The authoritarianism of Sen. Elizabeth Warren

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During the U.S. government shutdown, Democratic politicians have compared their Republican rivals to “anarchists” and argued that the shutdown proves government necessary. A recent speech by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the Senate floor exemplifies this trend.

Misconceptions run rampant in Warren’s speech. She conflates cooperation and government, stating “In our democracy, government is just how we describe the things that we the people have already decided to do together.”


Government decisions are in practice not made democratically, but rather by a privileged class of politicians, bureaucrats and corporate cronies. Real community and cooperation happen outside the state. People do things together without government coercion every day.

Mutual aid exists without government. Unions and other labor groups exist without government. Community centers exist without government. Federations and cooperatives exist without government. Mutually beneficial market exchanges exist without government. Government is not community, cooperation or togetherness. Government is centralization and coercion that all too often crushes vibrant social cooperation.

“The boogeyman government is like the boogeyman under the bed; it’s not real,” proclaimsWarren. But the harm done by government is real and concrete. For example, U.S. sanctions against Iran are causing poverty, food insecurity and medical shortages. Warren supports those sanctions. Closer to home, recent research shows that nearly 200,000 inmates were sexually abused in American prisons, jails, and detention centers in 2011.

This same research finds that prison guards, employed and empowered by government, perpetrated these rapes more often than inmates did.

The violence of government continued during the shutdown. Last week, Capitol Police shot and killed an unarmed woman in front of her child. The FBI shut down the website Silk Road, making the public less safe in the process. A NATO air strike in Afghanistan killed at least five civilians, three of them children. Violence and coercion are constant features of government, even during a shutdown.

Warren derisively refers to the House Republicans as “the anarchy gang.” The shutdown was not engineered by “anarchists,” and it is insulting to anarchists to compare us to the House Republicans.

The shutdown has kept intact most of the state violence that anarchists oppose, including militarism, police violence, crony capitalist patent monopolies, mass incarceration, mass surveillance and deportations.

It has cut off relatively harmless programs like Women Infants and Children that serve as bandages over the structural poverty that the state maintains. Some parts of the shutdown, such as barring citizens from national parks and prohibiting scientists from speaking about research, are enforced through state violence.

Warren fearmongers about safety regulations, snidely asking “when was the last time anyone called for regulators to go easier on companies that put lead in children’s toys?”

But the reality is that regulations need not be administered by top-down government. There are other ways to establish oversight. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers uses boycotts, social pressure and grassroots action to pressure companies to sign contracts with their Fair Food Program, a farmworker organized program that establishes rigorous oversight and worker protections for migrant farmworkers who are often brutally abused by both their bosses and the legal system.

This innovative program has been praised by liberals and anarchists alike. Consumers could organize to implement similar grassroots oversight for product safety.

The Fair Food Program was won through grassroots action, and is maintained through libertarian means like contracts, boycotts and social pressure. State regulations, in contrast, are often used by big business as a way to restrict competition, consolidate power and dodge accountability.

This is a pervasive problem called regulatory capture. Elizabeth Warren is wrong.

(Nathan Goodman is a writer and activist living in Salt Lake City, Utah.)

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