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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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Monday, July 14, 2008

Talking to a Brick Wall on Wall-E

I've already commented (in an addendum to a post at The Art of the Possible) on what I regard as an abysmally by-the-numbers review of Wall-E at Mises Blog. My comment dealt with it only insofar as it recycled the old--and historically illiterate--vulgar libertarian meme of people eagerly lining up to take factory jobs so as to get away from the backbreaking work of peasant subsistance farming. Stolyarov's review is bad on far more counts than that, though. Like most of the Misoids, he reacts viscerally, rallying to the defense of "business" whenever a movie treats what appears to be a corporation of some sort as the bad guy. Funny--I always thought the point of libertarianism was to defend free markets as such, and not to defend big business as a "persecuted minority."

And as several of the commenters at Mises Blog pointed out, Wall-E's "Buy 'n' Large Corporation" is very much of a common type in dystopian sci fi (of which Firefly's Blue Sun Corporation is probably the best-known). For example, commenter Bob Kaercher quoted a review by Patrick Ford at The American Conservative:

In the film, it becomes clear that mass consumerism is not just the product of big business, but of big business wedded with big government. In fact, the two are indistinguishable in WALL-E’s future. The government unilaterally provided it’s citizens with everything they needed, and this lack of variety led to Earth’s downfall.

Kaercher adds:

Does the film condemn technology per se, or just how certain organizations use some applications of certain kinds of technology? Does the film try to claim that FREE MARKET capitalism has laid the Earth to waste? If it doesn't, why assume that it does make that claim? Perhaps one could just as easily make the inference that state-socialism combined with government-protected big business is responsible for the ruin?

And another commenter, Jack Skylark, writes:

As far as WALL-E is concerned, I disagree that the central message is environmentalism. It is more, in my eyes, a warning against government and I believe can be called a very anarchist film. In the first fifteen minutes of the film we are greeted with the destruction caused directly by a purely command economy. I find it peculiar that other Austrians did not instantly see the blueprint Zwangswirtschaft (German for “compulsory economy”) system personified in the BNL Corporation. With the monopoly power over the use of force as well as a nationalized economic base, property rights (in the pure sense) were completely trampled. To the common layman a trashed earth may be synonymous with free enterprise and libertarian ideals but this film does not set out to provide explanation but to tell a story.

But the Misoids just see somebody talking mean about a poor old corporation, and see red.

Anyway, the focus of my comment at The Art of the Possible was on what ahistorical nonsense Stolyarov's remarks on the Industrial Revolution and subsistence farming were. Stolyarov wrote:

Virtually no one today who romanticizes the “good old days” of traditional agriculture recognizes how nasty, brutish, and short life under such conditions had been for millennia. Once the first industrial factories opened — with their long hours, dangerous equipment, and meager pay — people flocked to them in droves, because the factory conditions (including the sanitation provided and wages paid) were greatly preferable to those of toiling virtually all day on the traditional farm.

And as I pointed out, P.M. Lawrence was running logical and evidential rings around Stolyarov and his defenders in the comments thread. For example:

We actually have historical records to show this; they generally went into factories because they were deprived of rural opportunities, as in the English Enclosures, Irish evictions and (Scottish) Highland clearances. We know that when the opportunities remained they stayed away in droves, as in the natural experiment when Lord Lever started a fish processing factory at Leverburgh on the island (peninsula, actually) of Lewis….

Basically, people shouldn’t trot out this recycled prejudice as fact without doing their homework, let alone have the chutzpah to accuse others of romanticising.

Lawrence continued to run circles--quite entertainingly--around several of the commenters.

For some unexplicable reason, though, his attempts to post further comments in that thread all started to fail over the weekend. It surely can't be deliberate censorship; I mean, what kind of coward would ban a commenter, just because a blogger's cartoonishly broad assertions (and those of his groupthink followers) couldn't stand up to the immense weight of historical erudition Lawrence brings to bear? To do that, they'd have to be afraid of defending their ideas against their most able critics--which would be utterly contemptible.

And besides, it surely can't be censorship when the utterly brainless "Person" is still allowed to infest the comment threads over there. Person, for those unfamiliar with him, has repeatedly demonstrated his inability to grasp the point of an argument even when wearing velcro mittens, and has accomplished nothing beyond evoking laughter from his enemies and eye rolls from his allies.

So while the folks at Mises are dealing with their software glitch, I'll help them out by publishing Lawrence's comment for them.

