Posts tagged Free market

Markets Not Capitalism lets threedom ring

Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty
Edited by Gary Chartier & Charles W. Johnson
Published by Minor Compositions
428pp. Release date: November 5, 2011.

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.

To all of our contributors, living and late;

To Stephanie Murphy for her amazing work in preparing the free Markets Not Capitalism audio book, and to Nick Ford for his tireless workenergetic leisure in bringing the audiobook to Youtube;

To Alan Furth for his amazing, ongoing work in preparing a Spanish translation;

To Jason Lee Byas and to all the participants in the SFL Past & Future of the Libertarian Left VRG who have been hosting a fascinating study and dialogue around several of the essays this fall;

To James Tuttle and C4SS, who have indefatigably and very kindly promoted the book and helped to get it into many new hands;

To the Gnu’s Room (Auburn/Opelika), Brave New Books (Austin), MonkeyWrench Books (Austin), Firestorm Books (Asheville), and the folks at AltExpo and Libertopia, who generously provided a forum for book readings and open discussions;

And to all of the contributors, readers, reviewers, interlocutors, friends, and everyone else who’s made this such a fascinating exchange.

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Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty Edited by Gary Chartier & Charles …

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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.

Friday Lazy Linking

Bits & Pieces on Free Market Anti-Capitalism: Is this all just a semantic debate?

I’d like to close my remarks with some considerations about why we need to even have this discussion. When a libertarian like Gary or Sheldon comes out for free markets, but against capitalism, he’s often met with the charge that he’s just playing with words, or trying to change the vocabulary of our [sic] message in a misguided ploy to appeal to people who do not share our [sic] economic views.[1] There is not much to say to that, except to point out that the use of capitalism really is more complicated than that. There are several meanings attached to the word, which have coexisted historically. Those meanings are often conflated and confused with each other, and capitalism1, the peculiar technical use of the term by pro-capitalist libertarians to refer strictly to free markets — free markets in the very broadest sense, markets as spaces of unbounded social experimentation) is only one of these among many, neither the original use nor the use that’s most commonly used today. Free market anti-capitalists aren’t trying to change anything; we’re using the word capitalism in a perfectly traditional and reasonable sense, straight out of ordinary language, when we use it to describe the political privileges we’re against (capitalism2) and the nasty structural consequences of those privileges (capitalism3).

But the worry at this point may be whether it’s even worth it to fight over that particular patch of ground. To be sure, equivocal uses and conflation of terms is a bad thing — it’s important to distinguish the different meanings of capitalism, to be clear on what we mean, and to get clear what our interlocutors mean, when we use the term. But once you’ve done the distinguishing, is it worth spending any great effort on arguing about the label capitalism, rather than just breaking out the subscripts where necessary and moving on? If the argument about capitalism has helped draw out some of the economic and historical points that I’ve been concentrating on in these remarks, then that may be of some genuine use to libertarian dialogue. But once those points are drawn out, aren’t they the important thing, not the terminological dispute? And aren’t they something that nominally pro-capitalist libertarians would also immediately object to, if asked? All libertarians, even nominally pro-capitalist libertarians, oppose corporate welfare, government monopolies, regulatory cartels, and markets rigged in favor of big business. So why worry so much about the terminology?[2]

I certainly sympathize with the impulse — I’m an Analytic philosopher by training, and subscripting is one of the favorite tools of my trade; if I have to choose between debates about the word capitalism and debates over the state-corporatist interventions I’ve been discussing, I think the latter is always going to be a lot more important. Further, when we are trying to understand what other people have said about markets or capitalism, it’s important to remember that considerations of charity absolutely call for this kind of approach — when a libertarian writer praises capitalism meaning freed markets, or when a libertarian writer condemns capitalism, meaning capitalism2 or capitalism3, the best thing to do is just take them on their own terms and interpret their argument accordingly.

But there’s a lot to argue about here that’s not just about labels, and it’s not always clear that that’s something that we all readily agree on. What about when it’s not clear that the writer has really consistently held onto the distinction between free markets and actually-existing capitalism?[3] What about when we’re not just talking about single positions on isolated policy proposals, but talking about the bigger picture of how it all works — not just the individual pieces but the gestalt picture that they form when fitted together? When, that is, it really starts to matter not only how a writer would answer a list of questions if asked, but also which questions she thinks to ask in the first place — which features of the situation immediately come to mind for analysis and criticism, and which features are kept as background or afterthoughts?

