Alexander Berkman Archive
Source: What is Communist Anarchism?, Vanguard Press, 1929
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021
Yes, you are right: the law forbids theft.
If I should steal something from you, you can call a policeman and have me arrested. The law will punish the thief, and the government will return to you the stolen property, if possible, because the law forbids stealing. It says that no one has a right to take anything from you without your consent.
But your employer takes from you what you produce. The whole wealth produced by labor is taken by the capitalists and kept by them as their property.
The law says that your employer does not steal anything from you, because it is done with your consent. You have agreed to work for your boss for certain pay, he to have all that you produce. Because you consented to it, the law says that he does not steal anything from you.But did you really consent?
When the highwayman holds his gun to your head, you turn your valuables over to him. You 'consent' all right, but you do so because you cannot help yourself, because you are compelled by his gun.
Are you not compelled to work for an employer? Your need compels you, just as the highwayman's gun. You must live, and so must your wife and children. You can't work for yourself, under the capitalist industrial system you must work for an employer. The factories, machinery, and tools belong to the employing class, so you must hire yourself out to that class in order to work and live. Whatever you work at, whoever your employer may be, it always comes to the same: you must work for him . You can't help yourself You are compelled .
In this way the whole working class is compelled to work for the capitalist class. In this manner the workers are compelled to give up all the wealth they produce. The employers keep that wealth as their profit, while the worker gets only a wage, just enough to live on, so he can go on producing more wealth for his employer. Is that not cheating, robbery?
The law says it is a 'free agreement'. Just as well might the highwayman say that you 'agreed' to give up your valuables. The only difference is that the highwayman's way is called stealing and robbery, and is forbidden by law. While the capitalist way is called business, industry, profit making, and is protected by law.
But whether it is done in the highwayman's way or in the capitalist way, you know that you are robbed.
The whole capitalist system rests on such robbery.
The whole system of law and government upholds and justifies this robbery.
That's the order of things called capitalism, and law and government are there to protect this order of things.
Do you wonder that the capitalist and employer, and all those who profit by this order of things, are strong for 'law and order'?
But where do you come in? What benefit have you from that kind of 'law and order'? Don't you see that this 'law and order' only robs you, fools you, and just enslaves you?
'Enthralled me?' you wonder. 'Why, I am a free citizen!'
Are you free, really? Free to do what? To live as you please? To do what you please?
Let's see. How do you live? What does your freedom amount to?
You depend on your employer for your wages or your salary, don't you? And your wages determine your way of living, don't they? The conditions of your life, even what you eat and drink, where you go and with whom you associate, - all of it depends on your wages.
No, you are not a free man. You are dependent on your employer and on your wages. You are really a wage slave.
The whole working class, under the capitalist system, is dependent on the capitalist class. The workers are wage slaves.
So, what becomes of your freedom? What can you do with it? Can you do more with it than your wages permit?
Can't you see that your wage - your salary or income - is all the freedom that you have? Your freedom, your liberty, don't go a step further than the wages you get.
The freedom that is given you on paper, that is written down in law books and constitutions, does not do you a bit of good. Such freedom only means that you have the right to do a certain thing. But it doesn't mean that you can do it. To be able to do it, you must have the chance, the opportunity. You have a right to eat three fine meals a day, but if you haven't the means, the opportunity to get those meals, then what good is that right to you?
So freedom really means opportunity to satisfy your needs and wants. If your freedom does not give you that opportunity, than it does you no good. Real freedom means opportunity and well being. If it does not mean that, it means nothing.You see, then, that the whole situation comes to this: Capitalism robs you and makes a wage slave of you. The law upholds and protects that robbery.
The government fools you into believing that you are independent and free.In this way you are fooled and duped every day of your life. But how does it happen that you didn't think of it before? How is it that most other people don't see it, either?
It is because you and every one else are lied to about this all the time, from your earliest childhood.You are told to be honest, while you are being robbed all your life.
You are commanded to respect the law, while the law protects the capitalist who is robbing you.
You are taught that killing is wrong, while the government hangs and electrocutes people and slaughters them in war.
You are told to obey the law and government, though law and government stand for robbery and murder.
Thus all through life you are lied to, fooled, and deceived, so that it will be easier to make profits out of you, to exploit you.
Because it is not only the employer and the capitalist who make profits out of you. The government, the church, tend the school - they all live on your labor. You support them all. That is why all of them teach you to be content with your lot and behave yourself.'Is it really true that I support them all?' you ask in amazement.
Let us see. They eat and drink and are clothed, not to speak of the luxuries they enjoy. Do they make the things they use and consume, do they do the planting and sowing and building and so on?'But they pay for those things,' your friend objects.
Yes, they pay. Suppose a fellow stole fifty dollars from you and then went and bought with it a suit of clothes for himself. Is that suit by right his? Didn't he pay for it? Well, just so the people who don't produce anything or do no useful work pay for things. Their money is the profits they or their parents before them squeezed out of you, out of the workers.'Then it is not my boss who supports me, but I him?'
