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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

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Issue is Privilege

Jim Henley writes on the dismal political prospects for libertarians:

And we haven’t got a lot of goodies to offer. The State-Capitalist GOP can offer businesses all sorts of subventions. All we can offer them is “a chance to compete on a level playing field.”...

Political success comes from energizing defined constituencies and we ain’t got any.

But the offer of a level playing field can be pretty attractive when you're currently at the wrong end of it. The problem is that the majority, the net exploited, don't realize they're at the wrong end of it.

The two state capitalist parties, representing the net exploiters as their core constituency, have been successful to the extent that they've persuaded a majority of people that they're net winners, or are likely to be among them. E.g., consider the repeated finding of pollsters that a majority of the population believe they're likely to be millionaires someday.

The corporate center does a pretty good job of setting the terms of debate. The Democratic corporate liberals, who gave us the corporatism of the New Deal, sell their version of state capitalism with the symbolism of Art Schlesinger, Jr.: i.e., as "progressive" or "idealistic," and aimed at reining in the power of big business (this despite the role of Gerard Swope, the Business Advisory Council, and an army of corporation lawyers and investment bankers in framing the New Deal). The Republicans, who are busily turning the world into one big banana republic in the name of "democracy" and "free markets," have appropriated the symbolism of "rugged individualism" and "free enterprise" for their own version of state capitalism--surely one of the biggest howlers in history, given their constituency of crony capitalists and their barnacle-like attachment to the taxpayer teat.

If a most people think they're coming out ahead under state capitalism, it's because we advocates of the free market have done such an abysmal job of showing just how much they're being ripped off, and just how parasitic the big corporations and the plutocrats really are.

First let people know just how massively they're actually being ripped off, by the hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars, by the subsidized and privileged. Then offer them a playing field. It'll look a lot better to them when they realize they're currently on the low end of a tilted field.

The theme of privilege resonates mightily among voters, when it's done competently. For example, consider the 1976 Democratic primary campaign of Fred Harris (Dan Sullivan, on the DFC Talk list, drew my attention to this). Harris' theme: "The issue is privilege." Here are excerpts from his announcement:

....we have a rare chance in 1976 to help return America to its most traditional principle: the right of all of our people to a fair chance and a fair share by their own efforts.

What stands in the way is privilege. Privilege is the issue. It prevents full employment and fair taxes. It drives up prices and corrupts Democracy.

The basic question in 1976 is whether our government will look after the interests of the average family or continue to protect the super rich and the giant corporations....

....The beliefs are these: people are smart enough to govern themselves; and a widespread diffusion of economic and political power ought to be the express goal of government.

Some speak of unifying the Democratic Party. I call for the unity of America, unity around principle and national purpose. We must lower taxes for most Americans and raise them for the Nelson Rockefellers and the J. Paul Gettys. We must stop the EXXONs and the Safeways from using their monopoly power to squeeze out competitors and then overcharge consumers. The government must stop emptying the pockets of those who have to work for a living in order to subsidize the Lockheeds and the Penn-Centrals.

Of course, a lot of his approach was off-base. If the government wasn't intervening in the marketplace to "tax" the worker and consumer in the economic realm and redistribute the revenue to Rockefeller and Getty, taxing the latter's income in the political realm would be a moot point. I don't get too outraged about redistributist taxation, frankly; but it's still a Rube Goldberg contraption for counterbalancing the redistributist "taxation" that's already taken place--with the state's help--through the process of unequal exchange.

But Harris had an amazing ability to focus his agenda on a unifying theme. "Privilege," or private law to promote the interests of a few, is a meme we need to be spreading. We need to be demonizing the state capitalists, the ones who talk the most about the beauties of "our free market system," in terms of their own professed values. Dean Baker does a pretty good job of this in The Conservative Nanny State (see especially his extended remarks on the utter disingenuousness of neoliberal "free market" rhetoric in the Introduction).

The issue is privilege. Or in the words of William Greene: what is needed is not equal enforcement of the laws, but equal laws.


Blogger John A said...

Statist capitalism offers protection to both businesses (through corporate welfare) and individuals (through other welfare, regulation of business and upholding of human rights). Both sides are understandably unwilling to give these protections up, as the alternative is chaotic and would actually produce a worse environment for business: when all a business's resources are going into *surviving* in a near-perfect, cut-throat market, this can actually distract from making the type of innovations that libertarians want us to believe will be more frequent.

July 08, 2006 4:55 AM  
Blogger Jesse said...

The theme of privilege resonates mightily among voters, when it's done competently. For example, consider the 1976 Democratic primary campaign of Fred Harris

I'm fond of Harris, as politicians go, but I have to point out that his campaign didn't resonate all that mightily among the voters in the Democratic primaries.

July 08, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Mr. Wallace: What's wrong with open borders and anarcho-"capitalism" (besides the seconed half of the name)?

Anyway, not to toot my own cornet, but I just happen to have just posted an article on equality and privilege here.

July 08, 2006 10:43 AM  
Blogger Joe Crow said...

Dude, that's got to be the most randomly fucked up post I've ever seen here.

I suppose some sort of congratulations are in order.

So, given that you despise everything that libertarianism/anarchism actually stands for, why do you care what we do?

July 08, 2006 9:32 PM  
Blogger Jesse said...

I'm confused, Bbo. Your first post implied that you're against marginal crackpots.

July 09, 2006 11:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Point taken. I guess the message has got to be articulated by someone in a position to reach an audience in the first place. Dan Sullivan, commenting on Harris, said that the media only had room for one populist dark horse candidate per primary, and they'd already fixed on Carter for that role.


"The same land" is a pretty vague concept. I agree that different ethnic and religious groups tend to cluster together in their own enclaves, whether they be villages, neighborhoods, or whatever. But an entire continent is a pretty big place for such communities to coexist--hell, they do so even in cities like New York and Chicago. Switzerland has three peacefully coexisting ethnic groups in an area smaller than most American states. And at the time of American independence, I think something like a third of the population may have spoken something besides English as their first language: Dutch in the Hudson valley, Germans in Pennsylvania, French in the St. John's River valley, Highland Scots in the Carolina back country, etc.

The ethnic groups coexisting in central Europe (e.g., Sudeten Germans and Czechs) got along fairly well until they were pushed into strife by a nation-state promoting an ideology that the state should represent some official ethnicity.

True, ethnic groups tend to fight when their admixture results from colonization by some imperial overlord, like the Balkans under the Ottoman empire; or when the overlord favors one ethnicity over another, as we saw in the bloody legacy of post-British Rwanda. And there might be conflict when state capitalism subsidizes the importation of large quantities of sweatshop labor. But these are all entirely different things from the kind of spontaneous migration that would take place in a decentralized economy of small producers.

And I'd guess there are a pretty large number of writers at Lew Rockwell and Mises who consider themselves anarch-caps and don't consider themselves gay, although I don't know what difference it should make either way. I figure people's sexual proclivities are their own business as long as they're not doing it in the streets and scaring the horses.

July 09, 2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger Ricketson said...

"First let people know just how massively they're actually being ripped off,"

I suspect that this strategy has had some trouble in the USA because the USA as a whole has been the net beneficiary of this massive rip-off. Even people who are getting ripped off within the USA, have typically had a decent standard of living as a consequence of benefitting from the exploitation of other countries...or possibly they've been allowed to keep the product of their labor as long as they supported the elite in their efforts to plunder the rest of the world.

This arrangement seems to be dying, as the neo-cons trash the post-war arrangement, so perhaps we will soon be able to convince most Americans that they are being screwed.

July 09, 2006 12:03 PM  

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