Category Archives: Anti-capitalism/usury/STV

Why couldn’t a forest own itself?

I’ve talked a great deal about the incoherence of the concept of self-ownership and how it’s a self-serving belief used to further capitalist aims. Here I would like to talk about how self-ownership rhetoric can unwittingly be used to attack capitalism.

My line of reasoning began when I learned about a very special tree. There is a tree in Athens, Georgia, the only one in the world as far as I know, which is a “self-owner.” Not only that, but it also owns the piece of land it lives on. Since it is the son of the original “self-owning” tree, people call it “The Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.” For the sake of clarity, let’s call them both SOTs (self-owning trees).

The Wikipedia page opines:

This does not confirm that the tree owns itself, but suggests, rather, that it is considered to be within the right-of-way along Finley Street. Athens-Clarke County confirms that the tree is in the right-of-way, and is thus “accepted for care” by municipal authorities… Regarding Jackson’s deed, one writer noted at the beginning of the 20th century, “However defective this title may be in law, the public recognized it.” In that spirit, it is the stated position of the Athens-Clarke County unified government that the tree, in spite of the law, does indeed own itself.

This may just be a “cute” footnote to local Georgia folklore, but seen from a political perspective it does present some interesting questions.

“Property” is really two relations: a relation between two sides, owner and owned, which we could call a claim, and a relation between the owner and the other individuals in that society where the latter agree to respect and uphold the claim. Without either of these two relations, property cannot exist.

According to self-ownership rhetoric, however, we can just forget about the first relation because “owner” and “owned” can be equated. If this is true, then, from this perspective, “property” can only be a relation between that person or thing and the rest of society. If other people recognize and respect a property claim, then that claim is valid. And in reverse, if the property claim is not recognized, then the claim is invalid.

If this is true (and I am not saying it is, obviously, since I don’t believe in self-ownership), then the SOT in question is actually self-owning, because its claim is recognized by the individuals in its society. The law is, as in all things, an indication but not a definitive answer: an unenforced law has no relevance due to that lack of enforcement, and a belief enforced without or against law (as in this case) gains relevance from that enforcement.

One may answer that this recognition is facetious and could be withdrawn at any time, but I fail to see how this does not equally apply to human beings. After all, we withdraw our belief in other people’s self-ownership constantly (for example, when we throw them in prison, force them to go to school, kill them in wars, etc), and most people praise these events. If this does not nullify self-ownership in humans, why should it nullify self-ownership in trees?

On what other basis should we disqualify trees from “self-ownership”? That we need to cut them down, and therefore cannot afford such tenderness of heart? But there are plenty of people who defend human sacrifice, and who would accuse egalitarians of being namby-pamby. So again, no significant difference there.

Is it that trees do not have a “self”? I have yet to hear any account of the “self” in “self-ownership” that doesn’t either degenerate into “the body owns the body” or veers into metaphysical nonsense. If advocates of the concept can point to a “self,” and can explain why their particular conception has any relevance to the discussion, then we shall see.

But suppose that non-human organisms, such as trees, can indeed own themselves, as I think the SOTs has demonstrated. Then the link between self-ownership and rampant capitalism is cast in even further doubt than previously.

Our “normal” perspective on “self-ownership” is that only humans can be “self-owners.” That’s because “self-ownership” is a self-serving construct meant to reinforce the notion that humans are at the apex and “nature,” that which is outside of us, is inherently inferior and should serve our needs. As God stated to Noah and his family, all green plants are their property and everything that moves is for eating: the only difference now is that we’ve replaced the religious Bible with a secular “Humans’ Burden.”

In capitalism, the natural world only gains any sort of value at all through an alchemic transmutation called “mixing one’s labor,” or “transformation.” The message here is clear: nature itself is only valuable insofar as it serves human values. This is the same rationale of exploitation that the elite uses against women, workers, children, POC, and so on: you are valuable only as long as you serve our interests.

The concept that a tree could be an owner is ridiculous to us because we’ve been raised with the elitist Western notion that humans are separate from the rest of nature, that humans (especially white adult males) are “intelligent” in a way that no other part of nature can be, that trees, like all other “natural resources,” exist solely for our benefit.

I was driving through the English countryside with my daughter Juliet, then aged six, and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wildflowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer: “Two things,” she said. “To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.” I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.
Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

Sure it’s easy to laugh it off as childish ignorance, but she’s just regurgitating what she’s been taught. That’s the worldview we’ve all been indoctrinated with, and it’s the worldview that’s leading to the squandering of the resources of this planet and the extermination of hundreds of species every year.

Defining fairness.

It has been well established at this point that fairness is a basic human moral intuition, which also exists in other primates. This has been demonstrated by applying the Ultimatum Game (where one person is given the choice of how to share a certain amount of money with another person, who is free to then reject the offer and void the reward for both of them if ey is unsatisfied) to a wide variety of human cultures and to other primate species.

What these experiments do show is that while the exact definition of fairness is culture-dependent, it exists everywhere. Furthermore, it’s been found that the more a species cooperates with non-kin, the more extensive their concept of fairness becomes, showing the evolutionary basis of this behavior.

So far so good. But how do we get from something simple like sharing 100$ between two people to a social framework of what’s fair and what’s not? How do we get from “meat is shared amongst all the hunters” to “we should have a higher minimum wage”?

I want to start with one specific example of a debate around fairness in order to try to see how to articulate it: wages and prices. I think this is close enough to the Ultimatum Game, and yet it is a strictly modern, capitalist sort of debate.