Of course. He gives you a job; that is, permission to work in the factory or mill which was not built by him but by other workers like yourself. And for that permission you help to support him for the rest of your life or as long as you work for him. You support him so generously that he can afford a mansion in the city and a home in the country, even several of them, and servants to attend to his wants and those of his family, and for the entertainment of his friends, and for horse races and for boat races, and for a hundred other things. But it is not only to him that you are so generous. Out of your labor, by direct and indirect taxation, are supported the entire government, local, state, and national, the schools and the churches, and all the other institutions whose business it is to protect profits and keep you fooled. You and your fellow workers, labor as a whole, support them all. Do you wonder that they all tell you that everything is all right and that you should be good and keep quiet?
It is good for them that you should keep quiet, because they could not keep on duping and robbing you once you open your eyes and see what's happening to you.
That's why they are all strong for this capitalist system, for flaw and order'.But is that system good for you? Do you think it right and just? If not, then why do you put up with it? Why do you support it? 'What can I do?' you say; 'I'm only one.'
Are you really only one? Are you not rather one out of many thousands, out of millions, all of them exploited and enslaved the same as you are? Only they don't know it. If they knew it, they wouldn't stand for it. That's sure. So the thing is to make them know it.
Every workingman in your city, every toiler in your country, in every country, in the whole world, is exploited and enslaved the same as you are.
And not only the workingmen. The farmers are duped and robbed in the same manner.
Just like the workingmen, the farmer is dependent on the capitalist class. He toils hard all his life, but most of his labor goes to the trusts and monopolies of the land which by right is no more theirs than the moon iS.
The farmer produces the food of the world. He feeds all of us. But before he can get his goods to us, he is made to pay tribute to the class that lives by the work of others, the profit-making, capitalist class. The farmer is mulcted out of the greater part of his product just as the worker is. He is mulcted by the land owner and by the mortgage holder; by the steel trust and the railroad. The banker, the commission merchant, the retailer, and a score of other middlemen squeeze their profits out of the farmer before he is allowed to get his food to you.
Law and government permit and help this robbery by ruling that the land, which no man created, belongs to the landlord; the railroads, which the workers built, belong to the railroad magnates; the warehouses, grain elevators, and storehouses, erected by the workers, belong to the capitalists; all those monopolists and capitalists have a right to get profits from the farmer for using the railroads and other facilities before he can get his food to you.
You can see then, how the farmer is robbed by big capital and business, and how the law helps in that robbery, just as with the workingman.
But it is not only the worker and the farmer who are exploited and forced to give up the greater part of their product to the capitalists, to those who have monopolized the land, the railroads, the factories, the machinery, and all natural resources. The entire country, the whole world is made to pay tribute to the kings of finance and industry.
The small business man depends on the wholesaler; the wholesaler on the manufacturer; the manufacturer on the trust magnates of his industry; and all of them on the money lords and banks for their credit. The big bankers and financiers can put any man out of business by just withdrawing their credit from him. They do so whenever they want to squeeze any one out of business. The business man is entirely at their mercy. If he does not play the game as they want it, to suit their interests, then they simply drive him out of the game.
Thus the whole of mankind is dependent upon and enslaved by just a handful of men who have monopolized almost the entire wealth of the world, but who have themselves never created anything.'But those men work hard,' you say.
Well, some of them don't work at all. Some of them are just idlers, whose business is managed by others. Some of them do work. But what kind of work do they do? Do they produce anything, as the worker and the farmer do? No, they produce nothing, though they may work. They work to mulct people, to get profits out of them. Does their work benefit you? The highwayman also works hard and takes great risks to boot. His 'work', like the capitalist's, gives employment to lawyers, jailers, and a host of other retainers, all of whom your toil supports.
It seems indeed ridiculous that the whole world should slave for the benefit of a handful of monopolists, and that all should have to depend upon them for their right and opportunity to live. But the fact is just that. And it is the more ridiculous when you consider that the workers and farmers, who alone create all wealth, should be the most dependent and the poorest of all the other classes in society.
It is really monstrous, and it is very sad. Surely your common sense must tell you that such a situation is nothing short of madness. If the great masses of people, the millions throughout the world, could see how they are fooled, exploited and enslaved, as you see it now, would they stand for such goings on? Surely they would not!
The capitalists know they wouldn't. That is why they need the government to legalize their methods of robbery, to protect the capitalist system.
And that is why the government needs laws, police and soldiers, courts and prisons to protect capitalism.
But who are the police and the soldiers who protect the capitalists against you, against the people?
If they were capitalists themselves, then it would stand to reason why they want to protect the wealth they have stolen, and why they try to keep up, even by force, the system that gives them the privilege of robbing the people.
But the police and the soldiers, the defenders of 'law and order', are not of the capitalist class. They are men from the ranks of the people, poor men who for pay protect the very system that keeps them poor. It is unbelievable, is it not? Yet it is true. It just comes down to this: some of the slaves protect their masters in keeping them and the rest of the people in slavery. In the same way Great Britain, for instance, keeps the Hindus in India in subjection by a police force of the natives, of the Hindus themselves. Or as Belgium does with the black men in the Congo. Or as any government does with a subjugated people. It is the same system. Here is what it amounts to: Capitalism robs and exploits the whole of the people; the laws legalize and uphold this capitalist robbery; the government uses one part of the people to aid and protect the capitalists in robbing the whole of the people. The entire thing is kept up by educating the people to believe that capitalism is night, that the law is just, and that the government must be obeyed. Do you see through this game now?