as they did a hundred years ago, a faith which is not always extended to corporations.

So contracts-as-ethics is ultimately a subjective standard. The more self-ownership we grant people, the more human rights we imagine them being able to surrender, and the fewer human rights we will see as absolute. The less self-ownership we grant people, the less human rights we imagine them being able to surrender, and the more human rights we will see as absolute.

This may seem counter-intuitive because it goes counter to the capitalist way of thinking, with which we are indoctrinated and therefore seems intuitive. The standard reasoning is that self-ownership is the basis of rights, and that therefore both are proportional. But this is usually an ad hoc rationalization: the more we see people respecting each other, the more we arbitrarily assume that self-ownership is granted. Logically, this makes no sense. Slavery and other attacks on basic rights can only make sense if we first assume that bodies are a kind of thing that can be owned, a property which can be trespassed upon.

Likewise, the marriage contract have supported the enslavement of women for centuries. For more on the relation between marriage contracts and other hierarchical forms of contracts, see The Sexual Contract, by Carole Pateman (I haven’t yet read it, so I won’t comment further).

Voluntaryists sussed out a long time ago that full self-ownership should mean that people can sell themselves into slavery. This conclusion is distressing to most of them, so they have concocted various rationalizations to get around this. But this does not improve the situation, since virtually all attacks on human rights are not outright slavery, but rather degrees of slavery (if we use “slavery” in the more colloquial sense of one person having control over what another says and does). While rejecting slavery contracts, voluntaryists cannot get themselves to reject work contracts or social contracts, demonstrating their failure to grasp the commonality between all these contracts.

Can contracts be a valid means of formalizing agreement? Sure, but we have to introduce issues of consent. Consent cannot exist unless viable alternatives exist as well. Much like we shouldn’t evaluate individuals as if they lived in a social vacuum, or evaluate actions as if they took place in a causal vacuum, a contract can not, and should not, be judged in a vacuum, but rather must be contrasted with the institutions that sustain it. A contract may or may not be valid in itself, but if these institutions do not provide or allow any alternatives, then the contract cannot possibly be justified.

Suppose a group of equals come together and decide on how they are to live. They may decide upon something like a constitution, and this form is not necessarily problematic, as long as every person bound to it consents beforehand. But when such a constitution is applied to people who never consented to it, and provides no other choice, then it cannot be justified (the work contract, on the other hand, is in itself invalid because of its illogical nature).

Values are sacrifices.

All decisions have opportunity costs. Values, since they inform our decisions, therefore have opportunity costs through the decisions they inform. To take a simple example, the fact that I want to sleep when I am tired prevents me from staying up and doing other things. The fact that I value sleep, therefore, entails opportunity costs. Not sleeping would lead to a different outcome, but this outcome is lost because I judge it less desirable.

This may seem blindingly obvious but seems to be lost when we enter the realm of the abstract. Intellectual cowards refuse to confront the act of valuing and its consequences. They act as if values are essentially arbitrary and irrelevant to real life.

In that way, they act like religious people, who distinguish themselves from others by believing in this or that obscure theological principle. To the religious, values are arbitrary and irrelevant to real life. It really makes no difference when baptism should be performed or how much traditional interpretations of the Bible should be trusted. None of these things matter in real life. They just exist to maintain divisions between sects and to preserve a sense of identity within them.

Essentially they believe that professing a value is an issue of personal taste, and that our actions should be “pragmatic.” So they set up a dichotomy between valuing, which is purely in the realm of the imaginary or the personal, and actions to achieve those values, which must be “pragmatic” and be subject to no values, which in practice means that they should be subject to the standards of social success (whatever sells, whatever convinces, whatever can be said in public, no matter how false it is).

We observe this in organizations which supposedly pursue egalitarian ends but which do so in a hierarchical way. That is my main target here, and for good reason: a lot of arguments hinge around it, because practice is the best evidence we have of workability. And most of the time egalitarians don’t even try to prove their point by constructing egalitarian organizations, which shows their lack of commitment.

This also applies in economics. A capitalist organization is by definition one which is optimized for profit-seeking. By definition, a socialist organization cannot be optimized for profit-seeking. To claim that a socialist organization can compete, or should be able to compete, with capitalist organizations in a capitalist economy is to not understand what the terms mean. It is a deficit in understanding. By their very nature, socialist organization cannot outcompete capitalist organizations. To hold the value of equality means to reject the benefits of exploitation, and capitalism is predicated on exploitation. In order to win in capitalism, you must exploit the labor of others in many different forms.

