Problems of Anarchism


7. Collectivism. The Facts Speak

We are unable to go back to a time in which the property idea did not in some degree exist. For not only do the lowest types of man exhibit a keen sense of ownership, but sub-human animals also show distinct consciousness of it. And that the conception of property has throughout the various stages of civilization grown in an individualist direction is still more certain. In an earlier chapter it was pointed out that with human progress personal possession becomes ever more absolute and inviolable. Collectivists may attempt to refute these facts by pointing to the apparent growth of public property and industrial functions as evidence of the decline of the idea of personal property. This line of argument has been dealt with, and its invalidity from the viewpoint of sociological and economic science made sufficiently clear. We may now consider some broad and well-established truths which will leave no tangible room for doubt as to the soundness of the position we occupy. A comparison between the individual organism and the social organism has shown us that the tendency to supplant private by public activity, or voluntary industrial organization by compulsory collective organization, must inevitably be in the nature of a reversion, a social retrogression. And a study of the leading facts of social phenomena will render the same truth still more conclusive.

Let us compare different races and unlike social structures. Setting aside the savage and the barbarous, it is a mere truism that the more advanced the race the more complete do we find the development of individual property. The Russian peasantry still continue, in one form or another, the property customs of that early phase of social growth, the Village Community. Land till recently was held in common, but is fast giving place to the system of individual property. The methods of cultivation are still those belonging to the communal form. But the American agriculturalist, with an intensely individualized system of property, is vastly ahead of the communal peasants, both in his individualistic methods of cultivation and in material well-being. In many parts of Germany and central Europe the peasants also follow the communal land system, but they are ages behind the average British farmer, not to speak of the American, whose methods are based on the clearest recognition of private property and enterprise.

In China the regulative functions of government reach a point at present unknown in any State in western Europe; in Russia the authorities are so anxious for the welfare of the individual that almost every action from the cradle to the grave becomes a subject of their constant solicitude; and in Germany the functions exercised by State officials, and their minute and unlimited interference with the private life of each citizen, seem incredible, as they would be unbearable, to an Englishman or an American. These characteristics are simply extensions of the same principle which the paternalistic legislation of England and the United States is rapidly following, and in which social reformers like those referred to find so much encouragement. Yet I doubt whether the most enthusiastic paternalist, even Mr. Webb himself, is prepared to claim that the diffused autocracy of China, the brutal, regulative despotism of Russia, or the iron-bound, martial régime of Germany produces a higher type of society than the more capitalistic, individualistic, and unregulated English and American democracies. Moreover, the present fashion of historical research in the economic field has made trite the facts relating to the legal and authoritative regulation of industry and commerce, and the direction and restriction of each individual’s daily life, before the days of modern capitalism. Individualism—that is, personal freedom—had a back seat in past times, and private property was by no means secure. Still, if the Fabian view of the social organism is correct, the temporary revival of the same spirit in the handiwork of latter-day lawmakers is direct evidence of the evolution of society into Socialism.

Has the social organism, then, in its metamorphosis from mediævalism into capitalism, been retrograding? The answer to this question compels us either to give up entirely the theory of social evolution and ignore sociological facts, or to set aside the Fabian interpretation of it; the latter course will prove the better choice. In any case an application of the principles of social evolution which modern collectivists profess to accept unmistakably demonstrates that every step in the direction of compulsory collectivism or governmental control of property is reactionary and against the ultimate welfare of the race.

These reformers unceasingly enlarge on the blessings of the moderate amount of municipal Socialism already accomplished. Here the Nationalists find the monopolistic post-office an institution worthy of unbounded admiration and beyond the power of private enterprise to attain. The readers of Liberty, who have some little opportunity to judge, will doubtless sustain this view. In England we have Mr. Webb and others depicting the glories of aldermanic Socialism and flippantly admitting that it is made possible only by the creation of a gigantic and ever-increasing public debt, upon which a few years ago an annual tribute of over fifty million dollars was paid in the form of interest. Local rates are everywhere, says our Fabian author, in consequence rapidly rising. Now what more does the capitalist want than a safe opening for investment where there is the minimum of risk and a steady return? He would probably on an average receive less and be obliged to perform more service in return if he had himself to find employment in the open market for his capital. But the growth of this form of collectivism is no evidence at all that private property or enterprise is disappearing before public control. Yet it is the very point which our Fabian reformers are endeavoring to prove. On the contrary, it is the intensifying and perpetuation of the existing unjust system of property that is being effected. It does not strike even the first blow at the most rapacious of all foes to property and to the property producer. That foe is usury. Such advocates are the true bourgeois reformers. Society would still remain organized on a system of status. There would be three classes: first, the interest-takers, or bondholders, comprising all the existing capitalists; second, the bureaucracy, the entrepreneurs,—managers, law-makers, and go-betweens, the nominal rulers; third, there would still be the mass of people sustaining by their labor all three classes.

This conclusion remains unshaken till the Socialist reformers have demonstrated how to abolish interest and rent, which, they imagine, can be gradually confiscated by mere legislative enactment,—an economic fallacy.

Some of the effects of municipalization which are least noted by critics of collectivism will now be in order. In the English cities where the authorities maintain a close monopoly of the gaslight supply, electric lighting on an extensive scale is entirely unknown. Why? Because private enterprise in all such cases is debarred, legally, from entering into competition with the authorities. Their permission must be obtained before attempting to perform a service as private citizens for the public. Hence there is the spectacle of the people’s representatives in the name and on behalf of the public refusing to allow an industry to exist which can live only by performing a service the people require and demand. Would it not, if allowed, at once enter into competition with the Socialistic article, diminish the profits the public make out of themselves, and finally, perhaps, abolish the effete system altogether? Have not the practical Socialists of the city councils reason to be jealous of the would-be innovators? The latest methods in rapid transit in the cities are for kindred reasons barred out. Municipalities in one way or another control the existing systems; either as in Huddersfield owning and operating it, or as in Manchester possessing the tracks which they rent to the company that operates, or finally and more generally, as in the latter city and elsewhere, the members of the municipality individually as stockholders have financial interests at stake. The control or interference in any way by the city authorities results everywhere in establishing a monopoly, private or public, which resists improvement, neglects the people’s convenience, and, when they complain, defies them.

Wm. Bailie.

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