The Power Problem

The most stinging critique of Anarcho-Capitalism comes from professor Noam Chomsky when he argues that such a social system would be a sick joke. This is because the result would be the consolidation of power into the hands of a few mega-wealthy individuals. These super-rich elites would then be in a position to coerce the rest of society. This would secure unlimited freedom for a tiny few but virtual slavery for the many.

Here I will argue why that is not the case. Despite his obvious hostility to capitalism; I am it has to be said an admirer of professor Chompsky. This criticism demands that we consider the nature power and how it is used and abused.

In order to fully consider this issue, I will address it in two parts. The first will address what power is and how it relates to individuals. The second will examine the nature of power in politics. I do not believe that a state of virtual slavery would be established in a free society. Yet the standard Anarchist response to this critique is somewhat lacking in sophistication. To say that ‘in a truly capitalist world all individuals will succumb to a harmony is interests’ does not on its own provide a convincing argument.

Interpersonal Power

Being in a position of power is typically defined as ‘the ability to do as one wishes.’ Yet this definition is problematic. I might really want to do something highly illegal but if I follow through with it then I will be swiftly arrested. Clearly, the simple act of behaving in a certain way does not demonstrate power. Furthermore, if an individual is threatened with force unless prompt payment is received. The victim’s utmost desire at that moment may be to hand over the money so that harm does not come to them. Once again simply doing as one wishes does not convey power. Therefore this definition falls far short of acceptable.

We should begin by drawing a distinction between instructive and destructive power. Instructive power is the ability to influence others to act. Whereas destructive power is the ability to stop another individual from acting. Put differently, destructive power is the absence of impediments to one’s actions. Instructive power is possible to repudiate; a person may be influenced to act without any authority being exercised. Consequently, we are left only with destructive power. Indeed, in order to stop a certain act power must be deployed. Clearly, if we are to redefine power the presence of constraints on our behaviour must be taken into consideration.

This distinction between destructive and instructive power seems familiar. This is because it bears a resemblance to Isaiah Berlin’s conception of positive and negative liberty. Concerning this distinction, Hayek is right to point out that many of the most desirable states of being can be defined only negatively. Peace is the absence of war, wealth is the absence of want and liberty is the absence of external restraints. As seen previously destructive power can be defined in a similarly negative way. But is power a desirable thing in the same way that peace, wealth and liberty undoubtedly are? It is to this issue that we now turn.

The desire to accumulate power is for Nietzsche the very essence of being human. He calls this The Will To Power. At first observation this does not sound palatable; No rational being would want to live in a world where everybody strives to dominate their neighbours. Therefore, at this stage, we could rightly argue that power is a purely harmful thing. However, after closer examination, we might conclude that this is not the case.

The ability to stop a tyrant from imposing his will on one’s life is extremely beneficial. Much more so than the ability to persuade the tyrant to do so. On an interpersonal level being able to stop others from exercising undue authority over our lives is most desirable. The Will To Power then, need not be a pernicious doctrine. On the contrary, it would be an essential organ of a functioning civil society. It would be foolish to deny that a certain amount of tension exists in any community. The belief that individuals should live in a state of no tension and eternal harmony is a bizarre utopian idea that we would do well to avoid. The attempt to achieve this ideal has been recorded in blood across history and leaving heaps of corpses in its wake. At least to some degree power can be a beneficial thing.

Finally, we must consider how power is exercised. There has been a recent development in contemporary thinking that suggests oppressive social hierarchies can be enforced subconsciously. The lack of empirical evidence to prove this aside, we can reject this notion out of hand. To accept this doctrine would be to dispose of the individual as the central figure in our enquiry- reducing people to helpless debris in the winds of time. Yet there is some grain of truth in the underlying foundation of this popular concept.

In his Distinctions Pierre Bourdieu outlines the way that the social elite maintains their position at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy by their monopoly on taste. While much of what Bourdieu infers from this theory can be dispensed with, there is an important truth in it. Namely, that power is played out in our everyday lives. If an authority figure gives us a command, and we comply, we legitimise their superior status.

This is distinct from formal authority. If the CEO of a large company gives a command to all of their subordinates they should (in theory) be compelled to obey. However, if the instruction is not met with compliance then the power of that CEO has not been legitimised. Being at the top of a hierarchy does not in itself allow one to exercise authority. Consequently, the way others respond to our demands is more significant than our position in a hierarchy. The conception that there is some natural hierarchy inherent in humankind is incorrect. Indeed, history is littered with examples of ineffectual monarchs led by their subordinates.

We can conclude that in the realm of interpersonal relationships we give license for others to exert power over us when we cease to act as we would really like to. In other words, the powerful figure impedes our ability to act with authenticity. For the purposes of this article, Sartre’s definition of authenticity will be used. Authenticity is a more useful term than ‘wish’. I may wish to put on a polite facade in order to impress a superior. Yet if the person were not a superior I would not have to put on such a show of good manners. Conversely my superior by virtue of their position does not need to be courteous to me. Their power position allows them to be authentic. Therefore the ideal of authenticity must form part of our definition of power.

All of the above considered, my definition of power is as follows: To act authentically, without external impediments or fear of reprisal. 

If we as freedom lovers seek to enhance the interpersonal liberty in society.  We should take seriously the assertion that without a state a cabal of wealthy proto-aristocrats could form such a significant external impediment over the rest of society so that it is less free than before. It is to this scenario that we now turn.

Power in the political realm.

We now move into the political realm. This is essential if we are to evaluate whether an Anarcho-Capitalist society would result in freedom for the few while creating a state of virtual slavery for the many. I will state here that my base units for political action are individuals rather than the nation, class, race, political party etc.

Certainly, the history of political human affairs is often read as a battle for power by rival competing institutions. Detractors of Anarchism claim that in the absence of the state the surviving institutions would accumulate an unwieldy amount of authority. The assertion often made is that while the proposed aim of Anarcho-Capitalism is to maximise the interpersonal liberty of each person. The alleged reality would be the diminishing of individual sovereignty. It is often said that state is needed to ensure that each person’s freedom is respected and not abused by some very wealthy but malicious individual. If this claim is true, then Anarcho-Capitalism as we currently understand it is a grotesque paradox.

The key question seems to be this; if we get rid of the state what happens to the power that used to exist in that society? Professor Chomsky takes the position that this power consolidates around those with the most accumulated wealth who will then work to destroy the liberties of the rest of society. On the face of it, this makes sense. In a capitalist social order, those who accumulate the most capital do indeed exercise more authority than those with fewer resources. Without the state to mediate between the rich and the poor it seems logical that the result would be chronic exploitation. In other words, people are unable to act authentically.

Most Anarchists conclude that this assertion is false (I say most because there are those that claim that such a state of affairs is desirable. We shall turn to them later). But why? As I mentioned earlier to state that ‘capitalism leads to the harmony of all interests’ is over-optimistic and has a certain theological sound to it. My contention is that although such exploitation and dominance are indeed within the realms of possibility it is neither necessary or likely to manifest itself. One is cautious here not to predict the future or delve into an entertaining but ultimately useless blueprint for a fictitious Anarcho-Capitalist society. However, I am able to make my case without delving into fantasy.

Firstly, we should consider legitimacy. For a polity to function its inhabitants need to legitimise it either by compliance or coercion. The point was made earlier that power is played out between individuals in their behaviour, this is also true in politics. What threats and impediments impede the individual’s choices forms the political landscape.

If an Anarcho-Capitalist society is going to work then its inhabitants need to behave in an Anarcho-Capitalist way. This is very rarely stated but I have always considered it to be true. This does not mean that every member should be a fervent ideologue. It simply means that in their lives individuals give legitimacy to free institutions. In practice, this requires that individuals act as an impediment to each other’s accumulation of power and allow each other to act authentically.

