Calling Marxism Egalitarian Is a Strawman

One of the worst things that can happen to a bad idea, is to have it propped up by bad counter arguments. Marxism is one of those bad ideas that is often strengthened by misunderstandings. A particularly common strawman, is the accusation that Marxism is an egalitarian philosophy, seeking equal outcome regardless of unequal input. This assumption is popular within the libertarian community. It’s mostly put forth by fans of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Jordan Peterson. It’s not hard to see why this misconception would arise. Marx and Engels collectively wrote well over 25 books and hundreds of letters, essays and speeches. There is so much work it would take a short lifetime to fully grasp all of their ideas. Egalitarianism is also a common trope within the general left. One could see a leftist calling for equality and falsely assume that such ideas are core of all leftist philosophy, included in that Marxism.

The truth is Marx and Engels were pretty explicitly anti-egalitarian. If you dissect what is meant by the line “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, it is necessarily a call for an unequal outcome and distribution of wealth and social responsibility. The phrase is a recognition that everyone is different and unequal and as such they need different and unequal things. But Marx gets even more explicit in other parts of his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, he offers a criticism of socialist movements that advocate for equality.

The internet anarchist and marxist AnarchoPac summarizes Marx’s criticisms far better than I could in these paragraphs:

“Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.

Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions.”

There is simply no room for egalitarian thought in Marxism. It’s important that critics and advocates do not make the error of grouping them together.

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Egoism needs Virtue Ethics

I have an intense interest in ethics and using philosophy to discover general rules for how to live life and interact with others. This passion has always lead me to take the position of ethical egoism very seriously. Ethical egoism, which i’ll just call egoism for the rest of this, is the idea that when at the crossroads morality, you ought to always choose the thing that is in your self interest. Of course egoism doesn’t mean you can’t help others or value the interest of others. Simply that the core principle that should motivate one’s moral actions should be based in self interest.
Virtue ethics is the idea that morality is not about specific actions, or specific results, but about the character of the person making those moral choices. Aristotle is the old dead philosopher often credited with its creation. He starts with idea that all people want to and should seek their eudaimonia. The simple translation of this word is happiness, but that’s a bit misleading. Eudaimonia is a much grander final goal in life. Think of it as fulfilment beyond just simple fleeting pleasures and temporary happiness. The major way Aristotle thinks we can reach such a state is through learning to live out the virtues. The virtues are the characteristics one can embody when making choices. The virtue of courage is needed to make the action to defend your community against an invader. The virtue of temperance (not to be confused with the temperance movement) is needed to learn how to enjoy alcohol in moderation without going overboard. For Aristotle, the way in which me discover the virtues is by finding the middle of two extreme vices. Courage is in between being a coward and seeking out danger for example.
Though I think this sort of middle ground approach for discovering the virtues, has its flaws, I’m very interested in the synthesis of virtue ethics with egoism. Obviously one can see where valuing eudaimonia can be interpreted as a sort of egoism. If at the core of our ethics is the question of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves, then the core is a matter of self interest. Maybe more intriguing is how virtue ethics helps us flesh out egoism. It’s not enough to say “you ought to act in your self interest”. The question that must follow is, how do we know if something is actually in our self interest or not? We could simply it down to impulsive wants, that may lead us to some confusing contradictions. I may want to shoot up heroin all weekend but I also have a value for maintaining healthy relationships with my family and friends. Both of these are my expressed values, yet It’s unlikely I will be able to successfully do both. If the standard for self interest is simply “what I want to do”, then I’m not really closer to knowing which choice is best. It may be tempting to resolve this by categorizing specific actions as good or bad. But such an approach isn’t very universalizable. Shooting up may be intuitively in the bad category, but there’s certainly cases where it might be in your self interest. Soldiers in Vietnam used heroin was a way to self medicate and deal with the horrors of war. Most of which were able to come home and quit cold turkey. This is where the virtue ethics comes in. If you want to truly act in your self interest, then the specific actions you take are less relevant than the mind set and intentions of why you took those actions. It would make sense to embody virtues and characteristics, that are universalizable, to help insure you always make the choice that is in your best interest. For example, If you want to know what the best choice to make is, then you must live with the characteristic and virtue of valuing truth and logic. This is what helps us reach a better egoism. It’s through embodying virtues that we can get closer to resolving the question of knowing what is truly in our self interest.