To put a finer point on it, let’s consider not only how we should understand others’ word choices (which calls for interpretive charity, in part, because it’s not up to us), but also how we ourselves should choose words to describe our own position (which certainly is). Rhetoric is a complicated art, and intimately related to the context of the particular conversation you’re having. I haven’t had space in my remarks to survey all the considerations, or even most of the important ones, about the rhetorical question of which meaning of capitalism to favor, or whether simply to abandon the term. But before I leave off, I do want to touch briefly on one consideration — the question of paradigm cases, of what sorts of examples we take as typical, or characteristic, or especially illustrative of what free markets are and how they work.[4] When we’re looking at the broader picture, at how political and economic structures play off of each other, we’re talking about a structure that has a foreground and a background — more important and less important features. And one of the important questions is not just what may be encompassed by the verbal definitions given for our terminology, but also what sorts of paradigm cases for markets and voluntary society the terminology might suggest, and whether the paradigm cases that it suggests really are good paradigm cases — whether they reveal something important about free societies, or whether they conceal or obscure it. I would argue that identifying a free market position with capitalism — even if you are absolutely clear that you mean capitalism1, that this encompasses all kinds of market exchange and all kinds of voluntary social experimentation outside the cash nexus — offers a particular picture of what’s important about and characteristic of a free society, and that this picture tends to obscure a lot more than it reveals.

This is where the question of labels and terms move beyond mere semantics, and has some real cognitive import. The question is how we picture freed-market activity — whether our model is something that looks a lot like business as usual, with a few changes here and there around the edges, or whether our model is something radically different, or radically beyond anything that currently prevails in this rigidified, monopolized market. Do we conceive of and explain markets on the model of a commercial strip mall: sanitized, centralized, regimented, officious, and dominated by a few powerful proprietors and their short list of favored partners, to whom everyone else relates as either an employee or a consumer? Or do we instead look at the revolutionary potential of truly free markets to make things messy — how markets, without the pervasive control of state licensure requirements, regulation, inspections, paperwork, taxes, fees, and the rest, so often look more like traditional image of a bazaar: decentralized, diverse, informal, flexible, pervaded by haggling, and kept together by the spontaneous order of countless small-time independent operators, who quickly and easily shift between the roles of customer, merchant, contract laborer, and more?[5] When we choose a term that is historically so closely attached to workplace hierarchy and big business, and a term which linguistically connected with the business of professional capitalists (that is, people in the business of renting out accumulated capital), this naturally influences the kind of examples that come to mind, fetishizing the business of professionalized capitalists at the expense of more informal and simply non-commercial forms of ownership, experimentation and exchange. It tends to rig the understanding of markets towards an exclusive focus on the cash nexus; and it tends to rig the understanding of the cash nexus towards an exclusive focus on the most comfortably capitalistic — hierarchical, centralized, formalized and businesslike — sorts of enterprises, as if these were so many features of the natural landscape in a market, rather than the visible results of concerted government force.

Freeing the freed market from the banner of capitalism, on the other hand, and identifying markets with the opposition to mercantile privilege, the expropriation of labor, and the resulting concentrations of wealth in the hands of a select class, brings a whole new set of considerations and examples into the foreground. These new paradigm cases for free markets are deply important if they encourage a wider and richer conception of what’s in a market, a conception which doesn’t just theoretically include mutualistic alternatives and social experimentation outside the cash nexus (as some sort of bare possibility or marginal phenomenon), but actually encourages us to see how these forms of free association and exchange might take on a prominent, even explosive role in an economy freed from the rigged markets and many monopolies of state-supported corporate capitalism. The free market anti-capitalist holds that it’s precisely because of those rigged markets that we have the strip mall rather than the bazaar, and precisely because we have the strip mall rather than the bazaar that so many working-class folks find themselves on the skids, confined to ghettoes, caught in precarious situations, and dependent on a highly rigidified capitalists’ market.

Since this cruel predicament is so central to how most people experience the market in everyday life, it’s vital that advocates of free markets take a position that clearly reveals, and marks out as important, different, positive, disruptive possibilities for the kind of free society that we advocate. If we choose terminology that highlights this reality rather than obscuring it, which makes it clear that the problem is not the fact of market exchange but rather the deformation of market exchange by political privilege to actually existing capitalists, at the expense of dispossessed workers, and which suggests paradigms that revolutionary transformations that freed markets without those privileges, we’ll have chosen well.

