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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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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Anarchist FAQ Update

An Anarchist FAQ was updated to version 11.6 in May. It's an amazing collection of material on the history and practice of anarchism. Even if you don't share the authors' interpretation of anarchism, it's so rich in quotes and references that it should be one of the first stops for anyone doing research on the subject.


Blogger Nick Manley said...

It really is an amazing project. I've always been impressed by the amount of work that's obviously gone into it. How much of it have you read? I used to have parts of it printed out that I'd read with my dad.

July 02, 2006 12:08 AM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

And yet, for all that labor, their material on anarcho-capitalism and individualist anarchism remains garbage.

Did you know that Tucker was opposed to private ownership of capital goods, that all forms of anarchism oppose the right to homestead through personal occupancy and labor, that Rothbardian defense associations exercise a territorial monopoly on the use of force, that Spooner's defense of secessionism in No Treason and his remarks on class domination of the political apparatus demonstrate his differences from Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, and that Rothbard "completely overlooks the role of the state in building and maintaining a capitalist economy in the West"? It's all true: I read it on the Internet.

My favorite part may be the part where they assert that anarcho-capitalism as such supports enforceable slavery contracts. Their main line of evidence for this is the fact that Nozick and Locke, who aren't anarcho-capitalists, argued in favor of it. Then they claim that Rothbard really supports enforceable slavery contracts too, even though he explicitly argues against it on inalienabilist grounds, because after all he thinks you can be forced to pay damages for breach of a labor contract under certain conditions. They apparently haven't even read enough of the literature to find an actual anarcho-capitalist who actually does defend the enforceability of slavery contracts (e.g. Walter Block).

I have plenty of problems with what's identified as "anarcho-capitalism," and think that the points of difference between 19th century individualists and 20th century anarcho-capitalists are points worthy of emphasis and exploration. But this kind of hatchet job doesn't do that. Their reading of the individualist anarchists is consistently selective and opportunistic. Their reading of the anarcho-capitalists is consistently uncharitable, superficial, and incomplete.

July 02, 2006 11:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I read the FAQ in its entirety back in 2000, I think. Since then, I've read sections of it selectively while doing lit reviews for various research projects.

Rad Geek,

I think the treatment of anarcho-capitalism is probably the FAQ's weakest spot. Like you, I consider anarcho-capitalism to be considerably diverged from classical individualist anarchism, but also reject any blanket assertion that they can't be "real anarchists." And I don't like the idea of lumping so many strands of "right-libertarianism" together in making general statments about anarcho-capitalists as some kind of monolithic group with a single party line.

But the FAQ collects an amazing wealth of material for further investigation. One of the best sections is the one on alternative social organizations: just checking out the quotes and references in the subsection on libertarian welfare organizations, alone, can lead to weeks of fruitful reading.

July 02, 2006 10:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My favorite part may be the part where they assert that anarcho-capitalism as such supports enforceable slavery contracts."

Actually, it does not argue that, it argues that if there is a demand for enforceable slavery contracts then it would produce a supply for them. And that right-libertarian theory cannot oppose voluntary slave contracts as it supports wage slavery -- hardly an illogical argument.

It also notes the inherent contradictions in "anarcho"-capitalism, as well as obvious arguments against it -- namely that corporations will be able to bar competing defence agencies (e.g. unions) from their property. Hardly an extreme point to make, and one with significant evidence to support it.

all in all, I would say that the above critique of the FAQ is consistently uncharitable, superficial, and incomplete. probably because it the FAQ is right about "anarcho"-capitalism not being anarchist.

July 03, 2006 5:25 AM  
Blogger Shawn P. Wilbur said...

The FAQ grew out of debates with anarcho-capitalists, and that part of it has always colored the rest. The primary writers are good researchers and open to input from individualists. I know both Kevin and I were invited to contribute. It's just a big job to insert an individualist or mutualist perspective into the existing document.

July 03, 2006 9:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


"Actually, it does not argue that, it argues that if there is a demand for enforceable slavery contracts then it would produce a supply for them."

As with most questions that arise in the context of voluntary security associations or agencies under polycentric law, it depends on how many people want it and how strongly, versus how many view it as a fundamental violation of the right to self-ownership. Since libertarian law would be worked out through competition and voluntary agreement between voluntary associations, no doctrine of libertarian law that violates the strong opinions of the overwhelming majority of a local population would be likely to survive the process. And my guess is that the average free jury would be a lot more likely to call the would-be slaver an idiot for thinking he could enforce such a contract, than to tell the "slave" to get out there and lift dat bale.

"And that right-libertarian theory cannot oppose voluntary slave contracts as it supports wage slavery -- hardly an illogical argument."

Except wage slavery does not involve an irrevocable lifetime contract to alienate one's self-ownership.

"...that corporations will be able to bar competing defence agencies (e.g. unions) from their property. Hardly an extreme point to make, and one with significant evidence to support it."

