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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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Friday, June 03, 2005

George Monbiot Gets it Ass-Backward

via The Human Tide.

Monbiot's misapprehension is summarized perfectly by the subtitle of his article: "Climate change’s unprecedented moral challenge demands that we restrict market freedom." Unfortunately, his understanding of what "market freedom" entails leaves something to be desired:

Adam Smith held that market freedom was desirable for one reason: that it improved people’s lives. Where he perceived that it had the opposite effect, he called for restraint. “Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments,” he wrote. Governments have “the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it”.

Such warnings were of course ignored. Sixty years later, John Clare surveyed the devastation wrought by the new liberties. “Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide / But freedom’s clapping hands enjoyed the sight / Though comfort’s cottage soon was thrust aside / And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.”

Although his identification of the free market with enclosures and workhouses is echoed by vulgar libertarian apologists for the dark satanic mills, they were about as far from any genuine principle of free markets as it's possible to get. The enclosures were a state-imposed robbery, in which the working population was relieved of most of the arable land. The workhouses, appropriately called prisons, were a way of imposing forced labor on the surplus population. This population was prevented by the Laws of Settlement (a virtual internal passport system) from migrating to parishes where labor in demand. At first glance, this might appear to cause hardship to factory owners, who were located mainly in labor-poor areas; but fortunately for them, the government conducted what amounted to slave labor markets, auctioning off children from the workhouses of overpopulated parishes and shipping them like cattle to the factories of the industrial districts of the North and West. To call this "market freedom," a term properly reserved for voluntary agreements between free and equal parties, is positively perverse; it is understandable, though, given the kind of pro-corporate and pro-sweatshop apologetic that usually passes for "libertarian" commentary these days. The worst enemies of real free markets are the people who use the term most.

One of the evil effects of present-day "market freedom" that Monbiot objects to is the doubling, in the 1990s, of CO2 emissions from airline flights by UK residents. Monbiot makes the remarkable assertion that "[o]nly government intervention could put us back on course...." It's remarkably wrong, given the fact that civil aviation is almost entirely a creation of the state. Airports were created with taxpayer money and eminent domain, and (in the U.S., at least) the FAA's air traffic control infrastructure operated largely on general revenues through the 1970s. Even today, were the civil aviation system deprived of eminent domain and of taxpayer seed-money, there just wouldn't be any new airports. There also wouldn't be any large civilian aircraft, except as a spinoff of the Cold War. The aircraft industry was spiralling into the red after the post-WWII demobilization, until Truman's heavy bomber program rescued it. And the production runs from jumbo jets alone would not have been long enough to pay for the expensive machine tools required for producing them, without the production of heavy military aircraft. So we must add to Monbiot's sins of perversity his use of the term "market freedom" in relation to, of all things, a spinoff of the military-industrial complex.

It is not just that we are free to kill other people; market freedom constrains us to do so. The economy is so organised as to make it almost impossible to do the right thing. If your village isn’t served by public transport and there is nowhere safe to cycle, you have, for all the talk of freedom to drive, no choice. If the superstores have shut down all the small shops, you must give your money to a company whose purchasing and distribution networks look like a plan for maximum environmental impact.

So what on earth does our state capitalist economy have to do with "market freedom"? How anyone can observe the over-reliance on transportation and energy resources in the present economy, entirely the result of state subsidies to the consumption of transportation and energy, and call it an ill effect of "market freedom," is beyond me. The radical monopoly of the automobile, air freight, and long-distance shipping is the result of government transportation subsidies. Subsidies to transportation have the primary effect of increasing the distance between things, and rendering decentralized local alternatives unusable.

We can deal with climate change only with the help of governments, restraining the exertions of our natural liberties.

This is surely about as close as it's possible for any human being to come to saying the direct opposite of the truth--except, perhaps, for referring to Chancellor Gordon Brown as "the man who keeps the markets free." Climate change is the direct result of government-created externality, with the taxpayers absorbing the grossly excessive distribution costs of a centralized corporate economy. That's the central function of government under state capitalism: to subsidize the operating expenses of big business, so that its inefficiency and bloated size are made artificially profitable, and it is kept artificially competitive against more efficient firms engaged in decentralized production for local markets.

