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Toward A Really Social Safety Net

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 11 years ago, in 2013, on the World Wide Web.

These are consolidated from a pair of comments that I made in a thread back around last November on Thaddeus Russell’s Facebook wall. The thread was originally about some silly noise that comes up about once every four years, but it branched out into some interesting discussions about the left, individualist and libertarian perspectives, and so on. My interlocutor’s questions unfortunately seem to have disappeared from the thread, and I hate leaving writing locked up in a web silo, especially in the middle of a big, gradually composting discussion thread, so I’ve tried to condense it into a post here.

I’ve often been asked — by friendly-but-skeptical leftists, and even sometimes by fellow anti-capitalist anarchists — why market libertarians — who may be opposed to the government war machine, police, prisons, and all the other obviously destructive and repressive and regressive things done by the state, for fairly obvious reasons — are also so opposed to, and so hard on, social programs, like TANF, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, Social Security, etcetera. (The question is usually posed in terms of contrasting government programs that hurt and kill people with government programs that, at least in principle, are supposed to be helping people.) And there are different ways to think about this. To a great extent, left-wing market anarchists don’t spend a lot of time focusing on social programs, and generally insist on prioritizing the core state violence and primary interventions of war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, and bail-outs as categorically more important than, say, opposing Medicaid or complaining about government spending on food stamps. And as a matter of strategic priorities, I agree — opposing the crowbars will always be more important to my idea of liberation than imposing the crutches. But I don’t think that means that there is nothing to say about problems that are inherent to the welfare state and government social programs, or that they ought to be considered as neutral or benign. Left-wing market anarchists have important reasons to oppose them — reasons to oppose governmental social programs, not from the economic Right, but from the radical Left.

So when I am asked, what I can say is that this doesn’t have all of the reasons, but it does have some of them:

. . . The key to an understanding of relief-giving is in the functions it serves for the larger economic and political order, for relief is a secondary and supportive institution. Historical evidence suggests that relief arrangements are initiated or expanded during the occasional outbreaks of civil disorder produced by mass unemployment, and are then abolished or contracted when political stability is restored. We shall argue that expansive relief policies are designed to mute civil disorder, and restrictive ones to reinforce work norms. In other words, relief policies are cyclical–liberal or restrictive depending on the problems of regulation in the larger society with which government must contend. Since this view clearly belies the popular supposition that government social policies, including relief policies, are becoming progressively more responsible, humane, and generous, a few words about this popular supposition and its applicability to relief are in order.

There is no gainsaying that the role of government has expanded in those domestic matters called social welfare. One has only to look at the steadily increasing expenditures by local, state, and national governments for programs in housing, health care, education, and the like. . . . But most such social welfare activity has not greatly aided the poor, precisely because the poor ordinarily have little influence on government. Indeed, social welfare programs designed for other groups frequently ride roughshod over the poor, as when New Deal agricultural subsidies resulted in the displacement of great numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, or when urban renewal schemes deprived blacks of their urban neighborhoods. . . . As for relief programs themselves, the historical pattern is clearly not one of progressive liberalization; it is rather a record of periodically expanding and contracting relief rolls as the system performs its two main functions: maintaining civil order and enforcing work. . . . But much more should be understood of this mechanism than merely that it reinforces work norms. It also goes far toward defining and enforcing the terms on which different classes of people are made to do different kinds of work; relief arrangements, in other words, have a great deal to do with maintaining social and economic inequities. The indignities and cruelties of the dole are no deterrent to indolence among the rich; but for the poor person, the specter of ending up on the welfare or in the poorhouse makes any job at any wage a preferable alternative. And so the issue is not the relative merit of work itself; it is rather how some people are made to do the harshest work for the least reward.

–Francis Fox Piven & Richard A. Clower (1970)
Introduction to Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare

The left-wing market anarchist addition to this leftist analysis is, first, to point out the extent to which the forms of structural poverty, deprivation, marginalization, concentrations of wealth and ultimately the desperation and civil unrest that social programs are designed to mute, are not simple or inevitable offshoots of market profit-taking, but rather themselves manufactured by the political entrenchment of capitalism and constantly reinforced and sustained through precisely the core state violence and primary interventions — the war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, bail-outs, military-industrial complex, monopolies, and other regressive and repressive functions of government — that we prioritize. (On which, see Markets Not Capitalism, etc.) And, second, to insist on the essential importance of positive grassroots, community-based alternatives rather than trying to save or liberalize institutionalized government programs.