The argument that socialism fails because socialist organizations cannot compete at the same level as capitalist organizations is a tautology: no organization can “succeed” within a given incentive system if it pursues a completely different standard of “success.” So what? That’s as trivial as telling us that a marathon runner will not win the 100m dash. Why should we expect otherwise? A capitalist organization would fail, too, if it had to meet the incentive systems of socialism. I can guarantee you as much.

Does that mean capitalism is inferior? Not in itself, no. All it means is that capitalism, like socialism, implies a certain set of values, and that an incentive system which does not reward those values will present a daunting obstacle. Capitalism is inferior because it operates on the basis of non-human values (like the profit motive and market forces) and causes widespread misery, not because it “works” or doesn’t “work.” Pragmatism is a piss-poor standard of truth. Systemic analysis is a much better standard.

I’ve talked about organizations, but the same thing applies to individuals. At the root of this fallacy is the belief that the “end justifies the means.” I discussed how this is part of the manichean worldview. Egalitarians who treat interpersonal relations as a struggle will tend to dissociate means with ends. They will preach cooperation but act competitively.

The opposite of “the end justifies the means” is “practice what you preach,” i.e. honesty instead of hypocrisy. Practicing what you preach is a great deal harder than dropping your principles whenever they become inconvenient, but it’s the only way to bring about what you want. We prefigure the new society, first in the imagination and then in reality, by representing its principles as closely as possible. Selling equality or peace by showing yet another example of hierarchy and competition in action gets us no closer to a peaceful world, because that’s what everyone else is already doing. If hierarchy and competition was the key to an egalitarian and peaceful world, the world would already be egalitarian and peaceful.

You can’t go half-way. If you believe in something, then cherish it and bring more of it into the world. If you don’t believe in something, then don’t bring more of it into the world. Bringing something into the world in the name of its opposite is just retarded.

Answering objections to Intellectual Ownership.

By Nina Paley.

Three years ago, I published an entry about a system of royalties based on socialism, which I called Intellectual Ownership, in contrast to Intellectual Property. In the IO system, content creators receive a small percentage of the sale price of whatever product uses their content (whether it’s a new factory process or a book). If there’s no sale price, there’s no royalty. So IO supports pirating, sharing of information, and so on.

I thought IO would be pretty uncontroversial. Stephen Kinsella published a completely content-less entry against IO, but I just saw this as more of his usual bluster. However, I recently checked his entry again and noticed something new: he told Nina Paley about it, and added her criticisms to his entry. I did not see this part the first time, so he must have added it later on.

Well, I was thrilled that Nina Paley knew about my entry (long-time readers may notice I’ve featured quite a bit of her artwork these past years). She is a known antinatalist and a strong advocate of the sharing of information. I support her completely. So I didn’t really expect her to criticize my position. However, she did, so I want to address this criticism, with all respect to Nina Paley and her tireless work, since unlike Kinsella (who is about as intellectual as a trout with a brain defect) she actually raised some important points.

Here is the relevant part:

As my C4SIF colleague Nina Paley noted to me:

Whaa? How exactly would the ”added cost of the innovation itself” (?) be controlled, enforced, etc.? Looks like it would require a ton of surveillance. … I definitely mind the implication that a surveillance state is a “solution.”

“The only limitation is that the cost-price must be raised by a certain percentage, reflecting the added cost of the innovation itself. In the case of artistic works, this percentage might be up to 1%, but in the case of innovations, it would be a range something like 0.1%-0.01%, the specific percentage in each case depending on how significant the improvement is.”

And who is going to decide “how significant the improvement is”?

The IO system is a system where using other people’s innovations is encouraged, not forbidden. Instead of locking it in with patents and copyrights, it is made available for a small percentage of the sale price. I gave the example of 1% for artistic works (such as the contents of a book) and 0.1% to 0.01% for technical improvements. I freely admit that these percentages were pulled out of my ass, and are only meant as examples. I don’t know what the actual percentages would be in reality.

Paley argues that the implementation of a royalty system such as the one I envision would require a surveillance state. The use of the word “state” is unfortunate here, since I am an Anarchist and don’t believe any economic function should be in the hands of a state. As a libsoc, I believe that such function would, like most institutions in a libsoc society, be undertaken by federated groups of free individuals.

Even if we exclude the “state” issue, Paley also believes that such an institution would entail widespread surveillance. I don’t really understand why this would be the case. After all, we are talking about detecting something that is in mass production or used for mass production, unlike pirating which, in the West, takes place on a small scale. I don’t see how this would entail more surveillance than, say, keeping tabs on work conditions in workplaces or preventing fraud in production and distribution, which are things that we need in any large-scale (i.e. non-face-to-face) economic system.