* * *

Newson suggests that my

argument has flipped. first you introduce the hard work theme - "This is what made a zero sum for food, so peasants had to work harder." then, when i express skepticism about peasants withholding labour, it changes to hunger - "As Mao Tse Tung remarked, each new mouth brings a new pair of hands. For a given set of techniques, and a given amount of land, working harder won't grow more. So Malthusian constraints didn't show as more work per person but as less food per person (you don't see starving people in third world countries working harder, just starving more)."

No, that's not my argument flipping, it's my different response to your new objection, but one entirely consistent with my original point. When you remove people from the rural sector but keep the number of people needing and able to be fed nearly the same, as happened after the later Enclosures, the workload per peasant goes up. However, Malthusian constraints don't do that; if you hit those but keep people on the land, the workload per peasant actually goes down. The former scenario is what actually happened; I was pointing out that the latter had not happened, i.e. that you were mistaken in thinking that Malthusian constraints had caused the increasing workloads and difficulties among peasants. I'm not denying that they were getting close, just pointing out that they weren't the problem that had actually come up.

...to be perfectly candid, i don't believe in any golden age for peasants prior to the industrial revolution, for the reason already mentioned. extra mouths always followed "good times" in short order, and then the culling through pestilence, famine etc.

No, not in short order. It's still change over generations. Hey, I know you're open minded, that your belief isn't "my mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts" (I don't expect to be able to tell Rtr anything, but I do expect to be able to show open minded people that he just won't listen). Remember that I cited Buchan's biography of Cromwell? Now I'll quote him (chapter 1): "A foreign traveller with an eye in his head would have reported that the long peace had made the country prosperous and the people content. The new poor law preserved a semblance of order, and there was far less ostensible misery than in other lands." (He notes the continuing effects of the disruptions of Tudor times, though - that's why they needed a new poor law.) But wait, there's more - this time from Allotments and Small Holdings, which I'm mainly going to use for Rtr: "By that time [1775] the modern feeling in favour of allotments had begun to ripen, and it was contended that some compensation should be made to the labourers for depriving them of the advantages of the waste. Up to then the English labouring rustic had been very well off.. Food was abundant and cheap, so were clothes and boots; he could graze his cow or pig on the common, and also obtain fuel from it. Now he fell on evil days. Prices rose, wages fell,. privileges were lost, and in many cases he had to sell the patch of land whose possession made all the difference between hardship and comfort. All this was seen plainly enough both by statesmen and private philanthropists."

...with respect, there must have been productivity improvements you're overlooking. if there were fewer peasants working the land, and the food output remained static, and hard work under land-constrained conditions will not increase production, and yet the national population didn't drop, then necessarily productivity improved. there's no other way out of the rebus.

Actually, you haven't put this together properly. There were fewer rural workers, working harder than before so as to stay at the limits of what the land would yield. If you keep the land the same, and the work the same, and you get the same product - there has been no change in land productivity or labour productivity. However, if you keep the work the same and cut the number of workers, the work per worker goes up - even with no change in productivity. As it happens, there were increases in both sorts of productivity, but the labour productivity gains were later and the land productivity gains really only kept the Malthusian limit at bay.

Rtr thinks that '"I merely pointed out that the rural sector had to do more than it would have chosen on its own."... just doesn't make sense on economic grounds.' Of course it makes sense. Rents, tithes, and (mostly indirect) taxes, remember? That is why it is wrong to accuse me of "...again making non free market assumptions, which is fine from an analysis perspective, as long as you demonstrate such" (I already showed that I was not assuming things, that I was drawing on the historical record).

The rural market choice to produce surplus output *in spite of* its always existing preference of less work for more reward, or they were compelled by violence. Compelling by violence does not generally increase the productivity per acre, as can be seen by per acre farming productivity results from many socialist and communist countries.

Well, it didn't here, either, it just kept the output up to what the techniques allowed. But there is a bait and switch: rents, tithes, and (mostly indirect) taxes are what gave them the incentives. These are not overt violence, but concealed; those do work without materially harming productivity of either sort.

Violence doesn't magically increase productivity. It begs credulity that more people can be supported by less farmers (by definition of more people subsisting as factory laborers), without there necessarily being an increase in farming productivity.

Which is why you shouldn't misrepresent things. Two kinds of productivity, remember? Work per person increased on the land, but that is not an increase in the productivity of land (output per unit area) or of labour (output per unit work). What there was, was an increase in output per worker - but that's not a productivity increase, if obtained by more work rather than more result for work. That's where we came in - that farmers had to work hard. They don't, if they only have to support their households. The increase was in the work piled on them, which never reached the point of reducing production. It only showed as the harsh conditions.

