In their 1981 bestseller, “Getting to Yes” Roger Fisher and William Ury coined the term BATNA–best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Before you enter a negotiation, you should understand your position if negotiation completely breaks down–your BATNA. The character of this non-negotiated situation helps you establish your “walk-away point”–the least degree of concession you’ll accept from the person on the other side before you abandon the negotiation altogether.
This “nuclear option” is not just important when the negotiation “goes nuclear” but colors the entire negotiation from beginning to end. The person with a comfortable situation in the face of complete breakdown is likely to negotiate a much better settlement than someone desperate to avoid that breakdown.
The Nuclear State
With government, the nuclear option is violent coercion. As anarchists, we see the violence inherent in all interactions with government. Even though most people negotiate some violence-free relationship with government, the threat of violence is still very important and the tacit threat of violence allows government to claim more than it otherwise could.
But when it comes to business relationships, right anarchists tend to blithely regard all the interactions as completely voluntary, ignoring the fact that a similar threat of violence underpins all property relationships. So, when they imagine a factory-owner in negotiation with workers or a landlord renting living space, the anarcho-capitalists quickly conclude that the rent-seekers must simply have a different time preference than their employees and tenants. The offerers of capital are willing to postpone their consumption while their employees or tenants value present consumption more. In the exchange, everyone wins. Or so goes the right anarchist narrative.
The Violent Roots of Property
But to the left anarchist, the question is more complicated. Anarcho-socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and mutualists examine and emphasize the roots of those differing time preferences, specifically their roots in violent protection of “absentee property.” Just as the nuclear option in negotiation with government is violent coercion, so the capitalist claims the right to use violence to enforce her control of the capital. It is often this favorable fallback position, and not some inherent difference in personal time preference, that enables the capitalist to postpone her consumption and prevents the tenant from doing the same. If negotiations break down, the capitalist is even entitled to effectively hold the property hostage in order to extract more rent. And, depending on whom you talk to, the community might even contribute their own violence toward the enforcement of the capitalist’s claim. This gives the capitalist a comfortable BATNA and a strong position.
But, let’s imagine the negotiation with a different nuclear option. What if a landlord had to negotiate rent without an unfettered right to enforce his claim by violence? Now, the capitalist has to deal with the renter/laborer like an equal and negotiate an agreement on the merits. The capitalist now has to make plans to keep control of her capital in the case of a breakdown in negotiations. Laborers are not limited by agreements they didn’t sign or deals they didn’t make. Capitalists would have to demonstrate their value to an enterprise beyond being the deed-holder. The interaction becomes truly voluntary.
Those who think this would lead to more overt violence are making the same argument statists make in response to anarchy. “Surely,” say the statists, “without the state and its implied violence enforcing the rules, we’ll just end up beating one another with sticks. Or worse…” As with legal conventions around personal liberty, less restrictive and violent property conventions do involve different risks and make us susceptible to different social breakdowns, but not necessarily more risks or more catastrophic breakdowns. We do not need implied violence in our commercial interactions any more than we need it in the rest of our interactions.
When right anarchists hear I’m an anarcho-socialist, they can’t get past their assumption that I favor some big state to steal from the rich and give to the poor. But all I want is to abolish the violence that protects and subsidizes large capital accumulation. I want to change the character of the nuclear option. Let the absentee owners of capital justify their control of property and negotiate their share of profits on an even field free of violent coercion.