“Anarchists desire a federation of free communities, which shall be bound to one another by their common economic and social interest and shall arrange their affairs by mutual agreement and free contract.”
What struck me immediately is that this is very nearly a description a libertarian free-marketeer could approve of. The free-marketeer would see the ‘business community’ as being that “federation of free communities“ and the contracts of employment, sale & exchange as those “free contracts” that Rocker suggests would be entered into by mutual agreement.
But Rocker was absolutely not arguing for a libertarian free-market capitalism, he was a Libertarian Communist who believed that everyone involved in a ‘federation’ should share equally the ownership of the assets and benefits resulting from the activities of that federation.
So the problem with the libertarian free-marketeers vision of freedom is ownership and the economic and legal power that results from ownership. In the real world, rather than the world of theoretical economics, the realities of ownership by the few and the resulting hierarchy based on the power resulting from ownership, combined with the realities of wage slavery, mean that for most people most of the time employment contracts are not based upon mutual agreement but are actually based on dire necessity and an almost total lack of alternatives.
Indeed, a significant level of unemployment is desirable within a capitalist system to ensure that the power rests with the business owners, the employers. It is undoubtedly true that the Thatcher regime of the 80’s could not have set about dismantling the Welfare State and disempowering the unions without a significant level of unemployment that undermined workers militancy. One can argue as to whether Thatcher deliberately created the unemployment or just took advantage of economic circumstances but it is undeniable that high unemployment was crucial to her strategy.
The Black Death in 1348 killed over 50% of the population. One of the immediate effects of this was a shortage of farm labour, and a corresponding rise in wages and militancy. In effect the overall shortage of workers had given the workers who had survived economic power. The state responded by passing a law fixing wages at pre-plague levels and then enforcing this law by exile, violence and imprisonment. This in turn led to the peasants Revolt of 1381. Although the monarchy eventually crushed the revolt – by the murder of Watt Tyler while under a flag of truce – the shortage of labour was an undeniable economic fact and by 1400 feudalism in England was basically over. The point of this example is that even in these extremely rare circumstances when the economic ‘laws’ of supply & demand give workers economic power, the ruling elite react by using the coercive power of the state to impose their economic interests.
In the 20th & 21st Century the economic interests of the business community have led to a logic that encourages immigration from poor countries and/or the exporting of jobs to poor countries. Immigrants from the Third World or Eastern Europe are praised because they will work under terms and conditions that UK workers have spent a century fighting to abolish. The influx of large numbers of workers prepared to work longer for less undermines the ability of UK workers to improve working terms & conditions.
So the argument here is that Capitalism necessarily requires an oversupply of labour, which brings about an economic and legal power relationship that in reality entirely undermines the theoretical notion of contract by “mutual agreement”. Capitalism requires an oversupply of labour so that the employer can choose whom to employ and at what rate and the employee can only beg for work.
Libertarian Socialists, like myself, share many of the fears of libertarian free-marketeers about the inevitably oppressive power of the state but the difference between us is that we do not share the free-marketeers view that the power of corporate capitalism is a liberating force counteracting the totalitarian impulses of the state. On the contrary Libertarian Socialists understand that capitalism is just as oppressive as Statism and suffers from the same de-humanising totalitarian impulses.
The State and the capitalist corporation are both abstract legal entities that emerged to protect the interests of a wealthy ruling oligarchy and as such both conspire to oppress and exploit the majority.
Anarcho-syndicalism is a theory of social organisation that shares some characteristics with a free-marketeers concept of how to fairly distribute the shared assets of the ‘common wealth’ – through free contracts entered into by mutual agreement – but combines this with the concept of direct worker ownership of the means of production, rather than State ownership, thus substituting State power with local autonomy.