Monday, 19 January 2015

Freed Speech

Freed speech

The subject of free speech has been violently raised.

The narrative we have heard says that it is under attack. First it was the politically correct left wing and now its jihadi extremists (I won’t dignify them by calling them Muslims as all Muslims I have spoken to in the last few days have excommunicated the terrorists in no uncertain terms) who wanted to “teach us the limits of free speech”. In response cartoons which are clearly, and intentionally, offensive to many are being republished as a defiant stand for free speech and millions have marched behind political leaders in Paris to show their support for a free press and that they are not afraid.

Left-libertarians can be left somewhere in limbo, it seems wrong to celebrate ‘edgy white guys’ mocking the religion of a people group on whom our leaders, claiming to act in our name, have ordered wars that have killed millions. A people who in many parts of the world are on the receiving end of extremely unfair global trade rules which exploit them in order to bring us cheap goods such as clothing (Bangladesh and Pakistan) technological products (Turkey) and ferrous metals (Kazakhstan). A people group who can die in their scores and barely make the news... On top of this we see racism on the increase under the very thin veil of being against a religion, not a race. “But Charlie Hebdo treated every religion equally!” I hear the cry, well the world doesn’t treat every religion equally does it? Were there not more deserving targets? Further, we certainly can’t rally around political leaders in order to show “unity”… risk looking like we’re united with them? Not in this lifetime. The ‘world leaders’ have done more to curb free speech that any terrorist ever will.
Solidarity, not insults... too much to ask?
At the same time we cannot drop the idea that free speech is a fundamental human right. I don't want to live in a world where the generally accepted rules are that I can be punished for something I say.

In order to help us feel more united, as a movement and within ourselves, I wanted to think through how Charles Johnson’s conceptions of thick libertarianism ( might apply to a specifically left-libertarian vision of ‘thick freed speech’, i.e. something more than vulgar “free speech fundamentalism”.

Thickness in entailment

First and foremost let’s make sure we’re being consistent when we advocate free speech.

Yes, free speech includes the right for us to say things that will shock and offend but it also protects other people’s right to criticise us for that. Free speech does not come with a free audience, it does not include a positive right to be heard and accepted, it doesn’t protect you from getting laughed at and it doesn’t stop people deciding they don’t want to hang out with you anymore. Demanding that you be defended from protests, boycotts or social ostracism, even on a very wide, organised scale is a demand for privileged speech, not free speech.

Libertarians should commit ourselves to not crying; “but, free speech!” to anyone who is outraged at hearing our more… surprising… ideas about the world.  

A consistent defence of free speech must ensure that it comes with all that it entails. It must guarantee everyone gets to say whatever they like without the fear of punishment, even if they are angry and seem to hate us. In order to be consistent we must stand against all attacks on free speech whether they are sporadic or systematic, public or private. Let’s not stand up to terrorists without standing up to the state, let’s not stand up to the state without standing up to the boss at work and let’s not stand up to the boss at work without standing up to the authoritarian at home.  

Thickness in conjunction

As mentioned in Charles’ original article, this one rests on a shaky foundation at best, it hardly qualifies as a thickness:

What other commitments might defenders of free speech want to advocate just because they’re good too?

If I have anything to offer here it is the simply suggestion that we each apply both the non-aggression principle as well as the ‘don’t be an asshole’ principle to ourselves. I’m a firm believer that anarchists should be able to police themselves, mutually and horizontally and also on an individual level. It’s hardly controversial. (Yes if someone was stood over me detailing to me exactly what it means to ‘not be an asshole’ and instructing me not to be one “or else”, I’d be the first to tell them to go and shove it up theirs). We all know when we’re being an asshole really, and a little wisdom does no one any harm.

Thickness for application

If we are to fight for free speech (and I say “fight for” not ‘defend’ purposefully, we’d have to have freedom of speech already if we were going to defend it) what else will we want to promote in order to encourage its proper application? 

A realistic analysis of where it is being threatened most would be a start. The application of any libertarian principle needs an open mind, some books, some sources for news and the ability to think clearly and logically. Without these, the chances of applying the principle drastically fall. It follows that advocating free speech and hoping people will stand up for it without also advocating that people gain some learning and context just isn’t good enough. The result? The usual; people being quick to stand up for their own free speech and being neglectful or even hostile to others’.