Well, yeah. Leaving aside the question of what's legitimate property (I'm an individualist anarchist of the old socialist stripe, after all), it's perfectly legitimate for a valid property owner to exclude anything he wants from his own property. The question is, whether it would be in his economic interest to do so in a society of free competition. In a society where the state did not intervene in the market to privilege capitalists and landlords, the bargaining power of labor would likely be such that workers would be the ones setting the limits on who they were or were not willing to deal with. Even from a purely anarcho-capitalist perspective, I believe, an anarcho-cap would argue that any factory owner who set too stringent a condition on who he would or would not allow to work in his factory wuld be taking the same risk as a home-owner who prices his house too high. And from my Tuckerite perspective, I agree with Gary Elkin's argument that the bargaining power of labor under individualist anarchism would be such that nominally "capitalist" enterprises took on the de facto character of worker co-ops.

But, as Shawn said, Iain Mackay (the principal author of the FAQ) has been quite reasonable about listening to opposing viewpoints, and has answered them civilly and rationally even when he didn't find them convincing.

July 03, 2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...


You need to read Section F.2.2 more carefully. They explicitly state that "Libertarian-capitalists support slavery"; they then mention some minarchist libertarians who accepted the legitimacy of enforcing slavery contracts (Nozick and Locke), and then claim that even though Rothbard explicitly rejects their view he has no consistent grounds for doing so. The reasons they give are roughly those I outline above, along with some egregious misrepresentations of Rothbard's view on children (he did not hold that parents owned them as chattel, but rather that parents "own" children only as trustees for the children's own eventual self-ownership). The point that you emphasize here ("if there is a demand for enforceable slavery contracts then it would produce a supply for them") is only a subsidiary response to a point attributed to an anonymous group of "Some of the 'anarcho'-capitalist type," to the effect that even if slavery contracts were made, they would be difficult to enforce. The main lines of argument concerning Rothbard are the ones that I mentioned, not the one that you have emphasized here.

Of course it's true that if there were widespread demands for the enforcement of slavery contracts then there might very well arise agencies that would meet those demands in return for payment. If there were widespread demands for murdering political opponents, or kidnapping, or piracy, then there might very well arise hitmen or gangs to meet those demands for pay. So what? In any society where enough people with enough power want to coerce other people -- including in societies with communist, mutualist, or other economic forms, they will find a way to get away with it. But all such agencies are clearly criminal under Rothbard's theory. Since there is no such thing as the "market freedom" to violate other people's rights, it is no limitation on freedom to resist such agencies, and it is no restriction of the freedom of contract to treat their "contracts" as completely null and void.

The efforts to show that Rothbard would be inconsistent to reject them show no understanding whatsoever of his contract theory (which does not allow any compulsion of specific performance, and which does not regard mere promises to serve as enforceable), or of his position on the inalienability of the will (which rules out the possibility of selling oneself into slavery by making all contracts for labor service contingent on the contractee's ongoing consent). They are, frankly, uncharitable to the point of being dishonest. Perhaps Rothbard is wrong about any number of these topics, but the authors have nowhere shown that his theory is inconsistent, or that it is "It is of course [!] simply embarassment" that prevents Rothbard from saying he endorses enforceable slavery contracts.

This is only one of many substantive problems with the discussion of anarcho-capitalist and individualist-anarchist views (mostly in Sections F and G, but also scattered throughout the rest of the FAQ). The complete lack of understanding of Rothbard's theory of class, or his view of the history of mercantile capitalism (hint: he's not unaware of the role of State intervention in creating the plutocratic class system), is particularly galling, just to take one example.


I agree that there is a lot of useful stuff in the FAQ and that a lot of useful work has gone into many of the sections. However, it happens to present a picture of individualist anarchism that has been substantially distorted for polemical purposes, and a "discussion" of anarcho-capitalism that basically amounts to a useless rant stitched together with superficial selective quotation. Since individualist anarchism is the form of anarchism I'm most interested in and sympathetic to, and since I think that the polemical assault on anarcho-capitalism, besides being uncharitable and regrettable in its own right, also infects the discussion of individualist anarchism, that tends to give me a pretty negative view of the Gestalt. I do appreciate the work that went into many of the other sections, however.

July 03, 2006 5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see that Nozick and Rothbard are not alone in not understanding what "inalienable" means. That Nozick is consistent while Rothbard wants to deny the logical conclusion of his own position is beside the point.

Rothbard's argument amounts to saying that it is okay for a workers to alienate their liberty for 8+ hours a day, 5+ days a week for 40+ years piecemeal but it is wrong if they agree to do so all at one go. I prefer Nozick's honesty to Rothbard's illogical confusion.

And, yes, Rothbard's conclusions is that children will be chattels -- he supports, for example, child labour and so on. That flows naturally from the idea that children are property rather than people.

