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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Engagement With the Left on Free Markets

A very provocative discussion, provoked by Chris Sciabarra's post at Liberty&Power.

Anthony Gregory first commented:

If libertarians can explain that the right actually opposes free markets, but instead embraces corporatism and state capitalism, the battle to win them over will be half-won. One reason they don't like markets is because people like Bush pretend to like them, but I think the left is catching on.

Jeanine Ring added that much of the Left's problem with corporate capitalism is cultural: an "antagonism to corporations into just mercantilist exploration but the heirarchical, conformist structure and "Dilbert" culture of corporate modernity." She goes on--

If libertarians favor a world where corporations aren't the specially priviledged, legally impersoned default forms of social organization, they should some thoughts as to what 'human scale' forms of socio-commercial relations might look like.
Sciabarra responded, however, that most radical leftists see the corporate system as an inevitable outgrowth of the free market.

They, like many libertarians, have argued that the state has always been intimately involved in markets, acting on behalf of those who are most adept at using political power. For Marxists and other radical left-wingers, however, this means that political power is systematically skewed in favor of business interests. The ideology of free-markets is, therefore, a mere apologia for a class-biased reality that is inescapable as long as private property and market exchange exist.

It follows, he said, that "until or unless libertarians can convince the left that there is an 'unknown ideal' to free markets, that corporatism is not an inevitability, I doubt that there will be any lasting peace with the left."

So it seems that any attempt by the anti-corporatist free market movement to engage with the mainstream Left will focus, of necessity, on a few issues. First is a rehabilitation of the term "free market" itself to mean more than the cash nexus, encompassing rather the entire sphere of voluntary non-coercive social relations. As Karl Hess pointed out over thirty years ago, the free market movement is (or should be) a people's movement. Any "free market" ideology that has no room for the commons as a form of "private property," for workers' and consumers' co-ops, or for hippie dippy stuff like Hess' own "community technology" experiments in the Adams-Morgan Organization, is no "free market" ideology that I want to be a part of (apologies to Rosa Luxembourg).

Second item on the agenda is getting right with Robert Anton Wilson. That is: to identify the free market with the system of voluntary exchange of labor between producers that remains when the state no longer intervenes on behalf of privileged classes. It would help mightily if the Left could see the free market as a residuum of voluntary relations that persists in any society, in the interstices of state power, and exists in potentia as the basis of a new society when state-enforced class domination is abolished. The libertarian Left is fond of the Wobbly slogan, "Building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." So they are already familiar with the idea that the seeds of a free society exist within the present system, and can gradually supplant the system of class privilege as the state is rolled back. The Left is already amenable to Gustav Landauer's "condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behavior" with which to supplant the state; and Paul Goodman's "spheres of free action." We just need to do a better job of expressing our free market vision in similar terms.

If the market and the state have coexisted historically, they can be separated logically. The question of whether class differences originally arose from successful competition in the market, and the state was then called in to reinforce the position of the winners; or whether the class differences first arose from state interference, is a vital one. The fact that the state has been intertwined with every "actually existing" market in history is beside the point; social anarchists themselves face a similar challenge--that the state has been intertwined with every society in history. The response, in both cases, is essentially the same--the seeds of a non-exploitative order exist within every system of exploitation. Our goal, not only as anarchists but as free market anarchists, is to supplant the state with voluntary relations. If the absence of something in historical times, in a society based on division of labor, is a damning challenge--well then, they're damned as well as we are.

The questions of whether state capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of the free market, of whether decentralized and libertarian forms of industrial production can exist under worker control in a market society, etc., are at least questions on which we can approach the Left with logic and evidence. They are, for the most part, rational and open to persuasion. At the very least, there is room for constructive engagement. And remember, it is not an all-or-nothing matter. It is possible, if nothing else, to reduce the area of disagreement on a case-by-case basis.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I discussed the possibility of introducing something along the lines of "free market anti-capitalism" to the left on The Picket Line back in September:


I concluded:

I think maybe [B.K.] Marcus would be better off conceding the term “capitalism” to mean what he means by “political capitalism” and choosing another term for what he means by “economic capitalism” — for instance “a free market” or, perhaps, “economic liberalism,” a term that might be a door-opener for progressives and liberals and that can be historically justified as a description of free-market capitalism, but that might be too easily misinterpreted in today's political climate.

(Of course if you give in to this definition of “capitalism,” then you have the problem of arguing “I agree with you that capitalism is wrong, which is why I'm in favor of a free market” which sounds disingenuous.)

Still, I like the sentiment, and it's a good start. I anticipate a time when progressives will finally manage to wrest the Marxist albatross from around their necks and will realize that their concerns are better addressed without resort to an institution like government that is inherently oppressive and is so susceptible to manipulation by the rich and well-connected. And at the same time, I anticipate libertarians growing less inclined to tolerate the “Wall Street Journal-style” pseudo-libertarians, and joining the progressives in their fights against militarism, state-sanctioned environmental degradation, etc. When this happens, I think maybe the U.S. will finally have an opposition movement with a broad enough and sensible enough critique to get some momentum.

February 05, 2005 8:56 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Some good points. Of course, some leftists and "progressives" don't grasp the distinction between political capitalism and the free market. As an example of the latter, Thomas Frank persists for some perverse reason in using the terms "free market" and "laissez-faire" in exactly the same contexts as do the neoliberals. And Chomsky, who points out countless instances of corporate capitalism's utter dependence on the state, and then turns around and argues for strengthening the state as the only alternative to "private tyranny," is just plain incoherent.

