On Richard Wolff and worker-owned enterprises

Richard Wolff focuses on the issue of what is called, “exploitation.” This is the fact that, for example, a factory owner, or a CEO of some corporation receives an income many times greater than an employee. This greater income is due to receiving the “surplus value” or “profit” from an enterprise.

Wolff’s proposal is to legally convert private enterprises [I take it of some large size] into worker-owned enterprises on the model of the Mondragon enterprise in Spain.

Wolff is trying to satisfy a principle of equality in outcome.

I, in contradistinction, am not driven by any principle of an equality of outcome, but rather I am driven by a principle for an equality of opportunity. I want a universal right for access to subsistence, and I see this demand being satisfied by allowing everyone a right of free access to subsistence land.

Thus, I do not propose barring free enterprises, nor exploitation, nor surpluses, nor profits. In my arrangement, a private entrepreneur could actually be beneficial to those who cannot help themselves, i.e., those who cannot survive independently, but can do so by being directed.

And concerning those who can help themselves independently, the entrepreneur will have to lure them with a reward which is greater than that which they could eke out by their own efforts, or efforts of those who have combined in some co-operative manner. In other words, he will be compelled by the circumstances to minimize his profits. Thus, Wolff’s desire for eliminating “exploitation” in factories will tend to be achieved by my proposal.

In my thought experiment with Crusoe and Friday on an island, I imagined that they agreed to a division of the island into two equal parts, but that Crusoe possessed a rifle with bullets, and that the island had many feral pigs. Crusoe would let Friday use the gun on the condition that Friday share his kills with Crusoe.

Since this arrangement was better than what Friday could manage on his own without a rifle, he agreed to the deal. This is an example of an agreed to exchange where Crusoe is “exploiting” Friday. But this is not an example of capitalism because Friday is not forced to accept the deal at the cost of starvation (by not having free access subsistence land), because, after all, he still can hunt pigs with a spear, a bow, or some form of trap. It is simply that he can more easily shoot two pigs in a much shorter time than it would take to get even one pig by an alternative method.

We can generalize from this example to say that Crusoe will be “rewarded” if he can come up with some appealing invention or idea — including some form of entertainment. [As does Wilt Chamberlain in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)] But the reward will tend to be short-lived. For example, Friday could — hypothetically speaking — make his own rifle and bullets. And someone else can become more entertaining than Wilt Chamberlain.

In our current society, there are patent laws, which ensure a monopoly and profits. On the island, there are no patent laws.

The Right to be a Free Peasant = The Right to a Free Homestead

Recently I have discovered Distributism. This is a position defended by Hillaire Belloc in The Servile State, 1912, and by G.K Chesterton in The Outline of Sanity, 1926. And I have been listening and watching Laurie M. Johnson talking about Distributism.

Distributism is the recommendation that everyone should have a right to free subsistence land. [It abstracts from the problem of the type of government, which is addressed by anarchism.]

As I followed this discussion, three things struck me as being missed. The first, is that there were many writers who expressed the same view, but who are not known or ignored. The second is the myopic focus of the discussion to what is occurring in the United States and Great Britain. But the reality is that there are indigenous people and people without states who live off the land. Also there are all sorts of populations within states that live off the land in villages or homesteads. The third thing which is not taken account of is anthropology and the origin of the State.

(1) Here is some literature advocating a free access to subsistence land:

Thomas Spence, The Real Rights of Man, 1775.

William Ogilvie, The Right of Property in Land, 1781.

Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, 1795-6.

Charles Hall, The Effects of Civilization on the People in European States, 1805.

Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property, 1829,

William Thomas Thornton, A Plea for Peasant Proprietors, 1848.

John Stuart Mill, Socialism, 1879.

Anton Menger, The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour, 1899. [See: Critical remarks on Anton Menger’s approach to Socialism]

George Cadbury (and Tom Bryan), The Land and the Landless, 1908.

(2) People all over the world live in subsistence villages. Below is an example of life in an Eastern European village:

See also: We have everything but we have no money

(3) Concerning anthropology: Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

Concerning the State: Franz Oppenheimer, The State, 1914.

Let’s take a look at Distributism

Let me start with a confession. I have been prone to commit a genetic fallacy — namely, not to bother reading some writings simply because they were by self-proclaimed Catholic authors. One could also call this a prejudice. Well, I am going to correct this mistake.

