Posts tagged Unions

Re: Worth reading


Thank you for your kind words.

You write: “But I also think there’s specialization and craft in these pursuits, just as there is in, say, cabinetmaking or watchmaking.”

Probably so, although I’m inclined to think that there is, or ought to be, much LESS specialization and craft than the professionalized government enforcers and judges would have you believe. To be sure, the government laws that are on the books today are tremendously complicated and require years of specialized training and practice to even begin to get a good grip on a relatively small specialty. But I think that that’s precisely because the people who make and use the laws have a political and a professional interest in making those laws extremely complicated, and in having them cover an extremely wide and not very well defined scope of human affairs. Libertarians and anarchists believe that regularized enforcement should cover a much more precisely delimited and a much, much smaller field than it currently does, so to some extent the problem vanishes along with the laws that libertarians and anarchists believe ought to be abolished.

For example, labor relations law as it presently exists is extremely complicated — it requires making a lot of very fine distinctions, balancing many different prerogatives granted to and regulatory limitations imposed upon unions, individual employees, and employers, etc. etc. etc. It takes a lot to even understand the basics of the situation, and the tricky details of a concrete case often can’t even be resolved without hashing out the issues in bureaucratic negotiations through the NLRB or in federal court. But the complexity of the legal situation is clearly a function of its being channeled through the federal regulatory bureaucracy. That situation clearly benefits NLRB bureaucrats and professional labor lawyers; it’s much less clear that it benefits the rank-and-file workers for whose benefit this sort of thing was supposedly constructed, but who are substantially deprived of any real control over the process by putting so much of it into the hands of professional legal experts. If agreed-upon norms of justice and enforcement were (as anarchists believe that they should be) limited only to the issue of protecting innocent people from being attacked by physical force, or vindicating their rights after the fact if they should be attacked — with all the rest to be handled by free contracts between the individual parties, unregimented by a government bureaucracy, and by whatever forms of nonviolent leverage and activism that the creativity of organized workers and a fighting union might devise — then it’s much less clear what need for specialization or professionalization there would be. (There might still be a lot of need for impartial arbitrators; but impartiality is distinct from technical expertise, and is something you can get by finding any third party of good will and good sense for the duration of the arbitration; it doesn’t require a distinct class of professional arbitrators.)

Generalizing from that case, I agree with Lysander Spooner that if the realm of enforcement were strictly limited to questions of interpersonal justice, then, quote:

“No objection can be made to these voluntary associations upon the ground that they would lack that knowledge of justice, as a science, which would be necessary to enable them to maintain justice, and themselves avoid doing injustice. Honesty, justice, natural law, is usually a very plain and simple matter, easily understood by common minds. Those who desire to know what it is, in any particular case, seldom have to go far to find it. It is true, it must be learned, like any other science. But it is also true that it is very easily learned. Although as illimitable in its applications as the infinite relations and dealings of men with each other, it is, nevertheless, made up of a few simple elementary principles, of the truth and justice of which every ordinary mind has an almost intuitive perception. And almost all men have the same perceptions of what constitutes justice, or of what justice requires, when they understand alike the facts from which their inferences are to be drawn.

“Men living in contact with each other, and having intercourse together, CANNOT AVOID learning natural law to a very great extent, even if they would. The dealing of men with men, their separate possessions and their individual wants, and the disposition of every man to demand, and insist upon, whatever he believes to be his due, and to resent and resist all invasions of what he believes to be his rights, are continually forcing upon their minds the questions, Is this act just? or is it unjust? Is this thing mine? or is it his? And these are questions of natural law; questions which, in regard to the great mass of cases, are answered alike by the human mind everywhere.”

–Lysander Spooner (1882), Natural Law, or the Science of Justice, section 4.

And I would follow up your second point by urging that it is dangerous, and to some degree irresponsible, to adopt large-scale systems of law and practice that practically require ordinary citizens to abandon the questions of political and interpersonal justice to a privileged, insular, and easily corrupted class of specialists.

But, secondly, I would also argue, further, that even if the requirements of justice ARE complicated enough in some particular case that it requires some specialized training and expertise to sort them out, or where correctly applying and implementing them requires specialized training and expertise in something else (e.g., for enforcers, training and expertise in de-escalating potentially violent situations may be a form of specialization well worth having), that seems to me like an argument for leaving the field open to many specialists, who can offer their services to anyone who is interested in retaining them (e.g. many private associations for arbitration and/or defense, which people go to on the basis of choice rather than being forced to go to one in particular on the basis of fixed territorial monopolies). Not so much an argument for limiting the field to a single fixed, institutionalized class of specialists (e.g. a government court or a government police force with rigidly and exclusively defined territorial or topical jurisdictions).

The first (non-monopolistic) solution really would make the business of law a skilled trade or profession, much like watchmaking or medicine, where people go to acknowledged experts freely, but aren’t forced to choose one particular expert on the basis of political status, and can choose another, on the basis of their own considered judgment and comfort levels, or for that matter can still choose none at all, if they decide to hazard the risks and trouble of doing it for themselves.