We get people who say things like: the market price for labor is necessarily fair, because you can only determine the value of anything through the exercise of offer and demand. I have already debunked the Subjective Theory of Value, which is just subjectivism writ large. So the latter half of the statement is simply false.

But let’s go further. People who defend the fairness of market prices argue that any government intervention distorts people’s choices and returns undesirable outcomes. But corporations also intervene in prices, and distort people’s choices all the time. The difference, we are told, is that the government acts coercively and corporations are market agents just like you and me.

This of course is bullshit at many levels. But it also links us to the narrow meaning of political words. Any definition of fairness which consider anything beyond coercion as fair is limited to fairness1, and is therefore too narrow for our purposes.

Like any other socio-political word, we have to examine how narrowly it’s used. And through this process, we can connect fairness to all other socio-political concepts like freedom, equality, justice, tyranny, and “choice.” A person who thinks market processes are a guarantee of equality will have no problem saying that market prices are fair. A person who sees equality as an equal ability to live and express one’s values will see market prices as ridiculously unfair.

The intuition of fairness has existed for millennia before the advent of capitalist markets, and there’s no particular reason to believe that markets are necessary for it to be expressed.

If we move further away from resources and into social power, the principle remains roughly the same. Is affirmative action fair? Are women’s rights fair? They are certainly not fair1, but there’s no particular reason why we should care about that. If we translate social power into a tangible resource like money, then I think we get a general correspondence with issues like labor price and taxation.

The general consequence of considering only the most narrow kind of fairness (the absence of physical coercion or threat) is that only policies which extend the status quo are “fair.” The enormous amount of coercion deployed to protect property rights and State interests is omitted because this protection does not count as coercion in our societies.

Because fairness is a basic human intuition which permates ethics, all political views must have some conception of how fairness should be expressed in society.

Based on his conceptual analysis, George Lakoff defined two basic political models: the strict parent model and the nurturing parent model, associating them with conservatives and liberals respectively. To this I would add a third model, the anti-parent model, as exemplified by Anarchism in general, democratic schools, worker self-management, federated communities, and so on (I have an entry coming at a later date detailing this alternative moral framework).

Now compare this with a poll made by intuitionist Jonathan Haidt comparing fairness as proportionality (“you should get what you deserve”), fairness as opportunities (“everyone should have an equal chance to succeed”) and fairness as equality (“ideally everyone should have the same amount of money”). He found that the first was held mostly by conservatives, the second was held mostly by liberals, and the third was held by neither. Actually, I think the third is probably mostly held by people who hold to the anti-parent model.

“You should get what you deserve,” in practice, often ends up being “you got what you deserved.” “Everyone should have an equal chance to succeed,” in practice, often ends up being “you had an equal chance to succeed, you loser.” In short, these conceptions often end up used as reasons to beat up on those less fortunate… and that’s pretty unfair, if you ask me.

I would not exactly qualify myself as believing that everyone should have the same amount of money, or that money is the primary criterion by which we should evaluate the goodness of a life, although it’s obviously of great importance in a capitalist system. True, money is an important form of power, but an unfree society is bad for everyone (except the power elite) regardless of how much money you have.

I’ve commented many times before that negative rights, rights for something to be protected, are useless unless they are accompanied by positive rights, rights to access resources. The right to stay alive is useless without the right to access health care, for example. This concept of access, I think, provides us with an entryway into “fairness.”

I would like to define three principles of fairness, in order of depth, which I think encapsulate my anti-parent model concept of fairness very well:

1. Basic rights fairness: That all should have viable access to the resources necessary for their life as modern citizens (food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, transportation, electricity, sanitation, etc). This would require a major overhaul of the capitalist system, but is not inherently contradictory to it.

2. Power fairness: That there should be no hierarchies unless they can be justified by a greater good (the Chomsky Principle). This would require a major overhaul of all institutions, and it’s unrealistic to think that any existing power structure would voluntarily do this.

3. Generational fairness: That we should be fair to future generations as well, by not destroying the environment they are going to live in. This would basically require a miracle at this point.

Arguments against the free market.

UPDATE: Due to an influx of trolls from I don’t know where, I have to close the comments section.

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Milton Friedman is quoted as saying that “[u]nderlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” If we keep in mind that for free market advocates the term “freedom” only means the absence of force, or freedom1 (for those who don’t know my nomenclature, see this entry for explanation), then the quote makes a great deal of sense. I argue against the free1 market and I do indeed lack belief in freedom1. But this very abstract conception of freedom is so impoverished that its continued use as a valid political framework begs credulity; it has about as much to do with politics as alchemy has to do with science.

Like freedom1, the free1 market is a theoretical, idealized construct which reflects a very narrow view of power. A free1 market is an economic system where individuals perform voluntary transactions to their mutual advantage, free from government regulation and taxation. The model of human behavior underpinning this idealized structure is that of the Invisible Hand, which was expressed by Adam Smith as such:

Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The Invisible Hand model can only obtain if a number of prerequisites are true: first, that everyone is self-interested, second, that there exists no sources of power above and beyond that of individuals (such as governments or corporations) which can be exploited for personal gains that are against public interest, third, that all trades are inherently beneficial for both parties, fourth, that competition is the most efficient way of structuring the interplay of self-interested individuals.

All these prerequisites are patently invalid. It is not true that everyone, or even most people, are self-interested, which is to say, only consider their own values as relevant to an ethical problem. Apart from some Objectivist droids and sociopaths, self-interest is pretty universally vilified and considered abnormal, as it should be. Self-interest is a very low level of moral development and it makes as much sense to posit universal altruism as it does to posit universal egoism.

