Public Services and Collective Ownership in Anarchic Systems and the Problem of Big Cities

The question of how exactly public services in anarchist communities should operate is a good one that some anarchists have addressed. Of course, in truly autonomous, voluntarily formed communities or collectives, members themselves choose exactly how public services should operate, so of course, it’s not for any one person to decide. There are a few positive, existing public services in place run by the state and because most anarchists advocate the complete abolition of governments as I do, are those useful state services to be destroyed along with the state? This seems like a good question to address before the state is dismantled (even though this may be far in the future) because some of those services do keep certain people alive like food aid, welfare, fire stations, social security, water treatment plants, and so on. However, they are also funded by money extorted from us in the form of taxation. Statists often argue that we “need” the state because of these useful services that some governments provide. However, most of the “services” governments provide are incredibly oppressive like prisons, policing, wars, and so on and we don’t need to keep the destructive ones to keep the positive. There is no dichotomy. But where would currently state-run, public services get their funding with no state that imposes taxes? Certainly, the billionaires of the world could fund them alone if forced to do so for quite some time until their ridiculous, bloated fortunes dwindle. But after that, what then?

Current state-run public services could be run as nonprofit institutions and owned by both their workers and the communities they serve. This way only those who want these services would be responsible for maintaining them with their labor or by trading with those maintaining them. Resources that are decided to be a part of the commons could also be used sustainably to maintain them. Of course, those who want to opt out from receiving these services would not be required to exchange anything or be involved in any way. But many individuals who are currently more reliant on public services provided by the state may want to continue to receive them or would want some but not other services should the state dissolve. For example, let’s say a farmer lives on a plot of land, collects his own rain water, grows his own food, and composts his waste with compost toilets. He is likely not going to want public services that provide him with city water, food, or sewage collection and treatment because he can provide all of these himself. But he may not have access to medicine, so he may want medical care whenever he needs it. In this case he could volunteer in voluntarily collectivized hospitals and clinics or trade some of his bumper crops with healthcare providers. This would be distinct from “medical insurance,” which is really just a scam for insurance companies to get rich by denying health-care coverage to those who pay for insurance.

To be clear, this is very different then advocating the “free market” take control of these public services. Public services don’t have to be controlled by the state or private industries for profit. Decisions about these services and how they run could be made by a vote by workers. The larger, voluntary communities they serve could overrule decisions made by workers that the communities feel are monopolistic or against public interest, and federations of these worker collectives could deter the communities they serve from making unreasonable demands of the workforce, (if workers live in the communities they serve, this would also prevent conflicts of interest, as would having exclusively intentional and voluntarily formed communities) so that everyone’s interests would be in balance. In such a scenario, current, useful public services provided by the government may eventually be replaced by more efficient collectives that provide the same services and operate via the aforementioned principles, using some expropriated, former government infrastructure and resources since it would be senseless not to make use of the positive tools governments have to provide these services.

In our cities that have become so enormous, many have come to think public services can only be run by governments. But these people forget that some existing communes are insular and self-sustaining. They don’t require the giant machinery and bureaucracy of the state. Where roads are built is often decided based on commerce, not need. So there is no reason we should be paying for massive highways that simply allow for the endless transport of goods made very far away for consumers in tightly, cramped cities who believe there is no other way they would be able to obtain these things, just as we don’t need obligatory taxes to pay for perpetual wars.

Rather than claiming it is a necessity to have states because of dense cities that are difficult to manage according to people’s needs due to their huge numbers of residents, why don’t we ask whether or not it makes sense to have these dense, polluting, cramped, prison-like hellholes made to generate revenue that constantly destroy more and more wildlife, trees, plants to make room for more polluting infrastructure that essentially traps us? Public services are infinitely easier to provide when people can live off the land. Doing so is nearly impossible in big cities. As big cities grow, governments claim they need more money for the military and for bigger police forces, and they only become more violent, abusive, and despotic. This is no way to live. The machinery used for state-run public services in large cities could become worker and community owned and operated, but beyond this people may decide not to live in big cities in the future for the reasons mentioned and instead branch out to form smaller, autonomous, more agrarian communes. Public services would be much easier to manage this way and the impact on the environment could be positive.

