My muddy anti-corporate anarchist ethics

17 August 2008 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in philosophy | 5 Comments »

I’ve made a couple of posts here so far illustrating how I’ve taken to refusing work which supports government.

To the most recent, Francois Tremblay offered both praise and a question of consistency:

I also applaud you, however do you also do the same for corporations? It seems to me that if you refused ALL statist jobs you would be on the street, unless small businesses and coops are much more numerous over there.

Though I have been refusing all manner of government work — both directly employed by governments or by companies that exist only to serve governments — for a very long, I have not really bothered thus far to firmly delineate that which I find acceptable versus unacceptable. I will attempt to do so here.

There are some basic ideas in play here which derive from my own philosophical axioms:

  • Government is evil
  • One should endeavor to avoid actions which support or strengthen government, thus avoiding evil
  • Taxation is theft, and therefore evil, and doubly so since it supports the evil that is government
  • Taking money stolen via taxation for oneself at the very least carries the taint of evil, and in very many cases makes one complicit in the original theft and therefore guilty of doing harm

If I may be forgiven for misrepresenting any of Francois’s views, there is an additional critique of the relationship between state and corporation which must be added here, and it consists of things like:

  • The corporation is a creature of the state, a privilege granted by evil, and therefore morally questionable at best, condemnable at worst
  • Corporations have successfully manipulated state mechanisms everywhere in order to secure greater privileges for themselves and their owners than accrue to ordinary people, and continue to do so
  • The legal concept of limited liability is an abomination against natural law, and serves to encourage corporations to act more immorally than fully-accountable individuals might absent it
  • The legal tradition of treating a corporation as having status equal to that of a person is also abominable, and leads to additional tendencies toward abuse by those exercising the state-granted corporate privilege

There is much to be added to both of these lists, of course, and others have done a far better job than I ever will of cataloging the immorality of both state and corporation. I believe that I share common ground with Francois in the critique of the corporation as statist creature at the fundamental level, though one as clever as he and one as obstinate as I will no doubt find any number of points to argue over bitterly. I believe I also share the view with him that one should work to minimize the evil they do and the evil they support in every way possible.

As recently as the beginning of this year, I sometimes took on a very narrow subset of government contracts. I was once asked to translate a tender for supply of small-arms ammunition to the Slovak military, and rejected it out of hand. At the same time, when a request came in to translate some text to be used by an agency working to promote tourism in Slovakia, I accepted it. I believe very strongly in the value of casting things into moral absolute categories, but must recognize also that there is a continuum. And, presented with the opportunity to reclaim some of the money stolen from me in tax by the state, I thought that doing the state’s work in one of its least harmful manifestations would be acceptable. Tourism okay, supporting the troops, fuck no. The limit to this would be that one should not accept in compensation for work from the state any more than the value stolen from you previously in tax.

That view of mine has already changed, and led to a new formulation of principle for me: Stealing back what the state has stolen from you is morally acceptable. But working to support the state in exchange for what has been stolen is not acceptable because you are still supporting the state by doing so.

I’ve had more than one client come back to me, after learning my position on working for the state, and offer something along the lines of “Well, you’re not really working for the government; I have this contract already, someone’s going to do it, might as well be you, you’re working for me.” This doesn’t hold up for me one bit. Adding layers of misdirection to hide the original theft of taxation would not change the fact that I commit evil by taking stolen money in support of the state through my work.

I have long rejected working for companies which do a large portion of their business with government. Before I became independent of “bosses” two years ago, I did not apply this principle consistently. But I can recount many telephone discussions with recruiters about job opportunities with companies which are basically state organs in private form (think “defense” contractors in particular, and others), and telling them there was no way morally I could work for such a firm. At the same time, and I will give particulars here, there is much to hate about General Electric. Even so, several years ago I accepted a one-year contract with GE Medical Systems to develop software, network infrastructure and procedures which allow doctors and medical technicians to receive training on the operation of MRI, x-ray, CAT scan and other medical devices via network delivery as opposed to having a trainer physically sent to the hospital/clinic work site. GE happens to be a company which makes death weapons as well as life-saving devices. Gray area? Maybe. I really needed the job in any case. Would I work for GE Medical Systems again today if the opportunity was there and the incentives interesting? I’m not sure (the corporate “culture” there is something which if placed in a Petri dish on a bit of substrate would rapidly spill out into a sickening, purulent mass which would fill all available space and consume everything in the production of its own tumorous growth), but I still wouldn’t object on moral grounds.

There are some questions I ask myself when considering a job which carries the potential taint of the state:

  • Who pays? If the answer is taxpayers, I refuse.
  • Who owns the company? If it is a state-controlled company, or a branch of the state, I refuse.
  • Would this job exist were it not for the state? If no, refuse. This is a tricky point, in that I do accept jobs which violate this from time to time, such as the time I translated a response from an auto manufacturer to the Slovak anti-monopoly office defending itself against a charge of “unfair competition”. I also accept work from recently-privatized utility companies; the ownership of them remains dubious and the notion that a territorial monopoly on the scale even of a country as small as Slovakia is dubious as well, but it would be akin to suicide to refuse cooperation with those who bring clean water, electricity and other services into my home. I do refuse “public” transport companies and the “private” companies which develop the roads, but do so because they fail one or both of the first two criteria above.
  • Will my work result in harm to anyone? If yes, refuse. It’s difficult if not impossible to know all of the potential implications of one’s action, of course, but when the answer to this is clear then so is my response.