Social programs administered by government are a weak and alienating substitute for the grassroots, working-class institutions of mutual aid, labor solidarity and fighting unions that they were largely designed to crowd out, replace, or domesticate. Grassroots social movements aimed to provide relief and person-to-person solidarity by creating alternative institutions that would be in the hands of workers themselves, so that they could better take control of the conditions of their own lives and labor. Government social programs have systematically aimed to monopolize the relief while abandoning any effort at worker control, instead transferring power into the hands of a politically appointed bureaucracy, and largely leaving working folks’ interests at the mercy of party politics. See, for examples, David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State and Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business, or, more recently, scott crow’s Black Flags and Windmills or Occupy Sandy, etc.

So (as a left-wing market anarchist) I am all for social programs and a social safety net — but I should like them to be really genuinely social, rather than governmental. So in my view, a libertarian view on markets needn’t, and shouldn’t, have anything to do with economic Rightism or corporate power; it can just as easily mean advocating militant industrial unions, strikes, sit-ins, Food Not Bombs, neighborhood mutual aid, lodge practice contracts, Panther breakfasts, women’s self-help clinics, Common Ground, Occupy Sandy, etc. as models of grassroots social change. And — holding that these are models that are preferable to the politically-controlled, professional-class-dominated and highly paternalistic bureaucracies — OSHA, TANF, WIC, EEOC, Medicare, PPACA, FEMA, etc. — that political progressives are too often inclined to treat as the non-negotiable defining commitments of the economic Left.

* * *

In the original conversation that inspired this note, a friendly-but-skeptical progressive said that she appreciated the focus on grassroots, community-based forms of mutual aid, labor solidarity, and participatory safety nets; but wanted to know whether government programs might have a role to play given that grassroots organizing is always going to demand a very high level of social participation, and sometimes people might be looking for institutions that can handle some problems without everyone in the community constantly having to be constantly involved in everything that anyone might need. It was a good question, and I definitely understand the desire to be able to take a step back in some cases. (It’s certainly something I’ve often felt, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever done a lot of participating in a community effort or an activist project eventually does feel.) But what I’d want to say is that the important thing about grassroots, non-governmental group is not so much the fact of constant participation (I sure hope I don’t have to do that!) as the constant possibility of participation. And the possibility of withdrawal is if anything just as important (so if the local Food Not Bombs or Common Ground clinic becomes completely dysfunctional you can always leave and start devoting your efforts to something else more worthwhile. But if a county social-services office becomes completely dysfunctional, they typically stay paid regardless, since you don’t have any way to redirect how your personal tax dollars are allocated. That’s controlled by a political process and a fairly elaborate set of rules for evaluating civil-service performance, which are an awful lot of degrees removed from the people most aware of and directly affected by the dysfunction.)

In any case, as far as participation goes, sometimes you want to take a step back and let others do a lot of the work, and of course that can happen. (The lodges had officers and divided up organizational work among the members, Panther breakfasts and FNBs and free clinics served a lot of people in the community, some of whom volunteered to help out, lots of whom didn’t, and lots of whom would spend some time on and some time off.) But all of this is an important difference from the politically controlled programs, where there’s no opportunity to step up and take a participatory role, even if you want to; where if they are seriously underserving or misserving or treating their clients in manipulative or exploitative ways, there isn’t any real remedy because they hold all the power in the relationship and the only voice you have in the proceedings, if any at all, are the incredibly attenuated processes of trying to vote in different political parties, etc.

I don’t know how much that answered the question, in the end; but I hope it at least points in a fruitful direction for thinking about what an answer would look like.


9 replies to Toward A Really Social Safety Net Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Julia

    Two things here:

    1) Assuming the market system you advocate for would be efficient in distributing goods to where there is demand, why would this system need any elements of communism at all?

    2) If communism would work for the needy, why wouldn’t it work for everyone? I am not an anarchist communist for a few reasons, but I have to ask why communism would only be limited to a particular portion of the population if it would be efficient in distributing goods to those people?