The second prerequisite is especially problematic, since free1 market proponents believe in corporate power, and corporate power depends on government for enormous subsidies of infrastructure, favorable regulations and laws (including protectionism and immigration), money and protection of private property (i.e. of the means of production). Both forms of power are therefore always available for people in a free1 market to exploit for personal gain, bypassing the benefits to the public interest which are supposedly brought about by unfettered trade.

The third prerequisite is only true if we look at the issue from a superficial, voluntaryist point of view. Of course there is a mutual benefit in the sense that both parties to a trade have agreed to make the trade and therefore believe it’s better than the alternative. But this can only be convincing if one sees any given trade as existing in a vacuum. I’ve already argued against this over-simplified view.

As for the fourth prerequisite, competition is the most inefficient way of structuring production, motivating people and fostering creativity. This is a result confirmed by so many studies that it is an ironclad fact of sociology (see No Contest by Alfie Kohn for a summary of these studies).

This leads me to the first argument for free markets, which is that markets allocate resources efficiently. All free market arguments are wonderful examples of projection, and this one is no exception. I can’t think of a more inefficient system of resource allocation than one where everyone’s effort is duplicated endlessly in the name of “competition,” where resources are transformed to maximize profits instead of use value, where there is unemployment and wasteful production, and where natural resources are so drastically wasted. It’s hard to conceive of a workable economic system more inefficient than capitalism (although some forms of capitalism are far more wasteful and inefficient than others).

The second argument for free markets is that central planning is inadequate in gathering and using information due to its top-down nature, and the free market is somehow superior in its supposedly decentralized nature. Again this is pure projection, as free1 markets are a form of central planning: the corporation is the unit of planning and information is gathered within them on a top-down basis. In fact, the corporate structure have been compared to communist organization: both are rigid hierarchies made to benefit an elite at the expense of the common people, property is owned by the collective (the corporation as “person”), and no corporation uses market processes to allocate resources within itself but rather allocates resources top-down based on profit-maximization.

I’ve pointed out that the famous story I, Pencil, by Leonard Read, is actually the best argument for socialism that I’ve ever seen. I, Pencil relies entirely on demonstrating that any single person’s production is at best a marginal addition to everyone else’s production. Therefore any individual producer is largely indebted to, ultimately, eir entire society of co-producers, and the capitalist conception of property as individualistic is nonsensical.

The third argument is that free markets promote innovation and scientific research. This is pretty laughable given how much disrepute corporate-funded “scientific” research has fallen into. As for innovation, well, as long as we have Intellectual Property that pretense will remain equally false, although I think free1 market advocates are pretty divided on that issue. It is at least a good argument against the free market that it is the antithesis of responsible scientific research (for more information, see Trust Us, We’re Experts!, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber).

The fourth argument is the belief that there is a fundamental equality in a free market, at least in the sense that no one can set prices or impose regulations that are unwanted by others. This strange belief is the result of anti-government sentiments, but makes little sense in a system where corporations actually do set prices and impose their own regulations through State power. Of course free1 market advocates are against State power, but without a State corporations would simply fill the gap with their own self-regulating institutions. There’s no reason to think corporations wouldn’t have a common interest in banding together against labor power just because there’s no State.

Even from a capitalist standpoint, the free market is not effective at profit-seeking. Isolationism and high tariffs grow stronger corporations, free markets do not. In fact, free markets have historically been, more often than not, imposed on vassal States by imperialist States as part of a global strategy of economic domination and control.

Another popular argument for free markets is the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” the debunked myth (said debunking winning someone a Nobel Prize) that resources held in common will be depleted rapidly as people only seek their self-interest (another free market myth) and will seize everything they can. The historical reality is the exact opposite: commons of natural resources have been far more stable than privately-owned natural resources, which have been typified by rapid depletion and “tragedy.”

But despite these known facts, free market advocates continue to brandish the “tragedy of the commons” myth as if it was established scientific fact and proof positive of the superiority of free markets. The truth is actually a powerful argument against free markets: free markets are terrible at resource management compared to commons, because of the unaccountable, total control inherent to private property.

My position on the minimum wage.

The minimum wage debate is framed by the media as a battle of ideas between conservatives, who believe that poor people are responsible for their condition and basically deserve to die, and liberals, who believe that the minimum wage should be raised so income inequality can be somewhat stemmed. These two positions set the margins of discourse in our societies.

Both sides of the debate share some major assumptions:

1. They both believe in the “virtuousness of work”; that working is inherently good and not having a job is a situation to be remedied or a personal dysfunction. From an Anarchist standpoint, the desirability of work is highly suspect; in a capitalist society, work is inherently demeaning, alienating, and serves to enrich the elite of society at the expense of the workers and unemployed.

2. Wages are rewards for having a job, not a right. Apart from general grumblings about unemployment, we don’t hear much about the right to a job, let alone the right to a wage. Wages remain controlled by the economic elite and the minimum wage is really the only restriction on that control.

3. They think minimum wage is about teenagers, but three-quarters of minimum wage earners are not teenagers (admittedly, it’s mostly conservatives who posit this).

These assumptions have profound consequences on how people relate to work:

* Unemployed people, whether by choice, by handicap (physical or mental), or by “the market,” feel guilty. The only possible consequence of this unearned guilt is a lowering of one’s confidence and a lesser enjoyment of life. Guilt cannot give someone a job, therefore it is uselessly destructive.

Not only that, but there’s no reason why anyone should feel guilty from not working. Of course they may feel anxiety due to financial stress and that’s normal, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with not having a job. Why should one feel guilty at not being made into a “human resource”?

* Wages are set according to “offer and demand,” which really means set according to the power wielded by each party. Owners offering a job for which a lot of people compete have the leeway to offer low wages, because they hold the power.

* Owners of the means of production steal a profit (because it is theft, not production, I would not say “make a profit”) by lowering costs and/or raising prices. The most important category of costs is wages. If forced to offer higher wages, owners can generally get away with offering fewer jobs or raising prices.

Conservatives claim that the minimum wage lowers employment, while liberals claim that the minimum age has little to no effect on employment for various reasons. Either way, the unbiased, objective evidence for a link between minimum wage and employment is spotty at best and is usually based on bad science. Various reasons have been proposed to explain the lack of correlation.

Small increases may have no effect or such a small effect that it’s swallowed up by normal fluctuations. But a small increase in the minimum wage, while beneficial, would not solve the problem of inequality.

The 15$ living wage proposal would be a substantial income equalizing policy, even though it wouldn’t be accompanied by a strict reduction of income for the rich. The problem I see is that such a large increase would have a substantial impact on employment, putting workers between a rock and a hard place.

The minimum wage debate, like the other debates I’ve discussed previously (abortion, gun control, immigration), is a distraction from the real issue; in this case, the real issue is control over jobs. The capitalist elite always seeks greater profits, and these new profits can only be achieved by raising prices, which hurts the working class the most, or cutting costs, which means lowering wages/benefits or hiring fewer people.

There is no permanent solution to poverty and inequality possible until we reject the doctrine of private property of the means of production. The push for a higher minimum wage benefits us, but any debate about minimum wage laws which does not set this as the ultimate goal of any legislative measure wastes revolutionary energies. That’s why we need to put this fact at the front and center of the debate.

Why has the concept of self-ownership persisted?

I have extensively covered how self-ownership is irrational and contradictory (see here, here and here). In this entry, I am concerned with why. Why has the error of self-ownership taken such an importance in Western thought?

If any study can tell us this, it must be the study of our mental frames, which reveal the hidden structure of our thoughts. We mostly think in metaphors because abstracts can only be understood by referring to direct experience (e.g. we understand TIME as MONEY, as a VALUABLE COMMODITY, as a LIMITED RESOURCE). I think the way we Westerners metaphorically grasp the concept of the self is the source of the error.

Let’s start with the concept of ownership, since it’s less abstract and simpler than the concept of self. Relations of ownership are taught to us as a part of life from childhood and they are very easily understood. They are an integral part of metaphors we use about objects and resources (such as TIME IS A RESOURCE, where we say things like “you are wasting MY time” or “I don’t HAVE any time for you”), such a mundane part of them that they are usually not even worth mentioning.

Ownership, I think, is a basic physical experience shared by most humans, which has as part of its prototype:

1. Ownership takes place between two entities, an owner and an owned.
2. The owner is a single person.
3. The owned is a single material object.
4. The owner has direct physical control over the owned.
5. The owner can exclude others from controlling the owned.
6. The owner came to acquire the owned through legitimate (legal) means.

Now when we talk about the prototype of a concept, we’re talking about the mental image we have of it, not a definition. For example, a robin is closer to the prototype of birds than a penguin or an ostrich.

A prototypical ownership relation would be one between a hunter and a spear, or between a farmer and a house. These examples follow all five points I’ve listed. Other relations only follow some of these points. For example, ownership of common land by a town or community fulfills 4, 5 and 6, but not 1, 2 or 3 (except if you take into account the metaphor LAND IS A CONTAINER, which turns a piece of land into a singular object, which fulfills 3).

I think 4 and 5 are probably the most important prototypical elements, because it is in terms of exclusive control that most people formally define property.

Now, we do have the experience of ownership (toys, pets, etc.) at an early age…

My property is something I control. Because it is mine, I don’t have to beg permission of anyone to use it. There is no hindrance to my use of it. But what is not my property typically belongs to someone else. If I want to use it, I must beg another for permission.

According to the linked article about the Stoic conception of self, the self is a property owner, and the objective of the individual self is to not desire anything that is not its property (e.g. things that are not choices, desires or aversions), so as not to be in a position of weakness (lack of self-control).

This brings us to the concept of the self. According to Johnson and Lakoff in Philosophy in the Flesh, the primary fact we need to understand about the self is that we understand it in terms of a metaphor of a relationship between two people. There is a fundamental dichotomy between the subject and the self: they are the metaphorical equivalent of two wholly different people. The relation between the two can be adversarial, parental, friendly, or authoritarian, but in all cases “I” does not equate with “my self.”

This has profound implications for our understanding of the self. For one thing, it is the only way in which “self-ownership” can make any sense at all. Equating the subject with the self nullifies any possibility of framing the self as a relation of ownership, since that implies two different entities.

Going further into the nature of the self, Johnson and Lakoff identify three main metaphors used to understand the self specifically: SELF IS A CONTAINER (e.g. “out of your mind,” “take a good look at yourself”), SELF IS A SERVANT (e.g. “I don’t know what to do with myself”) and SELF IS A STANDARD (e.g. “be true to yourself”).

Let’s start with the more basic metaphor, the SELF IS A CONTAINER. As a CONTAINER IS AN OBJECT, this leads us to the conclusion that the SELF IS AN OBJECT. I think this leads us pretty directly to the notion of the soul, if we add to the mix the Christian notion of life after death (which the body, being corruptible, obviously can’t join).

More importantly, it leads us to a relation which almost perfectly fits our prototype of ownership: there is an owner (the self, which is both an object and “me” at the deepest level) and an owned object (the body/subject), total control (of the self over the body), compete exclusion (only one self can exist in any given body, barring things like DID). I’ve pointed out before how this is wrong, so I am not going to repeat it here.

The other two metaphors may seem to contradict, at first glance. But Johnson and Lakoff point out that they pertain to different things. When we say “I don’t know what to do with myself,” the “myself” refers to the physical body. But when we say “be true to yourself,” the “yourself” refers to some inner voice or thought, not to the physical body.

Of course the former is perfectly in line with the bizarre relation of self-ownership (body as servant-being, thing that is owned). And I think that in the latter there are definite connections to the soul (as an incorruptible part of us that is connected to the supernatural realm) and to the conscience, the secular equivalent of the soul (as a moral standard that one should follow).

It’s blindingly obvious that we urgently need updated metaphors to understand the concept of self, because our current ones do us a great disservice. The concept of self-ownership has been a great and destructive error in Western thought, and has provided theoretical impetus for capitalism and neo-liberalism.

I think that to counter this, we need to present two complementary accounts of the self: one of the self as social agent (in order to dispel the myth of vulgar individualism), and another of the self as not being controlled (in order to dispel the myth of self-control).

I am no linguist, but here are two ideas in this vein. One is the metaphor of MIND IS A RIVER. Like the waters of a river, thoughts flow outside of our control, and we are only riding on them. We can talk about the speed of this flow (slow or fast thinking), the depth of the river (depth of ideas), the clarity of the river (clarity of a person’s reasoning). We can also use the metaphor to illustrate the relation between the stream of thoughts and the conscious mind through the relation between a person and the river.

Another metaphor could be that of SELF AS A PLANT. This is not perfect by any stretch, but I think we can get a lot of mileage out of it. Like selves, plants depend on their environment to come into existence and flourish: like humans, they are not self-made. Furthermore, researchers have been discovering that plants communicate with each other in a wide variety of ways (chemically in the air, underground, and by sound), which could emphasize the need for cooperation between human beings.

These are just some suggestions I came up with. Post in the comments if you can think of better metaphors.

Impositionists and their problems with consent.

In this entry, I want to make some general observations about some common characteristics that impositionists seem to share. When I say “impositionists,” I am referring to people who hold to an ideology which explicitly advocates imposing harm.

Invariably they have reasons why such imposition is just or reasonable (e.g. innate evil or sinful nature, innate gender, the innate stupidity of children and other species, might makes right, etc). I do not care about these reasons, or at least not in this entry. All I will say is that only the limit cases (e.g. saving someone’s life by pulling them out of harm’s way) have been proven justified; every systemic imposition of harm in our society is blatantly unjustified. Of course they don’t really care about justification anyway: harmful power has no motive to deconstruct itself, only its victims do.

* They have major issues with consent.

My first issue is that of consent. Consent is a vitally important topic because it represents the bare minimum standard that must be met by any action for it to be non-coercive; advocates of most ideologies are keenly interested in portraying them as non-coercive for the same general reason as advocates of some pseudo-science want to portray it as scientific: being explicitly unscientific or coercive is considered bad form in this day and age.

So again let me list the criteria for consent to be present. First, the obvious:

1. There must be a clear signal of approval of the action.

This is merely a slight extension of the standard definition. And now, for the corollaries:

2. If there is no signal that one or the other party would accept as a refusal (no alternative), then there can be no signal of approval either, and no consent.
3. A signal of agreement given where there is a credible alternative, but said alternative is not viable due to pre-existing conditions, is as invalid as one given without actual alternatives.
4. Any signal of agreement given under a threat of force is the product of duress, not approval, and is therefore not consent.
5. In a situation where one of the parties cannot communicate, there can be no consent.
6. If the signal of agreement cannot be given prospectively (i.e. to the action itself), then there is no possibility of consent for that action.

I would say that all impositionist ideologies break at least one of these principles. Before I get into examples, I do want to point out that probably all these ideologies fall into most categories I’ve listed, and when I say that a given ideology breaks a particular point, I am not by any means implying that there’s nothing else wrong with its attitude towards consent.

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* Most religions heavily rely on childhood indoctrination in order to propagate. This breaks point 3, as childhood indoctrination is most definitely a “pre-existing condition” that makes alternatives (to belief in the religion one was raised in) non-viable. A person cannot be meaningfully said to consent to anything that they’ve been indoctrinated to believe (e.g. we don’t say a cult member consented to the hardships of being in a cult, such as false imprisonment or human trafficking).

The religious call it “freedom of religion.” They are incapable of explaining how being indoctrinated and peer pressured into a religion which keeps you in by threatening eternal torment has anything to do with “freedom.”

* Genderism is similar to religion in that it’s indoctrinated from the youngest age, and therefore there cannot be any freedom to live without some conception of gender, gender hierarchy and gender roles (which are all the same thing). It’s equally meaningless to say that the performance of gender is consensual, in any form.

* Statism always assumes that anyone born within a nation’s borders “implicitly consents” to whatever the State makes into law. As a citizen, you simply have no means to signal disagreement with the law, breaking point 2 (prejudice against prisoners would also enter into this).

Yes, I know, the standard argument is that voting is the signal of agreement. But that’s not really true, is it? Otherwise non-voters could veto any law applied to them, which obviously does not happen.

