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Economic Withdrawal

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"Good God, what suffering, what martyrdom all this involves! To be occupied night and day in planning to please one person, and yet to fear him more than anyone else in the world; to be always on the watch, ears open, wondering whence the blow will come; to search out conspiracy, to be on guard against snares, to scan the faces of companions for signs of treachery, to smile at everybody and be mortally afraid of all, to be sure of nobody, either as an open enemy or as a reliable friend; showing always a gay countenance despite an apprehensive heart, unable to be joyous yet not daring to be sad!"

No, this is not a description of the average American workplace, though a disturbing resemblance is profoundly unmistakable. Rather, the above text is a description of life under tyranny from the "Discourse of Voluntary Servitude" written by Etienne de La Boetie in approximately 1552. [1]

Has "life" really changed that little in the course of 500-years? "Good God", indeed.

Does it really have to be this way? Not at all, according to David Schweickart, professor of philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the book "After Capitalism". [2] Though Schweickart's book was published in 2002, I didn't discover it until about a year ago in my continuing search for a viable "alternative" to Capitalism. But while I enthusiastically applauded Schweickart's outline of "Economic Democracy", [3] [4] I was still left wondering about an effective strategy for getting "from here to there".

"How in the world can we get from here to there, from a world of tyranny to a world of freedom?" This is just one of the many questions discussed by Murray N. Rothbard in his 1975 critique of La Boetie entitled "The Politics of Obedience". For a number of reasons, I found myself cheering once again as I read Rothbard's analysis: 1) Tyranny cannot exist without public consent, and is therefore entirely retractable; 2) Rejection of tyranny does not necessitate "anarchy" or a rejection of all forms of government; and 3) "If a free society were ever to be established, then, the chances for its maintaining itself would be excellent." [5]

But perhaps the most exciting conclusion to be drawn from Rothbard's essay is:

"If tyranny really rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a non-violent revolution."

This analysis aligns nicely with Martin Luther King's suggested "economic withdrawal". While Dr. King's original intent might have been temporary leverage for negotiation based on consumption (i.e.; boycott), [6] his wife Coretta later expanded the idea more universally to suggest withdrawal from the system itself in the democratic interest of one person, one vote. [7] Based on some fundamental assumptions regarding Capitalism, I have long believed such withdrawal from the existing system should be permanent and rooted in production. As Rothbard suggests, "Tyrants need not be expropriated by force; they need only be deprived of the public’s continuing supply of funds and resources".

The greatest "resource" in any society is the capacity of human beings to produce more than they are able to consume. Throughout human history this capacity has been routinely expropriated by tyrants through the systems of Slavery, Feudalism or Capitalism -- all of which amount to some form of mass enslavement. The main differences are that with each systemic evolution, 1) the "leash" gets a little longer and 2) exploitation becomes a little more obscured -- immeasurably expanding production and the disparities of wealth and income. To minimize those disparities and to bring production into more sustainable balance with nature, the next step is for society to snap the leash (umbilical cord) altogether by withdrawing consent for enslavement.

But Rothbard and La Boetie further observe a strategy is needed that must be initiated by a "cadre" to educate the masses about an alternative society. Withdrawal from the existing system (Capitalism) is impractical if not impossible without developing a alternative system. I would carry this one step further to suggest a strategy usually involves a target. Capitalism conveniently provides one called -- "the workplace".

Specifically, the root of Capitalism is unequal exchange -- an inherently adversarial relationship -- between workers and employers called "wage-labor". Workers receive relatively fixed "wages" for their productive activities while passive owners called "employers" take the rest. Though wages are supposedly intended to be sufficient to keep workers alive so they can return to work the next day, this is not always the case. In fact, modern workers typically find themselves working more than one job and incurring bank debt (plus interest) just to pay the rent or mortgage and to keep their families fed. As La Boetie suggests,

"The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them".

The most obvious withdrawal strategy in all these regards is to simply remove both wages and employers from the workplace altogether, transforming the existing system of wage-labor to a far more democratic system of "Worker Cooperatives". This strategy doesn't solve all the world's problems overnight, particularly the ecological ones for which there may be no human solution. But it does directly target the heart of Capitalism, which is the root of virtually every modern problem known to mankind including ecological imbalance. This is a tangible way for the "cadre" -- the "vanguard" of the movement as Rothbard calls them (us) -- to effectively and nonviolently withdraw our support from the existing system in favor of a new one.

Until I saw Rothbard's use of the term "cadre" I had often considered this group a "catalyst" that both initiates and accelerates a chemical (or socioeconomic) reaction. The term "economic catalyst" is is widely used in in the field of economy to describe entrepreneurs or companies who precipate a fundamental change in business or technology. [8] But both terms seem extremely applicable, as "cadre" is a nucleus of military personnel capable of expansion; a small unit serving as part of or as the nucleus of a larger political movement. Rothbard also uses the term "vanguard": the position of greatest advancement; the leading position in any movement or field; the leading units moving at the head of an army; any creative group active in the innovation and application of new concepts and techniques in a given field.

All these terms suggest a need for some group of people who "understand the reality of the situation" -- "who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off" -- to collaboratively lead the way in educating others. The general challenges for this group are not merely to deride the government or the existing system, but to effect nonviolent revolution by 1) generating "refusal of consent among the mass", and 2) splitting off "a portion of the disaffected privileged bureaucracy".

But education cannot begin until someone actually wants to learn. So the "cadre" must be prepared not only to teach, but also to present a real-world antithesis -- a sparkling new example -- which is significantly more attractive than the existing status quo. Thus, any sort of nonviolent "revolution" must be a program of attraction rather than promotion. Unfortunately, this presents a number of real-world problems. Let's first discuss those suggested by Rothbard and La Boetie, and save the biggest one for last.

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David Kendall lives in WA and is concerned about the future of our world.
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