In order to promote the proper application of free speech we must also recognise the difference between ‘privileged’ speech and true free speech. What I mean by this is more than just protecting the speech of a dominant group over that of a minority group. In our, so called, “free- market system” (actually existing) capitalists are protected from the full costs and debts that their system incurs. So too are some people protected from the costs of the words that come out of their mouths. Didn’t Edward Snowden prove to us all that the political class believe that they are entitled to certain ‘enhanced’ freedoms when it comes to speech? Don’t intellectual property laws grant certain people’s self-expression the privilege to extract rents from anyone who copies it? To pursue the libertarian of all speech will protect some and will remove the special protections others have got used to!

Thickness from Grounds

It’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into the main philosophical grounds we might all hold for a belief in individual liberties. We know that free speech is integral to what it means to be free though.

What specific grounds we bundle it up with do matter here though. It is sometimes, rightly, said that freedom of speech must include the right to offend otherwise it is pointless. Inoffensive speech will probably never come under attack! To an extent this is true but the incessant focus on the right to ‘offend’ raises some interesting questions. What does it say about the position of privilege that those who demand the right to offend hold in society? Causing offence, for me, leads my mind to assume that we are talking about smashing political correctness here… the right to be a racist? The right to be a bigot? Would I defend you to the death for these rights? Yes… if yours was the last cause available on earth to defend (which it probably never will be).  I would leave a racist to their fate and I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Assholes should go to the back of the queue.  If the fight for free speech is an assholes' project then I know I've got other things to worry about.

There is another bundle of rights that we would do better to see free speech as being a part of. The right to protest. The right to criticise, demonise, verbally attack, spread truth about/ spread helpful lies about... etc. those who are in power. Yes our freedom to talk about the weather and ask what we all got for Christmas is unlikely to come under attack. Let's be serious about what it is that does get people in to trouble... Yeah if you’re a right wing nut who believe that feminists and immigrants pose the biggest threat to your freedom you can jump up and down and scream when someone tells you not to use offensive language, those of us in the real world will continue to jump up and down and scream when those with authority try to tell us what to do, with the power to enforce it!

Strategic thickness

The question of how much we use our speech to promote fear and division is not directly covered by a thin conception of free speech but it definitely matters in a thicker one.

Imagine a scenario where we managed to liberate speech to the radical extent that we want to. What kinds of conditions would we need to prevail in order to keep things that way? How long will it take for our freedoms to erode again if there is a climate of fear and division? Fear is the enemy of free speech, it gives people grounds to give up on their own freedom and to suppress the speech of those who they are afraid of too. A strategic approach to free speech says that saying things that promote fear and division is anti- free speech in itself. Pilling scorn and hatred on Muslims and spreading fear about them may be an exercise in free speech but at the very same time it is damaging and hostile to the wider cause.

In addition to this a society stratified by class, as ours is, is always going to tend towards infringing on the freedoms of the working class speech. It's a standard way to keep the revolution at bay. In a society of equals there will be far, far less incentive for anyone to monitor the speech of others and try to enforce rules about what they can and can’t say. The fight against hierarchy, namely the fight for anarchism is, strategically also a fight for a world with the right conditions to achieve and maintain total freedom of speech.
Thickness from consequences

As I’ve said above, we don’t have free speech, we’re not there yet. But what would be different if we’d always had it?

What kinds of things should we support because in another world, the world that could have been but never was, we would have talked about if we’d been able to express ourselves openly and freely? Creativity, innovation, philosophy, science, leaning, wisdom, spirituality a better understanding of who we are and the world around us, for many of us the pleasure of having conversations about God that are liberated from the authoritarian myths that freedom haters have tacked on to the conversations we’re often having now. Good stuff. Because that’s what we’re relying on; that freedom, real freedom, produces good things, nice things, not destruction and hate and cruelty and fear and suspicion and petty attempts to establish hierarchy over others.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Anarchism without adjectives - an idea I gone and had.

Here's my idea, with a intro covering what I know about communism. If it's wrong the rest will be wrong!


Here is what I know about communism:

  • A communist society is a stateless, classless, propety-less society. 
  • In a communist society distribution of stuff would not be based on exchange but on mutual aid.
  • Communists believe in consensus decision making, where anyone who will be impacted by a decision gets a say in making it. 
It isn't much but I'm hoping I'm right to say that this is a very basic overview of what it is about.

Anarchism without adjectives

Why could market anarchists benefit from some communism?

