Anarchists argue for a society that is far more equal than the one that global capitalism has delivered to us, but are we going after an elusive prize? Will we find that the radical vision of freedom that we also promote is incompatible with equality, that in a free society the natural inequalities of strength, talent, intelligence and wisdom found in different individuals will all be revealed even more starkly than they are today? Will we find that in the end we will have to sacrifice either freedom or equality?
The argument in favour of social mobility goes that the gap between rich and poor is not the point, it's how easy a talented hard worker can cross it that is important. Race, gender, sexuality or a host of other things should not hold you back unnecessarily.
Do anarchists have anything interesting to say in response?
Labour should be paid
This blog is written from a mutualist perspective (the anarchist communist's answer would be different).
The first thing to do, ironically, is to affirm what appears to be the basic sentiment behind the idea that social mobility is important: If you put in the hard work you deserve the reward! We agree!
Benjamin Tucker said that unpaid labour was the "chief complaint of all socialists, and that labour should get its reward has been their chief contention". Why should this be so? Because, again in the words of Benjamin Tucker, "the natural wage of labour is it's product", if the worker isn't receiving the value they have added to the final product as compensation for their labour who is? In a capitalist economy it is the boss, the landlord and the banker, those who have "risen to the top" that are receiving it. And how? By grabbing. The idea that capitalism equates to a free market is so far fetched that it seems laughable to us, we can't get our heads around the idea that most people still believe it! Capitalism was founded by the state and has been closely managed by the state ever since (listen to this for more on that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjBVr5Myh6M - a reading of part of Kevin Carson's 'The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand').
Inequality and privilege
It is the fact that the state has ruthlessly attacked the freedoms of most of us and handed unearned privileges to others that has given us most of the chasm of inequality that social mobility intends to help us cross.
The ruling class's income is based on control, not production they add nothing to the final product. For this reason they must always be a small minority. If everyone was the boss the work wouldn't get done! So whether the boss came from a working class background and 'pulled himself up by the bootstraps' building his business from nothing or whether he simply inherited it is never going to matter that much to the majority of people who are permanently shut out from ownership of the means of production.
What of those who cannot work, or who are less skilled or less physically able? Doesn't this imply that they will be left with nothing?
Market fundamentalism is not a sensible basis for answering this question. There is no requirement whatsoever for mutualists to be market fundamentalists in fact if we have any sense we will abandon that notion.
Mutualism is a school of anarchism which permits a market economy, it also just as happily permits a gift economy. Left-libertarians do not imagine that people are perfect, we are clearly capable of great evil. We do contest, however, that humans are capable of living together and being both free and caring; that left to our own devices, away from the watchful eye of the state, we will not simply eat each other but that we will find ways to mutually aid each other when we need it. Mutualism gives us a basic framework of economic justice and legitimate possession of resources, as always it will be up to us all to ensure that no one is left to go without.
Is a genuinely 'socially mobile' capitalism possible anyway?
No. Cards on the table from the beginning. No it is not.
When we read articles about wonderful female CEOs or about the new black middle class most people are happy and see it as a sign of progress. Progress it may be. A sign that old prejudices are losing ground to a less hateful and unjust society. But there is a limit to how far this kind of progress is going to take us. When was the last time you read about better representation for historically oppressed groups as actual owners?
I can see the articles now: "Twenty up and coming female major shareholders" or "the 10 biggest landholding transsexuals"... unlikely? Yes, because the last stop on the social mobility train is the top of the managerial class. You cannot be promoted to the role of 'capitalist'. There is no equality commission for capitalists, no one saying at least 30% of the wealthiest individuals in the country should be women, it doesn't work that way. The capitalists run the system, its only sky above them.
Social mobility is just a sugar coating to help us swallow the pill easier. A nice idea that looks good at first but then you realise that it's just bollocks.