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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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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part XVI

Via Jason Stumpner on distributism yahoogroup. Thomas Woods. "What's Wrong with 'Distributism'"

Even granting the distributist premise that smaller businesses have been swallowed up by larger firms, it is by no means obvious that it is always preferable for a man to operate his own business rather than to work for another. It may well be that a man is better able to care for his family precisely if he does not own his own business or work the backbreaking schedule of running his own farm, partially because he is not ruined if the enterprise for which he works should have to close, and partially because he doubtless enjoys more leisure time that he can spend with his family than if he had the cares and responsibilities of his own business. Surely, therefore, we are dealing here with a matter for individual circumstances rather than crude generalization.

This makes the unwarranted assumption that working for someone else is the only way of reducing risk, as opposed to cooperative ownership, federation, etc.. It assumes, as a basic premise, the very thing that distributism objects to: that capital is concentrated in the hands of a few owners who hire wage labor, instead of widely distributed among the general population who pool it through cooperative mechanisms.

And the proper contrast is not between the work schedule of an American farmer, producing for a capitalist commodity market, despite the hindrances of banks and railroads, versus the early 19th century factory labor. The proper contrast is between a laborer making a subsistence living off a small family plot with access to a common, and supplementing his income when necessary with wage labor, versus that same factory worker. To compare the hours and quality of work of a genuine subsistence farmer with the mind-numbing 12- or 14-hour days in a dark satanic mill is a joke.

Suppose, moreover, that "distributism" had been in effect as the Industrial Revolution was developing in Britain in the late 18th century. We would have heard ceaseless laments regarding the increasing concentration of economic power and the dramatic growth in the number people working for wages. What we probably wouldn’t have heard about was the actual condition of those people who were seeking employment in the factories. They weren’t lucky enough to be able to make a profitable living in agriculture, and their families had not provided them with the tools necessary to enter an independent trade and operate one of the small shops that delight the distributist.

Had they not had the opportunity to work for a wage, therefore, they and their families would simply have starved. It is as simple as that. Capitalism, and not distributism, literally saved these people from utter destitution and made possible the enormous growth in population, in life expectancy, in health, and in living standards more generally that England experienced at the time and which later spread to western Europe at large....

To back this up, Woods quotes Mises and Hayek with variations on the "best available alternative" defense of working conditions in the early industrial revolution. That argument was the subject of my first "Vulgar Libertarianism Watch" piece. As I showed then, it is not "as simple as that." And "luck" had nothing to do with it--the land expropriations of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the "downsizing" of the agricultural population, were a case of the propertied classes making their own "luck." And the story if this, their luck, is written in letters of fire and blood.

Those who care to support locally based and smaller-scale agriculture have already been doing so for two decades now by means of community-supported agriculture, which is booming. On a purely voluntary basis, people who wish to support local agriculture pay several hundred dollars at the beginning of the year to provide the farmer with the capital he needs; they then receive locally grown produce for the rest of the year. The organizers of this movement, rather than wasting their time and ours complaining about the need for state intervention, actually did something: they put together a voluntary program that has enjoyed considerable success across the country. Perhaps, if distributists feel as strongly about their position as they claim, this example can provide a model of how their time might be better spent.

This is one thing I agree with, sort of. Belloc strikes me as profoundly pessimistic. He assumed that concentration of property in a few hands was the natural tendency of a free market, and that state intervention was needed to reverse that natural process. In fact, the concentration of wealth is overwhelmingly owing to existing state intervention. The working of a free market would break it up. Belloc might have been more optimistic had he seen the free market as working in favor of distributism rather than against it.

What wouldn't be a "waste of time," though, would be for the community-supported agriculture movement to lobby for an end to the subsidies and other competitive advantages the federal government provides to corporate agribusiness.

To the extent that the anti-corporate Left sees state intervention as necessary to break the present power of big business, it's owing to the fact (as Nock said), that vulgar libertarians and state socialists have a common interest in obscuring the nature of the present system. Vulgar libertarian apologists for big business like to pretend that the current winners got that way through superior efficiency in the market. And state socialists like to pretend, likewise, that a bureaucratic apparatus controlled by themselves is the only way to counter the natural outgrowth of big business from the free market.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sort of reminds me of the fair trade article I read in the newest Reason. Apparently the fair trade scheme is a voluntary one (attempts such as Berkeley's Measure O, which would have mandated the city sell only fair trade, notwithstanding). Using moral suasion, relatively educated and "liberal" types convince retailers/consumers to opt into a system that buys coffee for a minimum price from farmers who have formed cooperatives composed of small farms.