Decentralization is key to all human relations. Whenever human relations become too concentrated as in big cities, power becomes too concentrated along with it. Peter Gelderloos explains in his book The Failure of Nonviolence, “centralization, whether democratic or otherwise, is inimical to a free, horizontal, diverse struggle.” Big cities hinder just about every natural process of recycling. For example, sewer systems collect all residential and commercial wastewater, mixing fecal matter (and plant seeds within it) and urea from millions, industrial waste, chemical soaps, detergents, solvents, pharmaceuticals, and most waste facilities cannot adequately remove all the nutrients and toxic chemicals from it before returning the water to oceans, increasing nitrogen and algae blooms, which reduce oxygen in the water, thereby killing other marine life. Our urea, fecal matter, and seeds within it are supposed to be returned to the soil where they can be made available for plants and trees as nutrients and where the seeds can grow. Some waste facilities filter out biosolids to make compost or fertilizer for farms. The problem with this is that by the time wastewater reaches waste facilities it has become a toxic sludge and it is nearly impossible to remove all of the toxins within it to create a safe compost or fertilizer. Composting on a small scale, such as in one’s own backyard, is more practical because you know the inputs going into it. It is not a mix from millions of people and industries all dumping different chemicals. The same is true of food waste. Instead of returning it to the soil as it is supposed to be, most big cities collect it from millions and dump it in landfills where oxygen cannot reach it and thus aerobic microbes cannot break it down, (anaerobic microbes can break down food waste without oxygen but they produce methane in the process) thereby permanently removing nutrients from the life cycles of plants, as well removing viable seeds. Even leaf litter is collected from millions, not allowed to return to the Earth where it can break down and feed plants and instead is dumped in landfills. 35.4 million tons of yard waste was generated in the US in 2018. Of this only 22.3 million tons were composted. 2.6 million tons were burned and 10.5 million tons were buried in landfills according to EPA estimates. Furthermore, the problem with composting everyone’s leaf litter on such a mass scale is the same as composting biosolids from wastewater treatment facilities. Not everyone uses the same agricultural practices. So while you may garden organically, millions of others are spraying their foliage with synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, which ends up in their yard waste, which in turn ends up in city compost. Small-scale composting allows for greater control of inputs and minimizes additions of toxins.

Another reason big cities are so unsustainable in terms of waste management is that large, concentrated, consistent trash pickup creates tons of emissions from garbage trucks, heavy road use, erosion of the soil from the roads, and city dwellers tend to be less mindful of what they’re throwing away. On the contrary, if you live in a rural area, have no trash service, and you can only toss garbage on your own land or you at least have to truck it out yourself, this is an incentive to be far more mindful about what you toss and prioritize reducing, reusing, and recycling instead of tossing. Large waste companies also don’t have the time to sort through everything so everything recyclable thrown in the trash isn’t recycled and recycling itself is an energy intensive process. It can also create pollutants, as is the case with plastic recycling. 

We aren’t meant to live in dense concentrations removed from nature, the source of everything vital for life. Dense populations will always have hierarchies, politics, corruption, and oppression because of the scarcity created by the distance from nature, its productivity, symbiotic relationships, and interconnectivity. The controlled, constantly monitored streets of dense cities also prevent the formation of crowds for protest and rioting, make it easier for police to find people, and harder for people to hide. 

Beyond the abolition of governments, I would argue we need a change in the density of populations in order to have equity and human and ecological well-being. Lamentably, the dominant trend seems to be the opposite. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2025, a staggering 3.5 billion people will live in cities. Big cities are like invasive growths. Their roads stretch out like mycelia or the roots of weeds and are longer the bigger the city, except they are inorganic, of course. Like weeds that seek to dominate a landscape, so too do humans. Cities are consistently the most polluted places on Earth. They make it harder to rely on oneself and one’s own labor. Instead, many people feel they have to sell their labor and themselves for meager wages to buy GMO food grown hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away with toxic herbicides and pesticides all shipped by gas powered vehicles, as well as meat usually raised in CAFOs with artificial growth hormones and fed GMO grain.

Cities often preach of community but they more often, in fact, kill it. They are said to bring people together but many do the opposite while smaller towns, communes, and types of intentional, voluntarily formed settlements are generally closer knit. Large cities are not made because of human need and they are unsustainable. They are simply concentrations of wealth, industry, power, and people. Where humans go in mass so goes unsustainable industry and practice almost always and where unsustainable industry goes so go humans as well to line up to be wage slaves to maintain destructive industries. Big cities are pathological in a way. They have become so pervasive and ubiquitous that they are seen as normal, but there is nothing natural about them. They mostly create human and environmental sicknesses. Some have more hospitals and doctors than rural areas do, so sicknesses and injuries can be more easily treated but the abundance of these problems is generally greater in big cities and the hospitals are often crowded, hectic, greedy, and inefficient. Many indigenous populations that live within nature don’t have the number of modern diseases and viruses big cities do, even though most lack any kind of hospitals. This is because transmission of diseases and viruses is much, much faster and harder to contain in cities due the density of their populations. Big cities are essentially petri dishes for this reason. Humans and other animals were not meant to live like cattle in a CAFO, and I believe the so-called “benefits” of big cities far outweigh their harms in almost all cases.

