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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

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

OK, No More Stealing, Starting.... NOW!

Via A Pox On All Their Houses, via Upaya. A great quote from Virgil Storr:

Respecting property rights is all well and good if the existing regime of property ownership is legitimate but if it's illegitimate, if property was got through theft, through corruption, through racial privilege, through, say, colonial conquest, then that's another matter. Markets don't correct this sort of injustice in fact they perpetuate it, they have no way of compensating the victims, no mechanism for disbursing reparations. And, so its no wonder that the Good Guys (however misled they are about the economics of free trade) are deeply suspicious of markets.

Jamaica Kincaid, in A Small Place, made the point quite brilliantly. "Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it's because we, for as long as we have known you, we were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists, and the memory of this is so strong, the experience so recent, that we can't quite bring ourselves to embrace this idea that you think so much of." Let me make the point another way. If I were to walk into a room full of people and rob them at gun point, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to convince them that now, after my crime, we should respect each others property rights and only engage in voluntary exchanges going forward. And even if I were to convince them, perhaps by gun point as well, they’re not likely to be happy about it. Certainly, any moral case for establishing a free market that I attempted to make in that room under those circumstances would be sensibly rejected.

Yet that’s what so many black and brown hued people around the world are being asked to do by free market advocates. Never mind that you’re renting land that would have been yours had it not been stolen a hundred years ago, never mind that your employer is educated and wealthy and that you’re not largely because for generations his ancestors denied opportunities to yours, never mind past injustices, let’s do the best we can given the current allocations of resources. In a phrase, that’s morally bankrupt.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've lately started to express the same sentiment this way: "The defense of stolen property is no defense of property rights."

January 26, 2006 1:57 AM  
Blogger troutsky said...

You made a point a while back about differentiating between capitalism and markets. The narrative is that they are somehow identical,just as they would have us believe capitalism and democracy are identical.

I do still have reservations about "selling" my labor. Promoting, advertising, displaying myself seems reductive and comodifying at best. This may just be a residual attitude from a history of exploitation but...

January 26, 2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Kevin, I thought it's all supposed to come out in the Coasian wash. ;)

January 26, 2006 9:51 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


You do sell your labor, even participating in a LETS exchange or operating as a self-employed tradesman and farmer. These are all exchanges of labor between equals. The big difference in a wage system is that you're selling your labor-power directly instead of marketing the labor embodied in a product under your control. But even in that situation, if the bargaining power of labor were enhanced as much as I suspect it would be in a free market, my guess is that the employer would wind up doing most of the promoting, advertising and displaying.


Probably. But I think that focusing on that white linen, at the expense of all the muck in the sewer pipes beneath the washing machine, is what PM Lawrence calls a "survivor bias."

January 26, 2006 12:17 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


That ties in with a piece I'm working on analyzing an old Catallarchy thread on the NYC transit strike. Back in the '60s, Rand sympathized with the "property rights" of state universities against student activists. Now some "libertarians" are showing similar sympathy with the poor, abused state owners of the transit system, and their right to make whatever rules they want (including no-strike clauses) to govern workers on their "private property."

January 26, 2006 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is some confusion here, sometimes leading to complete mistakes. The first one is that two wrongs don't make a right, so it does not follow from illegitimate original acquisition that re-acquiring, say, land is justified.

I believe I see a lot of it at a recent Lew Rockwell post of Rothbard material, quite apart from the way the author leaves out things like the Pennsylvanians turning Philadelphia into a thieves' kitchen for pirates to convert their booty.

The worst case of that particular (land) mistake I have come across is among Georgists who think that if A got land improperly and sold it to B (realising his profit and walking away), then taxing C who bought it from B is justifiable in the name of those whom A prevented from getting land - even when C was one of them, and never made anything on the deal.

To me, the only way that an original impropriety continues all the way down to the present is if there is a continuity in keeping it that way, one which I see in Israeli land whether originally bought under colonialist conditions or later outright seized.

But I don't see it when the current holders - say, by joining mutual building societies - were trying to get out of a bind they were put into rather than to create one for others. The actual exploiters got away clean and put their gains elsewhere, or spent it.

The point here is that the usual case isn't like that described in the post, it's where the "starting now" thing happened quite some time before, with a break.

Then we can add to that the idea of the free marketers that Sheldon Richman alluded to, that - with everything working properly - everything has washed out over time so that present circumstances have very little in them relating to those initial conditions, i.e. that the free market has dominated and that the past is effectively dead.

They are mistakenly assuming that a break means a clean break.

Now, that idea doesn't happen to be correct; the free marketers are wrong in thinking that today doesn't reflect past boundary conditions. It does. But the long term remedy for that side of things is to change the system so that it really does work that way.

Don't get me wrong - that wouldn't remedy today's inequities, so something would have to be done there too. But it is necessary to show that the system is wrong, or you wouldn't address the free marketers' case (which is sometimes coincidentally correct on the stopped clock principle).

And you can't simply address today's inequities or you merely get a turnover in who gets the privileged position that the defective system throws up (that shows up in Rothbard's account). Anyway, present inequities don't intrinsically justify a simple uncompensated seize back, but space doesn't allow me to go into detail on this area.

However, it is worth mentioning that the reason that things don't come out in the Coasian wash is threefold: initial compensation wasn't made properly; the system does make the poor get poorer, so that initial inequity gets perpetuated instead of washing out; and that changes - including new inequity - usually comes along faster than the washing out process can clear it out even when it does work well enough.

There have been enough historical exceptions, say in the late 19th century, that it looked as if actually existing capitalism had indeed sorted out its past original sin, the way untreated syphilis "gets better". Marx's observations of actual developments is quite good, although his understanding of it is defective (not too surprising, considering his lack of enough historical material that we now have, and the human tendency to stick to one's guns).

That is, what really happened included a pyramid scheme style of disguise by growth, and a passing the buck down the line to the next newly industrialising country (Les Miserables suffered from the free trade impact of the Repeal of the Corn Laws that ameliorated the condition of British workers, but then they too recovered, and so on).

By the way, "survivor bias" isn't my term. It's what happens when you make the wrong measurements, say by pointing out accurately that the industrial revolution actually led to an improvement in the living conditions of weavers. It's an accurate comparison of weavers before and weavers afterwards, that is; it's not an accurate comparison of weavers before and what happened to the vast majority of them who were driven out of weaving.

The mistake gets a lot easier to make when people die off, because you really can't compare people a century ago with people now, only with their equivalents and analogues now.

Disregarding the "muck in the sewer pipes" can be a result of that, but it can simply be a different kind of leaving out, like only looking at cash income and its purchasing power.

When you disregard the loss of subsistence resources that makes you make the mistake of thinking that development means that people have $5 per diem to live off when they only had $1 before (forgetting that they weren't living off it before). But that isn't survivor bias, since the same individuals get compared.

February 05, 2006 8:53 PM  

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