Generally, it is a fallacy to dismiss a conclusion of an argument because the argument is fallacious. In other words, a person may be defending something which is true or sensible, but for bad reasons. Also, it would be some kind of fallacy of bad association to think that because a person is wrong about some subject X, that this person is also wrong about subject Y.

Specifically, I reject superstitions, including religions. So for me to ignore writers who proclaim an adherence to a religious faith, is narrow minded.

For a bird’s eye view of Distributism, let’s start with the Wikipedia entry: Distributism. [It is generally wise to start an investigation by looking at a Wikipedia entry. But it is foolish to stop there.]

I found the following video on G. K. Chesterton by Laurie M. Johnson helpful — though I would like to add some commentary later on. She is talking about the following book: G. K. Chesterton, THE OUTLINE OF SANITY, 1927.

Introduction to G.K. Chesterton and Distributism

This video introduces you briefly to GK Chesterton and then discusses his definitions of Capitalism, Socialism and Distributism. I point out that Aristotle’s views on property in The Politics may be the origin of distributist thought, and give some background information that may help understand why Chesterton defines Capitalism and Communism as he does. Chesterton criticizes Capitalism for really being “Proletarianism” or a system of wage dependency. He criticizes Socialism for being dangerous because it places all resources and decisions into the hands of the state. Both of them concentrate property into a few hands, whereas Distributism calls for spreading property ownership more evenly. Spain’s Mondragon corporation is used as an example of contemporary distributism at work.

More of her videos on Distributism can be found here: Laurie M. Johnson


In the above video, Laurie Johnson claims that Chesterton did not really mean that everyone should have 3 acres and a cow. Well, what he probably meant is that people should have a private plot sufficiently large for self-sufficient subsistence. But Laurie thinks that this today is unrealistic, and offers a worker-owned enterprise such as the Mondragon Corporation as an example of Distributionism. Well, this may be Laurie’s proposal, but it was not what Chesterton had in mind.

However, in the following video with her participants she is more reflective of what is involved in sustaining subsistence farming (as in India), and the problems involved in switching to a more agrarian form of life.

Disambiguation of “socialism”

Instead of a heading such as “types of socialism” as is found on Wikipedia, which assumes there is a common genus, a better heading would be “the different uses of the word socialism.” I think that for the non-reflective public, the word “socialism” — as also such words as “fascism” and “communism” — are just words of derision, as are the words “asshole” or “bastard” — and nothing more. So when a country or the government of a country is called “socialistic,” “communistic,” or “fascistic,” it is enough for the unreflective person to condemn the country or its government as evil. [In a previous blog “The Tyranny of Words” I posted the findings of Stuart Chase about the use of the word “fascism.”]

Here I would like to make distinction between the use of “socialism” as applied to States (i.e., the governments of countries) and as applied to, what today are called, “intentional communities.” I believe that ‪Marx and Engels referred to speculation about such communities as “utopian socialism.” That is an unfortunate phrase because it suggests that these communities saw themselves as living in the best of all possible communities — which I don’t think they did. They simply thought this was a better way to live for them.

Anyway, there are three early books about these communities. They are:

John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 1870;
Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875;
William Alfred Hinds, American Communities, 1878, revised 1902

The earliest of these books is by Noyes, and it is about types of communities as “socialisms.” And he distinguishes two types of socialistic communities: communistic and joint-stock communities. (Joint-stock communities are what Richard Wolff refers to as “worker-owned enterprises.”)

It is interesting to note which communities succeeded and which failed. To find out, read at least one of the books!

What Marx and Engels call “scientific socialism” has nothing to do with communal societies, but is rather a phrase equivalent to “social science,” which includes sociology, economics, and political study. But, in short, it is a critique of capitalism.

“Socialism” nowadays is used to refer to State interference with “laissez-faire capitalism.” Because the term “capitalism” is used in the sense that an individual should be free to trade with anyone for anything, “socialism” is seen as a constraint on this freedom. And this constraint can take the form of a government either taking over production, restraining and regulating trade and ownership, or providing welfare. From this perspective, a State is socialistic if it takes over the industries (nationalizes them), if it regulates production and distribution, and if it provides for people such things as old age pensions, free health care, free food, or free anything.

The most pernicious form of socialism to capitalism is a State which gives a free access to subsistence land. The reason this is so pernicious is that such a measure deprives capitalists (i.e. people with money to invest) from obtaining cheap laborers or even laborers at all.

Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, 1972.

