Anarchist Economics and the Occupy X Movement


There’s a lot of folks taking to the streets (and a Park) in the capitol of capital right now—Wall Street—and all over the world in response. The general sentiment seems to be that folks are fed up with a tiny elite controlling the lives of the rest of us—now on an unprecedented scale. This is made possible, in part, by a system of economics and government designed to enrich a few folks at the expense of the majority of us. That is, the social systems we’ve collectively built, and that we collectively maintain and reproduce, allow for this state of affairs.

Anarchists, however, typically suggest that structural inequalities of all kinds are unnecessary impediments to human freedom and social organization. These inequalities and hierarchies exist on an institutional level—we live under institutions such as capitalism and the state that divvy up access to power and resources based on any number of factors, but centralize control in the hands of elites. And these inequalities show up in, indeed create much of, our everyday lives.

Most of us spend our lives working for someone else—either directly or indirectly. Some of us have bosses where we work to enrich a few owners and have to rent ourselves out for a wage or salary so we can have access to the things everyone needs in order to live decent and dignified lives. Some of us can afford a few gadgets on top of that, but it doesn’t change the nature of the social relationship. Some work in co-ops and have a bit more say-so in the workplace, but they’re still slaves to capital and the pressures of living in a market economy. Still others work behind the scenes and are (typically, though not always) wageless, helping to reproduce those social relations. I’m talking here of child-rearing, housekeeping, emotional care, and other tasks that allow a workforce to exist and without which our social world would simply not function. Yet others are on the dole/welfare/social assistance—many are desperately trying to find work and a few others are avoiding work (because, let’s be honest here, work sucks).

And these problems intersect with other hierarchies and structural inequalities. That is, our economic system and our work lives are also intimately tied together with sexism; creating and maintaining a social world designed for the “able” bodied; racism and colonialism; strictly policed and confining notions of sexuality and gender; and so on. We also experience these hierarchies in our everyday lives and they are felt, as individuals, in vastly different ways depending on the constellations of identity that we’ve been assigned, historical and cultural context, etc.

Again, anarchists typically reject these things as necessary for human social organization. Rather, humans would flourish in a world without structured inequalities, such as those that arise from racism, capitalism, the state, sexism, heteronormativity, and so on.

To speak to some of the immediate concerns of the Occupy movement, where crisis, austerity, and poverty are prime motivating factors, anarchism offers some alternatives. Since we are the ones who reproduce this world in our everyday lives, we are also capable of refusing to do so anymore. And we could organize our social world in vastly different ways. We could create a world that isn’t designed for work, boredom, and banality—exploitation, oppression, and control. Rather, we could make a world predicated on our active participation in creating our lives, rather than that content being decided for us by a tiny, elite group.

Ironically, one of the near-constant criticisms of these sorts of ideas goes something like this:

“That kind of system would never work because of human nature. We’re just wired to be greedy. It’s evolution, survival of the fittest, and all that.”

There are two components of these (sometimes exasperating) arguments. The “human nature” part should be fairly easy to dispense with. Clearly humans are capable of all sorts of behaviors. If we were “wired” to be greedy, there wouldn’t be human moments of compassion, cooperation, and mutual aid (something one famous anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, wrote a bit about in his studies of evolutionary theory). However, when we live under institutions founded on the accumulation of wealth—of things—we tend to make judgments about “human nature” that reflect those institutions. What might we say about “human nature” in a society founded on cooperation instead of survival-of-the-fittest; mutual aid instead of an ethic of competition; the organic needs and desires of people instead of the production of so much useless shit that we are conditioned to want by a multi-billion dollar advertising industry? We would likely have an entirely different view of “human nature” and the ways we organize to meet our desires wouldn’t resemble the sick society we have inherited and currently (allow ourselves to) live in.

But the other component really troubles me. When people raise these objections, what do they mean by a “system” that “works”? Can we really say that the state and capitalism—the institutions that largely organize our economic life—“work”? Before this “crisis” even started, 80% of the world’s population lived on less than ten dollars a day (this is evidence that for most of the world, capitalism is always a crisis).(1) Is that a system that “works”? We produce enough food to feed everyone in the world. Yet, one in seven people around the world go hungry. (2) Is that a system that “works”? This crisis in capitalism certainly isn’t new either—indeed, capitalism is prone to periodic crises where people are thrown into the kinds of social turmoil we’re seeing the world over regularly. This crisis isn’t a new development, it’s a part of how capitalism functions. Is that a system that “works”?

Is a system where some people own four summer homes, twenty cars, home theatres, have maids, cooks, and coteries while entire countries largely live in poverty a system that is “working”? Are two world wars that killed more people in them than every war ever fought in human history up to that moment combined reflective of a system that “works”? Is the commodification—the thingification—of the entire non-human world, the destruction of landbases, the regular extinction of entire species, decreasing biodiversity, global warming—all of which are part and parcel of an economic system predicated on constant growth—is this a system that “works”?

Is a world where oppression is a social norm that mixes together with economic exploitation one that “works”? Just how brainwashed has the human population become that so many of us believe we need these unequal, unethical, horrific institutional arrangements in order to get by? When mass media ownership is nearly entirely concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy corporations, when capitalism’s best friend—the state—sets the curriculum standards for our compulsory education (setting the stage for the boredom and banality of a life of work for most of us) is it any wonder we’ve swallowed these lies?

The occupiers the world over know that something is wrong and needs fixed. They know that these systems we live under aren’t eternal and must change. But not all changes are equal. And if we want them to be lasting, we might want to start valuing the accumulation of freedom instead of commodities. We might look at our social systems and realize that they don’t “work.” We can consciously create alternatives through mass refusals. And, importantly, this extends far beyond economics into all spheres of life—challenging the very separations that make social domination possible.

This, I believe, is at the heart of the anarchist project. We might advance an “economics” that looks nothing like the way the discipline is currently organized—demolishing the myths of capitalism instead of peddling them as the priests of the dominant market religion. And we might advance a form of social organization that doesn’t resemble an “economy” in the conventional sense of the term, but allows for the conscious creation of our everyday lives instead of the compulsory labor we’re told is necessary for a system that “works,” but obviously doesn’t.


“If you have a lot of money, I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems, being rich ain’t one.”
—A dynamic FB duo

1 See
2 See

Deric Shannon is co-editor of Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Reader of Anarchism in the Academy (Routledge, 2009) and co-editor of the forthcoming The Accumulation of Freedom: Anarchist Writings on Anarchist Economics (AK Press, January 2012).

Article originally published by AK press

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