The belief that freedom and equality are at tension, or even opposed, is a pretty common belief amongst non-Anarchists. I must say, to my great discomfort, that I used to believe in the false dichotomy of the individual versus society as well. And then you get the rabid capitalist saying things like “fuck society,” as if he could live without society!
The fact of the matter is that, and capitalists should know this as much as anyone else, our production is directly and utterly dependent on the production of tens and hundreds of thousands of people in one’s own society, and by indirect extension the society as a whole. Our production literally cannot exist without everyone else’s. So anyone who says “fuck society” is either not conscious of what he is saying, or literally prefers, for some reason, to become a hermit (in which case there is not much stopping him).
We cannot lead a flourishing life without some form of society. That is an ironclad fact! Human nature makes us crave company and support, because the human animal needs company and support in order to ensure his survival. The same is true for a great number of animal species on this planet (on the biology of mutual aid, see Mutual Aid, by Kropotkin).
So when the capitalist refuses to acknowledge the stake that society has over everything he does, as well as the fact that he only really contributes a sliver of the total productive power necessary for any of his products, he is being illogical. When we separate something from the rest of society for our own exclusive use, we are being illogical.
The reason for the false dichotomy between freedom and equality is pretty simple. It arises because capitalists claim that the foundation of freedom is the concept of property rights, but property rights are inherently tyrannical and anti-equality. Let’s examine, from this article against anarcho-capitalism, the contradiction in Rothbard’s own words:
For example, leading “anarcho”-capitalist Murray Rothbard thundered against the evil of the state, stressing that it “arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area.” Then, in the chapter’s endnote, he quietly admitted that “[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc.“
“Just property” meaning, I assume, property that is acquired in accordance with property theory, not in accordance with justice. Either way, one other thing I should mention is the part just after the first Rothbard quote, where he also says: “If the State may be said to properly own its territory, then it is proper for it to make rules for anyone who presumes to live in that area.” This only illuminates the self-contradiction further. If it is immoral for a government to “arrogate to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area,” then it is equally immoral for Smith or Jones to do the exact same thing.
Rothbard’s reply, obviously, would be that Smith or Jones acquired their property “properly,” and the government did not. But to the Anarchist (at least, any Anarchist who actually believes in Anarchism and is not merely an apostle for the voluntaryist tyranny), this makes absolutely no difference. It does not matter if the boot at your throat was stolen or bought “properly.” It also depends on a person accepting capitalist property theory, where any amount of land can be owned without any occupation or work whatsoever, something which is very counter-intuitive and not at all natural.
As for the argument that one may change owners, this has as little weight as the argument that anyone who disagrees with a government should leave its territory. The existence of other governments or owners, and the fact that one can pledge allegiance to them instead, does not refute the immorality of one government or owner, or the immorality of the government system or of property rights: when allowed, it merely alleviates some of its excesses.
The freedom of the voluntaryists (who often claim to be the “true capitalists”) includes the “freedom to exploit others.” But that’s not a freedom, any more than killing or hurting others is a freedom. It is an invasion which must be repelled.
Of course the statists use (and have always used) this as an argument for the continued existence of poverty, unemployment, filling up jails, and so on. We need these things to exist because freedom requires a certain level of inequality, you see, and those unemployed people should be happy that they are free to choose the kind of work they’re not allowed to do, instead of being forced into the kind of work they’re not allowed to do. O hallowed liberty!
Let us look, therefore, at the reality. People say things like “government gives us freedom.” But this is almost trivially false. We are all born with freedom, and a man isolated on a desert island, while being unacceptably poor and stranded from his fellows, is also absolutely free. Suppose a small group of human beings were raised, somehow, alone on a desert island. The actions they could perform are much narrower in scope than that of you or me, but the possibilities they would face would be almost endless compared to ours. We want the best of both worlds: we want freedom and we want possibilities.
It is therefore almost an axiomatic fact that freedom can only be hindered by some exterior determinism. How can such a thing be prevented? Obviously there will always be aberrated people who will try to exploit or hurt others. But the more power and authority we vest in structures that are foreign to us, the more possibilities we give to these aberrated people (those who are most likely to be attracted by the lure of power and authority) to exploit and hurt us. Inequality between individuals, coupled with the existence of hierarchical mechanisms that can be used to oppress, necessarily lead, in the immediate or the longer term, to exploitation and oppression. The principle that inequality breeds oppression, and that equality prevents oppression and thus preserves freedom, is our basic principle linking equality and freedom.
Government does not preserve freedom by enforcing laws that ostensibly “protect our rights.” There is no possible way for a government to protect rights, since enforcing any rule on people without their consent and with overwhelming force is itself a direct attack against their rights. Speaking of one’s rights in the absence of consent is nonsensical, since the concept of self-defense (using violence in order to protect one’s self, whether bodily or as extended into society) is fundamental to the idea of rights, and self-defense is obviously a creation of the self, a self-determined action, not that of an exterior determinism. Same for the idea that we “delegate the enforcement of our rights to the government,” which can only be true in the presence of consent.
More importantly, it is impossible for a government to “protect rights” because they are innate. The only thing a government can do is suppress their expression through violence, intimidation and indoctrination. They could only support their expression if they took their marching orders from the individuals they supposedly “serve,” but we know this is always a utopian assumption to make about any hierarchy. No hierarchy does anything that its leading members do not believe is in their interests as a class.
Property rights present another powerful case. Giving some people exclusive ownership over what used to be a commons, and then renting it to the people who were expropriated, in short to attack individual freedom, also creates extreme inequality, generates both masses of poor and new rich supporters of the regime. This has been observed all throughout history, in England and its colonies, in America, and everywhere where capitalism has dominated. People who are naturally free have their freedom taken away by a hierarchical mechanism (in this case, the acquisition of property) and now depend on that same hierarchy and that same mechanism for their salvation.
Obviously, there is no state of affairs in which freedom is never hindered anywhere. But the degree to which freedom can be hindered in a society is proportional to the degree of inequality in that society. An equal society promotes the fullest possible degree of value-expression.
One may not express such crude views as “fuck society,” while still rejecting the idea that society is important. Certainly many people believe that society is nothing but a group of individuals, just as a forest is nothing but a group of trees. This view is, of course, correct, but does not refute the existence of forests or societies. The fact that all production is, after all, the production of individuals, does not refute our dependence to that production. In fact, acknowledging the emergent nature of society can only lead us to value it more; if we value every single individual, then we should also value the extension of their self towards others, and therefore society, which is nothing but the union of all of these extensions, if we’re going to be logical about it.
All major Anarchist writers, from Spooner to Bakunin, have a deep respect for the relation between individual freedom and social autonomy. Benjamin Tucker’s concept of “equal liberty” is a particularly eloquent demonstration of this, his belief being that we should first seek to put everyone on the same level of liberty, and then maximize that level as much as possible.