The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Life In The Absence of Coercion

On Friday I wrote an article which asked two questions: one about what you’d do if you couldn’t be easily coerced with violence:

Imagine that if you chose no physical object could affect you. Bullets don’t work, fists don’t work, no one can grab you or put you in handcuffs, and that’s true of everyone.

The second was:

What if you didn’t need to eat or drink and you cold and heat didn’t bother you or harm you and you didn’t get sick? You might still want shelter or a home or objects like books or computers, and objects like cosmetics would exist, but not medicine. But you would need nothing.

I didn’t write very much about these because I wanted people to think it thru on their own first. If you haven’t done so, please spend some time thinking about it now before you proceed.

I’ll suggest that applying it to yourself first is a good idea before you move on to society. Absent the possibility of violence against you and with your basic needs met would you still work at the job you’re doing now? Would you pay your taxes? Would you live where you are? Would you have kept going to school?

What would you do, or have done instead?

The point here is how much of what we do is because of fear or need, with fear of not having one’s needs met being what need is really about. Marx called this “the whip of hunger”, pointing out that people had to take terrible jobs because the option of not doing so was starving to death. You didn’t need physical whips and chains, you just needed to ensure that people couldn’t meet their needs without doing what those with power wanted.

This is what the closure of the commons, among other things, was about: removing people’s ability to support themselves. Closure of the commons was done legally, but backed by force.

I will gently suggest that most people wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if they weren’t scared of the consequences of not doing it and that they would do very different things if fear of privation and violence were taken out of the equation.

This is important personally because it speaks to something close to who you really are or would be, and lets you know what you’re doing out of fear.

It’s not the same thing as being really rich, because money is the ability to command other people’s labor and the results of their labor. If I buy a tomato at the supermarket, a lot of labor went into growing that and getting it to the supermarket.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating. Alas, I’m neither God nor Beast.)

What it does tell you is who you would be without fear.

At the social level it asks the question of what a society would look like where social ties were fundamentally voluntary. Where you were a minor God and could live without society?

Obviously you still wouldn’t live as well without society: no internet, no supermarkets, no books, no whatever. But you could do it.

This isn’t about finding holes in the specific questions: it’s not about whether you could find a way to hurt someone without touching them or what do about some jerk following you around and screaming and you can’t use violence to shut him up, though those are worthwhile questions too, because they lead to the question “is some ability to coerce good? Under what circumstances?”

Imagine having a fire department, say. If some people didn’t want to contribute, you couldn’t make them, but a fire in their house can still spread to yours.  Garbage would still need to be picked up and pollution dealt with and so on.

But if someone didn’t want to do something, there would be no way of making them.

So society would have to work without coercion.

Is that even imaginable? What would it look like? What things we do today just wouldn’t happen, or exist? A government run by people who couldn’t coerce anyone would look very, very different from what we have today or almost anything we’ve ever had.

Now this goes a bit further, in that you don’t even need to eat so there’s no “if you don’t work, you don’t eat”, but we can imagine an abundance society where there is such surplus that we have more than we need even without these hypotheticals. In a sense we almost had it: for most of the last 80 years there’s been far more food produced than is needed, and yet people still went hungry and there were famines.

But the fundamental point of these questions is simply to point out what you do because of fear of violence; fear of lack, or both.

Then, should anything which exists only because of coercion exist? Is coercion a good thing in small does even if it’s not required to protect people from the violence of other people or to distribute basic necessities?

I’m pretty sure there’d still be society, for what that’s worth: people would still need to cooperate to create certain things they want. But what would society be like if people would only cooperate to get what they wanted, in the absence of fear or violence, starvation or homelessness?

This is a genuinely hard question to think about. We’ve never existed in such a society, and no such society has ever existed. As long as we’re human, it won’t exist, though some transhumanist futures might create something close to such a world.

We think about such possibilities to show ourselves the extreme, and then consider if we should work to get closer to it, even if we can’t reach the end-state.

There are other hypotheticals, perhaps better. For example, what if association was always voluntary: you can’t even hear or see or touch someone without their consent?