I would like to live in a world in which the privileges that corporations in all their forms enjoy were abolished. I would like to also educate those who take state privilege as to why there is immorality in their firms’ conception. I would also not like to starve. The vast majority of my clients are incorporated as limited liability corporations or stock corporations, and this is especially true of all the translation agencies that send me work. I would like to stand on principle, but as Francois alludes to, truly standing on such principle in this world will lead one to ruin.

At the same time, even though they enjoy the privileges conferred by the state, not all corporations are necessarily evil simply by virtue of being corporations. There is an easy scale to point to which suggests that their evil (or capacity for evil) increases in proportion to their size, but then we also have counterexamples such as GE developing and selling life-saving medical devices which break the easy formulation. The fact that the statist corporate form exists and offers so many benefits is a problem which in my mind should be attacked in terms of the state itself and the institution of the corporation. I find it very difficult, though, to find fault with the businessman who, having grown his one-man operation to the point where he would like to expand, incorporated in order to gain flexibility and protection. This is rational behavior on his part.

It is also true that given the corporate-statist milieu we have before us, many businesses simply could not operate were it not for the corporate form. I should not wish that every airline disappear, however, nor refuse to patronize them simply because they are creatures of the present system. And I am not going to win any arguments with my clients by suggesting that they forsake limited liability and the other benefits the corporate form provides. They, also, must eat.

  1. 5 Responses to “My muddy anti-corporate anarchist ethics”

  2. By Kent McManigal on 17 August 2008

    I seem to refuse any work that would actually make money. Not on purpose…..

  3. By Dixie on 17 August 2008

    I’m still struggling with this. I have the capability to make a living very separate from the state, but have not yet developed a personal code or rational process to explain where I draw the line when participating with a state whose authority constantly diminishes in my eyes.

    I find anarchists/libertarians who talk a lot, but don’t live any differently than any other statist serf very annoying. Conviction without action is meaningless.

  4. By Jeff Molby on 20 August 2008

    Don’t be too hard on them, Dixie.

    “No man is more hopelessly enslaved than he who falsely believes himself to be free.”

    Give them credit for recognizing their bondage, even if they have not yet gathered the will and/or ability to extricate themselves.

  5. By Libby Snipp on 13 May 2009

    In most of the cases you described, I think of your ethics as “bright” given the situation rather than “muddy”.  I believe muddy means tainted by something that’s contrary to one’s beliefs, not based on careful consideration of what you believe is right. I also believe that what’s right varies significantly based on the situation, and this is one reason most laws are ineffective at best. As sung by the Indigo Girls in “Closer to Fine”: The less I seek my source for some definitive, Closer I am to fine.

    You said:

    one should work to minimize the evil they do and the evil they support in every way possible.

    Hear, Hear! I try to keep a “continuous improvement” philosophy on bringing actions in line with one’s beliefs about what’s right, though perhaps that’s in part because my own actions are muddy vs. my ideals.

    You said:

    The limit to this would be that one should not accept in compensation for work from the state any more than the value stolen from you previously in tax.

    How does this fit in with your more recent post about social security? Do you mean your ideal is to maximize distance from evil, but you are tolerant of those who accept money up to the point where they are redeeming their own stolen property?

    You said:

    Would this job exist were it not for the state? If no, refuse. 

    What are your thoughts on lawyers who take only clients who have been victimized by the state? One example is the Institute for Justice, ~ Their jobs would not exist were it not for the state, no?

    Finally, what are your thoughts on the ethics of paying sales taxes? Presumably, these would apply to stateless persons who are consumers, not just income tax-payers. Do you seek to minimize paying these as well?

    Thank you for the compassion shown in your comment here. As an “armchair anarchist” who has not yet fully distanced myself from the evil that is the state, your compassion inspires me to continue exploring options and moving forward.


  6. By Mike Gogulski on 13 May 2009


    It’s muddy because feeling my way through it seems fraught with peril. (Is anything else than peril ever “fraught”? Dunno.)

    I have mixed feelings about the limit I put forward there. Most of the question to me turns on the delay between when it’s taken from you and when you take it back. I would not have any problem, for instance, with someone who is forced to contribute to a “social insurance” scheme pretending to be sick each year for the exact number of days necessary to reclaim his/her “contributions” for the prior year. But when you extend that span out to the length of a working career, somewhere along the way I think the nature of the thing changes. The fact I can’t really pinpoint when also contributes to the muddiness.

    I like IJ. I wasn’t precise enough there. Yes, IJ’s work might not exist were it not for the state. But they are defending people against the state rather than being parasitic through it. I take many translation jobs from individuals and businesses forced into regulatory compliance who simply need communications with the government put into English — provided that their activities are peaceful.

    The kind of jobs that I’m referring to there are things like, for example, signing up to be a network support engineer for a nominally private company awarded a big contract to manage and maintain a telecommunications network for the state. Or, even, signing up to be janitor at a prison.

    I personally seek to purchase as little as possible, but that’s in the realm of my own preferences rather than ethics, I think. Where I have the chance to get something I need anyway through untaxed transactions, I prefer those.

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