Market anarchism is based on non-exploitative, free markets. This works fine when all parties within a deal are happy and consent to it. It doesn't have a very efficient method built in for handling negative externalities though. Say a workers co-op builds a factory and sets off producing goods for sale on a free market. What happens when their business pollutes the river that runs past it? The river that people use as a drinking supply 50 miles down stream? Sue them? Boycott them? hmmm... I'm not very convinced that these are really terribly effective solutions!

It would actually be much more efficient (for everyone) in cases where pollution was likely to be a risk to involve everyone in the decision making process in the beginning. That sounds awfully complicated and burdensome, I hear market anarchists cry! I'm not sure if the people relying on clean drinking water will care if it's a hassle though! It's in everyone's interest to live in a world where they have a say in issues that will really impact them. Only an asshole pollutes a river and then says "sue me". It's not about what we can force people to do, it's not about threatening to destroy the factory unless they get everyone's permission to build it, at the end of the day its about not being assholes. I think the likelihood of avoiding the kind of psychopathic behaviour that we see displayed in capitalist markets would be greatly reduced in a freed market anyway but beyond just economic incentives to be an asshole or the lack of them a post revolution society which operates with markets would benefit from rooting the values of consensus decision making in its culture and taking great offence when it was ignored when it shouldn't have been.

Why could anarcho-communism benefit from some markets?

What market anarchists have traditionally been concerned about is whether people would be truly free to associate/ disassociate with communities in a anarcho-communist society. I think that discussion has been had too many times and anarcho-communists are very clear that people would be entirely free. Instead what I'd be a bit worried about, in an anarcho-communist society, would be potential for a bureaucratic burden of consensus decision (due to blurred lines over who was truly affected by a decision and who just liked sticking their oar in at every opportunity) that could risk sucking up too much of everyone's time and energy.

What if my neighbour has a vegetable garden and is willing to barter some of her produce with some fruit I grew in my garden. There is pretty much zero risk of negative externalities. Do I want everyone who felt hungry in the neighbourhood that day to feel like they get to say in the decision? Obviously I'm displaying why I haven't embraced full communism yet but not really no! I'm an introvert, I don't like having to be around other people all the time and I don't speak up in meetings much. Markets, where used appropriately, could effectively be used to lighten the load of what must be decided upon communally and what people should feel free to decide on individually.

Am I being ridiculous or have I hit on something vaguely interesting?

Sunday, 4 January 2015

A welfare affair


The UK is currently experiencing the biggest overhaul of the welfare provision by the state in living memory. The aim, we are told, is to save money so the state can balance it's books and stop overspending.

Here are two statements that pose a paradox:

1. I'm opposed to it.
2. I'm a libertarian, a proper one, I don't want a government at all.

How can I be opposed to reforms that effectively shrink the state?

The reason is that I don't buy into a lot of the nonsense that I hear other libertarians saying when they talking about getting rid of the state. What it often sounds like is that the state is like a light switch turned on and we need to just turn it off, or in the case of gradualists the switch is one of those dimmer ones that we have to slowly turn around until it's off.

There are are obvious problems with the analogy but analogies are rarely perfect so instead of just dismissing it let me tinker with it:

Let's say that the state is the switch turned off instead of on. Turning the switch on turns on peace, order and justice and thus eliminates the state. I'm sure that most libertarians are still with me at this point.

Here is the trouble; when the switch goes on suddenly everyone can see, in the darkness only a few people who had grown accustomed to the darkness could see lets call them the ruling X... no no, that's too obvious, let's call them the X class. Anyway, when the light comes on it will become obvious that the 'X class' have used the chaos, violence and injustice of the darkness to rob us. And I don't just mean taxation.

Dropping the analogy for a moment just look into the history of land ownership, banking and the origins of capitalism in the 19th century. It was brutal.

If the state were to instantly vanish as the light of liberty came on it would leave behind a shadow, a ghost of itself, in the fact that the mega rich would still be mega rich, the 1% of families in the UK who own 70% of the land would still own 70% of the land, the capitalist bosses would still own the means of production and we'd still have to rent ourselves out to them to survive.  The ruling classes appropriation of all this stuff has been so fundamentally bound up with the violence of the state that we would still have a problem on our hands! Like when slavery ended in the USA but the slaves were turned into landless workers instead, has the fundamental inequality gone? No, it's here to this day!


