Voluntarism & Free Association + What is Anarchism?



June 23, 2010 — I just wanted to finally put away the myth that Libertarian Socialist don’t believe in voluntarism and free association, when in fact, we premise our entire philosophy on it. However, sometimes it’s not emphasized because we don’t think that these alone can bring about a free society.

I quoted heavily in the first part of this video from the (A) FAQ. It’s a short article and I suggest everyone read it because this myth has gotten out of control especially on YouTube.

Voluntarism & Free Association


Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?

A.2.14 Why is voluntarism not enough?

Voluntarism means that association should be voluntary in order maximise liberty. Anarchists are, obviously, voluntarists, thinking that only in free association, created by free agreement, can individuals develop, grow, and express their liberty. However, it is evident that under capitalism voluntarism is not enough in itself to maximise liberty.

Voluntarism implies promising (i.e. the freedom to make agreements), and promising implies that individuals are capable of independent judgement and rational deliberation. In addition, it presupposes that they can evaluate and change their actions and relationships. Contracts under capitalism, however, contradict these implications of voluntarism. For, while technically “voluntary” (though as we show in section B.4, this is not really the case), capitalist contracts result in a denial of liberty. This is because the social relationship of wage-labour involves promising to obey in return for payment. And as Carole Pateman points out, “to promise to obey is to deny or to limit, to a greater or lesser degree, individuals’ freedom and equality and their ability to exercise these capacities [of independent judgement and rational deliberation]. To promise to obey is to state, that in certain areas, the person making the promise is no longer free to exercise her capacities and decide upon her own actions, and is no longer equal, but subordinate.” [The Problem of Political Obligation, p. 19] This results in those obeying no longer making their own decisions. Thus the rational for voluntarism (i.e. that individuals are capable of thinking for themselves and must be allowed to express their individuality and make their own decisions) is violated in a hierarchical relationship as some are in charge and the many obey (see also section A.2.8). Thus any voluntarism which generates relationships of subordination is, by its very nature, incomplete and violates its own justification.

This can be seen from capitalist society, in which workers sell their freedom to a boss in order to live. In effect, under capitalism you are only free to the extent that you can choose whom you will obey! Freedom, however, must mean more than the right to change masters. Voluntary servitude is still servitude. For if, as Rousseau put it, sovereignty, “for the same reason as makes it inalienable, cannot be represented” neither can it be sold nor temporarily nullified by a hiring contract. Rousseau famously argued that the “people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” [The Social Contract and Discourses, p. 266] Anarchists expand on this analysis. To paraphrase Rousseau:

Under capitalism the worker regards herself as free; but she is grossly mistaken; she is free only when she signs her contract with her boss. As soon as it is signed, slavery overtakes her and she is nothing but an order taker.

To see why, to see the injustice, we need only quote Rousseau:

“That a rich and powerful man, having acquired immense possessions in land, should impose laws on those who want to establish themselves there, and that he should only allow them to do so on condition that they accept his supreme authority and obey all his wishes; that, I can still conceive . . . Would not this tyrannical act contain a double usurpation: that on the ownership of the land and that on the liberty of the inhabitants?” [Op. Cit., p. 316]

Hence Proudhon’s comment that “Man may be made by property a slave or a despot by turns.” [What is Property?, p. 371] Little wonder we discover Bakunin rejecting “any contract with another individual on any footing but the utmost equality and reciprocity” as this would “alienate his [or her] freedom” and so would be a “a relationship of voluntary servitude with another individual.” Anyone making such a contract in a free society (i.e. anarchist society) would be “devoid of any sense of personal dignity.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 68-9] Only self-managed associations can create relationships of equality rather than of subordination between its members.

Therefore anarchists stress the need for direct democracy in voluntary associations in order to ensure that the concept of “freedom” is not a sham and a justification for domination, as it is under capitalism. Only self-managed associations can create relationships of equality rather than of subordination between its members.

It is for this reason that anarchists have opposed capitalism and urged “workers to form themselves into democratic societies, with equal conditions for all members, on pain of a relapse into feudalism.” [Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution, p. 277] For similar reasons, anarchists (with the notable exception of Proudhon) opposed marriage as it turned women into “a bonded slave, who takes her master’s name, her master’s bread, her master’s commands, and serves her master’s passions . . . who can control no property, not even her own body, without his consent.” [Voltairine de Cleyre, “Sex Slavery”, The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, p. 94] While marriage, due to feminist agitation, in many countries has been reformed towards the anarchist ideal of a free union of equals, it still is based on the patriarchal principles anarchists like Goldman and de Cleyre identified and condemned (see section A.3.5 for more on feminism and anarchism).

