Yet another letter on Kropotkin

Well, Peter Gibson has written another surreal letter to Freedom on Kropotkin. I had to reply, as I hate to see such a misrepresentation of mutual aid go unanswered. And on that note, AK Press UK are looking into printing costs for my essay on Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, which must be a good sign! And if there is a good year to produce an in depth evaluation of Kropotkin's ideas this would be it! What with Darwin and all that... There will be a few changes in the printed version compared to the current web article, but once it is print I'll update it.

Other than replying to nutters in Freedom, I've been revising the first three sections of section I of AFAQ. The plan is to revise this in three parts and, so far at least, things seem to be on schedule. And, I have to say, that this work came in handy when I talked about The Economics of Anarchism at the Radical Routes conference last Saturday. Here is the blurb for the meeting:

Twenty years after the fall of state socialism and capitalism is in crisis, again. Neo-liberalism has imploded and people are looking for change. What is the alternative? Libertarian socialism, argue anarchists. This meeting will sketch the basics of a free economy, its building blocks of co-operation, self-management, free association and federalism from the bottom-up. It will discuss the evolution of anarchist economics, from mutualism, through anarchist collectivism to libertarian communism in order to show that there is an alternative to our current economic system and the hierarchies, inequalities and crises it produces.

I thought it went well, although, obviously, it was a sympathetic crowd.... If I have time I'll write up my notes.

I'm also working on the Proudhon Reader, which I'm enjoying (must be the anarcho-historian in me!). I'm trying to make the translations more consistent and correct. For example, Proudhon's "salariat" has been translated as wages (by Tucker), wage system (by Robinson), wage worker (by whoever translated Marx) and wage-labour (by Enrenberg). Wages is definitely wrong while wage system is somewhat misleading, particularly as subsequent anarchists like Kropotkin used the term to refer to any distribution system based on deed rather than need (and Proudhon used the term "wages" to describe the income of workers in co-operatives!). So, all things considered, wage-labour seems the most appropriate (and is makes more sense of Proudhon's continual support of co-operatives!).

I've also corrected other parts of Robinson's translation of General Idea of the Revolution, as he used "town" as the equivalent of "commune". However, commune has a wider meaning than this as it was, and is, the lowest level of administrative division in the French Republic. In France, a commune can be a city of 2 million inhabitants (such as Paris); a town of 10,000; or just a 10-person hamlet. Also, using commune is more in-line with subsequent social anarchist theory. Similarly, where Robinson used unions it would be better to use "societies" as Proudhon was talking of workers' associations (co-operatives) rather than trade or industrial unions. Suffice to say, I've footnoted any changes and indicated what the original translation was.

I've just finished re-reading Proudhon's System of Economical Contradictions and now going through Marx's The Poverty of Philosophy. The latter is staggering in its spitefulness -- Marx quotes Proudhon out of context, ignores his sarcasm and takes his metaphors and abstractions literally! Any valid points made (and there a many) are lost in the general bile. I can see why the book had little impact at the time, as most radicals would have read Proudhon and saw how Marx had taken liberties with it. And I can see why most Marxists think it is a classic, because it would never cross their minds to read Proudhon! What is interesting is the plagiarism, when Marx lifts Proudhon's own words without mentioning who said it first. For example, Proudhon states the following:

"M. de Sismondi, like all men of patriarchal ideas, would like the division of labour, with machinery and manufactures, to be abandoned, and each family to return to the system of primitive indivision, -- that is, to each one by himself, each one for himself, in the most literal meaning of the words. That would be to retrograde; it is impossible."

Here is Marx:

"Those who, like Sismondi, would return to the just proportion of production, while conserving the existing bases of society, are reactionary, since, to be consistent, they must also desire to re-establish all the other conditions of past times."

Of course, most Marxists would say that Proudhon sought a similar return to pre-industrial life (see, for example, Donny Gluckstein and his book on the Paris Commune, which I have critiqued at length). Why? Because of Marx's The Poverty of Philosophy! And I should note that if seeking a system of co-operatives based on labour-notes means a return to pre-industrial life then Marx and Engels also advocated such a return as this was suggested by them as a means of transition to communism...

