A common set of questions by Anarcho-Capitalists to Anarchists is something along the lines of ‘would you use coercion in order to prevent capitalism? And if you would does that not contradict your alleged Anarchism?’ The Anarcho-Capitalist asks this question for two reasons. The first reason is that they believe that Anarchism is the political philosophy that is opposed to coercion, rejects the state because it is coercive and consequently advocates a stateless voluntary society. The second reason is that they believe that socialism is almost always based on coercion against capitalism. Thus, their question is asking, how can one believe in coercing capitalists while nonetheless advocating a voluntary society? In this essay, I shall first assume that capitalism can exist without the state and is voluntary and answer the Anarcho-Capitalist question by arguing that there is no contradiction between advocating coercion and being an Anarchist in the sense that Social Anarchists use the term. I thus wish to argue that even if capitalism is voluntary Social Anarchists ought to prevent capitalism through, although not necessarily through, coercive means. In short, I shall be arguing that Social Anarchists should not advocate an entirely voluntary society, only a predominately voluntary society.
Voluntary Association VS Free Association
The Anarcho-Capitalist definition of voluntary association is derived from their definition of ‘coercion’ (or ‘force’ or ‘aggression’, the terms are usually used interchangeable by Anarcho-Capitalists). They define ‘coercion’ as the “initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else”. Given this definition an action is defined as voluntary if the agent does not perform the act because they were coerced. Anarcho-Capitalists believe that stateless laissez-faire capitalism is a voluntary society in the sense that it is a society which is not based upon coercion. For example, Rothbard writes in ‘For A New Liberty’ that, “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the nonaggression axiom.” In virtue of accepting this principle, “The libertarian favors the right to unrestricted private property and free exchange; hence, a system of laissez-faire capitalism.” While in ‘Man, Economy and State’ Rothbard writes that, “Agreements by individuals to make exchanges are called contracts, and a society based on voluntary contractual agreements is a contractual society. It is the society of the unhampered market.” Thus, Rothbard adheres to the non-aggression principle and consequently advocates a voluntary society based on voluntary association and contracts between individuals. Rothbard believes that such a society would be a system of laissez-faire capitalism.
At first appearance, it can seem that Social Anarchists too believe in such a voluntary society and that individuals should be free to voluntarily associate in any given manner. Kropotkin writes that in an Anarchist society “harmony [is] obtained… by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.” While Berkman writes that under anarcho-communism “You are to be entirely free, and everybody else is to enjoy equal liberty, which means that no one has a right to compel or force another, for coercion of any kind is interference with your liberty.”
Nevertheless, such a first appearance may be a false one. This is because all Social Anarchists believe in the expropriation of the private property of capitalists by the organised working class and peasantry. For example, Kropotkin argued that the anarchist revolution aims at “abolishing the exploitation of man by man” via “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings” That is to say “everything that enables any man — be he financier, mill-owner, or landlord — to appropriate the product of others’ toil.” Thus an Anarchist revolution “would take care not to touch the holding of the peasant who cultivates it himself …without wage labour. But we would expropriate all land that was not cultivated by the hands of those who at present possess the land.” The involuntary nature of this expropriation is made apparent by Schmidt and Walt who write that, “to allow the ruling class to retain its privileges until it is willing to concede to anarchism, on the grounds that everyone must enter anarchism voluntarily, is to provide that class with a permanent veto on the emancipation of the great majority of humanity.”
The principle that one ought to expropriate private property in the transition from capitalism to socialism also seems to apply to instances of private property that may re-emerge within socialism because the principle is grounded in the belief that it is just to expropriate property based on exploitation. Clear evidence of this is that Kropotkin writes that, “when we see a Sheffield cutler, or a Leeds clothier working with their own tools or handloom, we see no use in taking the tools or the handloom to give to another worker. The clothier or cutler exploit nobody. But when we see a factory whose owners claim to keep to themselves the instruments of labour used by 1,400 girls, and consequently exact from the labour of these girls …profit…we consider that the people …are fully entitled to take possession of that factory and to let the girls produce . . . for themselves and the rest of the community …and take what they need of house room, food and clothing in return.“
To an Anarcho-Capitalist, it will appear contradictory that Social Anarchists, on the one hand advocates a society based on free agreements and on the other hand advocates coercion against a certain type of agreement – the agreement between worker and capitalist – and advocates the use of coercion in order to destroy the material basis for such agreements, namely private property. Such a contradiction only emerges if we (a) consider the agreement between worker and capitalist to be a free agreement, believe private property to be non-coercive and not reliant upon state enforcement or if we (b) believe that Social Anarchists seek to promote an entirely voluntary society. Given that I am assuming for the sake of argument that private property is non-coercive and that capitalism can be voluntary I must reject (b) and argue that Social Anarchists do not seek or at least should not seek an entirely voluntary society.