The neoliberal apologists for corporate power and the apologists for the regulatory-welfare state have, between them, managed to steal the term "free market" and deface it beyond recognition. As Albert Nock commented decades ago, "laissez-faire" is an impostor-term cynically misused by both the apologists for big business and the apologists for big government. It is in their joint interest to pretend that the present corporate economy grew out of a free market, and that only government intervention can restrain corporate power (when in fact it could not survive, and would not exist in the first place, without government intervention). Those of us who hate mercanitilism and privilege need to take back the term "free market" from these swine, and restore it to the proper revolutionary meaning it had before it was appropriated by the apologists for ill-gotten wealth.

25 Comments:

Blogger freeman said...

As Albert Nock commented decades ago, "laissez-faire" is an impostor-term cynically misused by both the apologists for big business and the apologists for big business.

Am I correct in guessing that this is a typo?

Great post!

I can't think of any term that has been perverted and tarnished as much as "free market". Not even the term "liberal" has been perverted as badly, in my opinion.

June 03, 2005 1:18 PM  
Anonymous matt27 said...

great post. While you're absolutely correct that the reality of the matter is that the state/corporate strcuture is responsible for the things he's asking the state to fix, I thing you're wrong on a few points.

While the state isn't going to become some benevolent force that'll save us from the evils of modern state-linked corporations, I think state regulation is the best solution for the near future. Because the state is susceptible to public control (to a certain degree) and often does have power comparable to major businesses (in the US for example) it's probably the best way to protect the environment until we can change tings further.

Also, I doubt that a capitalist free market would have done much better. For things like air quality, I think free market capitalism would be another sure-fire way to a tragedy of the commons. That is to say, unless the polluting technology didn't exist, but I don't think I'd prefer that.

Anyway, still a great post.

-Matt

June 03, 2005 4:35 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for catching the typo, freeman. As for dealing with pollution, matt, how about the idea of free local juries punishing the pollutors of their neighbors' air and groundwater according to the old common law of liability, as it was before pro-mercantile judges emasculated it in the 19th century? (I'll let that "capitalist free market" oxymoron slide this time.)

June 03, 2005 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

Excellent post indeed.

I'm not sure how the local juries would deal with it. Let's suppose we have a system similar to what (I think that) you would advocate. The local factory is the centre of town, albeit mutually owned. All of the town's small businesses (barber, pizza guy, newsstore, paper, etc.) revolve around serving those who work for the mutual. Who sues, and how do they recover, when the whole town is dependent on the factory? Sue the factory, recover damages, close the town? I'm not sure that works.

- Josh

June 04, 2005 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Stephen Frug said...

Off-topic question (since I can't find an email address for you on the site!)

In a number of posts on your blog, you say things such as "In a real free market system, the bargaining power of labor would be such that jobs competed for workers, instead of the other way around." I'm curious what the evidence for this is. Do you have any blog posts/essays, or for that matter dead-tree-book or article references, which makes the case for this?

Thanks,

SF

June 04, 2005 12:49 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

KC's email is available via his main site. I am going to use it to send him a compendium relating to various posts sometime, since some of his historical background and conclusions is subtly off, sometimes with material consequences. One such misunderstanding is in the excerpt; enclosures started long before, even before the dissolution of the monasteries (see Thomas More's "Utopia"). Another thing, small private airports get destroyed by such things as eminent domain actin on complaints of neighbours moving towards the improvements they spill over (which is a practical counter-example to the Georgist reasoning, BTW). Here in Victoria they closed Casey's Airport that way, the one that was immortalised by Nevil Shute in "In the Wet".

June 04, 2005 5:26 AM  
Blogger The Human Tide said...

Hey,
I passed on the link to Monbiot himself through his e-mail address so maybe he'll come and have a look and agree/disagree in person. Theres an automatic reply explaining that he gets hundreds of e-mails a day so won't be able to chase up everything but you never know. Again, very interesting points.

