Building Paths to Community Power, Not Corporate Power
by Jacob L. PerleFrom the Winter 2013-2014 issue ofJewish CurrentsOut on Willy Street in Madison, Wisconsin, about a decade ago, I sat in the shade behind the grocery co-op building chatting with a Wobbly about some old-timers in the area who wouldn’t pay taxes — tax resisters. “Why not pay taxes?” I asked, prepared for an argument about the good and the bad that our taxes do. “Taxes are coercive,” he replied. This hadn’t occurred to me. I took a few years to consider it, but he was right.
Our tax-collecting national government is untamed and brutal. In recent years it has waged endless war, promoted outsourcing, and propped up the failing banks that crashed the economy. All of this is done in spite of what the majority of people thought, never because of it. What people want from the state — jobs, Medicare for all, foreclosure protection — falls by the wayside. The state has also pushed hard against whistle-blowers and those two prerequisites of democracy — civil liberties and transparency.
It is no wonder that so many people, especially young people, are attracted to the anti-government philosophy of libertarianism, which draws inspiration from the classical liberal thinkers who inspired the American revolution. The question among us is not whether or not the state is a fearful sight — it is — but what alternatives, if any, could accomplish the good parts of what the government does: roads and infrastructure, medical research, safer foods and medicines, basic security for the poor, tools to deal with epidemics and crime, and its yet-unproven potential to deal with climate change.
Libertarian ideas for improving the world are diverse and intriguing, but fall into two main camps. Some libertarians would see the services of the state replaced by an extensive system of private property and free trade of goods and services. Others would give control of resources to those who work and rely on them. The difference is fundamental.
A cautionary aside: Libertarianism has made its way into the halls of power, as many big ideas do, unrecognizable. Opportunists use its language as cover to do favors for the powerful. Cuts to Social Security? Sure, government shouldn’t be responsible for people’s retirement. Abolishing “right to work” laws and restrictions on unions striking on each other’s behalf? Whoa, not so fast! Therefore, judging libertarianism and its founders by the actions and rhetoric of politicians like Congressional Rep. Paul Ryan — who voted for the Patriot Act and bank bailouts — is like judging the quality of shoes by their polish, or judging Martin Luther King Jr. based on the actions of his admirer, Barack Obama.
Better to go back to basic principles, such as those of Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), a libertarian theorist popular enough that you might today spot his face on a t-shirt or coffee mug. Rothbard (shown at right), author of For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (1973), among other books, developed a pure form of modern rightwing libertarianism.
He wrote against public schools as homogeneous and homogenizing places that taught the values of the rulers. He wrote against the licensing of daycare centers, which keeps out proprietors who don’t live up to government standards, he said, and thereby distorts the market. Rothbard wanted charity to replace welfare, because he thought welfare encouraged unemployment and demoralized the poor. He believed that poor people are poor largely because of their values. He also wrote against Social Security.
Rothbard saw government regulation as coercion, and taxes, in general, as theft. “The ‘right’ to schooling, to a job, three meals, etc.,” he wrote, is “not imbedded in the nature of man but requires for its fulfillment the existence of a group of exploited people who are coerced into providing such a ‘right.’” For Rothbard, the “ultimate libertarian program may be summed up in one phrase: the abolition of the public sector, the conversion of all operations and services performed by the government into activities performed voluntarily by the private-enterprise economy.”
Business without oversight. The end of public schools. The end of Social Security. The end of food stamps. A rejection of the idea that anyone has a basic human right to a job or to eat — no matter what those around them have.
Of course, Rothbard’s idea of markets is hypothetical; there is no developed country that gotten where it is by following a program close to his. From the research that has established the basics of our high-tech world, to the regulation of business, to subsidies and bailouts, to education, to limited liability for corporations, to legal rights and restrictions for unions, our and other “free market” economies are, in reality, managed.
Rothbard’s basic idea about the establishment of property rights is also of limited use in justifying how things stand today. He believed that property belongs to the person who first improves it — a sort of romantic homesteading idea. Once someone owns property, Rothbard said, nobody else has claim to it or to its products.
How much property was actually established this way? It was by violence that American Indians were stripped of their lands — and later the government gave away extensive resources to groups like the railroads. Our government has involved itself heavily in who owns what since the days of slavery and the Louisiana Purchase. How much property, then, is an inheritance of violence? How much has been established and propped up the state? How should this affect our thinking?