I do not believe that it can be argued that the classic Social Anarchist thinkers believed that they were advocating a non-voluntary society. Rather they viewed Capitalism as stemming from violence and the state and so thought Capitalism to be inherently involuntary. Malatesta wrote that the capitalists “have taken what they possess by force”. While Berkman argued that since “the whole system of law and government upholds and justifies [the] robbery” of capitalism, “when government is abolished, wage slavery and capitalism must also go with it, because they cannot exist without the support and protection of government“. The closest, to my knowledge, that any classic Social Anarchist thinker comes to the conclusion that Social Anarchists advocate a non-voluntary society is Malatesta’s insistence that anarchists advocate restricting the freedom of those who restrict the freedom of others. He writes that anarchists support “freedom for everybody … with the only limit of the equal freedom for others; which does not mean … that we recognise, and wish to respect, the ‘freedom’ to exploit, to oppress, to command, which is oppression and certainly not freedom.” And he later claims that one must have a “right and the possibility to live in a different regime, collectivist, mutualist, individualist — as one wishes, always on the condition that there is no oppression or exploitation of others.” Given that the reason Malatesta offers for restricting the freedom of others is to stop exploitation and oppression and that exploitation and oppression can occur within voluntary associations, it follows that individuals have the duty to restrict the freedom of those who are exploiting and oppressing others even if it is within a voluntary association. One way that one can stop such exploitation and oppression is through coercion.
This point can be clarified by a distinction between two sorts of association. An association is voluntary if and only if those who comprise the association were not coerced into associating into it. An association is free if and only if it is a voluntary association and if those who comprise it are free within it. Thus while all free associations are voluntary associations, not all voluntary associations are free associations. In order for an association to be shown to be voluntary but not free it is not sufficient to merely point out that certain members of the association are unfree because they could be unfree as a result of events outside of the association which the association is not contributing to. Thus, it is a sufficient condition of a voluntary but unfree association that there is a relevant causal link between the particular person’s unfreedom and the association. Concretely, a tennis club is not a voluntary unfree association if a member is unfree because of an abusive partner; while an abusive relationship in which a person is not coerced into staying within it, is a voluntary unfree association.
If we apply Malatesta’s principle to this distinction individuals possess the right to free association but not unfree voluntary association. In instances of unfree voluntary association others have the moral duty to stop the freedom limiting occurring within the association, either by enabling those who are unfree to leave the association, abolishing the association itself or by removing the freedom limiting person(s) from the association.
Moral Rights and Indirect Consequentialism
This position outlined above can be further clarified with the use of basic normative ethics within analytic philosophy. To do so I must first explain two theories within normative ethics. The first ethical theory is rights theory. Rights are usually defined as entitlements to perform or not perform certain actions or entitlements that others perform or not perform certain actions. Every right has four elements. Firstly, every right has a subject, meaning the holder or bearer of the right. Secondly, an object, which is the person or persons against whom the right is held. Thirdly, the content, as in what the right to do or have done is. Fourthly, the strength, which is the rights level of resistance to rival normative considerations. To illustrate this, the inalienable right of Jim to not be tortured can be broken down into its subject, Jim, its object, all other people capable of having duties, its content, not to be tortured, and its strength, it cannot be overturned by any other rival normative consideration as it is inalienable. Rights can further be broken down into different sorts of rights. Moral rights are rights grounded in moral reasons, legal rights are rights derived from the law and customary rights are rights derived from convention.
The second ethical theory is Consequentialism, which is the ethical theory that places primary emphasis on the ends which actions are aimed to promote, or what is usually called ‘the good’. What actions are right to perform and what people should be like can then be understood in terms of the extent to which a given action or a given character trait promotes the good. Consequentialism is thus the position that the correct moral response by an agent to a value that is identified as being good is to promote it. The goal of ethics is therefore to promote the good, whatever that is. Different theories of consequentialism emerge depending upon what the good is taken to be and how it is thought that we should go about promoting the good. What the good is taken to be can be anything which can be promoted, for example one could argue that the good is the number of dogs the Queen owns such that an action is the right action to the extent to which it increases the number of dogs that the Queen owns. This is not to say that such a theory of the good would be remotely plausible or persuasive but that such a theory could be outlined in a consequentialist framework. Perhaps the most historically famous consequentialist theory of the good is utilitarianism, according to which the good is utility. However, there have been other plausible consequentialist theories of the good, such as respect for persons, freedom or dignity. Some consequentialists are pluralists whereby they believe there are multiple goods which ought to be promoted, while others are monists who believe that there is a single good which ought to be promoted.
