Alibertarian friend once explained his grievances towards socialism or—as he put it: “Taking a man’s property by threatening force if he did not comply in order to benefit those who did not work for it.” To him, socialism meant the theft of the fruits of his labor by taxation or force. He then proceeded to use an allegorical tale to animate his point that was essentially a rehash of The Little Red Hen. It went something like this:
Two men were stranded on an island with no provisions. This island happened to be abundant in coconuts. The smart, hard-working, resourceful man quickly got to work gathering coconuts and fashioned a tool from a sharpened rock to easily split them open. The lazy man spent his time laying on the beach and sleeping until he got hungry.
He approached the hard-working man and demanded that in the name of fairness and equality, the working man should give him some of his split coconuts to eat. When the working man refused—on the basis that the lazy man had done nothing to help gather or harvest the coconuts—the lazy man grew irate and threatened to take them by force.
Fortunately, the working man’s coconut-splitting tool also doubled as a deterrent to this theft since it could be used for self-defense. The lazy man realized then that nothing would come for free and that he too must work to gather his own coconuts if he wanted to survive.
Thus, by the working man’s diligence and willingness to defend his right to property, ‘law and order’ was maintained on Coconut Island. Both men lived happily ever after working their claimed plots of private property and trading and bartering in a thriving market-based tax-free libertarian paradise!
This cute little story contains some common themes—favorites tropes among capitalists and their evangelists such as:
- The hard worker
- The entitled, lazy freeloader
- Defense of private property
- Law and order
- Socialism → welfare → taxation → theft
- Supremacy of the ‘free’ market for the trade of privately-produced goods and labor
Etc. etc… Basically, this worldview can be summed up as: “Some people work hard for what they own. Everyone else wants to take it from them.” There are of course inklings of valid grievances and concerns I sympathize with here mixed in with other mischaracterizations and stereotypes. I certainly don’t like theft either, and I too appreciate the value of work and labor. I think workers should benefit from the work they do.
How is it then—since I share many of the same aversions to things like theft, freeloading, and parasitic behavior—that I end up coming down so far to the left on the political spectrum relative to my more staunchly conservative and libertarian-leaning friends and family? That’s a great question and one I’ve given much thought to after many discussions (and even more arguments) with them. Some seemed shocked—even hurt—by my socialist views. After all, I was raised in a conservative Mormon (LDS) family, and even did a stint in the US Army. How did I turn into such a *gasp* c…c…communist?
The answers to these questions, I’ve come to realize, lie in a difference in perspective concerning who is stealing from whom, who exactly is benefiting the most from all of the labor, and who the freeloaders actually are under our current system of private capital. Most important of all is the understanding (or perhaps lack thereof) of the role private property plays in all of this. What is its role, and how on earth could I even dare question it? After all, the ‘right’ to private property is believed to be a fundamental one, which the USA and other capitalist societies legally protect in various forms. Furthermore, religious rhetoric is often used in these societies to bolster the idea that the right to private property is simply a ‘given’—a ‘god-given’ right that should never be questioned or challenged.
This is why the argument is always framed by capitalists as, “What right do you have to take my property from me?” There is a premise lurking here that is inherent in the way this question is phrased, and this premise instills the notion that any question surrounding how any property came to be ‘owned’ by them privately, is not up for debate. If you accept this premise, then the capitalist’s argument seems airtight. At best, you’re reduced to stammering and muttering supposed justifications for theft—or at least that’s what it sounds like when framed in this manner.
By merely accepting this premise and trying to answer the question, the capitalist has forced you to debate under their rules, and under their pre-conceived assumptions. It’s like how some retail job applications have idiot questions like, “If you are offered employment, do you plan to stop shoplifting? Yes or No.” By even answering, you’re accepting and validating the premise that you are a habitual shoplifter. Likewise, by accepting the premise that the capitalist is entitled to own private property and capital, as well as all of the labor conducted on or with this capital—then yes—under this premise all of this rightfully belongs to them and arguments to the contrary will be met with derision and contempt (as is usually the case when challenging capitalist notions).
However, what if you refuse to naively accept the notion of the ‘right’ of an individual to own private property? What if you challenge and question it, refusing to be boxed into arguing under the assumption that it’s a real, even righteous ‘right’—or something akin to gravity that ‘just merely is’? How did they come into ownership of the private property? If they purchased it, how was it originally commodified into something that could be bought and sold in the first place? Was it ever anyone’s to ‘take’ as their own? Is it theft to reclaim that which never should have been taken in the first place?