Chapter 1: The Original Affluent Society

If economics is the dismal science, the study of hunting and gathering economies must be its most advanced branch. Almost universally committed to the proposition that life was hard in the paleolithic, our textbooks compete to convey a sense of impending doom, leaving one to wonder not only how hunters managed to live, but whether, after all, this was living? The specter of starvation stalks the stalker through these pages. His technical incompetence is said to enjoin continuous work just to survive, affording him neither respite nor surplus, hence not even the “leisure” to “build culture.” Even so, for all his efforts, the hunter pulls the lowest grades in thermodynamics-less energy/capita/year than any other mode of production. And in treatises on economic development he is condemned to play the role of bad example: the so-called “subsistence economy.”

The traditional wisdom is always refractory. One is forced to oppose it polemically, to phrase the necessary revisions dialectically: in fact, this was, when you come to examine it, the original affluent society. Paradoxical, that phrasing leads to another useful and unexpected conclusion. By the common understanding, an affluent society is one in which all the people’s material wants are easily satisfied. To assert that the hunters are affluent is to deny then that the human condition is an ordained tragedy, with man the prisoner at hard labor of a perpetual disparity between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means.

For there are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way, makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that “urgent goods” become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty-with a low standard of living.

That, I think, describes the hunters. And it helps explain some of their more curious economic behavior: their “prodigality” for example-the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made. Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own. Destutt de Tracy, “fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire” though he might have been, at least compelled Marx’s agreement on the observation that “in poor nations the people are comfortable,” whereas in rich nations “they are generally poor.”

This is not to deny that a preagricultural economy operates under serious constraints, but only to insist, on the evidence from modern hunters and gatherers, that a successful accomodation is usually made. After taking up the evidence, I shall return in the end to the real difficulties of hunting-gathering economy, none of which are correctly specified in current formulas of paleolithic poverty.


Free Access to Subsistence Land = Socialism

If Socialism is to be viewed as the antithesis of Capitalism, then the following must serve as foundational axioms of each. Socialism is a political system which allows (i.e., gives a right to a) free access to subsistence land. Capitalism is a political system which does not allow (i.e., forbids) a free access to subsistence land.

Why is this important? Because human beings are animals, and all animals must eat to live. And all animals get their food from their environment, as do all foraging human beings and those who have learned to cultivate their source of food. But with the establishment of States and industrial production, humans have been driven into cities, which Desmond Morris, in the following video views as Human Zoos.

Whether such laws allowing or denying free access to subsistence land are enacted by a single individual (a monarch, a dictator, a president, a prime minister) or a group (a parliament, a congress, a council) is irrelevant.

How power is exercised (i.e., who grants or denies this right) is a different question from whether you are granted this right or not. And one answer to this question of power is given by the word “democracy.” But I distinguish Mass Democracy in which thousands and millions vote for some official (as is practically a universal political practice), from Micro Democracy where the units of government are about 150 voters. A federated Micro Democracy is the ideal of theoretical Anarchism (as expounded, for example, in Proudhon’s The principle of federation, 1863.)

Charles Hall: A Quintessential Socialist

Commentary on Charles Hall, “The Effects of Civilisation on the People in European States,” 1805.

Let me start by saying that socialism is concerned with providing people with food, shelter, clothing (i.e., their economic needs). It is not concerned with the way this is done. It seeks an end; and is silent about the means. Anarchism, by contrast, is focused on the means, which it proposed to be by democratic decisions by small communities. Combining anarchism with socialism, we get anarcho-socialism. And the model for anarcho-socialism are hunter/gatherer tribes. Their economy is based on a free access to land.

Charles Hall was a physician and his ultimate concern was with the physical and mental health of people. Writing in 1805, he did not challenge the existence of the State, and by this token he was not an anarchist. [Reminder: The French Revolution had occurred in 1789. Napoleon made himself emperor in 1804.]

While focusing on the health of people, he used the American Indians as examples of healthy people and a healthy society. [He was, thus, a precursor to Marshall Sahlins’ idea that hunter-gatherers had an “affluent society.”]
His diagnosis was that the main cause of suffering by the poor in England was due to lack of nurishment (malnutrition). So the main problem was the lack of food. This, he thought, could be solved by giving people free access to land.

He goes into detail about horticulture, giving prescriptions of how and what to grow.

He contrasted the demographics of England with that of the United States. Even though the fertility of both was substantially the same, the mortality rate of children was much higher in England than in the United States. The main difference was, he concluded, in nutrition.