Another argument is that staying in a country is the signal of agreement to the laws of that country. But we don’t use this “go away if you don’t like the rules” in any other context. Either way, it’s only further proof that there’s no means to signal disagreement (compare to telling a child “you can’t get beaten by your dad if you just run away!”).

Related to statism is imperialism and neo-liberalism, which follow the same general pattern, except applied to other countries. You will be liberated whether you like it or not; consent is always assumed.

* Capitalism relies on pre-existing conditions for its docile workforce (poverty, expensive education, creation of artificial unemployment, need for medical insurance in the US). It is therefore part of point 3. The conditions that make capitalism possible (property rights, money system, corporatism) are set by States, so what I’ve said for statism applies here as well.

The usual sort of reply you get to capitalist consent issues is that no one has to take any specific job. That may be so, but it doesn’t provide an alternative to capitalism. Faced with the massive inequality, environmental destruction, human rights violations, objectification, servility and conformity inherent in capitalism, it’s natural to want alternatives. People do not naturally want to work for other people’s profit margin or to have no control over what they produce.

* As a way of often dealing with having limited possibilities (or no possibilities, in the case of trafficked women) within the capitalist system and often as a result of parental abuse ingrained in the personality, prostitution is also part of point 3.

* Natalism, insofar as it assumes consent to being born where consent cannot be obtained, breaks point 5. The usual natalist answer is that we should assume implicit consent because it’s necessary in order for them to experience the pleasures of being alive (compare with: brown people implicitly consent to us “liberating” them and will be happy later, after we’re done killing them).

But mostly natalists just don’t care about consent, because they assume that the impossibility of consent is a carte blanche to do anything you want, which is absolutely illogical and delusional. Impossibility of consent basically means you are not allowed to do anything, because consent is, again, the absolute bare minimum criterion.

* Pornography and BDSM both fall under point 6: they both pretend to be concerned with consent and contracts, but only prospectively, which means that there can be no agreement on specific acts.

Advocates would, I suppose, argue that a contract is enough agreement to signal consent to any act that’s part of it. But if you sign a contract to perform a series of acts, and then no longer wish to perform one of the acts but are coerced or intimidated into performing it, that’s rape pure and simple. No contract can contradict this fact.

* Misopedia and carnism, two ideologies which posit a hierarchy where children/other species occupy the bottom rung, both partake of point 1, because they just don’t care if children or other species consent. The “lower intelligence” argument supposedly justifies exploiting children and other species. Guess who gets to define intelligence? Adult humans, of course. Surprise, surprise.

When you do point out to misopedists and carnists that they are simply ignoring consent issues, they will use the “lower intelligence” argument to posit that children/other species cannot consent, therefore justifying coercion against them. Again, this is logical nonsense.

***

I cannot think of a single ideology which explicitly creates harm and does not also attack consent in some way. This is not too surprising, as they are also all hierarchies, hierarchies set people apart as superiors and inferiors, and inferiors cannot have the same freedoms as their superiors; a child cannot have the same freedom as a parent, a cow cannot have the same freedom as a human, a sub cannot have the same freedom as a dom, a worker cannot have the same freedom as a boss. There must be some imposition, and that imposition cannot be consensual (the superior-inferior relation is based on obedience backed by power, not consent), for a hierarchy to be maintained.

Note that you could do this same analysis with the term “scientific” and show how various pseudo-sciences line up.

What is the perspective on consent from their perspective? One credible model was made by Tom W. Bell and is called the “scale of consent”:

Now, from a rational standpoint, only the very first item on this scale- “negociated exchange”- is actually a form of consent (“standardized exchange” implies giving consent prospectively, which breaks point 5), so the idea that the top half represents different forms of consent is complete bullshit. “Negociated exchange” is basically consent, the rest of the top half represents all the non-consent that impositionists claim as consent.

If we look at this scale, not as any sort of truth, but as a tool to help us understand how impositionists think, then I think this scale can be used as a complement to my list of points. It’s basically a chart version of the impositionist’s rationalization playbook.

For example, consider “custom” as signal of consent. That is an exact description of cultural relativism and how it provides support for customs such as female genital mutilation, suttee, foot-binding and prostitution, to name only those. It is assumed that because it’s “their/our culture,” that the issue of consent is automatically resolved.

Granted, proponents of cultural relativism would not state outright that they think there can be no consent issues. Rather, they would say that we, as outsiders, have no grounds to criticize the practice, but this really amounts to the same thing; we are after all talking about harmful, non-consensual practices, and therefore suppressing criticism about them is the same thing as evacuating consent issues.

The concepts of “standardized exchange” and “consent per past agreements” are often used to justify rape, especially spousal rape. Marriage is supposedly a contract which grants mutual sexual ownership, and therefore spousal rape is seen as just sex. It’s also often argued that past interactions justify sexual demands (you made out with me, so you should let me fuck you).

Likewise, “hypothetical consent” is reflected in many different areas. Take the natalist justification “the vast majority of people are happy, therefore anyone would want to be born.” That’s purely hypothetical, since there’s no way to gauge a state of non-existence: anyone who is happy also exists, and has vested interests in being optimistic. It does not mean that e.g. a hypothetical person in Rawls’ Original Position would always want to come into existence. In fact, it seems more likely (from the antinatalist perspective) that a fully informed person in such a position would decline existence.

* They refuse to quantify the risk of harm.