The welfare state, in my view, is the ruling class's method of socialising the costs of their system. The costs are real, under capitalism (real capitalism that came about through empire building, forcible privatisation of the commons and impoverishment of the peasantry as they were driven into the cities to labour in factories, the capitalism that was originally referred to as 'industrial feudalism', that capitalism.) welfare is absolutely needed.

The question of how we dismantle the state is crucial. If we assume that the state is fundamentally a collectivist project by which the poor gang up to rob the productive rich by taxation and rules and regulations we will jump for joy as the welfare budgets get slashed. If we can see that the state is a weapon by which the parasitic ruling class robs the productive working class we will worry; if their system is still in place what will people do?

The current situation:

Let's take housing, it's the area I know most about:

A number of aspects of the welfare reforms in the UK over the past few years have contributed towards the rise in the number of people becoming homeless. Nationally this has led to a record high in the number of evictions we are seeing. A number more reforms have also made it harder for people who are homeless to get back into housing:

“There were 11,100 landlord repossessions by county court bailiffs in England and Wales between July and September this year - the highest quarterly figure since records began in 2000. It marks a 17% increase on the same period last year.” – Inside Housing

Here is a breakdown:

Housing benefit to be based on the cheapest 30% of properties instead of the cheapest 50% (2011)

There is now smaller pool of properties available for people who are on housing benefit to rent because only the cheapest 30% of all properties are available to them. This means lots of people are in competition over a smaller number of properties. As there is already a housing shortage this exacerbates it amongst those on housing benefits.

Localism and changes to the policy for allocating social housing (localism act 2011)

The localism act allowed local authorities to modify the way they allocate social housing. This has included introducing strict criteria on local area connections (meaning you have to have lived in the area for a set period of time, up to 10 years) It can be particularly difficult for homeless people to prove that they have been in a local area for a full two years. Homeless people are also more likely to move around, this now means that many will have no local area connection anywhere. In this case they are supposed to be picked up by the first local authority they present themselves too, in practice they will have to prove that they have no local area connection anywhere else which is a very difficult task.

Shared accommodation rate (2012)

Housing benefit will now only paid for a room in a shared house for anyone under 35 (used to be 25), there are less and less of those because landlords can make significantly more money by converting them into studio flats. This risks making more young people homeless as unemployment is higher amongst young people, meaning they are more likely to be on housing benefit but have fewer housing options available to them.

New rules regarding benefits sanctions (2012)

Tougher measures are in place to sanction people who are on JSA for things like missed appointments. This has adversely affected homeless people with around 30% of homeless people having been sanctioned compared with 3% of general claimants. If your JSA is stopped this automatically means that your housing benefit will be stopped too. Claimants often don’t realise this and only find out later on once their landlord is in touch with them saying they are in arrears on the rent.

“Bedroom tax” (2013)

The removal of the spare room subsidy which has come to be known as the “bedroom tax” has some impact on the number of people facing evictions. This also risks making more people homeless. It was the most widely publicised but it doesn't feel like it's made the biggest difference on the ground.

Scrapping of crisis loans (2013)

One of the biggest hurdles people have to face in the journey from homelessness to housing is getting rent in advance. Crisis loans used to provide this. Since April 2013 these have been scrapped with no effective replacement (Local emergency support, LES, does not cover rent in advance in most areas). Without the ability to get credit people are literally trapped in homelessness until someone is willing to simply hand money out to them (which, of course, those of us who work with homeless people are trying to arrange).

Scrapping of LES (2015)

Local emergency support which came in as a replacement for crisis loans is expected to be scrapped in April next year. It being means that those people who have relied on it for food and other assistance will no longer be able to get it, it also means that there is now going to be no chance of getting it changed to cover rent in advance in the future.

So, now what? Thousands of people are becoming homeless, we're facing a massive crisis and there is a housing shortage.

The answer

The answer is simple, we need to establish an order in which we want to rid ourselves of the state.
Let's not try to scrap housing welfare until planning laws have been scrapped and land reform has begun and so on...

We have to target our energies somewhere. Let's make sure we tackle corporate welfare before we recognise that were in a position where ordinary people aren't in need of welfare anymore. Let's make progress towards overhauling wage labour (by striking the roots, not enacting lots of pointless legislation through the state) as the dominant means of survival before we scrap our state education programmes etc. etc.

The costs of their system are very real. People are dying. It isn't right to be callous about this and just say; there should be no state so there should be no welfare state either. Real life demands we look at what's really happening, not just sticking to theory!