Rothbard’s idea of property can easily lead to a few people owning a whole lot, and therefore being able to dominate, shape the world in their own image, and leave us as dependents and accessories. How does such dominance fit into a philosophy of freedom?
I walked into a sandwich shop one night in Nashville. I chatted with the woman at the counter and joked with her about her being the owner. She wasn’t. On the way out, I noticed some pictures on the wall of peppers and cheese and such, and thought: Nobody wanted those pictures there. They’re nobody’s vision. The counter lady hadn’t put them there, and even the owner, I would venture, hadn’t hung them because he liked them. They were the kind of corporate images that you license, and they hung like ghosts, devoid of meaning or intention. Later, at the honky tonks (which were an all right time, but with fewer sad songs than you might expect if you listen to Merle Haggard), looking at Nashville’s skyscrapers, I thought, These weren’t built for me or anyone I know — and neither are they open to me.In his 2005 book,Government in the Future, Noam Chomsky lays the framework for a different sort of libertarianism, one in which the resources that people need to make a life are neither held by the state nor concentrated in private hands, but are managed by the community itself. It is this concept of democratic, communal self-determination, Chomsky argues, that truly fulfills the classical liberal ideals of freedom.
In service of his point, Chomsky quotes philosopher Wilhelm Von Humboldt (shown at left, 1767-1835), who influenced John Stuart Mill’s famous essay, “On Liberty.” Humboldt (for whom the University of Berlin is named) saw that humans need freedom to bloom and achieve our potential. “Whatever does not spring from a person’s free choice,” he wrote, “or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness . . .” If a person acts in such a way, Humboldt continued, “we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.”
After exploring the dominance by hunger that can come with concentrated ownership, Chomsky describes a libertarianism that opposes domination by the state but is also against private domination. From these ideas, Chomsky argues for a return to, and an update of, “the commons.”
Communal management of resources is more tied up with democracy than might be first apparent, and has a history we can judge it against. In recent articles, Chomsky illustrates this by pointing to the Magna Carta, which is famously one of the first examples of royalty granting checks on its power and some civil rights, if only to the British aristocracy. But the Magna Carta, Chomsky notes, was actually one of a pair of documents, the other being the Charter of the Forests — which returned to community control, i.e., to the commons, certain forests that had been “privatized” by the monarchy and its aristocratic allies.
“The commons,” Chomsky writes, “were the source of sustenance for the general population — their fuel, their food, their construction materials. The Forest was no wilderness. It was carefully nurtured, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations.”
The commons aren’t simply parks or libraries, but actual resources from which people have built their livelihoods. All around the world, at various times in history, fisheries, forests, irrigation systems and more have all been managed sustainably by the communities that depend on them. Of course, sometimes common management fails, self-interest collides with sustainability, or succeeding generations tire of being communally constrained (as happened to the kibbutz system in modern Israel) — and private property often complements communally managed resources (e.g., commonly-held grazing lands alongside private farms) to incentivize economic growth. Nevertheless, a libertarianism that connects to the idea of the commons is one that provides a structure for livelihood, a structure that requires people to be responsible in nurturing and maintaining it, in exchange for the prospect of making a living and leading a dignified life.
By contrast, today’s conservative libertarianism calls for “personal responsibility,” “independence” and “liberty,” but comes without a plan or structure that gives people the resources they need to fulfill these ideals.
There isn’t just one way of thinking about property.
There is a Jewish story about a man hauling stones from his private field onto the public lands. An older fellow comes across him and says, cryptically, “Why are you moving stones from land which isn’t yours into land that is?” The next day, as the younger man is out walking, he trips over the stones.
There’s a riddle for you.
I.L. Peretz wrote with admiration of the old religious system of ownership (Stories from Peretz, translated by Sol Liptzin), which has its own way of dealing with concentrated wealth and the dominance it implies:
“The tribe of Levi, which is set to act as an intermediary between God and his people, is therefore to have no right to own property.“The earth belongs to those who work it. The spiritual aristocracy, unlike the Egyptian upper class, will be unable to despoil the people of its property. Nor will any ruler, king or court be able to enslave the populace.“God is the supreme ruler. No abyss between rich and poor can develop because every fiftieth year the land reverts to its original owner, every seventh year all granaries are open to the entire people, and during the intervening years provision is made for the poor and needy. Even if a person’s fortunes decline so much that he must hire himself out for work, he may only serve six years and on the seventh is again free of servitude.“All are equals, all are brothers.”