A Non-Spiritual Explanation for Spiritual Experiences

One of my favorite contemporary thinkers is a guy named Jordan Peterson. He’s mostly a psychologist and deals with a lot of work around “Archetypes”. Throughout our human evolution we have noticed characteristic patterns, and group those together into abstract mental images. So like when I say, The Trickster, you intuitively think of a set of characteristics that make up this archetype. Be it lying, stealing, joking around, etc. The evolutionary aspect is very important here. Not only have we evolved to understand archetypes of people but archetypes of events (birth, death, etc), and archetypes of myths, narratives and symbols (resurrection, The Hero’s Journey, lions as a symbol for strength, etc). Deep in out psychology there are “spiritual” symbols and experiences waiting to be tapped into when the moment is right. I don’t mean these things are ideas shared from a god or whatever. They can have purely physical explanations. One example Peterson brings up, is the commonality of symbols in ancient religions all around the world. Both European and South Americans cultures shared the symbol of a tree connecting heaven and earth, with a snake circling around it. Sometimes this included a hell aspect below the tree. The easiest explanation is to consider that most of our evolutionary history was literally that. Our ancestors lived in trees. The heaven of sorts was near the top of the tree. That’s where all the socialization and eating happened. With the ground of the tree being the dangerous place filled with snakes and lions. You can see how generations of animals evolving in these situations would start to develop these archetypal associations. The early animals that survived would have to have had instincts deep down inside them, that made them see the tree as good and the snakes below as risks. Any animal that didn’t would have been bread out of the gene pool pretty quick. These instincts would have obviously stuck around in our evolution. They become more of an abstract association. You don’t need to be presented with a reason for thinking of the world as a tree connected to heaven and hell. You just have to have the subconscious instincts. This offers up a pretty thorough explanation for a lot of spiritual phenomenon. When people enter into hallucinations, they often see the same symbols and archetypes as other people. Not because there are literal demons and ghosts to see. More because these ideas are deep in our psyche and can come out at times when they are triggered.
How exactly we trigger these spiritual things to come out is important to address. The human mind is very complex and still misunderstood. However I have some personal experiences and ideas that might help us flesh this out. I’ve had sessions of prayer that were so moving and powerful that it could be explained as spiritual. Moments that brought me to tears. I don’t think it was because I was actually interacting with God. A more simple explanation would be to write it off as just normal brain chemistry interactions. These moments only ever happened when there was psychological priming. It could be a lack of sleep from staying up late at night, causing my brain to amplify my emotions and induce minor hallucinations. If I already believe (and i did at the time) that God exists and that I’m interacting with him, then it makes sense that in a vulnerable mental state, I start to fill in the gaps of my experience with my assumptions on God. I’ve noticed too, that often spiritual experiences happen in spiritual places while doing spiritual things. Maybe you’re listening to a great worship song that is touching you deeply. You zone out into this song. You dance wildly, spinning in circles and doing repetitive, almost animalistic actions. Or maybe in a more traditional church you find yourself standing up and sitting down in rapid succession. What if these are the exact things that prime us to have intense feelings of being possessed by the holy spirit? Cults are well aware that they can trick people by psychological priming them to have spiritual experiences. In the 80’s there was a cult that almost took over a huge voting block in Oregon. The Rajneeshpuram. There’s a Netflix doc on this. It’s great and worth watching. The videos of their initiation process show people dancing wildly, screaming, singing and spinning in circles. This lowered a lot of their psychological barricades. Weakening the mind’s ability to tell fact from fiction. If followed by a sermon like lecture from a charming and wise old man, it makes sense were a defenseless mind might start to believe nearly anything said.
The mind is so sensitive. Even the chemical interaction of what food you eat that day, can have notable impacts on your psyche. Drugs like DMT can induce amazingly visual hallucinations tapping into the dreaming parts of your brain. Ingesting chemicals can be a simple explanation for a lot of spiritual phenomenon. If you dig around demonology reports, drugs are extremely common. People attempting to summon a demon almost always have ingested some sort of drug first.
If we can explain away an experience with basic psychology, why bother to complicate our metaphysics with things like gods and ghosts? With all these insights, it’s hard to see where there’s room left for legitimately spiritual experiences. When you have a spiritual experience, remain skeptical. Do no attribute to a God what could be easily explained with simple psychology.

