Problems of Anarchism


6.—True Individualism Means Economic Freedom.

The attack on the principle of private property frequently with Socialists takes the form of an arraignment and denunciation of what they somewhat vaguely term Individualism. In their view it is synonymous with the worst features of the most unscrupulous phases of capitalism. It would seem that private enterprise and all individual effort directed toward acquiring wealth are for a like reason accursed, besides being in themselves unsocial, opposed to the public weal, and therefore unjust.

Harmonizing with such ideas are those which recognize in every extension of collective activity a blow at individualism, and in every encroachment on private property and individual liberty, with a correlative growth of public property and authoritative control, a positive step in social well-being and economic reform. That under the present system the evils exist which Socialists make private property responsible for, and would attempt to abolish by collective control, it is useless to deny. But if, by inductive reasoning, by citing unimpeachable facts, it can be shown that private property and individual enterprise are more conducive to human welfare than public property and collective enterprise, leaving out of consideration the hypothetical evidence of the benefits of the latter furnished by the unstinted imagination of dreamers about future social perfection; if it be established that, taking society as an organism, no scientific grounds exist for believing individualism to be in any way opposed to social progress, but rather that a movement in any other direction, as the abolition of private property, is necessarily and on fundamental principles a social retrogression; if it becomes manifest that the growing demand for governmental interference with the object of diminishing economic evils is due to greater consciousness of their existence and consequent desire for their removal, and not because collective authority is proved to be thus able to remove them; if it be made clear that such action can be but palliative, a mere substitute for the end to be achieved, that the removal of obstructions to free individualism rather than the increase of barriers to its development would bring more desirable results; and, finally, if the proposed remedy of collectivism would intensify the evils it is meant to cure, and is impotent as a permanent method, while freedom of property, of enterprise, and of opportunity offer more hope for a better society,—then the attack on individualism and private property at once falls to the ground.

All these propositions can be demonstrated by evidence which to the unprejudiced thinker will appear conclusive. Though a simple application of the principle which has been developed in the course of this work—namely, equal freedom—would alone clear away all doubts, yet I shall not discard induction where facts lie so near at hand.

In order to make myself perfectly plain and avoid all chance of misconception, I must here explain that where I use the term collectivism I also include in the accompanying arguments the broader conception of Communism. so far as the principles involved in the discussion are concerned, both these terms are of equal value. The adherents of collectivism and Communism respectively draw a dividing line, the former holding that common property in the implements of production—land, capital, etc.—is sufficient to ensure justice, leaving the distribution of the product to take place with some regard for individual merit, according to deed rather than need, while the latter would make common property and have distribution simply according to needs, aiming thus at absolute equality. But as both conceptions subordinate the individual to the collectivity, and put equality before liberty, the one being merely an incomplete version of the other, without any fundamental difference, it is not too much to claim that whatever argument or evidence tells against the principle in the one case weighs with no less force in the other, for in each it is the Communistic principle which is at fault.

The class of social reformers referred to at the beginning of this chapter includes the greater number of modern trade-unionists, labor leaders, and agitators, both in England and America. Many of them are unconscious Socialists, and would hotly repudiate being so called, but from our point of view there is no clear ground of distinction. One can hardly read or hear an utterance today from some of the sources just mentioned but what the ideas which the avowed Socialist, Mr. Webb, elaborates are met in the most unmistakable form. Let us sample a few of Mr. Webb’s own, for convenience of illustration. He makes economic inequality and individualism identical, and sees no remedy but in the destruction of the latter and the unlimited growth of collectivism. In Fabian Essays, p. 39, he says: The record of the century in English social history begins with the trial and hopeless failure of an almost complete individualism, but with the progress of political emancipation private ownership of the means of production has been in one direction or another successively regulated, limited, and superseded. The first proposition displays an utter recklessness in the use of words, as if it was possible for individualism—that is, freedom—to exist when the working people forming the vast majority were entirely disenfranchised, forbidden by law to organize for their own protection or to agitate or hold public meetings, and had no means of obtaining education or knowledge that might have enabled them to successfully fight their oppressors, economic and political. Then were they more helpless before their masters than at any subsequent time, and therefore more dependent; yet in the Fabian mind this period represents an almost complete individualism.