The second, monopolistic solution doesn’t make the business of law so much like skilled trades and professions, but rather like a feudal or command economy, in which people are assigned particular experts and forced to turn matters over to that particular expert rather than another, on the basis of the political status of the experts rather than on the basis of broadly and consensually acknowledged expertise. It’s that which, as an anarchist, I really object to.

Does that help? What do you think?

Re: Worth reading


Thank you for the kind mention, and for the thoughtful comments.

You write: “Henley says that the challenge is to ‘correct spontaneous malign orders without the tool of state violence.’ I’m not sure that circle can be squared — some countervailing force is needed against spontaneous malign orders, and that force will need some agreed on norms of justice and enforcement”

There are a couple of different kinds of malign spontaneous orders that need to be differentiated here.

The first are malign undesigned orders that emerge, in part, from diffuse forms of violence — what I called “invisible fist” processes, as with the socio-cultural ripple effects of stranger-rape and other prevalent forms of violence against women.

The second are malign orders that don’t emerge from diffuse forms of violence, but rather from voluntary interactions. Unlike some libertarians, I believe that there are plenty of examples of these, too (for example, certain kinds of widespread credentialism and elitism that have emerged over the past century, and which have a big effect on education and on the workplace). These malign undesigned orders are often intimately connected with social orders that have coercive elements (for example, I’d say that certain pernicious forms of credentialism and managerialism, which contribute to classism and to the exploitation of working folks, have an awful lot to do with consistent government intervention on behalf of the managerial class and against the deskilled proletariat over the past century — cf. for examples my essay “Scratching By” at or Kevin Carson’s Mutualist Blog at — but, while intimately connected, are not identical with them (it’s likely that even without that government intervention they might live on through institutionalized cultural prejudices, unless deliberately confronted and undermined).

Libertarians and anarchists can consistently endorse the use of physical force as part of the response to the former (violent) sort of undesigned order; they can’t consistently endorse the use of physical force as part of the response to the latter (non-violent, but still ugly) sort of undesigned order.

In the second case, though, I ought to stress that not abandoning the use of force doesn’t mean abandoning the use of confrontation or hardball tactics–they just have to be carried out through tactics and institutions outside the political arena, the legal arena, or the regulatory bureaucracy. (On what should be done instead, I’m really an old Leftist at heart: I think people should form fighting unions and community organizations, build counter-institutions and mutual aid societies, use targeted and general strikes, boycotts, work-to-rule, hardball forms of social ostracism, stage sit-ins, etc. etc. etc. Forget about the government; we can do this ourselves.)

In the first case, the use of countervailing physical force in defense of self or others is defense, not aggression, so it need not offend any libertarian or anarchist sensibilities (unless one is a principled pacifist–which I’m not, and which most libertarians and anarchists aren’t either). You worry that “that force will need some agreed on norms of justice and enforcement.” I’m inclined to agree with that (although we might disagree on what the importance of “agreement” is here). But supposing that we do agree, I don’t think it tells against Jim’s point. Agreed-upon norms of justice and enforcement aren’t in and of themselves a problem for anarchism or libertarianism. The question is how the agreement on those norms is brought about: whether the agreement comes about by general acquiescence to privileged demands, or whether it comes about by means of a broad consensus among equals.

Government ensures “agreement” upon these norms by erecting privileged institutions which are legally empowered to force everyone else to acquiesce to the norms they propound and act on.

Anarchy, on the other hand, doesn’t mean chaos or the break-up of any agreed-upon norms of justice or enforcement. (At least, that’s not what “anarchy” means in the mouths of anarchists who use the term.) What it does mean is that any agreement upon those norms should be brought about through the free interactions among equals and by the emergence of a broad social consensus.

Further, anarchists generally believe that that kind of consensus can rightfully be acted on by any free association that puts reasonable norms for justice and enforcement into practice — rather than being limited to a privileged class of government-approved cops, judges, etc. The idea here being that the justice of judgments and the righteousness of enforcement are things that ought to be assessed on the merits of the conduct itself, not according to the identity or the political status of the judge or the enforcer. That is to say, that it should be considered as a matter to be resolved by appeals to the content of the norms, rather than to the political status and prerogatives of the body propounding them.

So the ideal here is not to abolish any general norms of justice or enforcement, but rather to keep the ideal of consensus on norms while detaching the crafting of the consensus from the imposition of exclusive government-granted prerogatives.

Does that help clarify, or does it muddify?

The union makes us strong


Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I agree with you that worker ownership of the means of production wouldn’t instantly solve all the problems of labor, and that — for all I’ve said in the King Ludd post — there might be other reasons why it turns out not to be viable, or at least not universally practicable. My main point was just to show that one alleged problem with unionism, presented by De Coster and others as if it were intrinsic to unionism as such, was actually only a problem with the particular model of union organizing that both anti-union business types and the establishmentarian union bosses fetishize, and which the Wagner/Taft-Hartley system actively subsidizes and protects in the name of “industrial peace,” at the expense of competing organizing models — like, for example, the worker-ownership model of the IWW. Those other organizing models may have problems of their own, but they don’t have the problems that De Coster treats as intrinsic to unionism.