I should also note that given how many Marxists think Marx was extremely witty in reversing the sub-title of Proudhon’s book, it is useful to point out that he was plagiarising Proudhon: "Modern philosophers, after collecting and classifying their annals, have been led by the nature of their labours to deal also with history: then it was that they saw, not without surprise, that the history of philosophy was the same thing at bottom as the philosophy of history." I wonder what Marx would have called his work if Proudhon had not written that...

It almost seems redundant to write this, but given how Marxists shriek when you make positive comments about Proudhon I had better make the following statement: Attempts to show that Proudhon made significant contributions to the critique of capitalism and that Marx utilised and developed these insights does not mean we should reject Marx's analysis! Rather, it is a case of giving credit where credit is due... It also suggests we need to build upon and develop Marx just as Marx built upon and developed the work of earlier socialists (like Proudhon). Although we can probably do without the personal attacks and selective quoting...

Finally, before the letter, a few useful links. Steve Keen does not hold back when disagreeing with neo-classical economists on whether economics itself contributed to the current crisis: What a Load of Bollocks. As his comments fields are full of supporters of "Austrian" economics, plugging their flawed ideology, Keen has promised to post specifically on their ideas -- which should be interesting. I've been thinking of consolidating all my previous blogs on the flaws in "Austrian" business cycle theory, although I'm not sure if I'll get the time...

Here are a few interesting links. First, neo-liberalism has been pretty good for the top 1%:


"For the top one percent, that’s a pretty impressive period. For the next 19 percent, there’s something happening. But for the bottom 80 percent, there’s just very little going on in terms of real income growth."

The whole notion of "trickle-down" economics has been effectively refuted, I would say. In fact, Trickle Down...R.I.P.. Also see Refuted economic doctrines #5: Trickle down and Refuted economic doctrines #8: US labor market superiority. And in terms of outcomes American capitalism is not very good (assuming you are in the bottom 80%, of course). Perhaps unsurprising, if you have read sections C.9 and C.10 of AFAQ...

And before the letter to Freedom, I should point to my fellow inhabitants of the UK that there is the Anarchist Movement Conference in London on June 6th and 7th. I'll be there.

Until I blog again, be seeing you...

Dear Freedom

I see that, yet again, Peter Gibson (9th May, 2009) did not let facts nor logic get in the way of a writing letter to Freedom! All the usual Gibson-isms are there, the lack of understanding of Kropotkin, the baseless assertions of what his critics really think, the woeful ignorance of the subject matter and the bizarre examples! As such, it is difficult to know where to start as there is such a wealth of material to choose from…

Best to start with the wonderfully wrong “just-so” story of “exploitative capitalist mutants” undermining libertarian communism. It almost seems like Gibson has not read The Selfish Gene, for the debunking of his little fable can be found in Dawkins’ classic. Dawkins summarises Robert Trivers’ reciprocal altruism in chapter 10 of that book, later expanding on this in a chapter entitled “Nice guys finish first” which shows how co-operative behaviour is superior, in terms of evolutionary survival, than competitive ones. The winning strategy, “Tit for Tat”, worked by co-operating by default and subsequently repeat (reciprocate) what the other player did on the previous move. Significantly, co-operative strategies were consistently the best ones.

“Tit for Tat” rewards co-operative behaviour and punishes those who do not reciprocate, something Kropotkin indicated in Mutual Aid incidentally. In The Conquest of Bread, and elsewhere, he showed how the individuals in a group within a free society can protect themselves from anti-social activities of their members by not co-operating with them or asking them to leave: the tit-for-tat refusal of reciprocity to uncooperative individuals. So, to use Dawkins’ terminology, Kropotkin does not assume mutual aid implies that individuals are “indiscriminate altruists” (or “suckers”) but rather are "grudgers”, individuals who co-operate but “if any individual cheats them, they remember the incident and bear a grudge.” So a free society need not fear “exploitative capitalist mutants.”