The second propositions again turns up in another form: The liberty of property owners to oppress the propertyless by the levy of the economic tribute of rent and interest began [and continues] to be circumscribed, pared away, obstructed, and forbidden in various directions (pages 46–47).

In reply it might be pointed out that as to rent his collaborator, G. B. Shaw, argues that private property must be abolished and Socialism established because rent tends to rise till no part of the produce but bare subsistence-wages is left to the producer. (See essay on Historic Basis.) And it is indisputable that rents have in fact unceasingly increased, absorbing at present about one-sixth of the total annual product in England. With regard to interest, where competition operates at all, the inevitable tendency of civilization is toward a lower and lower rate of profit and interest, in accordance with economic conditions that operate entirely independent of legislative enactments. Hence the fall in the rate of interest is not due to Socialistic laws.

In earlier chapters there will be found ample data to refute such statements as the following from the same source: The use of the new motors [speaking of modern machinery] has been for a generation destroying the individualist conception of property, and the landlord and capitalist are both finding that the steam engine is a Frankenstein which they had better not have raised, for with it comes Democracy, the study of political economy, and Socialism (page 38). Continuing the same idea, he says: Individual liberty in the sense of freedom to privately appropriate the means of production reached its maximum at the commencement of the century (page 40). All this is nothing but special pleading without foundation in fact. Next follows a piece of downright misrepresentation. We are told that Mr. Herbert Spencer and those who agree in his worship of individualism apparently desire to bring back the legal position which made possible the white slavery of which the sins of legislators have deprived us.

Such are the arguments that are meant to upset the principle of private property. Is it needful to refer to the absurdity of charging those who desire equal freedom for all and the abolition of every form of slavery with wanting to revive the condition of status and disability existing a century ago?

After enumerating the child labor, long hours, and other abuses which the weakness, ignorance, and legal disabilities of the working classes compelled them to endure, he audaciously concludes: These and other nameless iniquities will be found recorded as the results of freedom of contract and Laissez Faire in the impartial pages of successive blue books (page 41). People who employ methods so loose and inexact in discussing social problems are not likely to be much impressed with the importance of liberty as a factor in their solution. As for freedom of contract, a moment’s thought will make it evident that it can exist only between men who are free and independent in their relations with each other. No person who is really free and independent will contract with others to his own injury; it is only when he is dependent and economically un-free that the principle of contract, or voluntary agreement, can operate injuriously. And the greater part of the laboring portion of society are neither independent nor truly free; so that under the present monopolistic and legally privileged system the contracts they make are forced on them by necessity, their agreements, as in working for wages, are not voluntary, for there is no choice between submission and starvation.

But this result is not directly the outcome of capitalism; it is the consequence of the survival of conditions belonging to pre-capitalistic forms of society. Land monopoly, special legislation creating classes who enjoy privileges at the expense of others, the abnormal power of wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, are consequences of an un-free society and take their part in keeping the producers from obtaining the equivalent of their labor. If capitalism were not thus a superstructure reared upon the past, we should expect to see it develop into the ideal industrial society, in which each unit would be independent, and voluntary agreement between free men would replace the compulsory contracts into which most men are now driven.

Monopoly and privilege, as we have seen, are erroneously called individualism, and the latter is held up as the source of social injustice. Yet individualism, in the sense I have defined it, is the sworn foe to every vestige of privilege and monopoly.

And, after all, the most extreme Socialist is an individualist, and to that end points his whole philosophy. Happiness can be enjoyed only by each individual through sense-impression. Collective happiness otherwise is meaningless and impossible. There is no collective organ of sense, no Socialistic apparatus for distinguishing pleasure and pain, but in each individual alone exists the perceptive power, the possibility of being happy.

Wm. Bailie.

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.