However, you are abusing words that denote free market voluntary *choices* (which are always constrained). If they didn't choose to till the land, then they would have voluntarily left the profession of farming, which is exactly what happened with the industrial revolution.

Now who's abusing words? Many were directly evicted, which is not a free market operation unless the land had belonged to the evicters - but the evicters had seized the land, after changing the lawe to allow it. Those that were left had their own private resources removed in the same way. Many "voluntarily" left farms in those conditions, but it is an abuse of language to select the departure and omit the seizure. It's like saying someone voluntarily swims if he was on a ship that sank. It might look voluntary to someone who only starts looking after the sinking, but we know better. At least, I do - and you can, if you go and look. From Allotments and Small Holdings:

The enclosure of the common fields proved most hurtful to the small farmer; the enclosure of the waste injured the labourer by depriving him, without adequate compensation, of such useful privileges as the right to graze a cow, a pig, geese or other small animals. It also discouraged him by tending to the extinction of small tenancies and freeholds that were no longer workable at a profit when common rights ceased to go with them. The industrious labourer could previously nourish a hope of bettering his condition by obtaining a small holding... As Mr Cowper (afterwards Lord Mount Temple) said in the House of Commons on the 13th of March 1844, "the course adopted had been to compensate the owner of the cottage to whom the common right belonged, forgetting the claims of the occupier by whom they were enjoyed"; and in the same debate Sir Robert Peel pointed out that not only the rights of the tenant, but those of his successors ought to have been studied. The course adopted divorced the labourer from the soil.

Now let's see what else goes wrong in Rtr's criticism:-

- Well taxes aren't voluntary free market institutions, so we can ignore those.

Huh? Does he really propose to ignore anything that's not free market because it makes reality not fit the theory? I've never asserted that free market theory was wrong - it isn't - just that real peasants, in real life, had burdens thrown on them in other ways; that you can't look at harsh peasant conditions and say that peasant life must be hard, when the hardships were put there by others.

- Landlords could only charge more rent if productivity increases alone afforded that possibility.

Actually, when the market will bear it. That's when there is enough product to be sold, under prevailing market conditions. But in any case, Rtr made that up, about charging more rent being necessary for all this. All that is necessary is that real rents remain pretty much the same per farm, and conditions get worse per peasant when there are fewer peasants. Mind you, rents also increased, to match farms' net increase in product (since fewer people needed to be fed in the farm work force).

- And indeed increased marginal productivity makes the land more valuable, is a win-win for both landlord and farmer.

Leaving aside that productivity did not increase, this simply isn't so even when it does, if the effect is overwhelmed by wealth transfers - which is just precisely what the Enclosures did.

Rtr contradicts my statement "Considering that I said nothing at all about specialisation and the division of labour, or net poverty," by misunderstanding when I

said farmers had to work harder for the same output. Working more for less or the same output is worse off than working the same for the same output or working less for more output. By definition of productivity, people would be working less for more output or the same for more output or less for the same output. This is the opposite of "harder".

Sigh. Not the same output per peasant - the same total output. Split among fewer peasants, achieving the same output per unit work, there is no change in labour productivity but a lot more labour per peasant. See above.

Rtr really wasn't paying attention when he came up with 'How would you be "worse off" if you no longer had to grow your own food but could instead rely upon the marginally more competitive surplus of fewer farmers to produce enough food for all, and instead concentrate on other pursuits?' The fewer peasants had to work harder, and had been expropriated. See above Allotments and Small Holdings - explicitly records that the whole process

...injured the labourer by depriving him, without adequate compensation, of such useful privileges as the right to graze a cow, a pig, geese or other small animals. It also discouraged him by tending to the extinction of small tenancies and freeholds that were no longer workable at a profit when common rights ceased to go with them. The industrious labourer could previously nourish a hope of bettering his condition by obtaining a small holding.

That's why it's not win-win, even though "society is net wealthier" - more than 100% of the gains went to the expropriators; what "society" gets is irrelevant to what happened to the peasants. That is what is different from his comparisons - it's not the working of a free market, while the comparisons are.

Rtr continues his erlier error, thinking that '"we can see that there were fewer left to feed about the same number" ...could only occur if fewer people farming actually could feed everyone by increases in labor productivity. Otherwise excess food production would only be wastefully rotting, and adding to the supply of food which would be bringing the prices for food production down, thus causing all farmers to be poorer rather than everyone being richer by producing other stuff such as factory goods.' That meant increases in work, not productivity. But I do not need to repeat the rebuttal.