And, yes, Rothbard was aware that "actually existing" capitalism has been marked by state violence. Yet that does not stop him arguing that capitalism is "natural" and that a free society would be capitalist (and have basically the same capitalist property rights which had been enforced by force on humanity). In other words, he ignores the obvious fact that capitalism is the product of state violence and it unlikely that it would have developed by itself.

But I suppose such confusions will result when you call your pet ideology a combination of two words which mean radically different things to the rest of the planet.

Life would have been so much better is Rothbard had had the decency to call his ideology something more appropriate (like private statism or voluntary feudalism, perhaps?). Sure, a monopoly of power over a given area is bad when its a government but good when its a boss or landlord? What a joke!

I suppose that AFAQ is disliked so much in certain quarters precisely because it actually discusses the implications of applying such ideas (and uses appropriate historical examples) as well as showing the logical contradictions within it. I for one am happy it takes the time to refute claims that "anarcho"-capitalism is a form of anarchism, as do most anarchists I know.

I know that individualist anarchism has its problems, but at least it has some linkage to the wider anarchist movement. Unlike that oxymoron, "anarcho"-capitalism...

July 04, 2006 4:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rothbard uses two different definitions of capitalism without distinguishing between them. He uses "capitalism" to mean both "the current system" and "a radical liberal order". Both usages are common. In the same way, "socialism" is used to mean both "the Soviet Union" and "independent federations of labourers", although those are very different things.

Selling your labour is different from selling yourself into slavery. Workers can quit when and where they like, have enforceable rights vis-a-vis the owners, may organize their non-working time as they wish, etc.

States are not monopolies of power but ultimate arbiters of law. Anarcho-capitalism/market anarchism has no problem with just monopolies - private property - but does take issue with ultimate arbiters of law. Of course, every whacko leftist eventually comes around to endorse property, although they will dance an endless two-step around the word itself.

- Josh

July 04, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...


Just out of curiosity, have you ever actually read anything by Nozick or by Rothbard from beginning to end?

Rothbard does not conclude that children are chattel of their parents. See The Ethics of Liberty, chapter 14: "We must therefore state that, even from birth, the parental ownership is not absolute but of a 'trustee' or guardianship kind. In short, every baby as soon as it is born and is therefore no longer contained within his [sic] mother's body possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult." Rothbard concludes that children have enforceable rights not to be physically abused, or coerced by their parents in certain ways. He also holds that children and adolescents have an inalienable right to emancipate themselves from their parents at their pleasure, and either grant custody to any other adults who will take them in, or else assume self-ownership by making a living independently. (Since his position both rules out the use of physical coercion to force children to work, and demands that children be allowed to leave neglectful or callous parents at any time, the comments on his position on child labor are simply irrelevant; there is no way under Rothbard's system that parents can legitimately enforce a demand that a child work for pay.)

On the inalienability of the will, see Ethics of Liberty, chapter 19. Rothbard does not claim that workers can alienate their liberty even in part, or for the number of hours on the schedule. He denies that enforceable labor contracts are based on alienation of liberty at all. He explicitly argues that anyone who signs a labor contract can legitimately stop working at any time -- because a mere promise to work is not an enforceable contract; and no-one can transfer title over their body and will -- and cannot be forced to pay damages for the lost services that their employer expected. They can only be required to pay back (1) any advance wages they received for services that they did not end up performing, and (2) any "performance bond" that the worker agreed to put up as a conditional substitute if they declined to perform the service. On Rothbard's theory workers alienate labor power at the moment of actual labor (by using their body and will to transform goods), but not liberty; they retain the right at any time to refuse to do any work, even if they earlier promised that they would do the work, and the boss has no enforceable claims on them whatever beyond the recovery of any money that was conditional on performance of the undone work.

Does the unconditional right to strike or quit guarantee that work will be meaningful, humane, rewarding, etc.? No, of course not, and particularly not under the conditions imposed by State-backed monopolies and anti-worker labor controls. But a bad job that you're better off not leaving is not the same thing as enforceable slavery, and even if you do think it amounts to something you could call "slavery," Rothbard makes it quite clear that he's referring to the latter and not to the former when he discusses slavery and inalienability. Rothbard is clear about his target and adduces reasons, coherent with his thoroughgoing revision of contract theory, for his position. The claim that he is being muddy, inconsistent, or dishonest here is simply not defensible in light of the text.

You may think that some of his positions are wrong (I, for one, certainly do think that some of them are). You may even think that they are crazy. But you do have an obligation to honestly represent what his positions are, not to distort them beyond recognition in order to score polemical points against the top-hatted and monocled cartoons of your ideological opponents. The chief reason I view the Anarchist FAQ negatively is precisely because it engages in this kind of polemical misrepresentation in the frankly pointless attempt to write anarcho-capitalism out of the extension of the word "anarchism." They would be on much stronger ground if their criticisms were based on a careful attempt to delineate the position and a systematic understanding of the arguments, rather than on the attempt to provide a set of social anarchist talking points against anarcho-capitalists.

July 04, 2006 3:37 PM  

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