Think thru these questions and you’ll see both where the constraints of being humans form you, and where they form society.





Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 18, 2022


Consequences Of The End of Zero Covid In China


  1. Bill H.

    Can there be good if there is no evil? How would we recognize it as good?

    If you are handed a trophy for winning a race that you did not even try to win, do you savor that talisman as much would if you had trained for months, ran hard and actually won the race?

  2. anon y'mouse

    the problem with a lot of this theoretical exercise lies in the fact that most people do not recognize that they are driven by want and fear. they believe they have moral directions to do what they are doing, and hold it against others when they are not doing likewise. or they take pride in “success” of a certain kind and think people not achieving their level of success are lazy slackers, or whatever.

    most of the “force” in the system is ideological. i think you are trying to penetrate this but i don’t think most people in their daily lives get up and go to work thinking “i am doing this because the wolf is at the door”. they justify what they doing to themselves, they rationalize. even the truly poor have some pride in getting a “decent” job (with usually some kind of exploitative large corporation) and holding onto it becuase they are “feeding the family” with their hard work. i have relatives who are like this, and actually have fallen for the Bootstrap Mentality. the last thing they want is someone pointing out to them that they are still getting the shitty end of the deal, even though many know full well and are not hiding it from themselves (as the PMC are exceptionally better at doing) that they are only doing that work because they need to eat and keep a roof. they still want the illusion of “agency” and resent anyone coming between them and this illusion.

    i posit this: if there is no force in this world that coerces individuals, then propaganda, illusions, ideology and so forth take the center stage because then that is all that is backing up people’s “need” to get together to cooperate. maybe it would not be Musk, Bezos, Jobs and Gates, but whomever could function like a Jim Jones type to grab the imaginations of people and get them to cooperate towards some grand goal, like….going to Mars, or geoengineering the planet, or whatever.

    the “we are the Ubermen, doing what those near animals aren’t bothering to do” would likely play a larger role than it does already.

  3. StewartM


    It’s not the same thing as being really rich, because money is the ability to command other people’s labor and the results of their labor. If I buy a tomato at the supermarket, a lot of labor went into growing that and getting it to the supermarket

    Oh, no no no. My point is immaterial about the ethics of wealth and ownership. It’s just that one of the big drivers for most people for them to be nice to and considerate of others, or to settle for less than what they ideally would want to have, because they *need others*. If there is no coercion, and no need for others, then there is no compromise. You have made a similar point about our elites suddenly being willing to offer their poors some nice stuff when they needed them for mass armies.

    Gun enthusiasts have it all wrong. It’s not than an armed society is a polite society, but a society where everyone is dependent on everyone else that makes a society polite (cue in hunter-gatherers). The very reason our rich are such assholes now is that they think (wrongfully) that what happens to the poor can’t happen to them and they no longer need them anymore.

    Imagine having a fire department, say. If some people didn’t want to contribute, you couldn’t make them, but a fire in their house can still spread to yours. Garbage would still need to be picked up and pollution dealt with and so on.

    To me, this runs afoul of criteria #2: I assumed that when you stipulated you have ‘no needs’, this includes things such as garbage, sewer, or fire service. If you say that shelter is one of the things you never have to worry about, I would think that means you don’t have to worry about fire destroying yours or about your shelter being overwhelmed with filth. Again, this re-establishes a bit of dependency on others.

  4. Willy

    Can there be good if there is no evil? How would we recognize it as good?

    I think that one point of this exercise is to get us to consider why achieving “good” via evil is the economic status quo these days.

    I once worked in a place where management (good people all) knew their employees were being screwed by the owners. But one goes along to get along. One owner even wrote a book about attracting and using good people which is now considered a bible for that particular business. By “good people” I mean those agreeably hard-working folks who are the least likely to bitch or rebel or quit when they figure out the scam.

    Yes, even at age 18 I knew that every business tries to make money off its employees. But I’d never seen so much “coercion” in the form of subtle cheats and tricks being used for maximum extraction of value from workers.

