Syndical Syndrome

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This article
originally appeared in Libertarian
, Vol. 3.5, June 1971

New Yorkers
have recently had to suffer yet another irresponsible blackjacking
at the hands of power-drunk labor unions. This time it was the
bridge tenders and garbage-incinerator workers who, angered at
the state legislature’s balking at their receiving pensions that
no private industry could afford, took their frustrations out
on an innocent public by not only striking but sabotaging traffic

there was no way that they could win their strike, because
upstate legislators could hardly be brought to their knees by
traffic tie-ups and sabotage in New York City, but it was a nice
way to have a couple of days off while sticking a knife into the
ribs of John Q. Public. Libertarians must always concede the right
to strike, since otherwise labor would be compulsory rather than
voluntary; but if employers had the fortitude and they were allowed
to do so by law, they would automatically fire any and all strikers,
and thereby take the strikers’ quitting their jobs with the serious
response that they deserve.

In the case
of outright sabotage and destruction, along with threats of violence
against those who continue to work or are hired to replace the
strikers, the unions who commit such aggression should be treated
as the criminals that they are. And because such coercion is the
general rule in strikes, these criminal penalties would, in a
libertarian society, be widespread rather than nonexistent as
they are now. For it should never be forgotten that a libertarian
society does not mean the total absence of coercion but only the
absence of coercion against noncriminals. Those who invade the
rights of others by violence deserve their proper check and punishment
by the force of law.

In the light
of the black record of union violence and intimidation over the
years – a violence inherent in their assumed power to keep
nonstrikers off "their" jobs – it is difficult
to understand why so many libertarians have lately become enamored
of anarcho-syndicalism and the "working class." For
the arrogant and coercive labor unions are indeed "syndicalism"
in embryo, and the harbinger of any future fully syndicalist society.

Of the three
major proposals for running an advanced industrial society –
socialism, syndicalism, and free-market capitalism – syndicalism
is the most blatantly unworkable and most rapidly disastrous.
For in such a society, there must be some rational mechanism for
allocating resources efficiently, for seeing to it that the proper
amounts of labor, land, and capital equipment are employed in
those areas and in those ways most efficient for satisfying the
wants and desires of the mass of consumers. Free-market capitalism
not only provides the most smoothly efficient way; it is also
the only method that relies solely on voluntary inducements.

Thus, suppose
that a great number of new workers are needed in a new and expanding
industry, say, plastics or electronics. How are these workers
to be supplied? The market way is to offer new jobs at higher
wages in these new areas and fields, while firing people or cutting
wages in those industries that are in decline (say the horse-and-buggy
industry). The pure socialist way is to direct the labor out of
one industry and into another purely by coercive violence –
i.e., by forced labor direction. The socialist method is both
despotic and highly inefficient, and so even the socialist countries
have been turning more and more to free-market methods in the
allocation of labor. But at least socialism is an attempt at a
rational allocation of labor in a modern, industrial society.

on the other hand – i.e., full worker "ownership"
of "their" industries – does not even attempt to
achieve a rational allocation of resources. Both the free method
of market allocation and the coercive method of central dictation
are eliminated. And what is to take their place? In effect, nothing
but chaos. Instead of a coordinating mechanism there is now only
the chaotic will of groups of brawling monopoloid syndics, each
demanding parity and control regardless of economic law.

Does anyone
think for one moment that the horse-and-buggy workers would have
permitted higher wages in the budding automobile industry? Or
have permitted the dismissal of workers? All one need do is to
observe the arrogant behavior of unions with monopoly power to
know the answer. But the problem lies deeper than bad will on
the part of union syndics. The problem is that, even in a community
of "saints," even in an improbable world of meek and
altruistic union monopolists, there would be no way for the syndics
to make their decisions on wages, employment, or allocation of
production. Only a system of market pricing and wage rates, guided
by profit-and-loss considerations for market firms, can provide
a mechanism for such decisions.

the myriad jurisdictional disputes that already plague our system
of unionism would be far more intense and out of control in a
syndicalist society. Take for example carpenters working in the
steel industry.