Clearly, voluntary entry is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to defend an individual’s liberty. This is to be expected as it ignores (or takes for granted) the social conditions in which agreements are made and, moreover, ignores the social relationships created by them (“For the worker who must sell his labour, it is impossible to remain free.” [Kropotkin, Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, p. 305]). Any social relationships based on abstract individualism are likely to be based upon force, power, and authority, not liberty. This of course assumes a definition of liberty according to which individuals exercise their capacities and decide their own actions. Therefore, voluntarism is not enough to create a society that maximises liberty. This is why anarchists think that voluntary association must be complemented by self-management (direct democracy) within these associations. For anarchists, the assumptions of voluntarism imply self-management. Or, to use Proudhon’s words, “as individualism is the primordial fact of humanity, so association is its complementary term.” [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 430]

To answer the second objection first, in a society based on private property (and so statism), those with property have more power, which they can use to perpetuate their authority. “Wealth is power, poverty is weakness,” in the words of Albert Parsons. This means that under capitalism the much praised “freedom to choose” is extremely limited. It becomes, for the vast majority, the freedom to pick a master (under slavery, quipped Parsons, the master “selected . . . his own slaves. Under the wage slavery system the wage slave selects his master.”). Under capitalism, Parsons stressed, “those disinherited of their natural rights must hire out and serve and obey the oppressing class or starve. There is no other alternative. Some things are priceless, chief among which are life and liberty. A freeman [or woman] is not for sale or hire.” [Anarchism, p. 99 and p. 98] And why should we excuse servitude or tolerate those who desire to restrict the liberty of others? The “liberty” to command is the liberty to enslave, and so is actually a denial of liberty.

Regarding the first objection, anarchists plead guilty. We are prejudiced against the reduction of human beings to the status of robots. We are prejudiced in favour of human dignity and freedom. We are prejudiced, in fact, in favour of humanity and individuality.

(Section A.2.11 discusses why direct democracy is the necessary social counterpart to voluntarism (i.e. free agreement). Section B.4 discusses why capitalism cannot be based on equal bargaining power between property owners and the propertyless).

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License


Work Sucks!

Work Sucks! Part 2: Workers’ Self-Management

Work Sucks! Part 3: Visions of a Free Society

3 thoughts on “Voluntarism & Free Association + What is Anarchism?

  1. Awesome!

    Like “socialism”, “anarchism” is a term that has been dragged through the mud for better part of the last 90 years. To make things considerably worse for anarchist voices is the prevalence of “right wing” anarchists or Anarcho-capitalism (AnCaps) on the internet, especially youtube. Which by the way is the only place AnCaps actually exist, there is not now or has there ever been any real life example of a social movement for AnCaps and in my opinion there never will be. And for good reason, capitalism is inherently authoritarian, its like advocating for the existence of square circles. The other true anarchist voices tend to get drowned out or make their arguments too esoteric to be commonly understood.

    TheLeftLibertarian is the real deal. I’ve had a few discussions with him and admire him and his work greatly. I consider him to be a youtube friend and a fantastic resource as he is very skilled at communicating ideas, especially in a medium such as youtube.

    I personally don’t label myself as any form of anarchist. This is not for any objection to the idealism (other than AnCaps, which I obviously do have a problem with), its only for pragmatic reasons of clarity. Ideologically, we have very few differences and none of those are serious ones. For me its just a matter of priorities, what can we do right now and moving in that direction that addresses serious problems which in turn achieve the social preconditions needed for a better system. While TheLeftLibertarian supplies a resource that this direction is not some blind man stumbling along a endless path.

    Thanks Lo, you are the best!

    • erkd1!!!! So wonderful to hear from you again. Drop by more often, please.

      Thanks for your commentary. I also like TheLeftLibertarian’s work and need to post some of his older videos.

  2. the success of the Anarcho -syndacalist communities in Spain and Mexico have proven the practical nature of Anarchism . Fact.
    However it is important to note that Anarchism is not anarchy , but as Kropokin says ”mutual aid ”.

    anyone schooled in the 6 kinds of Anarchism from Godwin , all the way to Tolstoy will note the individualism and liberty that you talk about is a comment thread in all these writers .

    but , and this is a big ”but ”….Tolstoy takes it farther that anyone else by stating that even if the Anarchist is free in all respects in the exterior world , it does not mean that he or she is free is the interior world .

    that is what makes a Christian Anarchist like Tolstoy and his paradigm as laid out in ‘his latter work ”the Kingdom of God is within you ” so all important . he really ups the ante on Godwin ,.Steiner , Bakunin , Kropokin , etc and states point in fact ..that there is no ultimate liberation without the inner liberation .

    Tolstoy deals with this thus : we can be free outwardly from tyranny , but if our 5 senses are enslaved to desires , then we are not truly free , hence we are not truly anarchists . his vision of anarchism is total , and comprehensive , and one could argue , is the culmination of the 19th century Anarchism paradigm for humanity in its full liberation .

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