    BTW, the two owners had been born into wealth while everybody else (mostly university students) were feeling “the whip of hunger”. The owners were also privy to what I’ll call (for the sake of brevity), insider cheat codes.

    It’s like having a 90-yard head start in a 100 yard race, and then the winners reconfigure the track hoping others don’t notice, to get as many of the other contestants as possible to run around in circles just so the ‘winners’ can call them ‘losers’.

    It’s that kind of race which I would call “evil”. A normal race, with the typically defined winners and losers, I might be persuaded to call “good”.

  5. Ché Pasa

    Utopianism has had a remarkable grasp on the imaginations of Western societies for about as long as there has been something called Western Civilization. Why is that? What drives Utopian thought? Why is the Utopian vision (of no coercion, no fear, no want among other things) so ever elusive?

    What would it require to realize Utopia?

    Ian provides thought exercises — how would we change as individuals; how would society change if fear and want disappeared? What would happen if Power were not available to force compliance with orders and commands of an overlord class? Would there, could there even be such as class? Without it, how would the rest of us behave — collectively and as individuals?

    Westerners like to imagine that such societies do exist or have existed in the past, only to be overwhelmed or destroyed by the influence and Power of Western Civilization. They could or should exist in the future as well, if only the influence and Power of Western Civilization were removed, no?

    The implication is that there is something inherently wrong with what we think of as Western Civilization, that it is not reformable, and that the world and the people in it would be far better off without it. Or as Gandhi is said to have said when asked what he thought about Western Civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

    In other words, our Civilization, however you define it, is a catastrophe. Maybe we can say that Civilization is by definition catastrophic.

    I remember one of the Post War mottoes/ideals of the victorious Western powers was something like: “Peace through Understanding.” In other words, no war no more. Of course war had never stopped and “understanding” had different meanings and functions depending on status within the dominant society.

    And yet briefly among many the ideal was real, and among some, it still is.

    I believe they’re called “Fools” by the lordly class.

  6. Ben

    I’ve thought about this lack of coercion before and one angle I don’t see discussed enough is how close modern MMOs come to this ideal.

    I’ve mentioned this before in this Twitter thread:

    For example, let me use EVE online, a space MMO I’ve played for decades.

    Now EVE pretends to be a hyper capitalist violent dystopia, but I want to focus on the mechanics of how it works in practice, not the lore it paints itself with.

    First, violence, although it exists in game, is extremely limited compared to how it works in real life. If you undock a ship, it can be shot at and destroyed as can your escape pod and you can be ‘killed’. When this happens you lose your ship and cargo, but otherwise immediately re spawn at your home station no worse for wear.

    You cannot be permanently killed, crippled or enslaved. You can lose your stuff, but there are areas where you can always begin again and build more wealth that you can’t be excluded from. You don’t have to eat or pay any upkeep costs for your basic existence (now that the game is F2P you don’t even have to pay game subscription).

    And people create complex social structures in this game under these rules. At the start a bunch of Libertarians tried to make capitalist structures, but they all got out competed by Socialist alternatives.

    For instance, nearly all major organizations have “Ship Replacement Programs”, where if you die in combat the organization will pay for your stuff, subject to limitations. Most infrastructure built in PVP space is collectively owned and free to use by members of the owning organizations.

    Another example: I was part of a hauling organization in game. We would accept contracts to deliver goods from one point to another in exchange for in game money.

    If this organization was in real life, I’d have been paid a wage, been subject to a boss and scheduling requirements, etc. But obviously that doesn’t work without coercion.

    So the hauling organization was run as a collective. I can take whatever hauling contracts I want, when I want, and keep nearly all the profits. The org did require I pay a % of my profits to support the collective infrastructure. This can’t be done automatically, but they would kick me out if I was too far behind on my dues. The organization provided tools to make it easier to filter through various contracts, along with a brand, website and customer relations.

    Other people would be more willing to make contracts with this organization then with freelancers because the organization had a reputation of good service and freelancers would join the organization for access to their tools and to have access to these more lucrative contracts. The org also screened for scam contracts, and kicked out members who scammed.

