‘But Libertarian Socialism Is Not Voluntary!’ – A Response

The main objection by the capitalist against the proposition that wage labour is not voluntary in virtue of it being an un-meaningful choice between work for a boss or die is that libertarian socialism is also involuntary for the same reason. One’s choice is work for the collective or die. Even if there is a very good welfare system which ensures that people work far less some people will have to work because society needs the items required for survival such as food, medicine and clothing. Thus the choice is still work for the collective or ultimately we will all die as a result of starvation, sickness and so on. David Friedman nicely summaries the  response to the socialist as “[t]hat is true enough, but it is equally true of any system of public property”. (pp.14 The Machinery of Freedom)

The problem with this argument is that it misunderstands the motivating force in the libertarian socialist argument against the anarcho-capitalist. The motivation is that something is not a domain of freedom or liberty in virtue of it being voluntary. The point of the argument is to motivate further justification. If the anarcho-capitalist says x is justified in virtue of it being voluntary we respond by saying that voluntary is a very ambiguous term and raise the question ‘what is it to meaningful consent when the conditions under which people do consent are hazardous and as a result people lack realistic alternatives to entering into a labour contract’ Therefore we need further justification for capitalist businesses being legitimate.

One cannot simple state ‘it’s voluntary’ because while something being voluntary is a necessary condition for something being a domain of freedom it is not a sufficient condition because something can be voluntary but nonetheless limit freedom. For instance, a woman may voluntary enter into a marriage and proceed to have no say in household decisions and be ordered around by her husband. It is true that she has the capacity to leave the marriage but while she has the right to leave the marriage she lacks the means to do so. This is because she doesn’t have good qualifications and previous work experience and so cannot gain access to a job with a large enough salary to support both her and her children. Therefore she stays in the marriage for purely financial reasons relating to the economic safety of herself and her children. But it does not follow from the fact that she chooses to stay in the marriage because it is the best option available to her that her husband is a) treating here justly and b) that her husband is not limiting her freedom. All that follows is that the woman believes that staying with her husband is superior to the alternative. The libertarian socialist argues that many workers are in a similar position. They have the right to leave their job but they lack the means due to the predictable result of them leaving their job being poverty and at worst death as a result of illness or starvation. But the fact that they choose to stay in their job, as it is the best option available to them, does not entail the conclusion that a) their company, boss, manager and co-workers treat them justly and b) that their company, boss, manager and co-workers are not limiting his or her freedom. Even if we alter the marriage scenario such that the women has the means of leaving it does not follow from this that her husband does not limit her freedom since it is still the case that she has no say in decision making and is ordered about by her husband. The same is true of an employee who has the means to work for another firm or perhaps even create their own firm since they still have little to no say in decisions and simple take orders from above irrespective of their own thoughts on the matter. In short the fact that a person has the right and at best the means to leave x does not entail that the proposition that while within x their freedom, liberty and autonomy is not being infringed upon. Therefore, to justify something as a domain of freedom one must offer further reasons beyond ‘x is voluntary’.

The motivation behind the argument is therefore the seeking of justifications which apply explicitly to capitalist firms and not any allegedly voluntary contract one can imagine. The libertarian socialist seeks reasons for why it is that hierarchy in the workplace is legitimate and how it is that management structures are legitimate. In order to do that anarcho-capitalists cannot simple reply ‘it is voluntary’ but must offer reasons for why it is necessary, beneficial and is not in violation of principles of autonomy, morality and human dignity. That is why libertarian socialists make the argument.

In comparison to anarcho-capitalits libertarian socialists do not argue that the workplaces we advocate are moral, justified and domains of freedom in virtue of the fact that they are voluntary. That is a component given that Kropotkin and other anarchists talk often of ‘free contract’, which is what anarcho-captialists often refer to as voluntary association. But libertarian socialists go further and outline how their workplaces meet the requirements of the dictates of liberty, anarchism and ethics. Libertarian socialists will for instance explain why the valuing of autonomy, self-management, active participation and creative work are important. They will then proceed to explain how horizontal organisation ensures that workers are not controlled by their superiors, that consensus forms of decision making ensure that there is no or significantly less tyranny of the majority or minority, that the sharing of unappealing work ensures that certain workers are not significantly dis-empowered by performing repetitive and uncreative tasks. It is because libertarian socialist workplaces in theory and in practice have embodied these values that they are legitimate and not simple because they are voluntary.

Thus our argument is not saying that the ambiguity of free contract does not apply to the workplaces we advocate but only capitalist workplaces. Rather, we are merely pointing out that ‘x being voluntary’ is not the sufficient condition of something being a domain of freedom. We say not only are our workplaces voluntary but they also embody the principles of justice and fairness. Indeed most of the internal debate among socialists is whose preferred economic system would best embody these principles. The communist says that market economies result in alienation or that Bakunin’s collectivism would be authoritarian because it keeps a wage system of sorts. Then a mutualist may respond by arguing that communism would result in the tyranny of the commune against the individual and would not support reciprocity enough. An advocate of participatory economics may then point out that mutualism does not put enough emphasis on the sharing out of empowering and dis-empowering work. All this discussion occurs despite all the participants believing that others have the right to live in the economic system which they prefer providing that it is voluntary.

The point being that anarchists and socialists understand what the discussion is in fact about. What economic system is most in line with the principles of ethics. Anarcho-captialists, and capitalists in general, fail to understand this and so respond with an irrelevant objection and proceed to fail to properly outline the jointly sufficient conditions of something being a domain of freedom and how it is that capitalist workplaces meet these conditions. The debate ought to be about the legitimacy of hierarchy, authority and power and what does or does not limit the autonomy of the individual.

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2 thoughts on “‘But Libertarian Socialism Is Not Voluntary!’ – A Response

  1. Good post. I would add that ancaps are looking within a particular framework which could be questioned to be voluntary in the first place. For instance, private property (and the vertical bonds they produce), are only possible due to violent backing of monopolistic property. Without said property regime, it is doubtful that such relationships would manifest themselves in the first place. Secondly, I would add that many ancaps tend to confuse voluntarism as an ethical system while others use it as the line to distinguish when violence is justified. In the worst cases, they will actually blame the victims because they are in a “voluntary” relationship while justifying behaviors which limit human action.

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