My main concern with market arguments [and I mean your market arguments] is a concern that certain vulnerable members of the population may not be catered for in a purely market system which measures things only by incoded pricing. Without an accompanying system based democratic voting, for example, what utility would there be in a market system for, for example, looking after the mentally disabled, providing for a child protection service which may need to intervene on private property to prevent molestation etc? How would a market system deal with these issues or would they be aspects left to a minimally existing government, somehow constituted?

Thanks,

Pabs

June 04, 2005 8:37 AM  
Anonymous matt27 said...

matt, how about the idea of free local juries punishing the pollutors of their neighbors' air and groundwater according to the old common law of liability, as it was before pro-mercantile judges emasculated it in the 19th century? (I'll let that "capitalist free market" oxymoron slide this time.)

I take it then that you don't disagree with me that the state is the best short-term solution to a problem like this. I'm not particularly well educated on your positions, Kevin, so if you support some sort of decentralized democratic socialism with worker owned means of production then we don't have much to disagree about.

My point about "capitalist free markets" (which I do happen to agree is an oxymoron, with the situation I described above being much more "free") is that a system with private ownership would produce money power which would then distort the judicial outcomes you mention... as well as finding ways to evade punishment regardless of outcomes and avoiding detection in the first place. I think a situation in which people have serious incentives to pollute is the problem itself, and that seems a fundamental capitalist problem.

June 04, 2005 1:23 PM  
Anonymous matt27 said...

having read a bit more of your position, I feel that I might do well to clairfy I few of my points so as to promote more meaningful discussion.

On another post you simply to imply that the positions (which you attribute, correctly, to Chomsky) that "copporations are utterly dependent on the state" and "corporations must be regulated by the state" as mutually exclusive or contradictory. I think this is a big mistake for a few reasons, but detailing one should suffice: the level of organization and popular influence of the gov't that it would take to regulate major corporations is drastically less than the amount of organization that it would take to destroy (which, as we both agree, is what would occur were the State to stop supporting them so heavily). It may well be the case that destroying major corporations via the state is actually impossible (I'll explain if you like.) Long story short- given the amount of harm corporations are wreaking upon the world, we should prefer the fastest and most immediate solution for the short-term. Asking for the destruction of corporations instead of more progressive regulations is:
a. letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and
b. putting the cart before the horse.
to you use a few trusty aphorisms/metaphors.

Suffice it to say we'll probably disagree more over what good reasons there are to prefer a wage labour market over a socialist one, but this post may not be the one for that discussion.

-Matt

June 04, 2005 7:39 PM  
Anonymous Brad Spangler said...

Human Tide: I can't speak for Kevin, but in response to this:

"
My main concern with market arguments [and I mean your market arguments] is a concern that certain vulnerable members of the population may not be catered for in a purely market system which measures things only by incoded pricing."


...I'd like to point out that the distinguishing feature of a genuinely market oriented system isn't pricing and numbers. It's voluntary cooperation as opposed to "order" imposed by force or the threat of it. Sometimes voluntary cooperation occcurs because of money changing hands, sometimes it occurs for other reasons. Government, by contrast, is all about *forcing* people to do stuff. For systemic reasons, efforts to aid the poor through such means typically end up helping the imposed bureaucracy more than anyone else.

Furthermore, the role of government in creating poverty in the first place is to breathtakingly huge to describe here. I'm reminded of the old saying about government attempts to help the poor being equivalent to breaking a mans legs, then handing him a pair of crutches and saying: "See, if it wasn't for me, you couldn't walk!"

Also notable is that governments are incapable of producing wealth -- they can only take it. Thus, the capabilities of society as a whole to care for anybody are not enhanced by government. They are already there.

June 04, 2005 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Free Radical said...

I agree with Wild Pegasus. If every town has a factory (one that is worker owned and operated for the benefit of the community), and each of those factories creates a little pollution, what community is going to sue their own factory when the one two towns over is polluting just as much? On the other hand, if there is a general consensus among communities that pollution is bad, state action can prevent it everywhere, for everyone's benefit.