“The earth belongs to those who work it.” Even Rothbard’s libertarianism relies on a version of that thought. Humboldt wrote, “Man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and the laborer who tends the garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits.”
Sitting on a big wooden porch at a coffee collective I was visiting in Guatemala, I chatted with a traveling carpenter named Cesar, and we compared lives. On Sundays, Cesar works growing corn to eat on land he rents. From Monday until Saturday at 2 p.m. he travels the country working carpentry jobs, returning only then to his family. They share one part of one afternoon each week.
Rootlessness and disempowerment seemed also to be part of the lives of private coffee plantation workers I met. So when Murray Rothbard, in Man, Economy, and State, says that unemployment is just a word trick — there will always be jobs for people, he says, but the jobs may be lousy, or in different towns, or pay nothing — nothing! — his words aren’t just abstractions.
Ultimately, the measure of libertarian ideas is how they are applied. Big ideas are less important than treating people with decency. If you want to kick my friend out of Section Eight housing, you better offer something better than Craig’s List real estate listings. If you cut Social Security, will there be something for those of us who need it? Otherwise, libertarianism comes to look simply like mass impoverishment, grandmothers working at Walgreens. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “The ark you’re building in your yard/ Will you let me on?/ Will you let me off?/ Don’t you think/ we all should study Etiquette/ before we study Magic?”
And let’s be clear, for all the opportunists who would shut down the federal government or cut its budget with a hatchet: Enacting only part of a plan is often worse than doing nothing. My brother always says, “A flight halfway to Europe isn’t half as good.” It’s significantly worse than staying put, in fact, because it lands you in the ocean.
For example: When politicians or the libertarians at Reason magazine advocate “free trade,” they are advocating, among other things, the freeing of big companies from government oversight. But what happens when “free trade” results in dumping highly subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico and the loss of livelihood for small Mexican corn farmers? Or when “free trade” put workers here in competition with suppressed workforces in countries like China? Are these deals a step towards freedom? What happens when you unbind the hands of only one of the boxers in the ring?
Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), that bearded, German Jewish translator of Walt Whitman, called himself an “ethical anarchist” and advocated, like Chomsky, a restoration of the commons. Landauer offered a framework for thinking about how to move to a freer society (as quoted in Martin Buber’s wonderful, dry strategy manual, Paths in Utopia, 1946). “The state,” Landauer wrote, “is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” Landauer believed in revolution, but he didn’t see it as enough, or even as positive by itself. The revolutionary movements of his day, he wrote, had served only the “nationalist-capitalist aggrandizement we call imperialism,” hijacked as they were by dictators and politics. The basic and prior task was constructive: “It will be recognized sooner or later that . . . social revolution bears no resemblance at all to political revolution; that although it cannot come alive and remain living without a good deal of the latter it is nevertheless a peaceful structure, an organizing of new spirit, for new spirit and nothing else.”
Elsewhere: “Nothing can prevent the united consumer from working for themselves with the aid of mutual credit, from building factories, workshops, houses for themselves, from acquiring land; nothing — if only they have a will and begin.”
Landauer gives a hopeful model for libertarian change. Hate prisons? Support community courts and restorative justice. Set up real consumer co-ops, places where people eat together, so that a crime in the community is between people who are connected to each other, not strangers.
Don’t like to be ruled by owners? Build co-ops, or time-banks, or follow the example of the Diggers of 1960s California and build a “free” economy. Yes, there is a whole system built up to favor the powers that now rule, but where else might we begin but here?
The assemblies of the Occupy movement have hinted at the possibility of Landauer’s idea of displacing the state through relationship. Occupy provided a place for conversation unique in the modern U.S. It hinted at a form that might yet serve us in the world to come. Indeed, town square gatherings, the meeting of people to speak directly on our problems, are foundational in the worldwide democracy movement. (Did you hear about the Republicans who marched to the Occupy Nashville camp? They were greeted with chants of “We love you!” given the “mic” to say their piece, and engaged in conversation.)
Both libertarianism and the commons imply the same question: Can we more directly control our lives? Do we need concentrated power? Might the bonds of community and relationship replace dominance and coercion? Landauer answers with a strategy, an invitation to achieve what we can. Landauer allows us not to wait for power, but to move.
Jacob L. Perl is a poet and nursing assistant in Wisconsin who works as a journalist with the community radio station in Madison.