    • Rad Geek

      In reverse order, (2) I did not say anything about limiting anything to “the needy;” and I’m actually more or less completely uninterested in that problem, because I think that charity models are almost always in direct contrast to the kind of social organizing that I’m interested in. Among the concrete examples of social efforts or social processes serving a safety-net function, a couple of the things I mentioned are intended as temporary measures for emergency need (e.g. Occupy Sandy or similar emergency-relief efforts), others are intended for particular groups defined by sex or demographics or interest or affinity (e.g. women’s self-help clinics, shopfloor strikes, sit-ins and occupations, etc.), and most are deliberately intended to encompass everyone in a neighborhood-scale or larger community, or the working class as a whole (e.g. industrial unions, Food Not Bombs shared meals, the use of mutual-aid or friendly societies for health care, insurance needs, etc.). So I don’t know why you think I’m suggesting limiting these mechanisms “to a particular portion of the population.” (It would be more accurate to say that I generally favor limiting these mechanisms to competitive, overlapping, non-monopolistic scope, and specific, narrowly-defined tasks — I mention networks for reclaiming food for free meals, organizations for free clinics, non-territorial massively overlapping and competing member-owned social or economic lodges for insuring against specific catastrophic costs, etc.; you’ll notice I don’t suggest (and I don’t think there’s much use in) any institutional structure or mechanism for something so all-encompassingly, all-consumingly broad as “distributing goods” to any segment of the population. So if this be “elements of communism,” it’s not “elements of communism limited to the needy.”

      But (1) I also deny the claim that any of these are instances of “communism” in any sense of the word “communism” that is meaningfully opposed to “the market system I advocate for,” since among other things they are (i) either directly based on, or easily conceived in terms of, co-operative pooling of individual property, (ii) in some cases (e.g. mutual-aid societies, esp. in the form of “lodge practice” and similar arrangements, or formal union agreements, constitutions, bylaws, etc.) often operate by means of explicit quid-pro-quo contracts, and (iii) exist within a framework of open entrepreneurial entry, free exit, and (iv) open competition for participation, support, resources, and uptake of services, and (v) because they are in fact deliberately limited in purpose and competing for constituencies, the overall comprehensive safety-net effect of their activities are largely coordinated by means of an emergent spontaneous order, not by means of deliberative planning. A mutual aid lodge practice contract isn’t part of “communism” on even the broadest Graeberian definition (it’s explicitly not coordinated by any kind of from-ability/to-needs basis; you pay your dues and you get the goods; or you don’t, and you don’t), nor are most genuinely participatory co-op or mutual aid projects. (Which is part of the reason communists do not as a rule like mutualism.)

      In any case, whether looking at the more mutual-ownershippy models, or the more gift-economyish models, for any of these things, I explicitly view everything I mentioned as part and parcel of the equilibrating social processes and negotiations by which market systems can possibly approach efficiency in distributing goods to where there is demand, and not because I’ve just arbitrarily expanded the term “market” to encompass everything, but because they straightforwardly and substantively line up with the defining elements of “the market system I advocate for.” Maybe you see the defining elements of market orders as something more than, or just other than the elements I’ve identified here, but you did ask about the “system,” I advocate for, so if you want me to focus on something else then you’d need to give me an argument for that. In any case, I think it’s fairly obvious from the entire passage in the second section of the post, about stepping in, bowing out, the possibility of participation, the possibility of withdrawal, and the space for competition, is making some very direct reference to the importance of elements (iii) and (iv) above. If (iii) and (iv) are “elements of communism” in your book, then I’m happy to say that elements of communism are not in tension with markets, but rather are part of any healthy market process. If they’re not (as they are not, for the many communist views that explicitly demand deliberative planning over experimental entry and exit, or which explicitly criticize competition as wasteful, destructive, or corrosive of solidarity), then I’ll happily let you know why I prefer the markety elements in the stuff I’m proposing over approaches that try to do roughly the same thing while dispensing with property, contract, competition, entrepreneurial discovery, or non-deliberative spontaneous coordination.

    • Julia

      By everything you’re telling me, it seems as though these “fraternal societies” were basically small-scale insurance companies. Even though I support the end of the welfare state and the replacement of it by self-organized alternatives, I question how likely it would be that a modern-day equivalent to a fraternal society would be able to afford healthcare equipment that’s wicked expensive or be able to provide health services more efficiently than, say, the NHS in the UK. A friend of mine from the UK told me that most of the fraternal societies which existed in the UK pre-NHS were very “tribalistic” as it were and only provided services to their members, not the wider population (he is coming from a utilitarian perspective, for the record). I am wondering if it’s a good idea to cheer on the collapse of the welfare state all while naively believing that a “collapse” will lead to the spontaneous creation of new institutions. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to build these new institutions first?

