We Will: The Radical Possibilities of Freed-Market Social Activism

One of the Five Pillars of left-wing market anarchism that Gary Chartier and I identify in the Introduction to Markets Not Capitalism is a commitment to the radical possibilities of market social activism:

… [M]arket anarchists also see freed markets as a space not only for profit-driven commerce, but also as spaces for social experimentation and hard-driving grassroots activism. They envision “market forces” as including not only the pursuit of narrowly financial gain or maximizing returns to investors, but also the appeal of solidarity, mutuality and sustainability. “Market processes” can — and ought to — include conscious, coordinated efforts to raise consciousness, change economic behavior, and address issues of economic equality and social justice through nonviolent direct action.

— Charles W. Johnson and Gary Chartier, Introduction. 3.
Markets Not Capitalism (Autonomedia/Minor Compositions, 2011).

Here’s some more on that, thanks to the kind efforts of DFW Alliance of the Libertarian Left. This is some broad orientation on what it means and why it matters. The specifics I’ve talked about for quite a while here; it was also the topic of my recent talk at Libertopia. More on that soon, I hope. But for now: This clip is excerpted from a much longer interview with Jason Lee Byas and Grayson English at Liberty Minded / Speaking on Liberty. (Thanks, y’ALL!)

Transcript included below for folks with screen readers, et cetera.

Grayson English: I think it’s all very interesting, all this about thicker commitments, and different things that libertarians tend to ignore, and some of the more ethical concerns that go into these social issues. But I think there’s been a pretty devastating critique on Facebook about how left-libertarianism has nothing to say about ethics, and it’s basically just saying that whatever the market does, is good. I don’t know, I just think that seems somewhat problematic for this philosophy of thicker commitments, and indirect coercion. What do you think of that?

Jason Lee Byas: … The great agora that is Facebook, for philosophical symposiums in every thread, yeah …

Charles Johnson: Yeah, I’ve definitely talked with some folks about this, on Facebook and elsewhere. I fear that Facebook is actually, like, systematically the worst possible medium for having involved discussions about this kind of stuff, for various reasons.

But, broadly what I’d say is this: left-libertarianism involves a claim that without state coercion, and without various forms of legal privilege, there are a bunch of forms of social and economic inequality, and social and economic privilege, that would tend to be systematically undermined — that would be much weaker than they are in society as it is. It doesn’t involve a claim that just freeing the market, and seeing whatever will happen, without your intervention, when markets are free, — is what either free-market anticapitalism in particular or what left-libertarianism is all about. That’s not the end of the day for either of those views.

And, so I think it is true, that if you get rid of — and it’s really important not to forget this; this is the reason we stress so much the importance of state monopoly in upholding capitalist privilege, for example — is not to suggest that, in a society freed of government intervention and regulation, that the freed market would automatically solve every social problem, every form of inequality, cancer, tooth decay, and that the seas would become the temperature and flavor of lemonade.

The specific claim is that there’s a bunch of stuff that would tend to sort of systematically get better just in virtue of kicking out the supports from institutions that are actively making it crappier. So there are a lot of forms of privilege that would tend to sort of sink and falter under their own weight, without the ongoing efforts of the state to subsidize them and to burn out competitors. But — whatever forms of social inequality, and whatever social evils — and there’s plenty that would remain, even if in a weaker form — are things that libertarians ought to take a direct hand in organizing nonviolent social confrontation against. Where these things don’t fall under their own weight, we have a responsibility to get together and push them over. And that means a serious commitment to grassroots community organizing and to social activism within the context of this freed market that we’re imagining.

That’s something I’ve always tried to emphasize in my work as very important — if you’re wondering who will stop the rich from running everything in a free society, part of the answer has to be that we will. And there are straightforward ways in which it’s connected with this commitment to the radical possibilities of freed market social activism. That is closely connected with seeing that being in favor of market relationships, is not the same thing as just kicking back and saying, Well, I don’t have to lift a finger because the market is going to take care of all my problems for me… . —

Jason Lee Byas: Market take the wheel!

Charles Johnson: — I mean market forces just are us; they’re people acting rationally in the world. We shouldn’t just be consumers of social conditions, but entrepreneurs of social conditions. That’s going to mean things like mutual aid associations forming up, fighting unions, neighborhood associations. It’s going to mean feminist activism, culture jamming, consciousness-raising, — all kinds of zaps and activism and building counter-institutions that are in the hands of ordinary folks, rather than in the hands of a socially or economically privileged bureaucracy. Any conception that takes market relationships *fully seriously,* is going to have to include social activism as an essential component of a flourishing free society. Not something that we’re bringing market relationships in instead of, because we don’t want to get our hands dirty with that stuff. It’s stuff that can, and should, and almost certainly will be happening in a free market society. And if you don’t see it happening, the solution is to be the change — to be the one that makes it happen.

Discussion from DFW ALL here. Full interview here. Speaking on Liberty interview series here.

Also.

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  1. Anonymous

    Lots of inaccurate stuff here.

    Markets aren’t “just us acting rationally”. Markets are us placed in a certain context.

    Competition:

    “Free competition, as Mr Wakefield correctly sniffs out in his commentary on Smith, has never yet been developed by the economists, no matter how much they prattle about it, and [no matter] how much it is the basis of the entirety of bourgeois production, production resting on capital. It has been understood only negatively: i.e. as negation of monopolies, the guild system, legal regulations etc. As negation of feudal production. But it also has to be something for itself, after all, since a mere 0 is an empty negation, abstraction, from a barrier which immediately arises again e.g. in the form of monopoly, natural monopolies etc. Conceptually, competition is nothing other than the inner nature of capital, its essential character, appearing in and realized as the reciprocal interaction of many capitals with one another, the inner tendency as external necessity.”

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch08.htm

    • Rad Geek

      Well I’m not sure why you put quote-marks around “just us acting rationally;” since that’s not a phrase that appears anywhere in what I said. What I said is this: I mean market forces just are us; they’re people acting rationally in the world. The are in that sentence is an are of subsumption, like in Cats are mammals, not an are of equality, like in mosquito-hawks are dragonflies. I never claimed that any old way people act rationally in the world is a market, or a market force; what I did say is that anything which is a market force, is people acting rationally in the world. I agree that for people’s interrelated actions to amount to a market force, those people have to be acting within a certain personal framework and a certain social context. My point is that that context — the market one — is one in which people can, and do, and damn well ought to, engage in forms of deliberate social activism that aims at goals other than maximizing monetary returns on a formal business.

      If you disagree with that claim — the claim I actually made — then you can give me an argument against it. Maybe your concern has something to do with the importance of economic competition to market contexts, combined with a claim about what the nature of competition is? But then if so, you’ll have to say what your argument actually is, not just quote me a series of assertions from the Grundrisse. It may not surprise you to find that I disagree with much of Marx’s view in the Grundrisse. Maybe I’m wrong to do so, but, again, I’d need some kind of argument to convince me. I happen to agree that competition is an essential feature of market orders, but I deny that market orders are the same thing as bourgeois production. I also don’t think that market competition is limited to the reciprocal interaction of many capitals: competition occurs in all factors of production, and the current channeling of competitive dynamics into competition mainly or only among holders of capital is not the product of any kind of inner tendency of capital goods or of competition, but rather the product of an extensive and ongoing effort to constrain economic activity by an interventionist state and the corporate capitalism that it is in a symbiotic relationship with. When workers are left free to do so, their tendency is as often as not to organize and compete against capital-intensive or financing-dependent modes of production, and to develop low-overhead alternatives.

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