June 05, 2005 9:10 AM  
Anonymous Brad Spangler said...

Free Radical: If there's truly a general consensus in the situation you describe, why would state action, order imposed by force or the threat of it, be required?

June 05, 2005 10:50 AM  
Blogger The Human Tide said...

Brad...
Thanks for clearing some of that up. And I agree, with Chomsky, that all coercive force must be justified. I do think that in some limited situations, far less than the state claims, such force might be required. One example is the one I gave over how to prevent child abuse. This would presumably require some kind of empowered authority with people - psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors etc - authorised in whatever way to determine whether a child was at risk and to take steps to ensure its safety.

Do I take the voluntary cooperation as market argument to mean that such an authority could exist by being democratically voted into place and, if so, what of the violation of autonomy presented by the ability of some to determine what happens to your child. Not to mention who decides the criteria etc... It would, on some level, require forcing people to do stuff.

How do we approach this genuine problem?

June 05, 2005 11:14 AM  
Anonymous Free Radical said...

Well, the factory in Town A is trying to produce as much as possible as efficiently as possible. They have an incentive to pollute because it is more expensive to run a low pollution factory. They have an incentive not to pollute because nobody likes fine particulate matter.

Because fine particulate matter disperses, only a small portion of the pollution in Town A is caused by the factory in Town A. So if Factory A stops polluting, Town A will have almost as much pollution, and Factory A will not be able to compete effectively. Thus Town A will be worse off.

If everyone else voluntarily stops polluting, then Factory A has an incentive to pollute because they will be able to compete better, and the fine particulate matter will just disperse. So Town A will be better off.

Enter... The State!

June 05, 2005 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Brad Spangler said...

Human Tide: Again, speaking only for myself, my views tend to run this way...

"One example is the one I gave over how to prevent child abuse. This would presumably require some kind of empowered authority with people - psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors etc - authorised in whatever way to determine whether a child was at risk and to take steps to ensure its safety."

Personally, I advocate a polycentric legal system, with no vested territorial monopoly in arbitration or the development of legal codes -- a meta-system of systems competing (largely) peacefully. Much like today, the world would have a diversity of legal systems. The difference is that they would be voluntarily/contractually subscribed to and people would be free to start new ones without reprisal.

In any society, child abuse occurs to the extent that it is tolerated, and I vehemently oppose its toleration. The specifics of how it would be handled would vary with the diversity of legal systems that would exist. The realities of having to cooperate across legal systems would serve to generally keep things every decent person finds contemptible suppressed. It would be a matter of incentives, largely. There would be no use in subscribing to a legal order that tolerates wanton child abuse, as it would have few adherents and few resources to provide much in the way of security services for you.

"Do I take the voluntary cooperation as market argument to mean that such an authority could exist by being democratically voted into place and, if so, what of the violation of autonomy presented by the ability of some to determine what happens to your child. Not to mention who decides the criteria etc... It would, on some level, require forcing people to do stuff."

I'd go *beyond* democratically voted and say "put in place by unanimous consent" with regard to the specific legal system someone might subscribe to. If someone hasn't agreed to *some* form of civilized legal code that's compatible with your own, then this would make them inherently dangerous to deal with. They might find themselves barred from participating in the economic interaction we all need to survive. Generally, the incentives would lean towards keeping things very civilized.

June 05, 2005 2:17 PM  
Anonymous Brad Spangler said...

Free Radical: This just adds details to what you initially said.

My point is that voluntary yet enforcable agreements are *also* a viable, if not superior, way to achieve order. The State is not shown as being required.

As an aside...

Now, you might at first think I'm not being consistent when I mention enforcable agreements (treaties, contracts, whatever you want to call them).

However, I don't condemn all use of force. I believe in self-defense, for example.

Where a voluntary agreement exists -- "I will do "A" if you will do "B" -- when someone breaks that agreement, they have violated the rights of the other under that agreement and the agreeed upon enforcement terms become morally acceptable.