Gibson seems unaware that the gene based perspective he so loves, but does not understand, has, ironically, allowed group selection back into the framework. As Kim Sterelny (Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest) summaries, it is “now uncontroversial” that an embrace of gene selection “need not reject group selection” as “the evolution of the organism itself involves” the same problems usually associated with group selection. Both are claims about vehicles.

But Gibson consistently confuses individuals (vehicles) with their genes (replicators), stating that “one individual is not going to promote the genes of another.” Since we are all members of the same species (Gibson's mutterings otherwise not-with-standing) and share genes in common, he simply cannot assert that our genes will not make us act co-operatively or altruistically (which he simplistically equates with self-sacrifice). Unless, of course, he thinks that we do not share genes in common...

Darwin, like Kropotkin, “wrote before Mendel and was unaware of genes” yet he also noted that co-operation gave its practitioners the “selective advantage" Gibson ignorantly dismisses. I wonder if Gibson thinks this “might excuse his mistake” as well? And what of, say, Dawkins who notes, like Kropotkin, how animals have evolved to “prosper from mutual co-operation”? Perhaps Dawkins has “lost the plot” by, like Donald Rooum, simply summarising the scientific consensus that “reciprocal altruism and cooperation give a selective advantage to animals”?

Gibson, in short, fails to comprehend that modern evolutionary theory agrees with Kropotkin that co-operation ensures survival. “It is now widely understood,” Dawkins states, “that altruism at the level of the individual organism can be a means by which the underlying genes maximise their self-interest.” But what does the author of The Selfish Gene know of selfish genes and the benefits of co-operation to animals?

So much for Gibson, who unsurprisingly contradicts himself. After proclaiming that “to have selective advantage . . . implies competition” and so “they, we, need to be selfish” he then turns around and proclaims that "co-operators and exploiters” are in a “balance" and the “two strategies come to co-exist”! Gibson cannot have it both ways.

He then proclaims that competition and co-operation “are found in every one.” Somewhat ironically, he is simply repeating Kropotkin: “the relative amount of individualist and mutual aid spirit are among the most changeable features of man . . . their relative amounts are seen to change in individuals and even societies with a rapidity which would strike the sociologist if only he paid attention to the subject, and analysed the corresponding facts.” Yet, according to Gibson, Kropotkin “used this belief” (in “the happy bunny society, all for one and one for all”) to “justify for an anarchist society”! Yet, clearly, Kropotkin’s intellectual warren includes Gibson....

As Daniel P. Todes, who actually paid attention when he read Mutual Aid, correctly summarises, for Kropotkin intraspecific relations “contained elements of both competition and co-operation, the relative importance of which varied according to circumstances.” Human history also “testified to a constant struggle between tendencies toward competition and co-operation.” (Darwin Without Malthus)

Nor, I must note, was Kropotkin a group selectionist, regardless of Gibson's assertions. As Stephen Jay Gould noted, Kropotkin “also (and often) recognised that selection for mutual aid directly benefits each individual in its own struggle for personal success.” And so he was aware that “result of struggle for existence may be co-operation rather than competition, but mutual aid must benefit individual organisms in Darwin’s world of explanation” and so “did include the orthodox solution as his primary justification for mutual aid.” That drains any attempt to foster group-selection on Kropotkin of its force.

Finally, I was amazed to discover that bankers have “a common gene pool.” How did genes for banking evolve? When? Are there also genes for astronauts? Cleaners of moats? And how do “bankers’ genes act in the interest of the banker”? How do the genes know what is best for the individual? When did the gene for buying CDOs evolve and why did it stop acting in the interest of the bankers? Or is destroying the companies they work for in the banker’s self-interest?

From past experience, I doubt that mere facts and logic will disabuse Gibson repeating his nonsense. Perhaps he will take his own advice and actually “read biology that belongs to this century”?

Yours in solidarity,

Iain McKay


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