Many ideologies other than capitalism (like Marxism and socialism) reject the notion of private property. Critics of capitalism (like myself) believe that it is a system that uses private property to engage in a colossal, mass swindling of workers’ time and labor. Capitalists call this ‘profit’, but it can also be viewed as a theft or seizure of sorts, legitimized by the belief that only the private property owner is entitled to all of the value of the labor conducted on or with their privately-held capital to do with what they will, at their sole discretion. They take all of the value of workers’ labor, accumulate it as personal gain (profit), then decide what fraction of it to redistribute back to the worker as a salary or wage. The worker might ‘earn’ their salary or wage after an hour or two of work. The value generated by work performed beyond that is kept by the capitalist as profit, due to their claim of ‘ownership’ of the private capital.
If you’re not a fan of wealth redistribution schemes, then you might begin to re-think capitalism once you realize it’s evolved into nothing more than that, on a mass global scale. It accumulates wealth accrued through the value of labor upwards to a few private hands, then relies on the ‘generosity’ of those private hands to ‘trickle’ it back down as they see fit. Not only do capitalists seem to think this is a good idea, they seem to love the idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics—where all the wealth is concentrated into one massive overflowing golden chalice held by private hands at the top.
Of course, the few at the top amassing vast wealth from all of the private property they own sure are a fan of this. If they feel they have a surplus, then sure, they might throw some scraps to the masses below, if the masses are nice and deserving in their eyes. For this reason, it becomes crucial for the survival of everyone else to appease the wealthiest at the top and acquiesce to their every demand, lest they threaten to slow or cut off the ‘trickle’ of scraps thrown down to everyone else below them. If workers don’t willingly fall in line, capitalists often use other ‘tricks’, even direct violence, or the threat of poverty (i.e. layoffs) to keep workers in line, and profits flowing.
All of this is rooted in the idea of private property, and it seems to be an okay system if you don’t really think too hard about what private property is, how it came about, and if it’s even a legitimate concept we should be allowing to dictate our lives. But, what happens when you do start to think about it and question it? I guess it depends where you fall on the class divide. If you realize that you’ve been working your butt off mostly in order to keep someone else’s golden chalice at the top overflowing, perhaps you might end up turning into a bit of a socialist like me. You might even get a little upset once you begin to realize all of the violence, unfairness and injustices this ‘gospel’ of private property has bestowed upon the world. Vladimir Lenin went so far as to describe it as “horror without end”.
On the other hand, if you’re primarily a beneficiary of this arrangement and have profited greatly from it as one of the fortunate private property owners, you might feel threatened, and inclined to attack or double down against those challenging it. That’s understandable too, and not without precedent. After all, slave owners in the US (and elsewhere) did the same thing when their claim to ‘own’ humans as private property was finally challenged. They too, complained that their property was being ‘stolen’ from them by emancipating those who should have never been ‘owned’ in the first place.
I appreciate my friend’s use of allegory to attempt to explain his views. After all, who doesn’t like a good story? However, as the saying goes, “there are two sides to every story.” So, without further ado, allow me to introduce the next post in this series: the Real Story of Coconut Island, as told by a source who did not attend the Rush Limbaugh School of Yellow Journalism, nor Shapiro’s How to Pitch the Swindle of the 99% seminar.
↩︎ … Or some such nonsense. I can’t remember the actual story verbatim, so I took some slight literary license here re-writing it in a way that attempts to capture the essence and ‘spirit’ of what he was trying to convey with this allegory.
↩︎ i.e. factories, land, natural resources, employees, etc.
↩︎ These ‘demands’ by capitalist typically include tax cuts and breaks, bailouts funded by taxes on the workers, relaxation of regulations meant to protect workers and the environment, the passing of favorable laws, and other ‘corporate charity’ schemes.
↩︎ A blatant example of egregious violence committed by private capital against workers is the ‘Banana Massacre’, when Colombian troops were used to gun down striking workers on behalf of the privately-owned United Fruit Company (UFC) in 1928. UFC wielded immense influence over the US government, and used this influence to get the US government to do its bidding in many instances, such as threatening to send in US Marines if the Colombian government did not act to end the strikes. Another example of violence waged against workers at the behest of private capital is the ‘Ludlow Massacre’ in 1914. Private guards from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr.) and Colorado National Guard troops attacked a tent colony of striking workers and their families, killing approx. 21.
↩︎ “Capitalist society is and has always been horror without end.” - The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution (Vladimir Lenin 1916)