He also noted that work in manufactures was unhealthy because of the conditions of work, such as exposure to noxious chemicals, and the type of bodily movements required in manufacture.

He made a distinction between crude and fine manufactures. Crude manufactures which aided the acquisition of food and diminishing necessary work were welcomed. On the other hand, he was against fine manufactures, i.e., the manufacture of luxuries.

Also too much time spent at work, did not allow time for leisurely activities, such as reading.

He was also quite aware that the State was the result of conquest. But he did not propose a change in government, he merely proposed that the State take particular measures to alleviate the condition of the poor, namely giving them access to free land. In this sense, he was a State-socialist.

Anarchism, Socialism, and Communism

In a previous blog, I wrote:

“There are three characteristics which such primitive or “savage” societies have. The first is that everyone has a free access to subsistence land (socialism). The second is that they form small egalitarian democratic groups (anarchism). The third is that they share freely, and are prone to gift giving (communism).”

The primitive societies which I have in mind are hunter-gatherers, subsistence gardeners, and subsistence herders. Since all three have a source of subsistence on free land, they satisfy the socialist criterion as expressed by Anton Menger [see Anton Menger, The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour, 1899] which is the right to subsistence. Anarchism, on the other hand, is a political ideal which requires a bottom-up democracy — either by consensus or by majority rule — of small groups of about 100 persons. Primitive societies thus satisfy this anarchist requirement.

Whereas socialism and anarchism can be understood as a form of rule following, communism is different in requiring an attitude or disposition to sharing and gift giving as occurs most commonly in families. It cannot occur by simply bringing together different people with different backgrounds.

First, let me say that what occurred in the Soviet Union was not communism. Yes, the Bolshevik Party rechristened itself as the Communist Party. And the rest of the world acquiesced in calling their system “communistic.” But it wasn’t even socialistic since there was no free access to subsistence, unless you want to call a prison a socialist system because the inmates are provided with subsistence (having deprived them of free meandering, and forcing them to work). The Soviet Union had state-run factories and state-run agricultural collectives. The products of these factories and collectives were sold in the domestic and international markets, just like private enterprises do in other countries. The proper name for such a system is “state-capitalism.”

Socialism on a small scale would occur if these enterprises were owned and run by the workers themselves; thus determining their rate of pay by themselves. But how this is to occur has been a subject of controversy.

As I see it, communism is possible only on a small scale where everyone knows everyone else (about 150 persons) and where there prevails mutual trust and respect. It cannot occur by bringing together a bunch of 900 strangers as happened in the experiment of Robert Owen at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1824.

When discussing this experiment, what is always skipped is the fact that the town of New Harmony was successfully built by a flourishing colony of communist Rappites. This was a group of German immigrants who fled from religious persecution in Germany. They were devout Christian celibates, as are the Catholic nuns and monks who live in monasteries. They had the communistic disposition of sharing and gift giving.

If we are to examine whether communism is possible, we have to look for examples in religious communities such as the Mennonites, the Amish, the Dukhobors, as well as other denominations.

The Owen experiment was to bring together strangers into a secular environment and have communism be practiced by decree. This is impossible. If we look at the example of primitive tribes — they form an extended family by birth and custom. Strangers have nothing in common except an external bond of agreement (a social contract), which they may not be inclined to honor.

The closest a colony or a village of strangers can flourish together is when the land is owned in common but used separately. The Russian “mir” (a village) has been used as an example of a workable socialism. It is called “communism” only in the respect that the land is communal property which is shared. But it is not a sharing of work or the products of labor. The Russian mir did not have the Amish trait of, for example, communal barn raising. Individual families coped on their own.

I found the histories of American group settlements to be enlightening, especially the following three books (available on the internet):

John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 1870;
Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875;
William Alfred Hinds, American Communities, 1878, revised 1902

Nordhoff concluded his research thus:

The societies which may thus be properly used as illustrations of successful communism in this country are the SHAKERS, established in the Eastern States in 1794, and in the West about 1808; the RAPPISTS, established in 1805; the BÄUMELERS, or ZOARITES, established in 1817; the EBEN-EZERs, or AMANA Communists, established in 1844; the BETHEL Commune, established in 1844; the ONEIDA PERFECTIONISTS, established in 1848; the ICARIANS, who date from 1849; and the AURORA Commune, from 1852.

Though in name there are thus but eight societies, these consist in fact of not less than seventy-two communes: the Shakers having fifty-eight of these; the Amana Society seven; and the Perfectionists two. The remaining societies consist of but a single commune for each.