Impositionists have to ignore the harm their ideology causes because that would mean they are cheering for the perpetrators, not the victims, which is why they have to claim victimhood in any way possible. Statists build up the big bad leftists and Anarchists as their persecutors, capitalists scream about the “entitlement” of poor people, the religious demonize anyone who stands in the way of their pseudo-moral agenda, parents claim to be slaves to their children, and so on.

Related to this fundamental dishonesty is the fact that impositionists refuse to quantify the risk they are willing to impose on others. For instance, I asked anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates to quantify the risk they bring about, and very few even tried. Of course they cannot, for doing so means no longer ignoring the harm their ideology causes.

I admit that asking such a question puts the person between a rock and a hard place: who wants to say they want such and such number of children to die as a result of their cause? But if you have this problem, why do you believe in an ideology that entails the death of children in the first place? Shouldn’t that make you think?

The quantification of risk can, and should, be asked for all ideologies which promote harm. For instance, here’s one that has been asked about pornography:

And a serious question for porn users in general: what’s the maximum percentage of risk you’re willing to accept that the scene you’re getting off to has a performer who was coerced into participating, who couldn’t consent to participating, who was forced to perform acts she was uncomfortable with or explicitly barred, who didn’t consent to the distribution of the material? Give me a number.

But we can make similar questions for everything else, too. In all cases, what we’re trying to find out is: what’s the point where the implementation or fulfillment of the ideology entails just too much harm? And most importantly, how do we determine that point?

That would be the start of any real discussion on the ethicality of harm and risk. But impositionists will not, and probably cannot, have such discussions (feel free to prove me wrong!).

* They treat people as means to an end.

This can be deduced easily from what I’ve said so far. Impositionists see other people, especially their inferiors, as resources to be controlled (non-consensually) by a hierarchy to achieve some level of control over society. Impositionists see harming other people as a tradeoff, that it’s okay to do so in the name of some higher goal, which is really some level of control over society. All of that is very anti-freedom, anti-individual and anti-human.

If there is any ethical principle that should be obvious, clear and basic, it is that we should not treat other human beings as means to an end. It is the most basic form of egalitarianism that one could conceive.

* They all fail the Chomsky Principle.

I’ve discussed before what I call the Chomsky Principle, that we should in principle reject any hierarchical relation or structure unless it’s proven to be justified in some way.

[T]he basic principle I would like to see communicated to people is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified- it has no prior justification. For instance, when you stop your five-year-old kid from trying to cross the street, that’s an authoritarian situation: it’s got to be justified. Well, in that case, I think you can give a justification. But the burden of proof for any exercise of authority is always on the person exercising it- invariably. And when you look, most of the time these authority structures have no justification: they have no moral justification, they have no justification in the interests of the person lower in the hierarchy, or in the interests of other people, or the environment, or the future, or the society, or anything else- they’re just there in order to preserve certain structures of power and domination, and the people at the top.

Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power

“Communism has been tried, and failed!”

A common, popular line of argumentation against communism (some might say, the end of all discussion about communism) holds that communism has been tried and failed, so we shouldn’t talk or think about it any longer.

I guess what we’re butting against here is good ol’ pragmatism. As for any other pragmatic argument, we must first ask: on what standard(s) are we to evaluate whether it “failed”?

If the standard for “failed” is that it no longer exists, well, communism still exists in some places, therefore communism has not yet “failed.”

If the standard for “failed” is that it does not raise the standard of living for people (by which I mean not just economically but socially as well), then communism “succeeded,” because it did raise the standard of living in the USSR. Indeed, when communism ended, the standard of living dropped.

If the standard for “failed” is that it has killed millions of people, then capitalism and democracy have also “failed.” The Black Book of Communism states that 94 million people died due to communism (a questionable claim in itself); the estimates of capitalism’s death toll is estimated at one billion plus, not counting all the deaths caused by neo-liberalism around the world. But who’s counting?

Is it that communism was “defeated”? Well, democracy in Ancient Greece was defeated by the Roman Empire, so democracy is a “failed” system and we should not talk about it any more. We should immediately replace all democratic governments with autocratic governments. Right? Well obviously that doesn’t work, because democracy is “good.”

What about Christianity? Christianity is responsible for countless deaths, including the Inquisition, the native american genocide, and the persecution of the Jews. Christian doctrines were used to fight against measures which raised the standard of living for all, including abolitionism, feminism, gay rights, abortion, and so on. Christianity, as an ideology, reforms itself very slowly and is always behind the times.

Granted, Christianity has not been defeated yet. It is still very much a force for evil around the world. But it will not survive forever (unless we exterminate each other in the centuries to come).

The fact is that no system of thought is eternal. And how do we deal with transformation and renewals? Capitalism and democracy have both gone through a number of iterations, adapting to the exigencies of successive eras (e.g. classical liberalism, imperialism, fascism). So has anarchism, for that matter.

Anarchism of course has been suppressed by States on many occasions and therefore has “failed.” But it still exists, has raised the standard of living for people whenever it has been put into operation, and has not killed as many people as either capitalism or communism. So by these standards, anarchism is more “successful.”

But either way, what does it matter? Pragmatism is not a fair standard of evaluation of anything, because, as in this case, it is based on some implicit, unquestioned standard of “working.” People want to talk about communism being a “failure” as a way to shut down discussion about it. It connects with our mainstream desire for “success” in all domains: who wants to be associated with “losers”? Radicals are less likely to care about “success” or “failure” and to care more about ethical principles.

I would go beyond the principle that no system of thought is eternal, and say that no principle at all (including this one!) is eternal. A principle may be formulated to hold true in a wide variety of contexts, but it is generally not made to be true in all possible contexts. This is true even in science, where even the most stable principles of physics break down near Planck time.

