Fathers of anarchy
“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them”
The death of anarchism as an acceptable ideology in America began largely as the result of the Haymarket affair, during which 50 Americans were killed and after which four “conspirators” were executed. Labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor quickly distanced itself from the anarchist movement. And so, without any conclusive evidence that anarchism as an ideology or in practice had been responsible for the massacre, it was deemed subversive to American values and any semblance of public support vanished. But what is it that separates anarchism from the values of America? If American values were defined by three broad characteristics, they would consist of a love of equality, individualism, and progress. Which of these traits are not upheld by anarchist thinkers? None! The assurance of equality, the protection of the smallest minority, the individual, and the progression of mankind are paramount to anarchist philosophy, and, as such, appear highly compatible with American values.
In the early 1700s, it is undeniable that one of the most important philosophers of the time was John Locke. By 1776, his writings, although less popular in Europe, had been widely circulated in the 13 colonies, due in part to the growing number of printing shops in America. It was his statement in the 2nd Treatise on Civil Government, that “because we are all equal and independent, no-one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions,” which was paraphrased in the Declaration of Independence. Federalists praised him, such as Alexander Hamilton, who asked that those, who wished to understand the justification of the American Revolution, apply themselves “without delay to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend your perusal…Locke.” Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson believed that Newton, Bacon, and Locke were “the greatest men that ever lived without any exception.” So, it stands to reason that the words of John Locke are, in general, in line with the designers of America as well as the values of America. So, when Locke said in his 2nd that
“It [The Nation] is also a state of equality, in which no-one has more power and authority than anyone else; because it is simply obvious that creatures of the same species and status, all born to all the same advantages of nature and to the use of the same abilities, should also be equal ·in other ways·, with no-one being subjected to or subordinate to anyone else,”
it must be the case that, in America, at least to some degree, equality for all is a value to be upheld. On political equality, virtually all the Founding Fathers were on the same page: the same political freedoms belong to all law-abiding citizens.
Where they differed from modern anarchists was on the liberty of enterprise. John Locke built the possession of property into his definition of the inalienable rights afforded to mankind in nature. Did the Founding Fathers equalize wealth within the Constitution, or redistribute the property of the wealthy to the poor? They did not. However, it is important to remember the historical context, in which these men held their beliefs. In late 18th century America, opportunity was abundant. Most of the wealth in the world came through the working of land, and after the French & Indian War, land abounded west of the Mississippi for the colonists, so when Locke provided property as a basic human right he meant being able to own some means of production, and at the time, merely owning and working land didn’t prevent someone else from traveling further west and beginning to market their own labour. One person owning land or the ability to produce goods did not threaten another’s right to property to the same degree as it would in the future, as will be soon discussed.
However, by the 1890s wealth inequality had become a massive burden upon the majority of Americans. As is seen in the graph to the right, income inequality has only increased in the time period between 1774 and 2010, providing evidence to the fact that just as political rights are needed in today’s times, so are economic rights, in order to ensure that all are entitled to the same chances at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Extremely important to American ethics is the notion that one can exercise one’s own rights until they come to oppress those of another. This is why, for example, a student in a public school cannot be forced to pray before a class: a community’s right to religion cannot interfere with another’s right to practice their own. The widening income gap also is a significant marker that the economic right to property has been violated. As time progressed, the ability to work the land for a living changed. For example, the refrigerator car made farming in New England virtually obsolete, sharecropping in the South gave many southerners little reward for constant toil, and large beef and meat companies, such as Armor, slowly ate away at the formerly copious lands in the Midwest. By a few entities owning a now finite amount of useful land, the rights of individuals to labour on that land had been stolen away.
In fact, even John Locke would have opposed property possession at it exists today because it gives a disproportionate number of goods to the owners of the property, without the owners having to add their labour. In his 2nd Treatise, Locke says “Anyone can through his labour come to own as much as he can use in a beneficial way before it spoils; anything beyond this is more than his share and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” The exorbitant wealth of “Captains of Industry” such as John D. Rockefeller would be abhorrent to Locke, not only in its excess but in the fact that Locke didn’t even view ownership in itself as a form of labour and therefore didn’t view ownership as a means to possess any good. Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, wrote “But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.” One of the most praised presidents in American history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, established the importance of economic rights, including “the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”
But how does this relate to anarchism? Simply! Built into the doctrine of anarchism is firstly the creation of common ownership: the belief that no man should own the means of producing goods. Just as John Locke saw the management of a people, a matter that affects all people publicly, as a business that should be conducted by the public, so to does one of the founding anarchists, Pyotr Kropotkin, believe that the economy, as a matter that affects and is made of all people, should be controlled by the public:
“The means of production being the collective work of humanity, he product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth.”
Individualism has also characterized the American image for most of American history, whether it describes the lone cowboy on the plains or the up-and-coming city businessman. Traditionally, the most admired heroes of American history have been successful in isolation. According to a brief published to foreigners on American culture by the Washington International Institute,
“Americans think they are more individualist in their thoughts and actions than, in fact, they are. They resist being thought of as representatives of a homogeneous group, whatever the group. They may, and do, join groups—in fact many groups—but somehow believe they’re just a little different, just a little unique, just a little special, from other members of the same group. And they tend to leave groups as easily as they enter them.”
Anarchism seeks to promote and protect the rights of the smallest minority, the individual, by eliminating governmental and economic authority, the ability to force by physical violence the behavior of another to act.
Governmentally, anarchism seeks to promote the individual by eliminating a sense of community based on land ownership. Many anarchists would argue that possession of land and the defense of it is the sole need for a government. Even capitalist economists like Adam Smith said that “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Perhaps in a time before manicured roads and meticulously kept trade routes and vessels, mankind did need to guard its right to land by force, and, by that need, organized governments came to be. However, in modern times, capitalism has created a massive amount of surplus wealth, which no longer needs to be squabbled over, so much like the Founding Fathers did when they discovered no need for a king to defend their own boundless properties, so too did the anarchists feel that their boundless means of production no longer needed to be guarded by a federal government.
Author Tom Friedman argues that once a country has a significant middle class to support a network of McDonald’s franchises, the likelihood of a country going to war drops dramatically. At a point where people no longer desire to wage war, and the most powerful countries in the world are in the same position, does patriotism, the attachment to a state, serve any other purpose than to cause war. Said Emma Goldman, one of the pioneering and uniquely American anarchist activists, on the issue of patriotism, “The people are urged to be patriotic and for that luxury they pay, not only by supporting their ‘defenders,’ but even by sacrificing their own children. Patriotism requires allegiance to the flag, which means obedience and readiness to kill father, mother, brother, sister.”
A modern history of needless wars have shown that the government as an agent of force is no longer necessary and in fact often serves to damage its people. Perhaps the decline of the government’s relevance is best exemplified by a John F. Kennedy quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Even Federalists like Alexander Hamilton speculated that a new compact must be made between the people and its government “If the community have good reasons for abrogating the old compact, and establishing a new one.” Should the Founding Fathers have been transported into today’s times, they would almost certainly recognize that the fundamental rights of their citizens had been and continue to be violated in a changing economic environment.
The political rights of the individual are further protected in a state of anarchy by the principle that all relationships must be governed by consent. In the absence of a regulatory body, such as a government, virtually all decisions made by a group must be made unanimously. Wouldn’t the Founding Fathers be in support of a democracy instead? Isn’t that a value of America? No! If democracy had been of such great importance to American culture, then the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have put in such great an effort to limit both the power of the government and the power of the mob. An entire Federalist Paper, Fed. 51, was dedicated to describing “the tyranny of the majority,” which results from a democracy. It’s likely that a world where rule was unanimous would be a world more favorable to Americans than one where rule was majoritarian. The Bill of Rights was put in place almost purely to protect the individual against democratic forces.
Even politicians after the revolution condemn democracy as being tyrannical. Although for abhorrent purposes, perhaps this point was best articulated by prominent and influential politician John C. Calhoun: “The first and leading error which naturally arises from overlooking the distinction referred to, is, to confound the numerical majority with the people; and this so completely as to regard them as identical.”Calhoun developed his own theory on representation called the theory of “Concurrent Majorities”, by which any action could be stopped by any majority. For example, should the government want to pass a law illegalizing the production of alcohol, Calhoun would suggest that unless the majorities of alcohol producers and alcohol drinkers agreed to it, alcohol could not justly be removed from the market. It is clear that the idea that a society ruled by consent is not an anathema to an American ideal of democracy.
Finally, America is a nation which values progress. Who could forget Benjamin Franklin’s immortal words in his autobiography: “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” According to the same report published by the Washington International Institute, referenced earlier,
“In the American mind, change is seen as an indisputably good condition. Change is strongly linked to development, improvement, progress, and growth. Many older, more traditional cultures consider change as a disruptive, destructive force, to be avoided if at all possible. Instead of change, such societies value stability, continuity, tradition, and a rich and ancient heritage—none of which are valued very much in the United States.”
Anarchism, more specifically the redistribution of the means of production to workers, is objectively more beneficial to progress. Firstly, one of the most successful measure of an economy’s health is the size of a country’s middle class. Economists like John Maynard Keynes, whose contributions to the field of economics led to welfare policies such as social security, articulated the importance of a strong middle class, which maximizes the consuming power of a population. A society with a heavy wealth divide cannot possibly grow as well as one with a healthy middle class, because it simply cannot produce enough capital through consumption. Furthermore, the presence of a strong middle class promotes stability in the market. The year prior to both of the two largest economic recessions in American history, the Great Depression and the Great Recession of 2008, saw the top 1% of Americans’ pre-tax income skyrocket to above 20%, levels far above what they were in the time of healthy economic growth in the mid to late 20th century. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that the duration sustained economic growth is directly correlated to presence of income equality. Anarchist theorists such as Texas born Lucy E. Parsons, the sister of the Parsons who was implicated in and executed for the Haymarket affair, once famously said “When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step, but not until then.” Anarchism seeks to maximize the growing effects of capital by redistribution, so the needs of the many become more valuable to produce than the luxuries of the few, and the development of useful technology becomes the new norm for capital spending.
It is clear that the Founding Fathers, if alive today, would have looked back in shock at the disappearance of the American anarchist movement, as they would have been stunned to see the Continental Army crumble before an endless sea of red wool. Perhaps if the American people recognized the revolutionary spirit which their country was built upon, and perhaps if they saw the great injustice foisted upon them by both the government and the wealthy, then they might too put down their plows, hammers, and keyboards in exchange for a new compact.