Critical commentary on an article on socialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The article is: Pablo Gilabert and Martin O’Neill, “Socialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019.

This article is an example of how scholarship obfuscates the subject matter.

The subject of the article is “socialism.” After pointing out that the word is ambiguous and vague, there should be an attempt at a prescriptive definition, which they do give. They begin correctly with the statement: “Socialism is best defined in contrast with capitalism, as socialism has arisen both as a critical challenge to capitalism, and as a proposal for overcoming and replacing it.”

So, if socialism contrasts with capitalism, then the problem is to give a definition of capitalism, which they also give by listing, what they call, “constitutive features.”

“(i) The bulk of the means of production is privately owned and controlled.

(ii) People legally own their labor power. (Here capitalism differs from slavery and feudalism, under which systems some individuals are entitled to control, whether completely or partially, the labor power of others).

(iii) Markets are the main mechanism allocating inputs and outputs of production and determining how societies’ productive surplus is used, including whether and how it is consumed or invested.

An additional feature that is typically present wherever (i)–(iii) hold, is that:

(iv) There is a class division between capitalists and workers, involving specific relations (e.g., whether of bargaining, conflict, or subordination) between those classes, and shaping the labor market, the firm, and the broader political process.”

Although these points do describe features of capitalism, I would not call them all “constitutive.” A necessary condition for capitalism is the presence of, what Marx called, “free laborers” or “proletarians.” This is why Bernard Shaw wrote: “To begin with, the word Capitalism is misleading. The proper name of our system is Proletarianism.” Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, 1928

It is (i) and (ii) which — properly formulated — is a necessary and sufficient condition for capitalism. However, as they have formulated it, it is misleading. The formulation has two phrases which are not accurate. The first is the word “bulk” meaning “most”, and the second phrase “means of production,” which comes from Karl Marx, and suggests something like “mass production.” The phrase “means of production” in Marx includes territory of land. But if we think of indigenous people (who are not capitalists), they use material found on the land for making tools, shelters, and they use the land for hunting, for fishing, and for gathering food for consumption, and they may also use the land for herding and cultivation — in short, for subsistence. It is misleading to talk here of “production.”

It is not that the “bulk” or “most” of the land (which is what we should be talking about) is privately owned; rather, all of it is controlled by the government — where there is a government — as a sellable commodity. For example, in the United States all land was owned by the government and originally sold for a minimum of $1 an acre.

Capitalism is best described as a political system which bars people from a free access to subsistence land; thus creating proletarians.

And then, socialism, as an antithesis to capitalism, is a political system which grants everyone a right of free access to subsistence land, or something approximating this.

Socialism =/= Anarchism

I call myself an anarcho-socialist for a reason. I favor both socialism and anarchism. Socialism is concerned primarily with subsistence; whereas anarchism with freedom of agreements. The model for anarcho-socialism is a typical indigenous tribe of hunter/gatherers. But remember a model is used to depict things in given respects only; other respects are irrelevant or even unsavory. The respects in which a tribe serves as a model for socialism is that it satisfies all three criteria as given, for example, by Anton Menger. He listed these as: 1. the right to the full product of labor, 2. right to subsistence, 3. the right to labor. Of these, the primary is the right to subsistence, i.e., all the things which are necessary to preserve animal life: water, food, shelter, clothing, fire (energy).

An indigenous tribe also serves as a model for anarchism inasmuch as the tribe makes decisions through direct democracy on a small scale, i.e., the scale of a Dunbar number of not more than 150 persons. This presumably is the amount of people that one can get to know intimately.

There are, however, features of primitive tribes which are inimical to free thought. And it is in this respect which Karl Popper condemns “tribalism” as a closed society. Primitive tribes are closed to metaphysical and ritualistic disagreements. This unsavory aspect is continued in modern societies by religions and patriotic rituals.

If the essence of socialism is the right to subsistence, then socialism is carried out by the States in the form of prisons, and in the case of the United States in the form of Indian reservations, and to a lesser extent by welfare programs. Let us call these Prison Socialism, Reservation Socialism, and Welfare Socialism. There are also various non-governmental charitable organizations serving, for example, the homeless. Call these Charitable Socialisms.

Talking about Prison Socialism, have you seen Michael Moore’s video “Where to Invade Next“? Watch the whole film about how socialism works, and especially the clip from the film about Norwegian prisons: