The Wealth of Nations could be an Anarchist Manifesto

To return to Adam Smith and our chapter – Reclaiming Capital. How would we define Adam’s political philosophy? I’d say, it is emphatically anarchist – with expedient compromise. He does not define the wealth of nations. He says, it is in the hands of the invisible hand of cultures settled skilfully and happily in their terrains. He defines only what will prevent its fruition – that is profit, rent, usury, monopoly and an extractive casino of currency fluctuation, stocks, bonds and shares. He says these things must be controlled both by law and the ethics and taboos of cultural tradition.
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Pure anarchism hopes for the potency of a common ethic to repel amoral insurgency. Adam is more pragmatic in defining obstacles.
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Just as we instinctively know that theft and murder are wrong and so are happy that they be recognised as unlawful, so I think, we also know that usury, monopoly, personal profit and so on are wrong – and that it is wrong that they are not recognised as unlawful. These are ancient cultural taboos. We do not allow them in the household, or in the society of friends. There, ancient commons of good behaviour remain.
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In The Wealth of Nations, Adam argues that these things should be criminalised, because they extract money for the benefit of anti-social individuals and to the detriment of society as a whole. They weaken and often destroy the invisible hand and they bleed and sometimes suck dry, the wealth and happiness of nations.
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I think his vision is simply true. It is a lesson for our times. Just as in Adam’s time, if we asked the powers to introduce laws to criminalise the principle sources of their accumulated and accumulating wealth, we’d be laughed out of the room – or worse. The lesson of the Wealth of Nations was laughed out of the room at the time of publication and in every time since. We’ve seen the worse in the recent treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, who attempted to introduce a few very mild Adamish restraints to the powers. We’ll see the same for Bernie Sanders. In many parts of the world, people presenting such moral reforms are simply disappeared.
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But here’s a thing – the more people understand the lack of basic moral probity, practiced by business people, politicians and nearly all journalists, so the more, ordinary, moral people will dream of something better. Today’s leaders are out-laws in the imaginations of nearly everyone. We know that there is one law for them and another for us. Plainly, removing “them” by violence is certain to bloodily fail. Mass demonstrations may lead to distribution of brightly packaged crumbs, or cheaply manufactured beads– but no more. As we saw in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia, people become forced to take sides. Good people could not but support “communist” factions, because the alternatives seemed far, far worse. Their least-worst option turned out not as they’d hoped, or as the communist manifesto intended. Similarly, but without violence, the Brexit choices were between rocks and hard places – a corporate-supplied, monetarist, consumerist EEU, or an exit to a more extreme version of the same, but led by bankers and stock manipulators, who yet stood as Everymen against “bonkers” EEU legislation. Voters preferred that “human” touch. Humanity is not what they got.
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So, Adam Smith’s vision of society is utterly true, but is also no immediate help, since violence is the only method by which it could succeed – and so, of course, instantly fail. It remains an excellent guide to good behaviour.
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Tipping points for climatic balance and for the survival of very many species, which are part of that balance, have already passed. Permafrost was modelled to melt over half a century in the future. It is melting today. Societies must act instantly to live inside their ecological means. That means radical upheaval for every “developed” economy. Gentle transition is now too late. It means choosing tragic economic collapse and for a Phoenix of our choosing to rise from the ashes (Fire is not the best metaphor and we may not have power to choose). No government will choose collapse. Neither will it choose the end of aviation, the family car, suburbia…
But I can and you can, taking with us the salutary lessons, which Adam Smith outlined as well as anyone in our own times. I hope everyone with deeply-held values will join us. I think that means almost everyone. We hold all the skills. Stock brokers hold none. We shall de-spend our old lives – in which we spent a corporate invasion into existence. We did that and as I’ve said, we can undo it. There remains one banner, which can fly into the future – anarchy – the moral fabric of the long durée.
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We can live in communities where “work and pleasure are walking distances from everyone’s door”. We can re-centre suburbia. We can farm and garden properly. We can live within our means. We can become ordinary again. No government can do those things for us.
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