But isn’t this a cop-out? Surely the same could be said for Communism? ‘If everybody behaved like a communist then it would surely work’. This was famously championed by Leon Trotsky.  Our response to this should be no. Unlike Communism (or any other totalitarian ideology) Anarcho-Capitalism not only asks but requires us to act authentically. It is the only mode of political organisation to my mind that allows each individual to act with true authenticity. In a free society, individuals need to be prepared to defend our interests against others. Part of this requirement is the realisation that at times societies may be tense and uncomfortable. Yet in an Anarcho-Capitalist society, each of the parties will at least be legal equals when there is no state to weigh in on the side of a favoured individual.

Professor Chomsky’s claim is that those with greater means would have more power than others. Indeed there are those who are less able to defend their interests than others. We now turn to the question of the poor, a central component of professor Chompsky’s criticism. Of course being a Marxist, Chomsky sees a capitalist system as inherently violent and oppressive. The paranoia that Marxists deploy when defining power in a capitalist system is shown in contemporary Gramsci style thinking. For them, every organ of the corporeal realm is a weapon of Bourgeoise control. They state that the rich only become so at the expense of the poor. We would be right to reject such an idea; there is not a finite amount of wealth in the world. However, this does not mean that tension and exploitation are not important issues in our discussion on power.

The state is an ineffective impediment to abuses of power for the poor. Anybody with an iota of common sense can see this. The causes of inequality are difficult to tackle and complex. No government from the least interventionist to the most burgeoning has managed to eradicate poverty and imbalances o power completely. Those that have succeeded in stamping out one sort of penury only end up creating a new kind. The role of the state here is supposed to empower those with little resources against those with vast reserves of wealth but it almost never does. This is because the government is in a sense a great lie. It masquerades as an unblinking monolith that promises stability, certainty and protection. But we all know this is an absurd falsehood. It is natural that people look for certainty in a world of constant flux but in reality, there can be none. This is why those regimes that appear the most sphinx-like and uncompromising crumble the fastest and hardest. It is truly remarkable that so many such as professor Chomsky still cling to the belief that the state can ever really stand in the defence of the downtrodden.

Libertarians often seem to get confused here. Sometimes they suggest that the state has god-like levels of influence in our lives and people are mere playthings in the hands of politicians. Yet on other occasions, they claim that the state has no real power at all to influence us. I believe that the better of these two positions is undoubtedly the latter.

The belief that a modern state acts in the interests of powerless individuals is tragic and desperate. For people to truly be an effective check on each other’s power they need to act in a liberated fashion. Once we reject the Marxist and statist dogmas that encompass our discussion on power relations we leave ourselves open to different interpretations of power. If our goal is to enhance the ability of all to be authentic then Anarchism should by no means a controversial doctrine. One of the key tenants of Libertarianism (as well as Anarchism) is that we hold individuals and large institutions to the same moral standards. Therefore, what moral constraints apply to individuals may also apply to large institutions. We can surely conclude that institutions like the state possess The Will to Power. Surely if we are interested in the freedom of each person then erecting a system of laws, rules and customs that inhibit the power accruing tendencies of each of us would be most beneficial.

Conclusions

There are some who seem to believe that getting rid of the state means getting rid of the power which that state exercised. This is only true to an extent, in fact in an Anarcho-Capitalist society it should matter greatly what institutions are functioning effectively and what else should be done to increase freedom of those who live in that community. In order to stop power accumulating in the hands of despotic individuals, it is essential that people actively work to defend their own liberty and preserve their individual sovereignty. As has been previously stated in order for an anarchist society to function its inhabitants need to act in an anarchist way. It is not enough to say (as others have done) that the rich will not exploit the poor because it is not in their self-interest. We should not have reservations about having a gold standard of a functioning free society.

In a wealthy society, it is unlikely that those with a comfortable existence will tolerate desperate poverty and squalor in their locality. In The Empire of Things the historian Frank Trentman argues that when the base level of comfort of a society increases, it’s tolerance for seeing suffering decreases. The world is necessarily unequal, but it is highly unlikely that a free society could stand gaping levels of inequality for too long before it’s stability becomes questionable. The poor will come to resent the rich and the comfortably off would get sick of seeing extreme hardship. Others are bound to disagree with me here, but it is, for this reason, some sort of base level voluntary support for those in tough times would be a desirable feature to protect individual liberty. Those communities that do not provide such support would in my view be less efficient anarchist societies. What form this support takes is perhaps best left for another article.

