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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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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Roderick Long: Rothbard Memorial Lecture

Well, there's finally a text version of Roderick Long's Rothbard Memorial Lecture ("Rothbard's 'Left and Right': Forty Years Later") online, so those of us with crappy dialup connections can enjoy it here in the Land That Time Forgot. His jumping off place is Herbert Spencer's strategic alliance with the Right, which he compares and contrasts with Rothbard's attempted libertarian-New Left coalition.

According to Rothbard ("Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty"), "Spencer's tired shift 'rightward' in strategy soon became a shift rightward in theory as well." To illustrate this tendency, Long produces one of my favorite Benjamin Tucker quotes:

I begin to be a little suspicious of [Spencer]. It seems as if he had forgotten the teachings of his earlier writings, and had become a champion of the capitalistic class. It will be noticed that in these later articles, amid his multitudinous illustrations … of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed, ostensibly at least, to protect labor, alleviate suffering, or promote the people's welfare. He demonstrates beyond dispute the lamentable failure in this direction. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly. You must not protect the weak against the strong, he seems to say, but freely supply all the weapons needed by the strong to oppress the weak. He is greatly shocked that the rich should be directly taxed to support the poor, but that the poor should be indirectly taxed and bled to make the rich richer does not outrage his delicate sensibilities in the least. Poverty is increased by the poor laws, says Mr. Spencer. Granted; but what about the rich laws that caused and still cause the poverty to which the poor laws add?

Rothbard's objection to this strategic orientation, according to Long, was

that the new left-right spectrum persistently misleads libertarian-minded thinkers into viewing governmental regulation as anti-big-business; and if our opponents are anti-business, what must we libertarians be but pro-big-business, defenders of what Ayn Rand in one of her pro-big-business moods (she did have other moods) called "America's Persecuted Minority"? The result is that governmental intervention on behalf of big business tends to become invisible, or at least unimportant, because our ideological blinders make it hard to take seriously. Who would want to restrict the free market on behalf of business interests? Not those left-wingers, because they're anti-business; and not us right-wingers, because we"re pro-free-market. It's hard to recognize the significance of pro-business legislation even when one officially sees and acknowledges it, if one has internalized a worldview that excludes such legislation from the list of major dangers.

To back this up, Long produces another quote from Rothbard:

Every element in the New Deal program: central planning, creation of a network of compulsory cartels for industry and agriculture, inflation and credit expansion, artificial raising of wage rates and promotion of unions within the overall monopoly structure, government regulation and ownership, all this had been anticipated and adumbrated during the previous two decades. And this program, with its privileging of various big business interests at the top of the collectivist heap, was in no sense reminiscent of socialism or leftism; there was nothing smacking of the egalitarian or the proletarian here. No, the kinship of this burgeoning collectivism was not at all with socialism-communism but with fascism, or socialism-of-the-right, a kinship which many big businessmen of the twenties expressed openly in their yearning for abandonment of a quasi-laissez-faire system for a collectivism which they could control…. Both left and right have been persistently misled by the notion that intervention by the government is ipso facto leftish and antibusiness.

This results, Long says, in "the tendency among some libertarians to become kneejerk apologists for the corporate class." And it results in the mirror-image tendency on the left to be taken in by the Art Schlesinger myth that "progressive" state intervention is motivated by a desire to restrain big business. For example, the individualist anarchist turned social democrat, Victor Yarros:

[W]hatever the origin of the State, it was absurd to assert that it was always and inevitably the instrument of privilege and monopoly, and must remain such under all conditions. The evidence glaringly contradicted that conception. The democratic governments have increasingly yielded to the pressure of farmers, wage workers, and middle-class reformers.

The hatred of our plutocrats and reactionaries for the New Deal is alone sufficient to dispose of the charge that the State is simply the tool of the economic oligarchy. In the past, the same interests bitterly fought Woodrow Wilson's reform program, and fought in vain.

Uh, yeah. I guess that explains the role of Gerard Swope in the New Deal. Not to mention the great populist Democratic tradition of maintaining an endowed Goldman-Sachs Secretaryship of the Treasury.

There's also a good discussion of a strategic question that provoked lots of interesting debate here recently:

Another root of the Rothbard-as-utopian-perfectionist myth is the fact that Rothbardians do indeed reject many reforms that are advertised as incremental steps toward liberty; but in such cases the reforms are rejected not because they are incremental but because they do not really move in the direction of liberty.

One example is education vouchers, which as Rothbardians we find problematic not because they fall short of a free market in education but because they threaten to extend to the private schools the kind of micromanagement control that government currently exercises — thus arguably making things worse. Another is so-called "privatization," not in the term's original sense of a transfer of services from government provision to free-market provision, but in what has come to be the prevailing sense of a conferral of governmental privilege and patronage — subsidies, monopolies, and the like — on private contractors. To the Rothbardian, far from stripping government of some of its powers, such "privatization" simply transforms private firms into arms of the state.