But most on the left are open to rational persuasion on the extent to which capitalism *is* political capitalism.

On your last point, a new popular base for an opposition movement, we definitely need to get beyond the false dichotomy between Ted Kennedy-style corporate liberalism and Heritage Foundation-style "conservatism." I've seen some yellow dog Democrats, faced with proposals to make the Party more Red State-friendly, respond indignantly about "splitting the difference" with the GOP. As if some sort of Joe Lieberman/DLC "GOP lite" platform was the only alternative to corporate liberalism. How about addressing genuine economic populist concerns that NEITHER party addresses now?

The Democrats need to rediscover Christopher Lasch.

February 06, 2005 4:14 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Not sure if you will ever get this post, but I've been spending a few hours a day reading your blog for the past two weeks. I'm a long time anarchist (in the libertarian socialist sense of the term) who has also spent the past couple of years doing international development work and research which is currently dominated, for better and worse, by microfinance schemes and other ideas to allow people some access to capital and other fair trade schemes which currently exist in a murky area between actually creating new relationships between producers and consumers to rehumanize our alienated system and simply becoming another form of "justice-washing" the deplorable activities of large multinationals. I am left having instinctive reactions against the idea of capitalism, and seeing how these things can make tremendous changes for the better in the lives of people (eh, what activist hasn't struggled with the idealism/pragmatism balance)

During these past few years, I have actually begun to do the dirty work of studying evil neoclassical economics which I have long dismissed outright as simply a scholarly apologetics for a murderous system. I have also been going back and rereading my classics - Proudhon for example - in light of actually learning the fundamentals of neoclassical theory. And there is a lot of fertile ground there which I think you are doing a tremendous job of planting seeds in.

recently, I have begun to try and dialogue with anarcho-capitalists on a number of sites, but the experience is frustrating at best, and vomit-inducing at worst. If they want me to take their claims that AC is totally different from everything I know as capitalism, then we need to get serious about talking about what a radical redistribution of all the illegitmate corporate wealth would look like.

So too, they seem to spend their days doing nothing but pontificating about their private arbitration firms instead of doing the hard work of building alliances, coalitions, and more importantly doing the hard work of fighting back the corporatracy when it is destroying people and the earth. It's left-libertarians who are serving free food with food not bombs, building free schools, local currencies, mutual day care centers, community art spaces, marching against the war, defending women from anti-abortion zealots, fighting against conservative oppression of queer people, installing free wireless internet in their communities, etc. (all projects I have been involved in in the past year with other anarcho-socialists by the by)

I am willing to suspend my gut-level reactions to what the free market would mean to the millions of people without capital, I am willing to build a movement that could see people free to live communally or organize co-ops while others go the route of venture capitalists and private property -- but there has to be some serious recognition of both our deep distrust of capitalism, and our unwillingness to simply believe that the pathological excesses of a system which creates so much inequality is simply a result of state-intervention.

I may never come all the way around to the view that inequality doesn't matter because the pie is growing, or that increased productivity/efficiency is the only metric to judge a socioeconomic system. I may never think it is possible to internalize all the externalities of a free market simply by granting individuals property rights and filing class action suits against companies that pollute my air. They may never come all the way around to the view that a thriving social anarchism based around norms of kinship, empathy and generalized reciprocity is a much better world to live in. But I am willing to say hey, maybe a free market would be good at some things, and bad at others. And hey, maybe we can build a new world together, go our own ways when we need to, and shrug off the mantle of the state and maybe 100 years down the line we will be able to see that a truly free market does work pretty well, or maybe the free market will start selecting for co-ops and communes and alternative currencies based on different ideas of exchange. Fact is, we don't know.

But if right-libertarians are just going to keep harping about how taxation is immoral (without recognizing the moral need for a safety net in a corporate system that so highly concentrates capital).

If you are going to say to me, as one ACer did today, that the only thing that needs to happen is the disappearance of the State (by what? magic? how are you organizing to make that happen?) and the free market will work peachy-keen and that any redistribution is coercive, then i want no part of trying to build these bridges. If they are going to say, as one did recently to me, that if a poor person steals food he should be able to be shot on sight because he wasn't obeying property rights and he needs to accept individual responsibility for his actions. If they aren't going to make any effort to engage with anarcho-socialists when we already form the backbone of reviving anarchist movements in Europe and North America. Then be done with them. We'll take over their factories and turn them into gardens where our children can play.

I know I'm probably preaching to the choir here based on your vulgar libertarian watch, but I also know that you have ACers meandering through this blog at times. Sorry for the rant, just frustrated

April 06, 2007 9:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Nice to hear from you, Eric. As you guessed, you are largely preaching to the choir, because I share most of your objections to what is commonly passed off as the "free market" by mainstream libertarians. I can't say I really blame leftists for a gut-level aversion to markets, because if I thought the "free market" really meant what vulgar libertarians mean by it I'd hate it too.

Anarcho-capitalists are a mixed bag. Some are just plain vulgar, instinctively defending the interests of the rich and big business because that's where their sympathies lie. Some mean well but just don't go all the way in following the implications of their own professed values, or have not yet absorbed the full extent of state intervention on behalf of the plutes. And some are quite sympathetic to all of your concerns. As Shawn Wilbur once put it, there are "anarcho"-capitalists and there are anarcho-"capitalists."

For free market anarchists in the Rothbardian vein who are quite hostile to what Roderick calls the "package deal" concept of capitalism, you should check out some of the blogs under my "Links" heading on the Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left--especially Austro-Athenian Empire, Brad Spangler, Rad Geek, and Upaya.

April 12, 2007 1:38 PM  

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