The article discussed some of the drawbacks to preferring co-ops exclusively. Larger family farms and independent farmers were not allowed to partake. They don't get TransFair's (fair trade organization) seal of approval. (Though it might smack of subsidies and protectionism in the context of state granted priveleges, it of course isn't, and that makes all the difference.)It also mentioned how individual farmers involved in co-ops lacked incentive to produce better beans than others, as they all get the same return.But this assumes a kind of homoeconomicus, with no social motivation - reputation and esteem - for excelling.

I'm sort of mixed on the issue. Co-ops are not inherently superior in my opinion, but if consumers, and grudginly cooperative retailers demand it, so be it. If anyone has the extra bucks to spend for the slightly increased price of coffee, it's the urban cafe crowd.

There was more to the article, including the reference to a conservative coffee house in Illinois called "Contra Cafe", an homeage to the Contras of Nicaragua. Sort of the inverse of Sacramento's Red Square Cafe, a Soviet chic craphole...


February 22, 2006 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To compare the hours and quality of work of a genuine subsistence farmer with the mind-numbing 12- or 14-hour days in a dark satanic mill is a joke.

The difference, of course, is that Westerners practised subsistence farming for thousands of years, and ended up...doing more subsistence farming. The dark satanic mills were here and gone in a century, and we're now profoundly better off than we were as subsistence farmers.

Now, of course, that doesn't justify appropriation, closures, etc., but we should be realistic about what subsistence farming was and could do. I sure as shit don't want to do it, and I don't think you do, either.

- Josh

February 22, 2006 7:52 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Sorry Josh but those Dark Satanic Mills have not dissapeared. they just moved to China and Bangladesh etc.

February 22, 2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I guess it depends on how loosely you define "subsistence farmer," Josh. I'd like to get as much of my income from self-employment as possible; and the more of that that comes from selling surplus produce after I supply my own vegetable consumption, the better. Right now I grow enough to meet most of my need for in-season vegetables, and sell a few hundred $$ worth of surplus in a good year.

And I think it's a mistake to consider the amount of labor that was historically necessary, for a subsistence farmer paying tribute to the tax collector and landlord, as necessary to a subsistence farmer as such. I believe PM Lawrence mentioned in an earlier thread that the average workweek necessary for a subsistence farmer to support a family was, historically, quite modest. And there's no reason it couldn't be made even less onerous with modern organic farming techniques and modern intermediate scale technology.

February 22, 2006 10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wild Pegasus, in economics a lot of different things go on at the same time with some facilitating others. It has hardly ever happened that subsistence farming has co-existed in a pure form with civilised types to record it.

More often, the burdens of those subsistence farmers was aggravated by taxes or feudal obligations or whatever. And, of course, if it wasn't then they might be prey to outside raiders.

But we do have some cases on record when things were working, as in the lull in enclosures during the late Tudor/early Jacobean period, when real rents had declined because of New World silver inflation.

More to the point of this thread, distributism does not appear to me inherently to require state intervention. Rather, it needs inheritance customs and working institutions to reset discrepancies that might emerge on a generational scale.

Also, of course, there could easily be light weight rental burdens via (say) municipalities or elders owning property - though other things then need to be addressed.

Faster transition might need direct intervention, but then again a transition might be able to go through this sort of in-family rental.

Don't forget that building societies started as just such self-help points of entry to ownership.

Anonymous, you make some valid points on co-operatives in general. From my reading and direct observation, they seem to work best with things that work with downstream value adding, like the Australian Rice Growers.

Then the main business gets handled individually and dividends from downstream business come out partly reflected in prices and partly as returns on shares (not in the company sense of shares).

I also see much of the capital problem being open to being handled by fleet leasing of operating assets when they are non-specialised.

This would mean that individuals would only need to provide specialised resources and working capital, maybe with the help of sleeping partners (older relatives, maybe?).

It's also not necessary to see commoners' rights (not necessarily over a physical common) as "the" rather than "a" solution to extending a resource base beyond the directly owned. It's just that it needs less regulated structure.

February 23, 2006 1:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Josh but those Dark Satanic Mills have not dissapeared. they just moved to China and Bangladesh etc.

Yeah, but they disappeared from the West. They'll disappear from China and Bangladesh in 100 years, too, and probably sooner.

While it may be true that subsistence farmers worked less, they also lived substantially shorter lives, had unthinkable rates of child mortality, were at the mercy of moderate changes in weather, stunk, and lived in conditions that could charitably be called "squalid".

We work more, we have more. Pretty simple.

