The NAP is a Social Construct, and Nothing More

The libertarian conception of the non-aggression principle is lauded as the prize universalist idea. Above all else, and above all other philosophy, is said to sit the foundational NAP, which situates all individuals and collectivities. From it come the critiques of the state, governance and collectivism, and the support of unhindered individualism and natural rights.

Defining the non-aggression principle, I take Murray Rothbard’s definition: “No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory”[1].

Within this frankly vague definition, problems already begin to be seen. How are personhood and property defined? The self-ownership principle generally underlines this concept of personhood, whereby one owns one’s actions and choices are paramount, with outside interference being seen as an infringement on one’s right to choose. This makes the assumption that rights are entirely under the auspices of the preconceived individual, and that they come with no obligations. Obligations to family, community, nation, culture. We as individuals do not live in an atomistic vacuum, where choices are simply things picked by pure subjective valuation based on some form of socio-economic equality. Such an idea is laughably utopian, and places things like politics and liberty into the realm of thought experiments and pipe dreams. Individuals certainly do contain elements of free will and the ability to choose, but it is foolish to ignore the structures and outside agencies which construct things like will, culture and choice.

These are all regulated. Property falls into this model as well. How does one define the right concept of property? What laws and regulations govern it, if any? Under the NAP, such things remain unanswered, with private property taking a mythological position with no relation to its historical antecedence. How do things like common-property, venture communism and occupation-and-use come into this conception of private property.

Further from this, how do things like the imposition of wage labour and the production of artificial scarcities interact with the NAP. The imposition of a wage labour system is a fundamental system which maintains modern capitalism’s hegemony. Without it the whole system of exploitation, extraction and consumerism becomes untenable. And with wage labour comes the creation of artificial scarcities of capital and land. Things like commoning and shared ownership schemes become untenable as the capital needed to create them is practically impossible to access due to its holding in privileged banking networks and centralised structures of finance and debt. Even the concept of time under wage labour becomes something controlled via coercive means, held in the hands of management and used to extract productivity gains and surplus value from workforces[2].

Thus the supposed voluntariness of the contract which is a central part of wage labour relations and, ergo, of capitalism, are entirely mythical. Any voluntariness is presupposed by the very scarcities which create it in the first place. Scarcities which are built on systems of coercion and power. Essentially, the systems of property and personhood which underpin the NAP are social constructions, brought about by a multitude of social relations and interactions. As a result, the NAP is nothing more than a social construction. It is no more valid than the social contract as it is based on a combination of axioms and assumptions which may have moral sway, but are far from a concrete reality of the multitudinous world that currently exists. The NAP, like any other system of law and contract, is a spook, only important in relation to those who use it.

This is not to denigrate or even deny the NAP. Personally, I believe the axioms of the NAP are an important dynamic in understanding the direction a traditionalist, libertarian society should take. Voluntariness as the basis for certain relations is an important moral axiom that should be further recognised in the realm of socio-economic relations. A weak reading of the NAP, recognising cultural differences and the construction of community and collectivity, can be useful when thinking in moral and legal terms.

However, basing a full moral philosophy around something so simplistic is a recipe for disaster. It is naive to believe that if we push the NAP as a fundamental axiom it will be taken up by any peoples and cultures. Other relations, such as reciprocity, mutuality and the right of might are important in the modern world which themselves produce cohesive, integrated societies and communities. Things like exclusion and the rights of association and disassociation become problematic in relation to the NAP, as when does it become coercive to forcefully remove someone from some socially-defined piece of property. However these too are important, socially-validated concepts which interact to a large extent with the modern world. While there are some anarchists who believe that continuing to deconstruct these relations (particularly forms of hierarchy and power) is worthwhile, the reality is many become socially validated not simply through direct coercion but through hierarchical relations of recognition. That there are those who are better and those who are lesser, and that as a result this creates both relations of power (with dominance and socially-recognised authority) and mutuality between the lesser and the greater, i.e. between the lord and the vassal. Such can be seen in the strongmen of politics, such as Duterte and others who hold positions of popularity due to their ability to project a national resilience and autonomy from prevailing unilateral power. Similarly, many of the African socialists such as Sankara, Nkrumah and Nyerere show such traits of popularity and societal creation.

The reality is that all these constructions of law and morality are effectively spooks. But what makes them important is their ability to move us away from the Hobbesian original position. This is not one of anarchism however, but one of Heideggerian nihilism[3], and is something that society has not truly escaped. While there have been glimmers throughout human history, where artificial hierarchies and constructs have been rejected and organic traditions and lives led through a combination of non-aggression, hierarchy and mutuality have been accepted, the larger historical trends have maintained this Heideggerian nihilism, where being and time are malleable to wider concepts of capital accumulation and the maintenance of centralised economic and political power.

In the end, all stripes of political ideology and morality not chained to the constructs of artificiality should fight for decentralisation and the construction of a plurality of relations and communities which begin to truly recognise being not as an abstract concept brought about by rationalist efforts, but as an organic system to be found by these new political communities. The NAP can be an important part of this decentralist revolution, but it must be recognised as nothing more than a social construction which provides one of many different axiomatic nodes through which to view a moral society.





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