Society no longer produces just food, but now produces food *AND* factory goods. This is win-win for everybody.

No, because the expropriations and related burdens meant there were losers in all this.

Again, Rtr is jumpimg to conclusions with

"Mostly, they weren't given the option, they were evicted." That's a *good* thing. Land owners were behaving as good entrepreneurs, doing them a favor saving them wasting their efforts on unnecessary duplicating output.

No, they weren't doing them favours - they took the peasants' resources, then evicted many. That's not doing someone a favour.

Those less efficient farmers would be strictly economically *better off* working in the factories, just as those more efficient remain farmers would be strictly economically better off with unnecessary surplus production from those less marginally efficient farmers. It's win-win

is similarly nonsense; they weren't less efficient, they only had their own resources taken away. If I steal the petrol from your car, it stops working so well - but it's just as efficient as it always was, just not as effective. Efficiency is a ratio of outputs to inputs; take away the inputs and you get less output, but the efficiency isn't worse.

Rtr goes on

And win-win-win when you include the land owners who can now charge higher rents for more marginally productive land, or use the land saved on producing food for other uses, such as your sheep herding example.

I wonder, does he know what win-win means? Particularly since "win-win-win" is a nonsense. Win-win doesn't mean lots of gains, it means both ends of a transaction gain (since there aren't three ends of a transaction, "win-win-win" is a nonsense). The Highland Clearances, just like the Tudor Enclosures, reduced total food production, and the people who got evicted did not win, they lost what they had formerly had.

Finally, he almost gets there, linking

"it is Rtr who is assuming that there were no distortions. To take but one, Scottish clan lands were appropriated by clan chiefs, who then evicted clansmen. This is not a free market at work." ... So a more free market would have benefited everybody, would have made everybody better off, would have mode [sic] society net wealthier. It was only anti-free market, anti-capitalism distortions which were causing people to be poorer than they otherwise would have been.

That's the whole bloody point - the situation of overworked peasants was not the natural outworking, but a distorted one. So you can't look at actual historical peasants and conclude that their situation shows that peasant life is unpleasant of its nature; those actual historical peasants had a hard time because they got dumped on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is exactly the kind of reply to that post I've been waiting for. It saves me the trouble of writing it myself frankly. Not that I have the skill or knowledge to do it mind you.

I was hoping that you'd dedicate a post to B. K. Marcus' questions on the term Capitalism. But I suppose you might do that some other time.

July 14, 2008 7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not going to quote verbatim from Buchan's Cromwell on this, but he summarises the consensus that there was a Golden Age for peasants on the eve of the Civil Wars.

Hmmm. According to Gregory Clark's data on wages in England, real wages actually bottomed out around the 1630s, as a result of Malthusian pressures. See the chart here and the full paper here. Then there was a dramatic increase in income from 1630 to 1690 despite a rising population. In other words, Clark's data is the exact opposite of what Lawrence suggests. Who do I believe? Clark seems to use a lot of weights and adjustments in his data, so it is difficult to determine if it's trustworthy without extensive examination of the data. If the price of pewter and sugar has gone down, but factory smoke blocks out the sun, the wage data might not tell the right story.

Another source, The World We have Lost by Peter Laslett, notes, "But no very large proportion of the land had been enclosed by the years 1700-1710".
Laslett also cites Gregory King, who in 1688 reported that fully 2.7 million people ( over half the population) were "Decreasing the wealth of the kingdom" - which seems to mean they were dependent, either on their master or on alms. Laslett writes, "Too many members of family were half-busied about an inadequate plot of infertile land; not enough work could be found for the women and children to do round the cottage fire, in some districts none at all, for there was no rural industry in them."

So Lawrence believes life was pretty good until all the enclosures after Cromwell. Clark believes that income increased greatly between 1630 to 1690, declined somewhat in the 18th century, and then began a long rise starting in 1800. Laslett believes that there was perpetually an underclass of poor people, even before most of the enclosures happened, and that life did not get better until after the industrial revolution. Wherein lies the truth?

July 14, 2008 8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I succeeded in getting a link leading here from those Mises comments.

Libra, there is no inconsistency; the two sets of figures aren't looking at the same thing. I was commenting on the situation of peasants in particular, not Englishmen in general. What happened was, the remaining peasants had enough resources, but the hardship was spread among the dispossessed - who don't get counted as peasants. This effect is survivor bias, since if you only compare a defined group before and after retrenching, eviction or whatever, rather than the group as initially defined, survivors often end up better off. You can improve hospital statistics by shooting the sick, discharging patients early, or whatever.