      Also, many of the things you listed (competition, etc.) are not unique to markets. You seem to want to reduce “the market” to mere trade and competition, when such things happen in non-market societies as well.

  2. Marcel Dubois

    “I question how likely it would be that a modern-day equivalent to a fraternal society would be able to afford healthcare equipment that’s wicked expensive or be able to provide health services more efficiently than, say, the NHS in the UK.”

    Then again, that equipment is not going to disappear with the state, is it? Do you mean to say that some things will require a lot of funding, and the state is more apt at funding big expensive things? Well, taxpayer money sure is easy money. But you could get research or development funded voluntarily just as well. Some projects are crowd-funded to the extent of tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes more. The factor-e-farm is a good example. You don’t think important equipment to provide health services more efficiently would find enough funders among a population of hundreds of millions that would benefit immensely from it? I’m not worried about our power to do great and important things. I’m more worried about the opposite, the state’s power to do bad and useless things.

· November 2013 ·

  1. Discussed at bleedingheartlibertarians.com

    Four Questions for Amia Srinivasan | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] that many recipients of government aid feel today. Any feasible social safety net will need to be genuinely social, by which I mean completely disconnected from […]

  2. Discussed at libertarianalliance.wordpress.com

    Four Questions for Amia Srinivasan | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG:

    […] that many recipients of government aid feel today. Any feasible social safety net will need to be genuinely social, by which I mean completely disconnected from […]

— 2014 —

  1. Discussed at abolishwork.com

    The Use of the Word Capitalism (Or, My Follow up Notes to “Introduction” Part 2) | Abolish Work:

    […] it is backed by solidaristic communities of mutual aid (also see here, here , here and here), social safety nets and mutual banks that way people are able to work, play, slack, be idle or whatever they want to do […]

— 2015 —

  1. Danyl Strype

    Here in Aotearoa (NZ), ensuring social welfare without the state has always been a contentious point in pub and party discussions among motley collections of political radicals and alternative subculture types. Even most of us anarchists tend to fall into a pragmatic defence of state-issued benefits as a short term necessity, not least because so many of us struggle to find or create any alternative to subsisting on them.

    What’s interesting at the moment is that there seems to be a resurgence of interest from both leftist radicals and right-leaning libertarians in the idea of a government-managed Universal Basic Income. The lefty in me likes it because it provides everyone with a basic level of social welfare without the discrimination (negative or positive), surveillance, and byzantine bureaucracy of the current punitive benefit system, it could allow us to bootstrap a plethora of new forms of economic collective independent of both state and corporations, and it offers a potential solution to the massive income and wealth inequalities which have built up in our society. The part of me that identifies with pro-market libertarianism likes it because it allows people to have a go at starting businesses without having to risk total poverty, and having more money sloshing around the real economy means new and smaller businesses are less likely to fail due to inability to pay on the part of those who want their goods or services (particularly those experimenting with more sustainable practice, producing free code software or CreativeCommons work etc). It means constantly moving money down to the periphery where its needed, hopefully balancing the tendency in financialized capitalism of money flowing up to the centre.

    The problem with advocating for UBI though is well summed up in your article here. Even if we succeed, and a governing party puts a UBI in place, a future government could decide to dismantle it. It doesn’t strengthen the capacity of non-state (and non-corporate) networks to provide for our social welfare ourselves. So as a solution it lacks long term resilience.

    Having said that, campaigning for a UBI, or making use of one if we were to succeed, is not mutually exclusive with the kind of grassroots, networked, horizontal, and spontaneous/ autonomous organizing you describe. There are lots of interesting experiments going on here with social enterprise (aiming to make a living rather than a profit by providing public goods and social services through hybrid business models) and permaculture (coordinating work and resources to generate goods – especially food – with low/no cash inputs), and I see a UBI as a way to help bootstrap these models, rather than a substitute for them.

— 2017 —

  1. Discussed at www.pressingthebutton.com

    From Rothbard to Landauer: The Practice of Anarchism « Pressing the Button:

    […] can take many forms. For some, it may mean setting up networks for mutual aid, thereby creating a truly social safety net as opposed to the state’s welfare programs. It might mean providing disaster relief through […]

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