As for the definition of subsistence farmer, you and your family would need to rely almost completely on the food you yourself grow, house you built, clothes you make, etc. A big vegetable garden does not a subsistence farmer make.

- Josh

February 23, 2006 10:48 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

According to Braudel, life in the "pre-capitalist" era was fairly nasty. Are you saying there was no improvement with the arrival of factories? This seems hard to believe. Is the willingness to work in them entirely attributable to enclosure? As I understand it, the later enclosure movement did not always involve expropriation. I find this very difficult to sort out.

February 23, 2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

One thing that always seems to get missed in this sort of discussion is liberty. We can debate till the cows come home whether subsistance farmers and artisans were economically better off as factory workers or not, and why that might or might not be so. But the real point to me is that the artisans and farmers were once independent and then became wage slaves. For whatever reason they became wage slaves they certainly would not like that condition - and remember at the time the law was clearly MASTER and SERVANT. It is the loss of freedom that is the main motivating force behind the early labor movement which gave rise to such concepts as mutualism.

February 23, 2006 12:05 PM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

But the term "wage slave" begs the question. You have to first show they were slaves, that options were forcibly foreclosed, and that they had no choice but to work in the factories. I think this is a very mixed bag. Historians I have confidence in tell me that the later enclosure movement (as opposed to early versions) was substantially liberal (in the best sense) and that people freely moved to the cities seeking better lives. We must not romanticize the period Braudel (no friend of the market) describes in painful detail. If I can be shown evidence to the contrary, I would be delighted to learn I am mistaken.

February 23, 2006 2:49 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Of course they had a choice, They could go to a work house, immigrate, go to prison, starve to death, beg or work in a factory. And of course, of all these options, the factory is best. But that doesn't mean that they liked it or were not embittered by having to be a sevant to a master (and this is what I am really referring to by "wage slave") The thing is, it is little different today, we still have to make the best of a lot of lousy options. Liberty is not one of them.

February 23, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

If those were the only choices, they you are right.

February 23, 2006 4:33 PM  
Blogger EUGENE PLAWIUK said...

As Julia Shor writes about the history of work and lesiure the susbsitance farmers and artisans of Europe and England being Catholic had a shorter work week than we do today, or then what came with the industrial revolution. There were approximately 186 saint days which meant reduced work days or non working days as folks attended mass.

There was a half day holiday on Saturday, Sunday was the Sabbath and no one worked on Maudy Monday. That left Tues, Wed, Thu, and Fri.
Add to that work was from sun up to sun down.

True the work and community life could be brutish and nasty but then again as we see in Hogarths paintings the same can be said of unemployment in the working class ghetto of London, with its gin mill culture.

Subsistance farming today as I have pointed out about Africa,is shared labour communal labour. In this it is less of a burden on the individual than factory work. Factories introduced by capitalists have failed where the family farm has succeded. The comment from Dian/Anon on co-ops again misses the point. He is comparing apples and oranges, but then that is to be expected from those effete latte drinking liberals at Reason, I just had to get that in there, this is acutally a good seaque into distributism, in a moment.

Producer coops are different from consumer coops and cannot be compared. In modern Africa again the movement has been communal, each plot holder is a small scale farmer, growing for distribution as well as for sustinance. It is a market economy not a capitalist one. Capitalism comes with the accumulation of inheritance, stolen labour, and of course this is the very virtue of the large family farm or hacienda.

In the manufcaturing and secondary production of ground maize it becomes a village project organized by the women. It is communal because it is labour intensive and thus the labour shared is labour reduced. Time saved, a joyful experience amidst flies and cow shit, as people talk, gossip, socialize, sing, the time goes by as the song says.

In Cuba the organic farmers growing coffee have produced some excellent strains of organic coffee, not just to meet market deman, but to save the soil. This was a major innovation not introduced by the state but by the farmers themselves. Today I am drinking my organic Cuban coffee, along with coffee from Bolivia, Ethiopia, all variants of organic coffee, created not to feed Starbucks, but to save the small scale farm which cannot afford Monasanto's monopolistic fertilizers and herbicides. Which of course the Large Hacienda's use. And when you have large rancheros and hacienda's you no longer have the family farm but the aristocrats and their wage slave farm workers that work for them.
The War for Choclate

Back to distributivism, interesting since I believe that contrary to Woods arguement Distributism is part of the Von Mises/Hyaek Austrian school. Can it be non statist of course, look at Alberta, the only place in North America where Social Credit became a state. At the same time Alberta was home of the Canadian OBU and the CCF. The social credit movement here was part of the prairie populist farmer labour revolt....see my article on this Social Credit And Western Canadian Radicalism.......