After all, one of the myriad justifications for profits going to the capitalist is that the capitalist takes on the most risks, using her own money as an entrepreneur to start an uncertain business, with a high failure rate, and also extending in time when she will get recompensated, assuming the business becomes successful. Whereas a poor laborer just scratching by may not have the wherewithal to take such a large risk, nor be willing or able to withhold present consumption for the chance at a bigger future payoff – the poor laborer just wants a certain payoff now, in the form of wages.

Well, O.K., sure, but two things.

First, insofar as this argument works, it seems like it’s an argument for capitalists to take a role and get a cut in the high-risk start-up period for a firm; not necessarily much of an argument for capitalists remaining as residual profit recipients after the firm is already well established. It’s perfectly possible to have both an infusion of working capital during the start-up period and a worker co-op at the end (either because the capitalist agrees to those terms, going in, or because the workers organize after a while and use their stronger bargaining position to convince her to disentangle herself and find a new entrepreneurial opportunity). The question is why that sort of thing doesn’t happen now. Maybe it’s because there’s some other reason why it’s not viable, but I’d suggest that a lot of the reason has to do with the way in which prevalent business models and prevalent union organizing models are supported and rigidified by government economic regimentation (as well as the establishmentarian business and union culture that that regimentation promotes).

Second, it’s true that, especially for very low-paid wage workers, a lot of their economic decisions are going to be made as a reaction to the extremely precarious economic situation that they are in. This will naturally tend to make people more risk-averse and more interested in certain and quick pay-offs than they might otherwise be. But the precarity isn’t a fixed natural fact; it’s largely the product of specific government policies which ratchet up fixed costs of living while ratcheting down opportunities for homesteading and labor, with workers’ livelihoods caught in the squeeze. Eliminate those policies and you’ll begin to see workers with more of their costs of living safely covered and with more in the way of back-up options should their current arrangement fail.

But becoming an investor and a risk-taker generally presupposes some level of acquired wealth, where you have taken care of basic needs and have some money left over to risk and save. Poor laborers aren’t generally going to have access to that sort of capital, and they are the ones who seem to benefit from organizing their labor the most.

Well, organizing your labor and providing a cushion of wealth to fall back on aren’t mutually exclusive options. Unions themselves can (and, in the past, often did) provide an institutional vehicle for helping cushion workers from economic falls — by improving wages, but, more importantly by providing institutions that help workers on the bum to find new work (e.g. union hiring halls, now illegal under Taft-Hartley) or for workers to help each other provide for themselves and their families during lean times (e.g. mutual aid societies, now partly illegal, or heavily regulated — if they do anything that might be construed by the government as selling insurance — and in any case crowded out by government welfare).

If it turns out that one aspect of radical labor solidarity (worker ownership of the means of production) works out best when accompanied by another aspect of radical labor solidarity (a vibrant network of mutual aid), well, I’m happy enough with that conclusion.

Re: Thick = Thin + Lifestyle


Well. The scope of the debate is not actually limited to what are commonly called “lifestyle” issues, unless you mean to expand the word “lifestyle” out from its conventional meaning into something much broader (i.e. so broad as to cover absolutely any feature of social or personal life other than those immediately connected with the use of violence). For example, in addition to dealing with genuine “lifestyle” issues (e.g. what kind of sex acts and with whom you should or should not treat as worth indulging in; whether or not you participate in traditional religious rituals in your community or subculture; etc.), the debate also touches on more strictly intellectual issues (e.g. what kinds of explicit philosophical positions, or tacit worldviews, best cohere with libertarianism), and also with material and institutional structures that are larger and more formalized than any individual lifestyle choice — e.g. I believe that a free economy should have a large and vibrant network of wildcat unions and grassroots mutual aid associations; whereas some other libertarians believe that a free economy should be dominated more or less exclusively by large-scale corporations or proprietorships, with little or no unionization in the workforce. The difference between these two views is not settled by the non-aggression principle alone (presumably, we both reject, on principle, all forms of coercive social or corporate welfare, all State patronage to either big business or to organized labor, etc. etc. etc.). But it’s not really a difference over individual lifestyles, either; it’s a difference over the relative merits of certain organizing structures within social society that are much larger than any individual and which come about through deliberate, entrepreneurial social coordination, not simply from a series of uncoordinated individual lifestyle changes.

A consequence could involve being ostracized or criticized by others who live by the NAP, but should not involve being lynched or defamed by them.

You’re right about that. Thick conceptions of libertarianism aren’t intended as a way of carrying non-libertarian policies into libertarianism. The point is to make clear what kinds of things are worth criticizing, ridiculing, ostracizing, boycotting, striking, or whatever, and what kinds of things are worth praising, celebrating, materially supporting, etc. A thick conception of libertarianism holds that libertarians, as such, have some good reasons to take a definite stance on that, even where what’s being criticized, ridiculed, ostracized, boycotted, struck against, praised, celebrated, materially supported, or whatever is not directly, logically tied to the question of aggression or liberty.