It's also misleading to talk of Malthusian pressures; the first round of enclosures led to a reduction in land devoted to raising food (going to raising sheep instead), and it was physically possible to restore it.

Also, the later enclosures didn't hit really hard until the 18th century, so "after Cromwell" is misleading.

July 15, 2008 12:00 AM  
Blogger Maldoror said...


Excelent post. But I was hopping to see the discusion in the mises blog to the review, and I can´t find it (the article does not have a commentary section, at least one that I have found). Can you point it here?

July 15, 2008 2:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Well taxes aren't voluntary free market institutions, so we can ignore those."

ROTFL! That is an absolute classic.

Yes, I suppose if you ignore all those aspects of actually existing capitalism which are not part of the approved Austrian school book then everything becomes a product of voluntary choice...

But the actual dynamics of capitalism, actually really existing capitalism, are thus ignored. It is as if they have never read Marx's account of "Primitive Accumulation" nor pondered what it implies for actually existing capitalism. But, of course, it is unlikely that they have done that, even though he puts the same possession/property and market/capitalism analysis as Proudhon at its heart (I'm also sure they also avoid reading Proudhon as well).

Still, why let reality get in the way of nice little just-so stories...

An Anarchist FAQ

July 16, 2008 2:08 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Anon: Which questions on capitalism do you mean?

Maldoror: If you click on the link at PML's first quoted comment, it should take you to the blog post. The article itself has a link at the end to "comment on the blog."

Iain: It reminds me of the Christian Scientists' gnostic approach to reality. If we just deny the material reality of all evil, then we're living in the best of all possible worlds. And if we subtract all the subsidies and structural barriers to competition erected by the actually existing corporate economy, what's left--abracadabra!--is a free market. As PML, the fact that the profits big business makes *through* such interventions are unworthy of defense in "free market" terms is the WHOLE BLOODY POINT. But the Misoids automatically rush to the defense of any profit made by any corporation, at any time or place, as a matter of pure, visceral affinity.

July 17, 2008 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, people can pick up the most recent discussion here, since my comments are now going through again. Among other things, I clarified that I hadn't been assuming how people would behave with free choices but that I got that from actual historical cases when they really were free. Rtr tried to misrepresent that as conceding that the actual behaviour always was free, all the time. Sigh.

July 18, 2008 1:12 AM  
Blogger Bunty said...

Speaking of the American colonies: "Because land was easy to obtain, wage labor was relatively scarce and consequently wages were higher than in Europe. This encouraged the use of semislave and slave labor in the colonies. The demand for African slaves and their status as a pariah class in the 'land of the free' has its origins in the great abundance of almost free land." -- William Gottlieb, via.

Who would work anothers' farm, when they could build their own?

July 19, 2008 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On B. K. Marcus' posts regarding the term capitalism:

I'd say it begins here (or at least this is where I began noticing it), http://bkmarcus.com/blog/2007/06/mcelroy-on-capitalism

Continued here, http://bkmarcus.com/blog/2008/04/capitalism-is-a-reclaimed-word This one seemed directly aimed at you.

Latest here, http://blog.mises.org/archives/008238.asp Brad Spangler replies to this one here .

It seems like he once was down with the whole left-libertarian program, but it seems more and more that he's down on it. See this post: http://bkmarcus.com/blog/2008/07/know-the-feeling I think the same thing (regarding leftism) happened to Anthony Gregory.

And in regards to the topic of this post: it would be even better to point out that the Misesian calculation argument applies to not only governments, but corporations, isolated from the workings of the market. The BnL corporation was clearly a merging of government and corporation as could be seen from the CEO's podium. The calculational chaos exhibited by the BnL corporation, and unchecked by any competition, ravaged the planet.

At least that's my take on it.

July 19, 2008 10:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for all the links, anon. I'll probably incorporate them into a post one of these days on what I mean by the term "free market anticapitalism."

July 23, 2008 11:07 AM  
Blogger Joel Schlosberg said...

The Mises.org article got lampooned in The Onion A V Club's "guide to the WALL-E Controversy":

"While the influence of 'enviro-wackos' is easy enough for 'right-thinking' people to ignore, others—like Editor-In-Chief of The Rational Argumentator Gennady Stolyarov II—see it as an out-and-out Marxist attack. In his essay “WALL-E: Economic Ignorance And The War On Modernity,' Stolyarov cites the fact that fast-food restaurants are serving 'health foods,' 'landfills are remarkably effective at storing garbage,' and that traditional farming is, like, hard and stuff as flaws in the film’s logic."

October 07, 2008 8:04 AM  

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