We sat down with Charles Johnson to pick his brain on left market anarchism at Exploring Anarchism, a conference organized by Students For Liberty and Students for a Stateless Society in Norman Oklahoma in 2015.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November 2014 is the third anniversary of the publication of Markets Not Capitalism. Many happy returns; and countless thanks to my friend and co-editor Gary Chartier, and to our publishers, Stevphen Shukaitis and Minor Compositions and the Autonomedia Collective, for helping to recover and renew a vital conversation within the Anarchist tradition, as well as doing so much to help start so many fascinating new ones.
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).
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.
If you enjoyed Pigs as a Paradigm, here is some more from the same place, which may be something by way of a moral. This is in Aristide’s article Globalization: A View from Below, which is a frustrating mix of sharp and important insights and politically-blinkered non sequiturs. The article includes the story about the international-aid driven massacre of Haitian creole pigs, and also includes this, which I think is another of its best passages.
In today’s global marketplace trillions of dollars are traded each day via a vast network of computers. In this market no one talks, no one touches. Only numbers count.
We know other marketplaces. On a plain high in the mountains of Haiti, one day a week thousands of people still gather. This is the marketplace of my childhood in the mountains above Port Salut. The sights and the smells and the noise and the color overwhelm you. Everyone comes. If you don’t come you will miss everything. The donkeys tied and waiting in the woods number in the thousands. Goods are displayed in every direction: onions, leeks, corn, beans, yams, cabbage, cassava, and avocados, mangoes and every tropical fruit, chickens, pigs, goats, and batteries and tennis shoes, too. People trade goods and news. This is the center; social, political, and economic life roll together. A woman teases and coaxes her client: Cherie, the onions are sweet and waiting just for you. The client laughs and teases back until they make a deal. They share trade, and laughter, gossip, politics, and medical and child-rearing tips. A market exchange, and a human exchange.
We are not against trade, we are not against free trade, but our fear is that the global market intends to annihilate our markets. We will be pushed to the cities, to eat food grown on factory farms in distant countries, food whose price depends on the daily numbers game of the first market. This is more efficient, the economists say. Your market, your way of life, is not efficient, they say. But we ask, What is left when you reduce trade to numbers, when you erase all that is human?
–Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Globalization: A View from Below In Bigelow and Peterson (eds.), Rethinking Globalization: Teaching Justice in an Unjust World (Rethinking Schools, Ltd.: 2002). 10.
Now I’d actually want to say a word or three in favor of mind-boggling scale, computer networks, and global markets. But I think what is most valuable in them — when they are valuable — is precisely their ability to interconnect and network bottom-up confederations of a lot of local, people-centered marketplaces, and to facilitate and loop in the kind of messy, informal, individually-driven, un-professional trade that Aristide celebrates. The highly centralizing, politically captured global market that aims to annihilate this, aims to annihilate it because it is a corporate-owned market herded, and driven by, some very powerful interests exercising tremendous amounts of interventionist political force in order to reshape their environments, to dominate their markets, and to protect their corporate empires, their preferred business models, and their commerce without a human face. Self-organizing markets are at their best when they are the Other Marketplaces. And a radical defense of trade and private property is essential precisely because it is only by sticking to our guns, and defending market forms down to the bottom, and especially in the hands of and for the use of the poorest and most marginalized, that we can move beyond half-measures, business balance sheets and number-crunching neoliberal economic reform; get out of the strip mall and into the bazaar; and get down into the people-powered Other Marketplaces that bring together the best of human sociality and mutual exchange.