Paley’s second objection is more potent, although her question is strangely constructed. Answering any question about “who” would ascertain innovation costs presumes a profound knowledge of a global libsoc economy society which does not currently exist; at least I am not aware of any past or present libsoc system where this issue has been raised. In a federated libsoc system, I think that workers’ councils would be interested in resolving these issues in a global manner, perhaps by appointing neutral arbiters who would make these decisions under a set of objective rules.

Presumably Paley is not here asking for names, but rather is asking “how” the innovation costs would be determined, what objective rules would be followed. The issue here is one of relative importance. To a book publisher, the writer is of prime importance: no writer, no book. To the worker on a factory line, the invention of a new robotic arm is important but not nearly as important as the writer is to the publisher. The publisher is very much dependent on the work of the writer, and the factory worker is not as dependent on a new robotic arm being installed in eir factory.

It would be equally silly to go in the opposite direction and argue that the writer should get all the money, since ey also depends utterly upon the publishers to translate eir work into tangible goods. Likewise, the machine innovator depends on the workers to make use of eir innovation.

There is always the danger of such a system becoming legalistic, so simple rules should be adopted as much as possible. In practice, a ladder of percentages would probably be the most handy solution, especially if it lets producers figure out immediately how much of the sale cost they must set aside to pay for IO purposes.

There would also be a time limit on royalties, as we have now, and a public domain like we have today. Anyone who wants their work to be part of the public domain would still be able to do that.

Finally, I want to point out that the IO system is an addition to my egalitarian economic ideas, not meant to be implemented in today’s society. It assumes that we already have a society where everyone receives an equal part of society’s production because every person’s labor is necessary for every other person’s labor. Innovation is necessary, and therefore should be rewarded, but it’s more than that. Everyone’s labor is usually a tiny margin on everyone else’s labor, but innovation is different from that: it often represents a huge addition to a wide range of productive activities.

In our current capitalist system, I would rather see no IP or IO, rather than IO. I also find that IP is always reprehensible, whatever the economic system. So I agree with Nina Paley on that issue. The rest, I think, is mostly details.

“Property rights” as pseudo-rights.

Above: a fence in the middle of a field that separates part of a field from another part of a field. They are obviously completely different.

I’ve discussed in the past how property is a nonsense concept. In this entry, I want to concentrate on the notion of “property rights” as the economic foundation of capitalist theory. Property rights are taken as a given, but they really are not. The fact is that property rights as we understand them are designed to further the interests of the rich minority (especially business owners), and there’s no particular reason why they should. Many different ownership systems have existed throughout history, and new ones have been conceived and tried out with success.

[D]efinitions of ownership and theft tend to be thought of as straightforward, even natural. But they are not. They are, rather, the product of human decision. That decision operates to give special protection to just those types of ownership (or putative ownership) that are crucial to economic stratification… Indeed, this was the more or less explicit intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. As Noam Chomsky and others have discussed, James Madison viewed the property rights of the “opulent minority” as threatened by the masses, and thus as requiring particularly stringent protection.
The Culture of Conformism, p15

Now, what is the foundation of “property rights”? Where do they come from? Capitalists will give various answers to this question.

The most popular foundation is self-ownership (the bizarre circular belief that the body is a property of itself). I’ve already extensively debunked the concept of self-ownership. I’ve also pointed out that proving “property rights” with self-ownership is a circular argument, since the concept of self-ownership itself is based on the concept of property.

But even if we ignore these fatal problems, how do we pass from self-ownership to property rights? It is argued that if we own our body, then we also own what that body produces. But surely this is grossly inadequate as a justification of “property rights” as they exist today; for one thing, “property rights” are routinely applied and enforced on natural resources, which are not the product of any body. But also, this does not address all “property rights.”

“Property rights” are divided in three category: usus, fructus and abusus. Usus contains the rights regarding usage, such as inhabiting a house or an apartment. Fructus contains the right regarding the products of that property, such as the fruits of a tree or the crops gathered from a piece of land. Abusus contains the right to dispose of a property, such as selling, modifying, destroying, etc.

If we accept the reasoning from self-ownership, then we can make sense of usus and fructus, but not of abusus. After all, most capitalists do not believe that we have a right to sell our own body into slavery, for example. Many also do not recognize a right to suicide, especially conservatives. But if self-ownership excludes abusus rights, then how can abusus rights be derived from self-ownership? There is a logical problem here.

One may sidestep the issue by stating that the kind of ownership in self-ownership differs from the kind of ownership we establish with “property rights.” That’s fine, but then in what meaningful way are “property rights” derived from self-ownership? Logically, the fact that one owns one thing does not imply that one owns, or even can own, anything else. So self-ownership in itself doesn’t logically imply the concept of property.