Some people break this down by classifying the use of force into one of three possible categories:

1) initial force -- crime(generally), the State
2) defensive force -- concurrent reaction to #1
3) retributive force -- reaction to #1 after the fact -- law

To those who hold this set of views, #1 is generally viewed as always unacceptable, #2 is viewed as almost always acceptable, and #3 is viewed as requiring intermediation lest it degenerate into open warfare. That is just a simplification for discussion purposes, though.

June 05, 2005 2:35 PM  
Anonymous Free Radical said...

Canada has a system in which alternatives to their legal system can be used in some non-criminal cases. This has led the conservative- devout- radical- Islamic population to create an alternative system where the Koran is used as the basis for rulings in familial disputes. I'm ok with that as long as both parties agree to use the alternative system, and so long as they don't start the cutting off of hands and the like. But in the case of economic externalities, there needs to be a uniform system for controlling them, and it needs to be forced. Because at any given point, at any time, it is to the advantage of the involved to cheat, and to produce negative externalities that hurt everyone. So maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I really do think that sometimes the state needs to force people to play by the (Democratically established) rules.

June 05, 2005 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Brad Spangler said...

"Because at any given point, at any time, it is to the advantage of the involved to cheat, and to produce negative externalities that hurt everyone."

Well, then you've got a real problem on your hands, because politics is practically tailor-made for those who want to cheat others.

Some say we need government because we are not Angels. Others say government brings the rule not of Angels, but of other men.

In any event -- thanks for a good discussion.

June 06, 2005 3:15 AM  
Anonymous Lars Rindsig said...

Kevin, would you email me at l dot rindsig at henrygeorgefoundation dot org ?

June 06, 2005 4:57 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

Some say we need government because we are not Angels. Others say government brings the rule not of Angels, but of other men.

Yep. And I don't trust any of these "other men". Why? Because it seems as if whenever there is any sort of political hierarchy, the scum always rises to the top.

June 06, 2005 12:48 PM  
Anonymous matt27 said...

wait a second... maybe Carson doesn't get alot of comments because he does post in his own comments section...

C'mon Kevin- I'm sure you've got a lot to say.

-Matt

ps- yes I know he posted once, but it's been awhile and there's been plenty more discussion, some it directly targeted at him.

June 06, 2005 4:52 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Wow! An awful lot of interesting comments. I haven't had much to say because I've just finished a string of long shifts at my shithole of a job, and I don't have the energy to function on a very intellectual level while that's going on.

Let's see....

Pegasus:

I assume that in many cases the worst pollution is caused by corporate-driven forms of production. And a great deal of pollution probably reflects subsidies to waste and inefficiency. And some of the worst offenders, petrochemicals and agribusiness, reflect the dominance of production technologies driven by the existing corporate economy. I would guess that the forms of decentralized industrial production described by Kirkpatrick Sale in human scale would be much less destructive and polluting.

In any case, I was thinking of common law nuisance action as a limitation on the misbehavior of existing corporate-owned pollutors, a way of internalizing costs on "foreign" firms that had no natural ties to the local community. At present, landfill proponents (for example) usually have a lot harder time from local NIMBY sentiment than they do with state regulatory bodies. And one of the primary purposes of administratively enforced regulations, as a replacement for common law, was to impose a least common denominator on the system and provide predictability and "moderation."

As Brad suggests, local cooperative ownership is itself a way of internalizing the external effects of the firm's actions. Despite the possible objection of a minority, the fact that a factory is entirely dependent on a labor force and customer base who live with the effects of its activities means that its decisions will at least reflect majority sentiment.

Stephen Frug:

As a starter, check out Benjamin Tucker's four monopolies in "State Socialism and Anarchism." It's available in the etext of Individual Liberty, which you can find on the Suggested Reading page of Mutualist.Org (I'm too tired to look up the URL).

P.M. Lawrence:

I'm aware that enclosures occurred way back in the late Middle Ages, although I'm hazy on the details. But I believe the two biggest waves were under the Tudors, and the state-sanctioned enclosure acts of the 18th-19th centuries. Is that not correct?