Comparing self-ownership and self-objectification.

A discussion in the comments between myself and cyanidecupcake led me to consider the differences between self-ownership and self-objectification.

Ownership is, fundamentally, a relation between one individual and society as a whole regarding control over some man-made object (ownership cannot logically be derived from a state of non-ownership, therefore it is logically impossible to justify ownership of natural resources). Using the power inherent in society, we all make a deal that anyone who tries to usurp that control may be violently stopped. Depending on the scope of the control, we may call this system property, rent, commons, and so on.

Objectification means to abstract human beings as purely physical objects of desire, and to evaluate women based on the sole standard of how much they fulfill socially constructed male desires, a process which we call the male gaze. In short, it separates oneself as a subject and the other as an object, as long as one sees oneself as a human being. Objectification is a process which inscribes itself within Patriarchy as a form of devaluation of women and exploitation of women’s bodies.

At first glance, there does not seem to be any connection between the two concepts. But remember that I argued that hierarchy is property, and the Patriarchy is, amongst other things, the expression of gender hierarchy, meaning that men as a class claim ownership over women as a class. This claim used to be legal and literal; nowadays in the Western world it thankfully has no more legal status, although we still operate under most of its corollaries (e.g. the rape culture, pressure to marry and have children, near-universal objectification).

I’ve already extensively discussed self-ownership, so I will not start another such discussion here. Self-ownership, briefly put, is the logically impossible concept of a human being owning emself, and is used to justify property rights and the absence of positive rights (therefore the absence of actual rights for the individual, since actual rights require positive rights) under ideal capitalism.

Self-objectification is the result of an individual woman integrating the male gaze and adapting herself to its requirements. This means that the woman starts seeing herself as an sexual object and evaluating herself based on the fuckability mandate.

Because objectification is a class phenomenon, self-objectification arises because women are told how to conform through a mediation system composed primarily of parenting and its gender mania, the mass media and its constant objectification, and authority pressure. These factors are all consistently far more oppressive than the society they exist in, because they all have vested interests in preserving gender roles, even if there may be disagreement on how exactly those roles should be apportioned.

Further muddling the issue is that self-objectification in a patriarchal society creates its own reward system (secondary gains for being an obedient inferior).

I bet there are plenty of women who have, from time to time, felt flattered by a look or compliment in the street. There are many more who have felt threatened, unsafe, and angered by being yelled at out the window of a passing truck or stared down on public transit. Whatever Lees feelings and experiences are is fine — what isn’t “fine” is to write an entire article about how great being objectified makes her feel without acknowledging that these feelings aren’t about “mating calls” so much as they are about patriarchy.

Being admired by men for one’s own body can be very gratifying, but it comes at the price of one’s full person (including one’s desires, feelings and intelligence) being rejected. This is a no-win situation for all women: the women who actively pursue the male gaze cannot win because they will never be recognized as full human beings (no matter whether you’re a porn actress, a scientist, or prime minister), and the women who do not pursue the male gaze cannot win because they will automatically be classified as marginal. This is a crummy game where the table is rigged and the dice are weighted.

Competition between women is another obvious effect of self-objectification. If the individual woman is an object and the role of that object is to attract male attention, then other (self-objectifying) women are necessarily competitors. And this will be magnified in male-dominated areas, the areas where women need to cooperate the most.

This leads me to market competition. Women already start at a disadvantage, since they get paid less and are generally seen as less competent than the men in their field. I have little to add on these topics that hasn’t already been said before.

But there’s another issue, and here is where self-ownership and self-objectification join up. If we understand self-ownership as an economic process (I look at myself as an object which produces and is controlled by that process of production), then we can understand that we’re simply looking at two facets of objectification: the human being as a sexual object (object of desire) and as a commodity (object of profitability).

As a worker, you are conceived as a resource (a “human resource”) which must be exploited optimally in order to generate a maximum of profits. As an individual, you must internalize this conception and see yourself as an object of profitability in order to appear valuable to your employers. Failing to do so means you are more likely to lose the game.

Permit me to extend this reasoning even further. As some readers may have noticed, evolutionary psychology is one of my pet topics when we’re talking about explanations for human action, and I think it’s relevant here as well.

I have already pointed out that evopsych is incompatible with individuality, because it is predicted on the (unjustified) assumption that the individual is merely a vehicle for genetically transmitted behavioral strategies which are hardcoded in every human brain. The individual, in this view, is not an active subject but a passive robot, as Richard Dawkins eloquently tells us:

We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.

This is an extremely bleak view of human existence. It’s also inaccurate. For one thing, sequences of genes are not selfish, or even entities for that matter. For another, there is a gigantic leap between the fact that certain sequences of genes have an extremely tenuous connection to the organism’s survival and stating that our identity revolves around preserving genes. We are blindly programmed survival machines, sure, but that has little to do with preserving genes.

According to evopsych, men are programmed to objectify women and cheat on them, women are programmed to be attracted to men who have more resources, men and women are programmed to seek different kinds of work, and so on. It universalizes the worse of conditioned Western gender roles as innate human impulses. As I see it, the psychological objectification inherent in evopsych leads to justifying sexual objectification and commodification as well.

Incidentally, there is evidence that self-objectification correlates with women being less likely to engage in feminist activism. To me this seems to lead into a vicious circle: objectification leads to lower activism, which leads to less voices speaking counter to the mediation system, which leads to more objectification.

Maybe we should say objectification is selfish too. That makes about as much sense as selfish genes.

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