Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/1.3

B.1.3 What kind of hierarchy of values does capitalism create?Edit

Anarchists argue that capitalism can only have a negative impact on ethical behaviour. This flows from its hierarchical nature. We think that hierarchy must, by its very nature, always impact negatively on morality.

As we argued in section A.2.19, ethics is dependent on both individual liberty and equality between individuals. Hierarchy violates both and so the "great sources of moral depravity" are "capitalism, religion, justice, government." In "the domain of economy, coercion has lead us to industrial servitude; in the domain of politics to the State . . . [where] the nation . . . becomes nothing but a mass of obedient subjects to a central authority." This has "contributed and powerfully aided to create all the present economic, political, and social evils" and "has given proof of its absolute impotence to raise the moral level of societies; it has not even been able to maintain it at the level it had already reached." This is unsurprising, as society developed "authoritarian prejudices" and "men become more and more divided into governors and governed, exploiters and exploited, the moral level fell . . . and the spirit of the age declined." By violating equality, by rejecting social co-operation between equals in favour of top-down, authoritarian, social relationships which turn some into the tools of others, capitalism, like the state, could not help but erode ethical standards as the "moral level" of society is "debased by the practice of authority." [1]

However, as we as promoting general unethical behaviour, capitalism produces a specific perverted hierarchy of values—one that places humanity below property. As Erich Fromm argues:

"The use [i.e. exploitation] of man by man is expressive of the system of values underlying the capitalistic system. Capital, the dead past, employs labour -- the living vitality and power of the present. In the capitalistic hierarchy of values, capital stands higher than labour, amassed things higher than the manifestations of life. Capital employs labour, and not labour capital. The person who owns capital commands the person who 'only' owns his life, human skill, vitality and creative productivity. 'Things' are higher than man. The conflict between capital and labour is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity."


Capitalism only values a person as representing a certain amount of the commodity called "labour power," in other words, as a thing. Instead of being valued as an individual—a unique human being with intrinsic moral and spiritual worth—only one's price tag counts. This replacement of human relationships by economic ones soon results in the replacement of human values by economic ones, giving us an "ethics" of the account book, in which people are valued by how much they earn. It also leads, as Murray Bookchin argues, to a debasement of human values:

"So deeply rooted is the market economy in our minds that its grubby language has replaced our most hallowed moral and spiritual expressions. We now 'invest' in our children, marriages, and personal relationships, a term that is equated with words like 'love' and 'care.' We live in a world of 'trade-offs' and we ask for the 'bottom line' of any emotional 'transaction.' We use the terminology of contracts rather than that of loyalties and spiritual affinities."


With human values replaced by the ethics of calculation, and with only the laws of market and state "binding" people together, social breakdown is inevitable. Little wonder modern capitalism has seen a massive increase in crime and dehumanisation under the freer markets established by "conservative" governments, such as those of Thatcher and Reagan and their transnational corporate masters. We now live in a society where people live in self-constructed fortresses, "free" behind their walls and defences (both emotional and physical).

Of course, some people like the "ethics" of mathematics. But this is mostly because—like all gods—it gives the worshipper an easy rule book to follow. "Five is greater than four, therefore five is better" is pretty simple to understand. John Steinbeck noticed this when he wrote:

"Some of them [the owners] hated the mathematics that drove them [to kick the farmers off their land], and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling."


The debasement of the individual in the workplace, where so much time is spent, necessarily affects a person's self-image, which in turn carries over into the way he or she acts in other areas of life. If one is regarded as a commodity at work, one comes to regard oneself and others in that way also. Thus all social relationships—and so, ultimately, all individuals—are commodified. In capitalism, literally nothing is sacred -- "everything has its price"—be it dignity, self-worth, pride, honour—all become commodities up for grabs. Such debasement produces a number of social pathologies. "Consumerism" is one example which can be traced directly to the commodification of the individual under capitalism. To quote Fromm again, "Things have no self, and men who have become things [i.e. commodities on the labour market] can have no self." [5]

However, people still feel the need for selfhood, and so try to fill the emptiness by consuming. The illusion of happiness, that one's life will be complete if one gets a new commodity, drives people to consume. Unfortunately, since commodities are yet more things, they provide no substitute for selfhood, and so the consuming must begin anew. This process is, of course, encouraged by the advertising industry, which tries to convince us to buy what we don't need because it will make us popular/sexy/happy/free/etc. (delete as appropriate!). But consuming cannot really satisfy the needs that the commodities are bought to satisfy. Those needs can only be satisfied by social interaction based on truly human values and by creative, self-directed work.

This does not mean, of course, that anarchists are against higher living standards or material goods. To the contrary, they recognise that liberty and a good life are only possible when one does not have to worry about having enough food, decent housing, and so forth. Freedom and 16 hours of work a day do not go together, nor do equality and poverty or solidarity and hunger. However, anarchists consider consumerism to be a distortion of consumption caused by the alienating and inhuman "account book" ethics of capitalism, which crushes the individual and his or her sense of identity, dignity and selfhood.


  1. Kropotkin, Anarchism, pp. 137-8, p. 106 and p. 139
  2. The Sane Society, pp. 94-95
  3. The Modern Crisis, p. 79
  4. The Grapes of Wrath, p. 34
  5. Op. Cit., p. 143