Would the
carpenter syndic "own" the product of their carpentry,
or would they be merged unheralded and unsung into the general
syndic of steel workers? Professor von Mises has scoffed at the
syndicalist cry of "steel to the steel workers, aluminum
to the aluminum workers, and garbage to the garbage collectors!"
And in a syndical society, who indeed would own the garbage, the
garbage-collecting syndic or the street-maintenance and repair

would therefore be totally incapable of organizing an industrial
economy, and this total failure is, indeed, the economic embodiment
of the dysfunctionality of the antitechnological youth culture
that has given rise to the new syndicalism. In a recent Firing
Line interview, Bill Buckley asked Karl Hess the elementally
silly question: in an anarchist society, if one group of workers
wanted to work from 8 to 4, and another set in the same plant
wished to work from 9 to 5, who would decide? Karl, trapped in
an anarcho-syndicalist framework, could only lamely reply that
the workers would come to some sort of agreement. The proper and
swift answer would have been that the stockholder-owners would
decide, just as they are doing now. Anarcho-capitalism is an easily
explainable system, precisely because its configuration would
be very similar in most ways to the society that we have now.

Like the
New Left generally, the proponents of syndicalism suffer most
from a total ignorance of economics, and therefore of the ways
in which an industrial society can function. If the syndicalists
can be persuaded to get "into" reading, especially of
a subject they usually define as being inherently "repressive,"
they might learn something from the critiques of syndicalism in
Mises’s Socialism
and Human
, and in Henry Simons’s Economic
Policy for a Free Society

It is true
that the Yugoslav economy is working well, but the remarkable
Yugoslav shift from socialist central planning to a relatively
free-market economy has never been clasped to the New Left bosom.
For while the workers in each plant indeed own their plants, the
relations between plants are strictly governed by a free price
system, and by profit-and-loss tests. It is precisely the adoption
of the free market, of money, prices, competition, self-reliance,
etc., by the Yugoslavs that prevents the anarcho-syndicalists
and the other egalitarians and antimarketeers of the New Left
from treating Yugoslavia with anything but pained silence. Furthermore,
the Yugoslavs are rapidly moving in the direction of individual
shares of ownership for each worker, and the subsequent trading
of such shares in some sort of "people’s stock market,"
which will culminate their shift to a free-market economy.

The Yugoslav
system, therefore, is indeed not syndicalist, but a market economy
of producers’ cooperatives. If this is really all that the anarcho-syndicalists
demand, then they can easily bring the new society into being
by simply forming producers’ co-ops owned by the workers themselves.
In free-market capitalism, there have never been any restrictions
on workers banding together in producers’ co-ops to own their
own capital equipment.

And yet,
in the free economy, producers’ co-ops have been notorious by
their nonexistence, or rapid failure in competition with "capitalist"
firms. The reason is that, unknown to the economically ignorant
syndicalists, the capitalists perform an extremely important service
to the workers, as a result of which most people prefer to be
hired by capitalists rather than be self- or cooperatively employed.

The two basic
functions are those of the "capitalist" per se and those
of the "entrepreneur." As a capitalist, the employer
saves money from his possible consumption, and invests the money
in paying workers their income in advance of sale of product.
In an automobile factory, the capitalist pays workers their weekly
wages now; in a producers’ cooperative factory, the workers would
have to go without income for months or years until their product
is finally sold to the consumers. The capitalist earning of "interest"
for this advance payment is precisely equivalent to the creditor
who earns interest by lending someone money now while being repaid
at some point in the future. In both cases, "interest"
is earned as payment for savings and time preference for income
now rather than waiting for the future.