The good may be pursued directly, by aiming at promoting it at every instance, or indirectly, by aiming at other goals whose accomplishment achieves the ultimate goal of promoting the good. An obvious example of such an indirect approach would be the goal of happiness. In order to achieve the goal of happiness it is best to aim to achieve other goals whose fulfilment results in happiness, such as engaging in fun activities or speaking with people whose company you enjoy. The usual line of argument for indirect consequentialism is that agents are fallible, at least in the heat of decision making, and that as a result of this, were moral agents to promote the good directly, by calculating which action produced the best consequences any time they made an ethical decision, the good would not ultimately be promoted as people would make poor decisions. Thus, agents may best promote the good in behavioural choices if they restrict the tendency to calculate the consequences of their actions to only very specific circumstances, such as disaster scenarios, and so not calculate in day to day decision making. In everyday scenarios, or moral dilemmas that are not disaster scenarios, agents should accept and internalize a set of constraints on their direct pursuits whose adherence generally promotes the good. If one advocates pursuing the good directly then there is no room for rights theory in the promotion of the good. While if one advocates pursuing the good indirectly, then rights theory can serve an important role as a set of constraints on one’s direct pursuits. Hence in order to make room for rights one must advocate an indirect approach.
On the assumption that such an indirect approach is correct, we can adopt moral rights as our constraints. If we do this, a moral right will count as genuine just in case its recognition within some conventional rule system is morally justified, where the standard of justification is promotion of the good. For example, in general the moral right to not be tortured promotes the good and as a result people ought to internalise the moral right to not be tortured as a constraint on day to day actions, such that all people have a moral right to not be tortured and moral agents have a duty to not torture any given person. Thus, when making moral decisions the moral right to not be tortured acts as a defensive barrier to other normative considerations and cannot, except in specific circumstances, be overridden by rival normative considerations. This means that one cannot generally seek to promote the good via torture because torturing violates a person’s moral right to not be tortured. Thus even if torturing a person would result in better consequences than not torturing them, on this view it would still be immoral to torture them. Nevertheless, since it is the case that within a consequentialist framework no moral right is inalienable, because all moral rights are justified in reference to their promotion of the good, it would be moral to torture a person if the normative consideration was greater than the right’s strength. Perhaps in the case of torture, it is moral to torture a person if and only if doing so overwhelmingly promotes the good. An obvious example would be torturing someone when doing so will almost certainly prevent a nuclear war resulting in nuclear winter.
Given this ethical framework, Social Anarchists can argue that individuals possess the moral right to voluntary association but that the strength of this moral right is up to the point whereby the association is a voluntary unfree association. At this point, other normative considerations, namely stopping unfreedom and specifically domination and exploitation, override the moral right to voluntary association such that the moral right to voluntary association of individuals who are making other individuals unfree no longer trumps the normative consideration of promoting the good via coercion.
Of course how one ought to act in promoting these other normative considerations varies according to the sort of association in question and the type of unfreedom occurring. Obviously one will respond differently to a verbally abusive partner than to a capitalist. In instances of voluntary unfree association, where coercion is an appropriate means of promoting overriding normative considerations, there is a prima facie case to use coercion. This does not mean that coercion is always the most just or the most efficient or the only means of promoting these overridden normative considerations. Whether it is can only be decided after an analysis of the specific concrete event in question and the predictable consequences of the known possible actions and the extent to which said consequences promotes the good or not.
There may for example be situations where preventing private property via non-coercive means are superior to coercive means. For example, were an individual to set up a capitalist workplace within an anarchist society, anarchists would not necessarily have to resort to expropriation. Rather the Anarchists could spread propaganda among the workers informing them that they could work in a nearby federation and so encourage the workers to leave the capitalist workplace, or they could out-compete the capitalist workplace by selling the relevant commodities at a far lower price, or distributing them for free according to need. Both of these actions, if successful, would give the capitalist no choice but to close his firm and so cease to exploit workers as he would have little to no workers and little to no market share.
Indeed many Anarchists doubt that anybody would work for a capitalist under socialism in the first place. Kropotkin wrote that, “an anarchist society need not fear the advent of a Rothschild who would settle in its midst. If every member of the community knows that after a few hours of productive toil he will have a right to all the pleasures that civilization procures, and to those deeper sources of enjoyment which art and science offer to all who seek them, he will not sell his strength for a starvation wage. No one will volunteer to work for the enrichment of your Rothschild.”
But were a capitalist business to grow within an Anarchist society, despite the attempts by Social Anarchists to non-coercively prevent its growth, Social Anarchists would have a moral obligation to promote the normative considerations of stopping exploitation, domination and unfreedom via coercive means, on the condition that the use of coercion would result in a greater promotion of the good than were coercion to not be used. This coercion would not be targeted against the workers but the Capitalist, via the expropriation of her private property, and if necessary those who defend via violence the Capitalist’s claim to private property. This is because the moral right to voluntary association is only overridden, in this instance, if one is exploiting and dominating others, and since the workers are not doing this, were a Social Anarchist to coerce any worker they would be violating the workers moral right. It is also crucial to note that the Capitalist would not be sent to a prison, or a work camp or killed. The only thing that would happen to her is that she will be deprived of her private property, which is her means of exploiting and dominating workers, and possible banned from entering into any Anarchist federations because she is an enemy of the working class.