Now whether a shift from a comparatively socialistic to a comparatively fascistic mode of statism is a move up or a move down is perhaps a matter of taste; but at any rate we do the libertarian cause no favor by encouraging potential converts to associate plutocratic political cronyism with the free market. (Similar criticisms apply to "deregulation" when the entities being deregulated are the beneficiaries of state privilege, as when the Reagan administration eased restrictions on Savings & Loans while keeping federal deposit insurance intact, thus giving them carte blanche to take risks with the taxpayers' money.)

But my favorite part of the lecture is Long's treatment of the semantic issues surrounding the terms "capitalism" and "socialism":

Libertarians sometimes debate whether the "real" or "authentic" meaning of a term like "capitalism" is (a) the free market, or (b) government favoritism toward business, or (c) the separation between labor and ownership, an arrangement neutral between the other two; Austrians tend to use the term in the first sense; individualist anarchists in the Tuckerite tradition tend to use it in the second or third. But in ordinary usage, I fear, it actually stands for an amalgamation of incompatible meanings.

Suppose I were to invent a new word, "zaxlebax," and define it as "a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument." That's the definition — "a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument. " In short, I build my ill-chosen example into the definition. Now some linguistic subgroup might start using the term "zaxlebax" as though it just meant "metallic sphere," or as though it just meant "something of the same kind as the Washington Monument." And that's fine. But my definition incorporates both, and thus conceals the false assumption that the Washington Monument is a metallic sphere; any attempt to use the term "zaxlebax," meaning what I mean by it, involves the user in this false assumption. That's what Rand means by a package-deal term.

Now I think the word "capitalism," if used with the meaning most people give it, is a package-deal term. By "capitalism" most people mean neither the free market simpliciter nor the prevailing neomercantilist system simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by "capitalism" is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term "capitalism" as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.

And similar considerations apply to the term "socialism." Most people don't mean by "socialism" anything so precise as state ownership of the means of production; instead they really mean something more like "the opposite of capitalism." Then if "capitalism" is a package-deal term, so is "socialism" — it conveys opposition to the free market, and opposition to neomercantilism, as though these were one and the same.

And that, I suggest, is the function of these terms: to blur the distinction between the free market and neomercantilism. Such confusion prevails because it works to the advantage of the statist establishment: those who want to defend the free market can more easily be seduced into defending neomercantilism, and those who want to combat neomercantilism can more easily be seduced into combating the free market. Either way, the state remains secure.

I strongly recommend reading this passage in conjunction with Sheldon Richman's recent post "Capitalism vs. Capitalism," and Chris Sciabarra's "Capitalism: The Known Reality." Along the same lines, Lady Aster drew my attention to this classic bit of late '40s propaganda, a short film on capitalism. The high school students discussing capitalism on their radio program mention "private property" and "freedom of contract" as its defining features, and one girl says that "capitalism is free enterprise" (or a metallic sphere, like the Washington monument). Naturally, all these lessons about capitalism are illustrated by Mr. Brown's grocery, where a couple of kids go to buy supplies for a weenie roast. Somehow, I doubt if this film and hundreds like it in that same time period were funded by people like Mr. Brown. For an account of the forces behind the post-WWII corporate propaganda offensive, which didn't bear much resemblance to Brown's grocery, check out Alex Carey's Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty.


Blogger Just Ken said...

Gee Kevin,
And I thought I was the one who had been pushing the '40's film on capitalism recently: http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=86316&bheaders=1#86316
You might want to mention my online version of Stephen Pearl Andrews' The Science of Society. The first half and parts of the second are online and expect to begin finishing in the short future.

I was wondering if you see the interconnections between the mutualist movement and the free love movement in the 1840's-50's (mostly crushed by the Civil War). W. B. Greene wrote on both (as you know) as did Andrews, who seems to have been one of the last leading figures of free love in the 1870's.

Just Ken

April 13, 2006 8:47 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I'll be damned. Lady Astor said she'd got the link from the comments at a L&P post, and sure enough it was you.

You're right, your SOS text definitely deserves a mention. I've focused almost entirely on the economic aspects of Greene's and Andrews' thought, rather than the individualists' involvement in free love and other social reform movements (which apparently you couldn't swing a cat without hitting one of in New England). Shawn Wilbur has done a lot of study along those lines, though.

April 13, 2006 10:02 PM  
Blogger Just Ken said...

I THOUGHT I was the only one who uncovered the '40's Capitalism site.

I think Shawn should be credited for the hard work that he is doing. It's quite impressive. I just got off of the phone with Spencer MacCallum and was talking to him about setting up a group blog on some matters relating to Andrews and the development of a scientific methodology to the social realm. There are several Americans who have done some impressive work which have rarely been discussed. Stephen Pearl Andrews, Spencer Heath (Spencer's grandfather), Andrew Galambos and Alvin Lowi (brother of the political scientist, Theodore Lowi). I think that there is a lot there that has not been addressed in the Austrian economic sphere.