The second
service performed by the employer is to assume the significant
risks of entrepreneurship. A producers’ cooperative firm invests
resources in a product, and then hopes to sell that product to
the consumers at a net profit. But suppose that the efficiency
and the foresight of the workers is minimal; suppose, in short,
that they produce an Edsel that fails to sell? If they do, their
income is negative rather than positive, and they lose capital
assets that they can scarcely afford. In the capitalist economy,
the employer assumes these capital risks, and only he therefore
is subject to monetary losses if his product is inefficiently
produced or if he cannot achieve satisfactory sales.

Most workers
are unwilling or unable to assume these risks of entrepreneurship,
and therefore they greet the employer’s willingness to do so,
as well as to pay them in advance of sales, with sighs of relief.
Or would if they understood the process. We can confidently
predict that if Yugoslavia ever allows full-scale capitalist employment
(as it does now for small-scale enterprise) that its producers’
co-ops will rapidly give way to orthodox "capitalist"
modes of production – to the benefit of all concerned.

The question
of whether a future free society will be "co-op" or
communal or capitalist brings up the most disturbing problem about
the anarcho-syndicalists and communalists. This is the famous
"question of Auban" – the question that "Auban,"
the individualist anarchist hero of John Henry Mackay’s novel
, put to the left-wing anarchists. In essence:
would you, in your proposed anarchist society, permit those who
so wished to have private property, to engage in free-market transactions,
to hire workers in "capitalist" relations, etc.? The
communist anarchists in Mackay’s book never answered the question
clearly and lucidly, and neither do any left-wing anarchists that
one may encounter today.1 Generally,
the left-anarchists reply that, in their utopian society, no one
will be so base as to want to indulge in private property or in
capitalist social relations. But suppose they do? one persists.
The answer is generally either a repeat of the utopian answer
or an evasive silence.

And when
the left-anarchists can be pressed for an answer, the response
is disturbing indeed. Take for example one of our most distinguished
socialist-anarchists, Professor Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky
has recently expressed a great deal of worry about the recent
rise of our "right-wing" libertarian movement; apparently
he is – I am afraid unrealistically – concerned that
we might succeed in abolishing the State before the State has
succeeded in abolishing private property! Secondly, Chomsky has
written that the anarcho-capitalist society would constitute "the
greatest tyranny the world has ever known." (What, Noam?
Greater than Hitler? Than Genghis Khan?)

Whether or
not anarcho-capitalism would be tyrannical is here irrelevant;
the problem is that, in so expressing his horror at the possible
results of complete freedom, Professor Chomsky reveals that he
is not really an "anarchist" at all, indeed that
he prefers statism to an anarcho-capitalist world. That of course
is his prerogative, and scarcely unusual, but what is illegitimate
is for this distinguished linguist to call himself an "anarchist."

And I very
much fear that the same can be said for the other varieties of
left-anarchists: communal, syndical, or whatever. Beneath a thin
veneer of libertarian rhetoric there lies the same compulsory
and coercive collectivist that we have encountered all too often
in the last two centuries. Scratch a left-wing "anarchist"
and you will find a coercive egalitarian despot who makes the
true lover of freedom yearn even for Richard Nixon (Arghh!) in

this analysis is correct, as I believe it is, then it makes all
the more absurd the hankering by so many of our "left wing"
for an intimate comradely alliance with the anarcho-Left. Beneath
superficial agreement in rhetoric, there is nothing in common
between genuine libertarians and collectivist "anarchists."
Superficially, we both oppose the existing system – but so
too do monarchists, Nazis, and those who hanker for a return to
the Inquisition – scarcely enough for a warm and comradely

It is indeed
fortunate for liberty that the left-anarchists have about as much
chance of victory as some of our conservatives have to restore
the Bourbon dynasty. For if they did, we would soon find that
the embrace of left-anarchy is the embrace of death.


  1. For
    the Auban speech from Mackay, see Krimerman and Perry, eds.,
    of Anarchy
    (Doubleday, 1966), pp. 16–33.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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