Isaac Morehouse and Entrepreneurship as a Libertarian Tactic

One of the most life changing conversations I ever had, was with a man named Isaac Morehouse. He runs a company called Praxis, which offers young professionals an apprenticeship at a startup. Included in the program is an online bootcamp filled with resources for becoming as productive and skilled as possible. Isaac has some really interesting ideas about the world. Most intriguing to me, has been his thoughts on using entrepreneurship as a sort of tool for social and political change. He gives a lecture about his life journey leading up to starting Praxis. He frames it as a story of discovering tactics for changing the world. He started his journey as many others do, seeking to help people directly through tactics like missionary work. He began to seek out longer lasting and larger scale solutions to the world’s problems. He moved into politics, only to find it as cartoonish-ly evil and inefficient as our movies make it look. He joined organizations to spread education and books. This too was a disappointment. He found that his impact was much smaller than me hoped. Eventually Isaac had a realization. He noticed that political change was a lagging indicator of social trends. He noticed that policy and politicians moved slower than culture. He noticed that attempting to change the world through a top down approach, using education and political action, was only looking at part of the picture. His great discovery, was an often overlooked strategy for political change. The tactic of entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship drives cultural change from the button up. It starts with people’s wants and desires, appealing to them through the creation of value. Consider the need for liberating the taxi market. Anyone who’s ridden in a taxi, understands that the system could be better. They might not understand how things like taxi medallions limit competition and thus cause bad quality service. They might not understand how taxi companies build unions and lobby local governments for favor. However anyone can certainly understand that taxis need improvement. Instead of trying to explain to them the economics of the situation, or inspire them go and out and protest, there is the entrepreneurial tactic. All one need to do is invest in something like Uber and suddenly the incentives are in place for problems to be solved. This doesn’t mean Uber is a perfect company by any means. Simply that Uber illustrates how building a business and creating value for customers helps solve major problems.
This sort of principle can be applied on a much large scale for political change. Such a tactic could be applied to systems like the federal reserve. One might know that having centralized banks controlling interest rates can cause problems.  This can inspire a desire to protest for End The Fed, campaign for Ron Paul for even throw a damn brick through the Fed’s windows. However, like the taxi question, there are more profitable ways to solve this problem. Through innovations like cryptocurrencies, we change the incentives for how governments handle the monetary supply. Consumers have more than one option for doing commerce. If The Fed wants to not be eaten up by its competitors, they have to make the USD better and better.
This insight of entrepreneurship as a political tactic, seems to be a major trend in contemporary libertarian philosophy and the broader movement. Younger libertarians have lost interest in student activist organizations and traditional party politics. Libertarianism has always hat tipped the entrepreneur and understood her impact in the economy. However, thinkers like Isaac Morehouse are making entrepreneurship the center focus of libertarian thought. Teaching us that it can be used to make liberty happen here and now.
Freedom may only be a few good business ideas a way. Those who want to change the world would benefit from learning that.

Would Wage Slavery Still Exist in Anarcho-Capitalism?

One of the common left anarchist critiques of market anarchism, especially anarcho-capitalism, is the existence of “wage slavery”. Generally the concept is understood as such: Within contemporary capitalism, sometimes referred to as crony capitalism or state capitalism, there exists a compulsion to work for a wage. This compulsion is not a typical form of coercion. There is rarely a cruel master with a whip beating you if you don’t choose to work. Instead this compulsion is an institutional compulsion. Workers are forced into wage labor because the property norms and laws of capitalist society would lead them to starve to death if they do not take on a job.The concern socialists seem to have is that wage slavery would continue to exist in a market anarchist society due to how it’s property relations are similar to that of crony capitalism.

wageslavery

The “Nature is Oppression” Strawman

Now before I address the validity of this position, I want to touch on a common straw man. Many libertarians on the rights will falsely critique this argument by suggesting leftist simply want everything for free without having to put any labor in. They imagine that if property and laws can coerce people into labor then clearly nature itself must be oppressive for forcing us to labor to eat. This is not a fair critique. Leftists are well aware that there is a need to do some sort of labor in order to not starve to death. Leftists have no problem with living off the land or putting in labor as a community to gather resources. Instead the concern lays in the lack of choices. The view is that wage labor or starve are pretty much the only option available in capitalist society is an artificial limit to the choices of a worker. Also, it’s easy to see how natural forces are in a completely different category than man made limitations.

Abolish The State, Free The Laborer

Though I don’t personally subscribe to the wage slavery theory, there is some value to what the leftists are saying here. It is true that the state has monopolized land ownership. 60 percent of land in Alaska is federally owned. The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. “Owns” of course in a strictly legal sense, not in a legitimate property claim sense. It’s reasonable to suggest that this ownership of land has limited the options available to those who might want to homestead and live independently. Furthermore, regulations serve as barriers to those who might want to escape wage labor. Starting a small business is a red tape hell hole. The license and taxes required create a market where there is an artificially low amount of entrepreneurs and business owners.

It seems clear to me that market anarchism would address all these concerns. By abolishing the state we abolish federal land and the regulatory mazes. The available options for those who don’t want to work for a wage would increase drastically. The barriers to entry for starting a worker owned business or being self employed would largely disappear.

Would The Rich Buy Up All The Land?

Now the committed left anarchist might stop me here, and suggest that the rich and powerful may still find a way to privately monopolize all of the land. In a world where everything can be owned the rich may have some incentive to buy it all up. In theory this could create a sort of private feudal society. To those who believe this I simply ask, “How?”. Even in contemporary capitalist society where businesses have the power of the state at their hands, they have been unable to monopolize vast areas of land. Walmart does not currently own your apartment complex. Consider also that absent of state power and police that acquiring all of the land would be even more difficult. With publicly funded law the capitalist can push off his cost of protecting his property to society at large. He can leach off of the taxpayer. Absent of state power the capitalist must cover all of his costs. In a free market society the incentives is to only purchase land that is going to be put at use.

Now assume that maybe that there is something inherently problematic with the wage labor aspect of wage slavery. Perhaps the extraction of “surplus value” is a legitimate problem.  Maybe in an ideal society wage labor would be extremely rare.

To give the leftist as much slack as possible in their argument I will even address this claim.

Would Wage Labor Still Exist In Market Anarchism?

First of all we have to consider the values of a libertarian a culture. Obviously free markets and free societies would have huge of variety of belief systems and ideas. However markets seem to incentivize some universal values. A increased value in self ownership and individualism seem common in all market orders. This sense of self ownership would lead more people in the market to look for opportunities outside of having a boss or working for a wage so that they keep more of the  value they create.

The leftist should also consider the reasons for that assumption that wage labor would still exist. I believe a big part of this is that they see successful businesses in the current market who are dependent on the wage labor model. This assumption seems to have a bit of status quo bias to it. It’s true that most large businesses do rely on wage labor to a degree. However this is only drawing conclusions from a broken model. We can’t really 100% predict if the practice would carry on in a free society as they incentives, laws and institutions that have built it up would be gone. I think it’s preferably reasonable to assume that under different base structures lead to different results.

 

It’s a particular interest of mine to address socialist claims against market anarchism. I believe here I’ve covered all my bases but if you feel I’ve missed something key then shoot me an email. I’d love to chat.

Gabrieljmitchell@gmail.com