Anyways out of the farmers coop movement we got the Statist Wheat Board, but we also got grain and producers co-ops, consumer co-ops, co-operative insurance, co-op mutual funds and credit unions. During that time the dirty thirties a bounty of alternatives were created to the state and its banks, much of it based on distributivism, I would say that the CCF while calling for socialist revolution had much in common with the economics of distributivism in practice, in fact it is a paper I am working on for an Australian Labour History conference in the fall.

Whew that was long and long winded but I just wanted to throw my two bits in.

February 23, 2006 8:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wild Pegasus, a big vegetable garden does make a subsistence farmer in some circumstances, like New Guinea. The point here is that it only needs to reach a minimum level for the technology, climate and so on. The 19th century slogan in the UK was "three acres and a cow", which was considered enough for that.

How much work would that have required from a household? Actually, even small subsistence resources help, by giving more bargaining power and from the possibility of settling for small additional cash work that only needs to provide a top up wage - intermediate between true subsistence and complete cash work. As for harsh factory conditions disappearing from each country in turn, this was largely because each time there was another country to take over that role (this was apparent even to Marx with his limited data, though he misinterpreted it).

When the music stops and you run out of new developing countries, you have to rely on trickle down for further improvement. It's a parallel with the way each wave of immigrants moves up the ladder as a new one fills the bottom of the heap. How much of that is natural progression, and how much is because there is a new lot at the bottom? The size of the bottom of the heap hasn't changed much over the centuries, so it looks more like the latter.

Sheldon Richman, there was no improvement with the arrival of the factories, only with what came a generation or so later. At first, there was no change in the amount of staples available so it was just a matter of shifting food from mouth to mouth - but once all tried it, urban living costs rose to match (see below).

The later improvement by the 1840s came about in part from things like the Repeal of the Corn Laws increasing the real value of British wages - but French and Irish living conditions got worse as staples got exported from there first (see "Les Miserables" and how Irish land got turned over to stock raising).

If you look at my article on globalisation using the Highland Clearances as an example, you will see the natural experiment that happened on Lewis when crofters stayed away from a new factory when they had the opportunity to remain in their former lifestyle. Or consider how St. Kilda only became unviable from losing its young people to better opportunities as late as the 20th century (before then, the opportunities weren't enough better). Stick first, then carrot.

What Braudel and others describe is parodied in "Cold Comfort Farm", by Stella Gibbons - and that ends with people adjusting to new 20th century opportunities. But clear as late as the late 19th century people agitated for land reform in England, showing that many still wanted three acres and a cow, that urban conditions were worse still compared with an unencumbered village lifestyle (remember the cyclical level of workload - only peak work was hard).

The encumbrances of that were partly from landlords (but not as much as you might think, since they had diversified their wealth into other forms and weren't absentees), and partly from hidden costs like tithes and taxes (there was an uproar when tithes became explicit and direct cash charges on people buying out their landlords).

I have a hundred year old reference work, Routledge's Dictionary of Economic Terms, that describes what was actually driving the "Rural Exodus" by then: "...in the main due to the excitement and attractions of a town life [which we would consider good], and the influence of apparently high wages upon people who do not understand the increased cost of living in towns [which comes back to the point about subsistence lifestyles]".

Of course, we are creatures of our upbringing; second generation urbanites wouldn't have liked going back, but by the same token people didn't willingly leave functioning village life. There's also the issue of young people leaving, and so making the villages non-functional; it was actually the shock of the First World War that moved England past that tipping point and gave pause to the declining conditions of office/clerical labour (fewer young men affected supply).

EP, you have to be careful with "fair trade" coffee. Any cash crop exports from developing countries risk throwing a load on the people who are really at the bottom of the heap, those with no land or constructive engagement with the cash crop (it depends partly on the institutions in place in those countries and partly on whether the land and water are taken away from the production of staples).

There is even more to be said, but I have planned on sending some stuff on this area to Thomas Woods for quite a while now (I already came across his material). So I will just cc KC once I get that far.

February 23, 2006 9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin Carson,

The "industrial revolution" shouldn't be treated as a monolith. Britain isn't the only country which experienced it. When I had a seminar on the industrial revolution one of the things that was driven home to me was just how different the experiences of various nations were. Indeed, France's industrial development has often been held out as a different, more "humane" path for nations today to follow (whether that is polemical hogwash is up to the individual to decide).

February 28, 2006 3:52 PM  

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