April 13, 2006 11:24 PM  
Blogger Jesse said...

Corporations weren't the only ones churning out movies in the '40s:


April 14, 2006 6:54 AM  
Blogger Shawn P. Wilbur said...


Besides Greene, Adin Ballou weighed in on the "free love" questionin "Practical Christian Socialism." In "The Word," Ezra Heywood asked Greene's opinion of the legality of some of the free love projects. I'll try to get his response scanned and online. (It's the place where Heywood says that Greene can "make any revolution out of the Constitution of Masssachusetts.") And, of course, Moses and Lilian Harman were the other important later proponents of free love.

An Andrews workgroup would be interesting. The "science" question is one that has been neglected by most of us working this terrain, considering how important it was to projects ranging from Alwato to Warren's musical notation system. (Calvin Blanchard and Lewis Masquerier might also be worth a look in this context.) I actually kicked around the possibility of an Andrews seminar with some of the Research on Anarchism List crowd some years back, and there was interest, although we never pursued it. I own a copy of the "Basic Outline of Universology," and would love to have an excuse to get that scanned and available. (The microform reprints are scarce and almost unusable.) Elibron.com has a nice reprint of "Discoveries in Chinese."

April 14, 2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Weren't the UE a hard-core Leninist union well into the Cold War period? The AFL-CIO film (from the summary--the hours it took to download the last movie have cured me of any desire to repeat the experiment so long as I have dialup) appears to illustrate Roderick Long's "metallic sphere" phenomenon. On the one hand, the demonization of FDR by the corporate propaganda offensive seems to reflect some sense--even in bastions of corporate liberalism--that things had gone too far. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO's dichotomy between good FDR and bad big business indicates they'd bought into the other side of the "metallic sphere" thing.


Universology is definitely something I need to read. I've instinctively avoided much dealing with metaphysical and epistemological theory--perhaps an overreaction to the vulgar Marxists' cartoonish use of "dialectics."

April 14, 2006 7:43 PM  
Blogger Jesse said...

Weren't the UE a hard-core Leninist union well into the Cold War period?

I don't know!

April 16, 2006 5:05 PM  
Blogger Shawn P. Wilbur said...


I don't know if universology is anything anyone needs to read. I don't know that it isn't either. There's a reason none of the folks writing about the mutualists and individualists have pursued their philosophical and psychological underpinning much--the stuff can be nightmarishly hard, and flat out weird. Tell you what, I'll make the next "What Mutualism Was" post address this and try to get that posted tomorrow. I'm also working on an overview of Proudhon's property writings, but I'm still waiting on some library books.

April 16, 2006 6:00 PM  
Blogger Just Ken said...

Shawn & Kevin,
The Free Love element is an important one and the research has yet to be integrated well into the mutualism of the time. An interesting book to look at, besides the more obvious ones, is Yuri Suhl's neglected Ernestine L. Rose and the Battle for Human Rights (NY: Reynal & Co., 1959). There are a number of interesting recent papers as well which touch on the subject.

April 17, 2006 9:16 AM  
Blogger Just Ken said...

Oh yes, I forgot to mention: one of the problems that I have had with following too deeply into the more metaphysical aspects of Andrews is my own personal dislike for the failed spiritualist movement which he followed. He took it far too seriously for my taste.

It was, however, an important area of which the political dimension needs to be analyzed more carefully. When the spirits urge opposition to the Civil War, protection, slavery and the like, one has to wonder why they tend to take the libertarian side of most issues.

Just Ken

April 17, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger Shawn P. Wilbur said...

Kevin and Ken,

I just posted a couple of columns from "The Word" on the "Labyrinth" blog. One is Greene's "legal opinion" on free love--the article which preceded the exchange reprinted in the "Fragments." The other is a trial run at "The Right of Sovereignty." I'll try to get the rest of Greene's sex and marriage-related stuff online soonish.

Ken, I wrote something called "'Free Love' in 19th Century America" for the 2nd issue of Clamor magazine. I'm not sure that I've looked at it since, but at the time I was very involved in studying Andrews, Heywood and the Harmons. BGSU has a partial microfilm file of "Lucifer," so let me know if I can help out with research.


April 17, 2006 11:46 AM  
Blogger Just Ken said...

The Rare Books Room (Labadie Collection) at the U of Mich Ann Arbor campus library has an entire print run of "Lucifer the Lightbearer" and one of my great regrets was that I uncovered it on the last day that I spent there and haven't gotten back to it. If I could have done so, I would have spent weeks on it. The pages were UNCUT(!) and I just couldn't take the time to sit down and separate the pages. I do hope that since that time someone has gotten around to it.
O well.
Just Ken

April 17, 2006 7:01 PM  

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