The Economics of Anarchy

anarchist revolt

After a bit of a break, I’m continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. This section discusses different anarchist approaches to economic organization. Contrary to the sectarians at the Socialist Party of Great Britain, just because I included a variety of perspectives does not indicate endorsement of any particular position.

Tree of Anarchy

The Economics of Anarchy

In the “economic” sphere, Murray Bookchin came to advocate “municipal control” of the economy by community assemblies, thereby abolishing the “economic” as a distinct social sphere by absorbing it into the “political” sphere (Volume Three, Selection 46), a reversal of Proudhon’s earlier argument that “political institutions must be lost in industrial organization” (Volume One, Selection 12). In order to avoid such community control from degenerating into a system of competing city-states, he advocated anarchist communism within each community (the abolition of private property and distribution according to need), and federalism between communities. Bookchin claimed that the “syndicalist alternative” of workers’ control “re-privatizes the economy into ‘self-managed’ collectives,” opening “the way to their degeneration into traditional forms of private property” (Volume Three, Selection 46).



However, most anarcho-syndicalists would respond that workers’ self-management would not be based on a simple factory council model of organization but would include self-managed communal, consumer, trade (or vocational), industrial and service organizations forming a complex network of interlocking groups in which factory councils would be unable to reconstitute themselves as autonomous private firms operating for their own profit (see, for example, Sansom, Volume Two, Selection 58, and Joyeaux, Volume Two, Selection 61), particularly when the economy as a whole would be organized along anarchist communist lines.

anarchist communism kropotkin

John Crump and Adam Buick have emphasized that selling, “as an act of exchange… could only take place between separate owners. Yet separate owners of parts of the social product are precisely what would not, and could not, exist” in an anarchist communist society. “With the replacement of exchange by common ownership what basically would happen is that wealth would cease to take the form of exchange value, so that all the expressions of this social relationship peculiar to an exchange economy, such as money and prices, would automatically disappear” (Volume Three, Selection 48).


Anarchists continue to debate the kind of economy compatible with their vision of a free society. Kevin Carson, updating Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker’s “mutualist” ideas, argues for a gradual transition to a stateless society through the creation of “alternative social infrastructure,” such as “producers’ and consumers’ co-ops, LETS [local exchange trading] systems and mutual banks, syndicalist industrial unions, tenant associations and rent strikes, neighbourhood associations, (non-police affiliated) crime-watch and cop-watch programs, voluntary courts for civil arbitration, community-supported agriculture, etc.” For Carson, “mutualism means building the kind of society we want here and now, based on grass-roots organization for voluntary cooperation and mutual aid—instead of waiting for the revolution.”

Unlike most other anarchists, Carson advocates the retention of market relations because when “firms and self-employed individuals deal with each other through market, rather than federal relations, there are no organizations superior to them. Rather than decisions being made by permanent organizations, which will inevitably serve as power bases for managers and ‘experts,’ decisions will be made by the invisible hand of the marketplace” (Volume Three, Selection 47).


John Crump and Adam Buick argue against reliance on market mechanisms and deny that there can be a gradual transition from capitalism to anarchist communism. In an anarchist communist society, “resources and labour would be allocated… by conscious decisions, not through the operation of economic laws acting with the same coercive force as laws of nature,” such as the “invisible hand” of the market. A “gradual evolution from a class society to a classless society is impossible because at some stage there would have to be a rupture which would deprive the state capitalist ruling class—be they well-meaning or, more likely, otherwise—of their exclusive control over the means of production” (Volume Three, Selection 48).

Luciano Lanza argues that there are ways to temper reliance on market mechanisms, for example by sharing profits among firms. But for him the main point is to move beyond the “logic of the market,” a society in which “the capitalist market defines every aspect of social coexistence,” to a society where, quoting Cornelius Castoriadis, “economics has been restored to its place as a mere auxiliary to human life rather than its ultimate purpose” (Volume Three, Selection 49). As George Benello puts it, “the goal is a society organized in such a fashion that the basic activities of living are carried out through organizations whose style and structure mirror the values sought for.”

Alexander Berkman

Because this “vision is a total one, rather than centered on specific issues and problems, projects of many sorts will reinforce the vision: co-operative schools, day care centers, community [credit] unions, newspapers, radio, and later producer enterprise.” As these projects proliferate, society becomes more “densely and intensively organized in an integrative fashion wherein the basic activities of life interrelate,” so that what comes to be “defended is not simply a set of discrete political goals, but a way of life” (Volume Two, Selection 44). This is yet another example of the “prefigurative politics” that anarchists have advocated and practiced since at least the time of Proudhon, and which has again come to the fore with the advent of “global justice” movements against neo-liberalism toward the end of the 20th century.

Robert Graham

emma goldman


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