Human Tide:

Thanks for passing the link on to Monbiot. Actually, I had some interesting correspondence with him about his "Bottom of the Barrel" in Dec. 2003, from which I quote in this post: http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2005/04/strawman-alert.html
So you can see I've come to his defense in the past.

As for treatment of the disabled, etc., you should check out the history of mutual aid through cooperatives, mutuals, sick benefit societies and fraternal organizations, etc., that the working class organized for themselves in pre-welfare state days. People can be pretty damned mean to each other, but they can also be pretty damned good sometimes, too.

And regarding intervention on behalf of abused children, we wouldn't have laws against that sort of thing if a majority of people didn't find it intolerable. I see nothing in the non-aggression principle preventing a local mutual defense association from intervening on behalf of a victim of any age. Tucker argued, on purely Stirnerite grounds, that a child was a future sovereign member of society, and that the spillover effects of serious harm made it in the interests of adult society to intervene.

matt:

I don't believe that kind of "money power" could accumulate in a free market. Without state-enforced returns on capital and land and the "magic of compound interest," the largest fortunes would probably level off at $10 million or so; and with increased bargaining power of labor and unimpeded access to vacant land, the threshold of subsistence would probably be a lot lower. So the extremes of wealth and poverty would be smoothed out quite a bit.

And part of my aversion to the regulatory state as a short-term solution is that it's in the nature of a state to be captured by a ruling class, and it's impossible in the nature of things for a majority to be the ruling class. Much more likely is collusion between the state bureaucracy and the industrial bureaucracy, on the basis of their shared culture of "professional men in suits." Even when the regulatory state is created for benevolent ends, those running it are taken hostage by the need to stabilize the corporate economy and prevent mass unemployment; so (as the structuralist Marxists noted) the idealistic regulatory state adopts, from the best of motives, a "what's good for GM" approach to policy.

Besides, a regulatory state will require massive inputs of processed data on the economy on which to base their decisions; and where do you think they'll get that data from? Why, from the people running the corporate economy! The very nature of information flow and agenda-setting in centralized organizations will result in the state being captured by industry, the same way elected legislators are captured by lobbyists who helpfully "provide" the information they need to legislate.


I'm sure I missed somebody....

June 06, 2005 9:28 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

matt:

I should add that I'm much less optimistic than Chomsky on the potential of the state being used for democratic ends. The state does, indeed, occasionally act under massive pressure from outside. But such pressure happens rarely, and (for understandable reasons of human nature) is very hard to sustain. So on the rare occasions that it's possible to orchestrate such pressure, I think it's preferable to use it to dismantle the state as a bulwark of corporate power, and to roll back state capitalism as much as possible. If the state organization is left intact, the same old class interests will be there ready and waiting to resume control when the people (inevitably) lose interest and go back to watching "American Idol."

This goes back to the inevitable functioning of the state as the enforcement arm of a ruling class. Ursula LeGuin (in The Dispossessed) described the nominally democratic machinery of a synicalist or anarcho-communist society being transformed into a bureaucratic ruling class. The problem is the very existence of the machinery. The solution is to dismantle it, and decentralize the control of the economy and society to face-to-face groups of real people.

June 06, 2005 9:36 PM  
Blogger The Human Tide said...

Kevin,
I agree "that a child [is] a future sovereign member of society, and that the spillover effects of serious harm made it in the interests of adult society to intervene."

It's more than once we start getting into the 'interests of society' we get into slippery territory. Wouldn't the same argument apply to taxation etc?

I don't think any of this mitigates the mutualist case which is perhaps the most convincing one I've seen and which I want to spend a lot lot more time on. It's more an expression of my concern about identifying those, admittedly marginal, areas where we might come up against some problems.

But you've convinced me. Basically.

June 07, 2005 5:04 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Wow, that's an impressive conversation, inspired by a good post. I have one detail to add to the description of how the state is responsible for the rapid expansion of the airline industry-- many, if not most, commercial pilots in the US are retired Air Force pilots--so the state and it's swollen military subsidizes the production of human capital exploited by the airline industry.

June 10, 2005 4:59 AM  

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