Large cities are also much harder to manage. As most governments in them are representative, it is impossible to find someone who will represent everyone in cities with millions of residents, (the only thing the majority of millions tend to agree on are jingoist and xenophobic in nature because these are the concepts we are told to value by the rich and powerful) whereas in small communities’ people can govern their own affairs and respect each other’s autonomy. Representative government is arguably the worst form of government but said to be the “only way” millions can be governed. It is far more obvious that members of small, intentional communities don’t need formal government, especially the representative kind. They can more easily impact their communities for the better and work in concert with one another. Communication is much more feasible between all community members when the community only consists of a few hundred people or less. People can more easily live equitably and in peace and be stewards of their environment if they live on land on which they can work and they more directly see the impacts of living unsustainably. People in large cities, on the other hand, just see their trash hauled away every week and don’t see the landfills it goes into or the pollution (except in the form of smog and what’s littered on streets) and devastation these create. It is also easier to care for one another when it is actually possible to know everyone’s name who lives around you and people don’t feel constantly busy and incapable of interaction with strangers as many do in big cities.

Some claim erroneously that big cities are more sustainable because residents generally live in smaller spaces and their energy needs are less substantial, and every place they need to go is close by so they can walk most of the time. But while many people use public transportation, bike, or walk in large cities, anyone who has been to a big city like Boston or New York City or lives there will tell you the streets are usually filled like parking lots. The stop and go of traffic also generates considerably more pollution than just driving with rare stops. And while residents who live in small apartments and condos may use little energy, where they get their energy matters. Whereas rural residents can install solar panels or wind turbines on their properties, city dwellers just don’t have the space for this. The only practical way to power big cities by renewables is to build solar and wind farms far from the city, which involves substantial energy loss in transit.

Humans don’t have to contribute in negative ways to the environment. Our impact can be not only net zero but very positive if we save endangered species, root out harmful invasives and parasites, and increase biological diversity and the health of ecosystems. We have the resources and knowledge to do so. We just need the will. The first practical step may be for states to secede from the Federal government and become independent and then towns can secede from their states and so on until there are no federations or authorities that are forced on us. Most current borders were drawn up violently for economic conquest. They don’t serve any purpose. We must break down these barriers that are forced on us and then when there are none, we can federate voluntarily if and when enough people feel the need. First, workers who want to support one another and work together in solidarity can form unions and workplace democracies, cooperatives, or collaboratives. Communes can similarly form that are autonomous and then other unions can join together voluntarily in alliances if they feel there would be a benefit. Eventually, base unions, communes, and councils may want to federate internationally, forming international alliances but if this occurs it ought to be because of need, not greed, and the world around us would look vastly different as a result.

If states were to dissolve, businesses everywhere could be collectivized. People could maintain owning small residences but bourgeois mansions could be reclaimed by common people and shared collectively or repurposed, along with large tracts of land currently owned by large corporations and governments that use this land unsustainably. Collective ownership would ensure these lands were not exploited (logged, mined, drilled, fracked, developed for condos, and so on) for profit and instead preserved with ecological and human need in mind. All inhabitants could share them, not to extract resources from them for profit but to freely visit, enjoy, and protect these lands. All factories and workplaces (not just those for public services) could be taken over by their workers and the communities they serve so that all industry would actually reflect the needs and interests of all people and the environment, instead just a few wealthy investors, managers, politicians, plutocrats, or CEOs.