In summary, in virtue of an indirect consequentialist approach to ethics, individuals possess a moral right to voluntary association. This moral right trumps any normative consideration that the good ought to be promoted via coercion, except in instances of voluntary unfree association, in which case the moral right is overridden by the normative consideration of preventing unfreedom and specifically domination and exploitation. Although coercion is only justified prima facie and in any given concrete situation whether or not the good of preventing unfreedom will best be promoted via coercion can only be decided via an analyses of the situation itself and the predictable consequences of the known possible actions and the extent to which said consequences promotes the good or not.
Freedom as A Social Phenomenon
It should by now be clear that Social Anarchists advocate restricting an individuals freedom in order to prevent them from limiting the freedom of others, that is producing some unfreedom in order to create far more freedom overall. This view can be better understand when we consider the broader Social Anarchist attitude to freedom.
Social Anarchist believe that freedom is a social phenomenon and arises only in society and the relations between individuals. Bakunin wrote that, “freedom itself, the freedom of every man, is the ever-renewed effect of the great mass of physical, intellectual, and moral influences to which this man is subjected by the people surrounding him and the environment in which he was born and in which he passed his whole life.” Moreover, “man completely realizes his individual freedom as well as his personality only through the individuals who surround him, and thanks only to the labor and the collective power of society…Society, far from decreasing his freedom, on the contrary creates the individual freedom of all human beings. Society is the root, the tree, and liberty is its fruit.” From these remarks, it follows that “I can feel free only in the presence of and in relationship with other men.” It is further believed by Social Anarchists that freedom understood as such is not maximised by any form of organisation one could care to imagine, but arises and grows to great heights only under conditions favourable to liberty. Social Anarchists believe that such favourable conditions are a decentralised, non-hierarchical, stateless socialist society.
Given these beliefs Social Anarchists can understand restricting the freedom of those who organise in a centralised, hierarchical and capitalist manner as preserving the conditions from which freedom is maximised via limiting the freedom of those who threaten said conditions. Social Anarchists therefore believe that it is legitimate and just to restrict freedom if freedom would destroy the very conditions from which freedom itself arises. On this account, Social Anarchists advocate a society comprised primarily of free association with elements of coercion and freedom limiting as one of the means by which the free associations are protected from far greater coercion, tyranny and domination.
I shall conclude by answering the Anarcho-Capitalist questions directly. In answer to the first question, ‘‘would you use coercion in order to prevent capitalism?’, any Social Anarchist must answer yes and given their strong commitment to preventing exploitation answer so even in instances of voluntary capitalism because exploitation is exploitation, be it voluntary or involuntary and that while one possesses the moral right to free assocation one does not possess the moral right to unfree voluntary association. In answer to the second question, ‘if you would does that not contradict your alleged Anarchism?’, Social Anarchists must answer no because in prohibiting capitalism via coercion, and thereby limiting the freedom of another, they are promoting greater overall freedom via ending the domination and exploitation of workers, and protecting the conditions from which freedom itself is maximised.
I wish to end by stating that I hope that the theory I have outlined in this essay enables Social Anarchists to better understand and articulate these answers, and is not seen merely as intellectualizing of no worth to political anarchism. I wish also to note that I am well aware that this theory is insufficient to justify these conclusions, as it rests on the premise that capitalism is exploitative, a premise that has not been defended in this essay. The defence of this premise must be made either by economists who articulate and defend a theory of exploitation based on the extraction of surplus value or some non labour theory of value equivalent such as John Roemer’s theory of exploitation, or by ethicists who articulate and defend a theory of exploitation based on some moral notion of exploitation such as taking advantage of.
 For a critique of this account of Anarchism see my ‘Anarchism Is More Than Anti-Statism Parts 1 & 2’
 Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p27
 Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p28
 Rothbard, Man, Economy and State, p91
 Kropotkin, ‘Anarchism From The Enclopedia Brittanica 1910
 Berkman, What is Communist Anarchism
 Kropotkin, Words of A Rebel p206, 207
 Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread p61
 Kropotkin, Words of A Rebel p214
 Schmidt and Walt, Black Flame, p203
 Kropotkin, Act For Yourselves p105
 Malatesta, At The Cafe
 Berkman, What is Communist Anarchism
 Richards (Ed.); Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p53
 For more information see Sumner, ‘Rights’,
 For more information see Pettit, ‘Consequentialism’, A Companion to Ethics p230
 Kropotkin, Conquest of Bread
 Maximoff, (Ed.); The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, p167
 Bakunin, Man, Society and Freedom