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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

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part 4 (Or Eamon Butler Phones It In)

In "The idyllic myth of peasant farming," Dr. Eamon Butler takes the destruction of Ethiopian crops by roaming goats as a paradigm for the problems of "primitive" peasant agriculture. See, the negligence of the goat-owners makes it impossible for their neighbors to raise food of their own. It's that simple: the only alternatives are either corporate rule by ADM and Cargill, or an ass-backward system in which those wooly-headed natives let their goats indiscriminately wreak havoc!

In the "Comments" thread, of course, Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons gets dragged out for another dusting off. This despite the fact that Hardin evidently knew nothing about actual, historic commons: commons were, in fact, heavily regulated to limit the number of livestock any family could graze, the amount of wood they could gather, etc. Hardin confused the commons, which were the joint private property of a village, with unowned land. The prisoner's dilemma Hardin described was, in fact, a pretty good account of what happens in the case of genuinely unowned land, in which there is no property system to internalize costs in those using it. A genuine commons, as they existed in historic Europe, would be a pretty good solution to the Ethiopian goat problem. The Anarchist FAQ has more on Hardin's ahistorical myth of the commons. I do have to wonder, by the way: does this vulgar libertarian aversion to joint private property extend to the modern corporation?

In the course of his post, Butler comes up with some incredible gems of vulgar libertarian boilerplate. For example:

The environazis disperse this myth about peasant farmers being at one with nature. Sometimes the myth is so idyllic that I think they want us all to become peasant farmers. Anyway, the idea is that while big, grasping corporations are ruining the planet, if we just thought smaller and more rustic we could turn things round.

So much straw, so little time! Dr. Butler neglects to mention that the phony "free market" nazis, in their turn, disperse their own myth about giant agribusiness corporations being a product of the free market, and replacing peasant farmers through their superior efficiency alone.

How much more preferable would have been the "free market" recipe of British East Africa--for example Kenya, in which the peasantry were evicted from the best 20% of arable land so that white colonists could use it for cash crop agriculture! This is the same tried and true recipe for "free markets" used by the English gentry in enclosing the commons so they could get more work out of the laboring classes; E. G. Wakefield adapted the recipe to settler societies, advocating that colonial administrations preempt ownership of vacant land so as to make self-employment more difficult and relieve the better sort's travails in finding good help at cheap wages. The hidden subtext in all this fake "free market" agitprop, of course, is the tacit understanding that robbery is only bad when it happens to rich people.

The time-honored "free market" recipe, among the ruling classes, goes like this: 1) rob the producing classes of their traditional property rights in the land, and turn them into tenants at-will of the plutocracy; 2) through coercive controls on the population, like the Combination Laws and Law of Settlement, make it impossible for the producing classes to bargain effectively in the wage market; 3) when the process is complete, talk a lot about how great the free market works, and justify the existing concentration of capital ownership as a result of the superior efficiency of those who came out on top.

That's pretty much what the neoliberals (e.g., Bush) mean when they talk about promoting "democracy (more on which in yesterday's post), free markets and free trade":

The environment is a luxury that the world's poorest can't afford to bother about. The only solution is to make the world's poor farmers rich. And - Bush is right - the only way to do that is to spread democracy, the free economy, and trade across the planet.

Yep--rigged spectator democracy, a mercantilist "free" economy, and heavily subsidized trade. Those poor farmers should see the cash start rolling in any day now.

UPDATE (hat tip to Ken Macleod)--It seems I was unfair to Garrett Hardin. According to Dan Sullivan,
In their search for excuses to deny any common right to land, royal libertarians are fond of citing Garrett Hardin's work, "Tragedy of the Commons." Or at least they cite the title, which is all most royal libertarians are familiar with. Hardin is himself an advocate of land value taxation, and has criticized misinterpretations of his work with the lament that "The title of my 1968 paper should have been `The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.'"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The vulgar libertarians and their neocon pals with their apologies for the corporate system would be comical if it weren't for all the cruelty they are covering up. Latest bit of state sponsored swinishness to come out, is that the Canadian government rounded up and shot all the Inuit sled dogs back in the 1950's to stop the Inuit from being independent hunters and fishers. There is a movie out now about it and the Inuit are demanding reparations for the destruction of their way of life. No doubt our "libertarians" would approve of the state's actions, since it was so similar to what was done with the independent peasantry. Property for the rich, not for the poor! In Solidarity, Larry

January 25, 2005 7:33 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Yeah, well, those sled dogs were probably making doo-doo all over the place something awful, just like those messy old Ethiopian goats! Those backward Inuit are *so* much better off now--I'll bet Tom Friedman will include a really insightful anecdote about it in his next book.

At least when an ordinary street criminal holds you up, he doesn't say "Someday you'll thank me for this!"

January 25, 2005 9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So much straw, so little time!

Brilliant phrase!!


January 28, 2005 9:04 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I'm afraid I can't take credit for it--just can't remember where I saw it.

January 28, 2005 4:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A point of information: there is no such thing as "a commons". Rather, there were lots of commons, this common here and that common there, many of which you can see preserved in their original names. This even applies in the USA, where Boston has Boston Common.

This would be a quibble, like complaining when Americans irritatingly say "a woods" instead of "a wood", except for one thing. The whole tragedy of the commons mechanism is driven by this sort of sloppiness of confusion of singular and plural, and then of "each" and "all" (represented by one word "kul" in Arabic, but actually two concepts). Once youy start believing that a tragedy mechanism will work, you become guilty of "the fallacy of composition". Perpetuating this language can lead to more bad policies.

April 17, 2005 3:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KC, I've just noticed that your amazon ad is obscuring nearly all the sentence 'So much straw, so little time! Dr. Butler neglects to mention that the phony "free market" nazis, in their turn, disperse their own myth about giant agribusiness corporations being a product of the free market, and replacing peasant farmers through their superior efficiency alone.'

November 01, 2007 1:42 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

You must be using IE. It does that sometimes, as I've found checking out the blog from a public computer. It's most likely to go wrong from the sidebar crowding out the text altogether and causing it to appear far below. But it looks fine in Firefox.

November 01, 2007 12:24 PM  

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