    It was one of the only win-win coercion-free profitable and sustainable collective enterprises I’ve even been a part of. And it’s part of an MMO. I’m surprised more people don’t know about things like this.

  7. Joan

    1. If no one could physically hurt me:
    I would do a lot more community service. I don’t do much of any these days after a scare at an Occupy protest where I nearly got arrested. I suspect it would be harder for injustice to prevail because if no one could shoot me then I and others like me would pursue our Robin Hood inclinations more.

    2. If I had all my needs & didn’t get sick:
    I experienced a brief period of financial stability in which I had a summer of my bills paid for. I spent it journaling through my baggage and hangups, trying to figure out how to meditate, going for long walks and spending lots of time in nature, spending long hours talking to my friends and reading a lot. I wrote a novella but ended up converting it to a fanfiction.
    If I didn’t need to work to stay alive, I’d do that again and go as far as I could in my spiritual development. I’ve been wanting to study the Stoics in-depth and delve into the classical period more after reading a book about Iamblichus.

    3. If college were free and high quality I’d get degrees in all of the humanities fields and even try my hand at math and science again. Otherwise I’d keep going down the autodidact route I’m on.

    As for the additional questions in this post, I’ll need to think further!

  8. Adam Eran

    Buddha’s first noble truth is “Life is dukkha”… and if you dislocate your shoulder, it’s “dukkha.” … at least uncomfortable, if not downright painful. What is death, then? Comfort?

    I’ve had too many (to me) undesirable things turn out to be beneficial to belief the frictionless, painless, needless world would be entirely my oyster. It might be boring.

    Honestly, it’s hard for me to even imagine that frictionless world…although I have no immediate hardship (plenty to eat, wear, and a roof over my head).

    What’s even more difficult for me to imagine is a world at peace, especially one with the U.S. provoking war all over the place.

  9. Adam Eran

    After a bit of reflection, here’s my reaction to Ian’s post (OK, I didn’t write it):

    The Yoga Perspective

    The yoga perspective recognized that each of us is made up of a great many forces, feelings, limits, possibilities and passions. These aspects exist within my body and my mind and collectively define the boundaries that I usually identify “me.” Therefore, at any point in time, an infinity of limits and edges await my exploration and growth. Physically these limits are experienced as muscle tension, restricted movement, and pain. Psychologically, limits are experienced as dogma, ignorance, and fear. These limits have the potential to continually change and restructure themselves.

    For example, if I sit on the Floor and try to reach over to touch my toes, I notice that I can only reach to within five inches of my toes before I experience tension and slight pain. At this point I am experiencing one of my boundaries. This point, this “edge,” is a highly important place, for within the cosmology this edge is considered to be the creative teacher. If I approach this teacher/edge with love, sensitivity, and awareness, I will discover that my teacher/edge will move and allow me a greater range of motion. If I shy away from approaching my teacher/edge, I will learn nothing new, and, in time, my own dogma/tightness will contract upon itself and will grow even tighter. If I try to blast past my edge, I might fool myself into thinking that I have learned and expanded, but in fact what sometimes happens is that I am only impressing myself with a temporary surge of ambition; this feeling, too, might contract upon itself with insecurity, tension, and fear. Physically, when I approach my edge gently and consciously, my body responds by focusing energy and attention on this spot, encouraging the blood and energy to bathe the related muscles and organs with vitality and life, thus allowing me the experience of true growth and self-nourishment. But if I do not try to reach my edge, my body, having no point of focus, will find it difficult to isolate the place and nourish it, and little growth and improvement will follow.

    The implication of this yoga perspective is that health, dis-ease, love, and personal growth are all aspects of the way in which you deal with yourself and your own potential for growth. So, rather than seeing the body and mind in terms of how they relate to each other pathologically, with primary focus on therapeutic release From trauma and unconscious conflict, the yogic perspective the opening and freeing of the body’s energies as explorations in search of self-awareness and higher understanding”

    Ken Brentwald / Yoga Journal / Jan-Feb 1978

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