So many people misunderstand human nature. They look around the world and see the coercion, war, sickness, slavery, imprisonment, and devastation and think these are permanent facets of human nature. They think humans are naturally callous and self-interested and that our interests are opposed to one another. But this is not the case. The world only looks this way because an extremely misanthropic, opulent, and powerful minority (the ruling class) controls most of the world. But the world doesn’t have to be this way. We all have the same needs for food, water, shelter, health-care, education or knowledge, and love and we are much better at attaining these when we work together. Ecosystems don’t function purely from competition. There are millions of symbiotic relationships between organisms and the environment. Of course, plants, trees, and aquatic vegetation sequester carbon dioxide that we exhale and release oxygen, which we breathe. We and other animals eat other living organisms and our waste is broken down in the soil by the secretions of other living underground organisms, which increases the nutrients and cation exchange capacity of the soil, feeding the plants, which again feed us and so on. Life has existed for billions of years on Earth because of these symbiotic and cyclical relationships. But many generations of humans have ignored this. They have killed life on the Earth and polluted the environment for selfish gains without realizing the necessity of these symbiotic relationships we share with our environment.

Many common people misunderstand human nature because we are pitted against one another by powerful, misanthropic, man-made institutions like governments and corporations in what is essentially a war of all against all. We are told we can and should always profit from the losses of others. Governments and corporations take and take unconcerned with the externalities, but they all come back to us. When conflict arises, those in power say “Do you see why you need us?” They create the problems they’re supposed to solve and then point to them in an attempt to justify their own existence. But the incredible viciousness of our world is man-made. Nature is not so cruel. Nature doesn’t torture, enslave, imprison, forcefully drug, silence, berate, terrorize, bomb, wage war, humiliate, slander, poison water or food on massive scales, or psychologically abuse. Some humans do. But we can’t mistake this for being “natural.” Just because we are a part of nature doesn’t mean every human behavior is natural or inborn. We are taught to act selfishly and hate others. But cooperation, compassion, and love are true, natural human attributes. There is an abundance of resources on Earth and even with our vast numbers, there is more than enough to sustain everyone and our ecosystems. There is just not enough and never will be enough to feed the greed of the parasitic ruling class. 

Crucial to every cooperative or collective society or workplace are empiricism, testing, and a single set of facts, especially regarding history. Politics is essentially the business of lying. When candidates or current politicians debate, they often have two sets of facts. Politicians are allowed to openly deny scientific facts like global climate change, deceiving millions. The existence of these types of phenomena should not be debated. Only what should be done about them should be debated.

How much or what exactly which members contribute to voluntarily formed communities and how much they ought to receive ought to be determined by those involved. The revolutionary, Louis Blanc, wrote “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and this I believe is a good maxim or starting point to help make these determinations. Resources ought not be metered out by some kind of central, “red” bureaucracy but shared freely until all are satisfied. It may, in fact, be more useful to determine how much is too much rather than how much is enough for each person when determining need within communities.

Resources like land can be trickier. How much land is too much land for one person? Beyond the size, how people use it ought to be considered. Do they use it sustainably? Do they preserve or increase biodiversity? Do they grow food that feeds people? Do they employ people as wage slaves or do they work in concert with other people cooperatively and freely share in the fruits of their labor? Again, no authority should have the power to make these determinations about what is too much of anything for one person. Rather, communities individually should decide. If there are conflicts between them, these could be resolved by having impartial scientists determine which can be shown to be more scientifically sound and sustainable and once members are better informed, then they can decide. If the scientists or the members feel there is a monopoly or someone is abusing the Earth and taking too much, the people would freely take it back without the interference of a state. And no one would be obligated to stay in any commune, collective, or as a party to any temporary contract, so if an individual disagreed about his individual needs, he would be free to leave and travel unrestricted by borders.

In order for human populations to continue living on Earth, science must always have the final say in issues that involve human and ecological needs. The need for healthy ecosystems is far, far greater than the desire for corporations or other greedy actors have to extract resources in excess from them so these practices should be terminated indefinitely and part of the pact of these communes. 19th century economist and libertarian, Gustave de Molinari, (whose beliefs about “free markets” I strongly oppose but despite this made some important insights about anarchy) wisely said “Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap, defraud or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.” This is one of the most concise arguments for anarchism I have found. When humans are in control of their own bodies and decisions they are much more likely to treat each other and the natural world better and reach a natural equilibrium between their own interests, others interests, and environmental interests, (which again are very much intertwined). As Sever wrote “Another kind of freedom dwells in the world where the self only exists through its relations, and the freedom of one does not end but begins with the freedom of another.”

Justice comes from freedom, not from its absence. It cannot be legislated or enforced. It is subjective. This does not mean there will be no violence or conflict without governments or monopolies. Current masters and despots may be killed justifiably in Revolutions but eventually the reasons for conflict will dissipate in the presence of true human freedom and society will become very organized, sustainable, equitable, and just.

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