Although total stability in the political realm is impossible it is in our interests that our institutions exist long enough to be flexible and do not shatter at the slightest instance of discord. The stability question is something that many have ignored; most notably Hans Herman Hoppe. His vision of a Propertarian society in my view would last less than a week if put into practice. It is in his conception of a functioning stateless society where each people live in antisocial enclaves at odds with each other is doomed to failure. Rather than preserving the power of individuals to exercise their own self-sovereignty the Propertarian argument would see us be slaves to an absolutist dogma that has little consideration for the real world. Surely we do not believe in a doctrine that does not recognise the lived experience of those who live in it.

If a wealthy person uses their wealth to purposefully impede the life of a less wealthy person then this is an effective affront to their freedom. A certain amount of tension in society may be beneficial to keep people alert to their personal liberty, but too much tension would be counter-intuitive and have the reverse effect.

It is likely that in the Propertarian society that Noam Chomsky’s vision of a super powerful person using their capital to coerce a less powerful multitude would come to fruition. Hoppe makes no attempt to hide his preference for skewed power relations, on the contrary, he actively promotes an idea of ‘natural hierarchy’. As mentioned earlier hierarchy is meaningless unless it is legitimised but we have ruled out instructive power. Leaving nothing left but destructive power- coercion. Only in the mind of the confused could this be considered an acceptable outcome of an Anarchist society.

An Anarchist society that is done properly would not lead to paradise for the few and misery for the many. This is a ‘harmony of interests’ of sorts, but one that relies on culture as well as economics. Professor Chomsky’s warning of ‘private tyranny’ is one we should heed, but it should not force us to abandon our ideas.

  4 comments for “The Power Problem

  1. Paul Marks
    Jan 5, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    I am not an anarchocapitalist – I believe there is a role for the “Sword of State” indeed I have spent most of my life (since early childhood to my present old age) in the study of these dark matters – and they are dark, for the use of violence and destruction is evil even when it is a necessary evil to prevent greater evil.

    However, an attack from Noam Chomsky is worthless – on this or any other matter. I am not an admirer of Professor Noam Chomsky – he is a DECEIVER, as the book “The Anti Chomsky Reader” (a collection of essays from his opponents on various subjects) makes clear. I would urge you to read this book Jordan Lee.

  2. Paul Marks
    Jan 5, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    To treat Noam Chomsky as if he was a serious thinker is a terrible mistake. The framework he offers for the understanding of events and concepts can only mislead. In a healthy society a work such as “The Anti Chomsky Reader” would not be needed (as someone like Noam Chomsky would just be making impassioned speeches, to no one in particular, in a disused corner of a park) – sadly in our society it is needed, as figures such as Chomsky are treated seriously and, therefore, need to be refuted.

    • Jan 8, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      I cannot explain my liking of Mr Comsky. Amonsgt my left-wing friends, he has always been the ‘gold-standard’ of debate. And indeed he certainly argues well. His talks and documentaries are what helped me get interested in politics when I was much younger so I have struggled to shake his influence off.

      More generally, I get bored quite easily constantly engaging with people that I already agree with: (Hayek, Mises, Popper, David Friedman etc.) I quite enjoy reading Chomsky, Slavoj Zizeck, Eric Hobsbawm, Theodore Adorno and even Marx himself amongst others. I like to keep myself on my toes.

      It may please you to know that I think Chomsky is a totally overrated writer. His books are usually very boring and full of useless details that make no contribution to his argument.

      But they are not the most boring books I have ever read… That title goes to Thorstein Veblen…

      • Paul Marks
        Jan 9, 2018 at 12:40 pm

        I do cate whether or not Professor Chomsky is a boring writer, I care that he is a deciever – that the “facts” he presents are lies.

        I again urge you to read “The Anti Chomsky Reader”.

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