One may then reply that self-ownership does imply property because we need property in order to survive. We need food, lodging, cleaning, and so on. We must, or so goes the argument, hold things as our property in order to use them in these ways. We have a right to life and, in order to maintain that life, we need “property rights.”

But again, this does not prove all “property rights.” You can hold and use an apple without selling it or destroying it (that is to say, making it unusable). You can live in a house without selling it, modifying it significantly, or destroying it. So again, abusus is not proven here, and it is a necessary part of “property rights.”

Not only are “property rights” not needed to affirm any right to life, but “property rights” are at tension with the right to life. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the contradiction between the “property rights” of Big Pharma and the “right to life” of people in the Second and Third World. Let’s look at the root cause of this tension.

Consider that “property rights,” by their very definition, are an absolute limit over the implementation of all other, real rights. I’ve made the point before that the right to life is meaningless without the right to health care and other life necessities, that the right to assemble is meaningless without a place to assemble in, that the right to free expression is meaningless without the tools of that expression, that the right to justice is meaningless without the means to be treated as an equal, and so on. All “negative rights” necessitate “positive rights” to be meaningful at all, including material ownership. And “property rights” make it so that this material ownership is contingent, contingent upon a multitude of factors: who you were raised by, the kind of education and work you were able to get, and so on.

Not only that, but “property rights” also dictate how this material ownership becomes concentrated into a small number of hands. The two biggest influence on this are the lack of limits on the amount of land or property one can acquire (so that one person can buy more than his equal share) and, most importantly, the private ownership of the means of production, by which the owner can extract surplus value from his workers with the help of the extensive structural crippling executed by the State. But this is not new; for centuries, “property rights” have explicitly been used to protect the moneyed minority against the anger of the destitute majority (when they talked about the “rights of minorities,” they were talking about the rich, not black people or natives, who were considered subhuman).

If a small percentage of people have most of the wealth (in the US, the top 1% controls 35% of the wealth and receive 20% of the income, while the bottom 80% controls 15% of the wealth and receives less than 40% of the income; the picture is less dramatic but similar in other Western countries), and we live in a society where wealth determines material ownership, and by extension rights expression, then we should expect such a society to be stratified, and for some to have more rights than others. Furthermore, we should expect many in the bottom strata to have very little to no rights at all.

Note that it does not matter what the power elite claims is the case. We are told that all citizens have equal rights (never mind so-called “immigrants” and children, because they still aren’t considered fully human). Yet in practice we know this is false, to a large extent because of material inequality within countries and around the world. Many people don’t have access to adequate food (six million children die annually of starvation), housing (homeless persons die 22 years younger), or health care (ten million children die annually of treatable diseases), or are forced into substandard food (junk food), substandard housing (“ghettos”) or substandard health care (so-called “alternative” medicine). All children are deprived of education, but some have access to better schooling than others, pushing them towards success or failure. The judiciary system in most Western countries, unlike other judiciaries, is explicitly set up so that rich people and majorities have a clear advantage, both in the structure of the police and courts, as well as in the laws themselves (looking at the kind of crimes that are punished, as well as the kind of crimes that are given much lower punishments or no punishments at all). Workers who have to sign work contracts in order to make a living must agree to have some of their most basic rights violated, in some cases to a point where they are made basically slaves (people from Second and Third World countries are “imported,” then their means of leaving are taken away from them). Religious fanaticism, bigotry, homophobia, racism and sexism can make many people’s lives a living Hell and deprive them of their right to liberty, freedom of thought, and the pursuit of happiness, partially through refusing them access to good-paying jobs, inheritances, the ownership of property, and other ways to access wealth. This is just a very short list, obviously, as the number of ways in which people are deprived of rights or given inferior status are pretty much limitless.

Since people must fight against “property rights” to maintain their livelihood and their dignity (as the Zapatista and other indigenous people have clearly demonstated), there cannot be such a thing as “property rights.” A “right” which supports aggression against other people’s rights is not a right at all.

The legitimacy of “property rights” is only maintained by the pretense that because anyone can, in theory, own property, therefore “property rights” are egalitarian. But this is incredibly flimsy grounds on which to exploit and oppress people. Anyone can, in theory, become a CEO- does that mean corporations are egalitarian? Anyone can, in theory, win a fistfight or a duel- does that mean “punching rights” and “shooting rights” are egalitarian? Anyone can, in theory, write a novel or produce a song- does that mean “IP rights” are egalitarian? Anyone can, in theory, follow “the right god”- does that make religion egalitarian? Anyone can, in theory, be a perfect parent- does that make the child-parent relation egalitarian?

“Property rights” are not only not egalitarian, but they are the primary source of inequality, and therefore of unfreedom. As I’ve argued before, all hierarchies are property.


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