That’s the end of my remarks; I’ve already said more in these than I was actually able to say in person at APEE (since I stuck to the major points I covered in the talk, but included footnotes and asides that were in the text but had to be clipped from the talk itself). But there is a lot more to say on all these topics, and on several others that I had been thinking and writing about in the lead-up to the talk, but which didn’t get aired in the presentation. I hope to build on what I have said here,and come around to a number of these points, and to and on some of the questions and conversations that these Bits & Pieces have helped draw out. Until then…

  1. [1] Jackson Reeves, quoted by Walter Block in Capitalism Yesterday, Capitalism Today, Capitalism Tomorrow, Capitalism Forever.
  2. [2] I’d be more happy with this suggestion if it actually seemed to be going both ways — that is, if the people calling for us to move away from mere semantics actually were willing to split the difference and let each side have their terminology, as long as they are clear about it. What actually tends to happen, though, is that nominally pro-capitalist libertarians often use complaints about semantics to insist that readers understand what they mean by capitalism (capitalism1), but then turn around and start bickering as soon as some nominally anti-capitalist writer uses capitalism as a term of criticism, rather than actively trying to figure out whether they might be criticizing capitalism2 or capitalism3, or showing any willingness themselves to subscript and move on when it’s a question of appreciating what nominal anti-capitalists might be saying with the terminology that they are accustomed to use. Without that willingness, the complaints about semantic arguments look more opportunistic than principled, and that suggests that there may be something more at stake here than the complainants would like to let on.
  3. [3] For examples, see the critical discussion in Roderick Long (2008-11-10) Corporations Versus the Market, Kevin Carson, Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part 1 et seq., GT 2005-03-23: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! etc.
  4. [4] In grammar, a paradigm (from the Greek, to show beside) is an illustration of a grammatical rule by using an example — e.g. when a student learning Spanish is taught how to conjugate -ar verbs by giving her the a series of parallel examples (hablar: hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos, habláis, hablan; tomar: tomo, tomas, toma, tomamos, tomáis, toman, etc.); the purpose of the examples is to illustrate the principle so that the student can apply it by analogy with other stems.
  5. [5] The images of the strip mall and the bazaar are taken from my concluding paragraph in Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It. Those images were inspired by and modified from Eric Raymond’s use of The Cathedral and the Bazaar to explain and defend hacker culture and open-source software.

Bits & Pieces on Free Market Anti-Capitalism: What about them poor ol’ bosses? What about gains from trade and economies of scale?

These are remarks that I gave as part of my presentation at the Free Market Anti-Capitalism? panel at the Association of Private Enterprise Education on 13 April 2010. The final instalments will be coming out over the next few days.

  1. By way of introduction or apology
  2. With apologies to Shulamith Firestone
  3. Two meanings of markets
  4. Rigged markets, captive markets, and capitalistic business as usual
  5. The Many Monopolies
  6. What about them poor ol’ bosses? What about gains from trade and economies of scale?
  7. Is this all just a semantic debate?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in these remarks discussing the general outlines of the thesis that the cash-nexus is artificially expanded, and forcibly deformed, into the patterns of actually-existing capitalism, by means of government privilege to big players; and discussing the many monopolies (once the Big Four; now the Big Nine, at least) that provide some of the most pervasive and intense points of force that dispossess working people, favor big, centralized forms of business, and coercively favor capitalistic, formalized, commercialized uses of resources over non-commercialized alternatives.[1] One of the objections which may have occurred to you by now is that government intervention in the economy goes in more than one direction. It may be true that the monopolies Tucker and I have named tend to benefit entrenched players and conventionally capitalistic arrangements. But what about government regulations that benefit poor people (such as government welfare schemes) small players (such as, say, Small Business Administration loans), or which are supposed to regulate and control large-scale, concentrated forms of enterprise (such as antitrust legislation)?

I would respond, first, that this kind of response seems to suggest an unusual faith in the efficacy of government regulation and welfare state programs to achieve their stated ends. In fact, as I’ve already suggested, much of the “progressive” regulatory structure, supposedly aimed at curbing big business, has largely served to cartelize big business, and to create large fixed costs which tend to drive out potential competitors from the rigged markets in which they have entrenched themselves. Historical work by Gabriel Kolko (in The Triumph of Conservatism) and Butler Shaffer (In Restraint of Trade) has, I think, convincingly shown that these regulatory measures mainly served to rigidify the positions of existing market incumbents and to bail out failing cartelists so as to prevent freedom from disrupting a well-regulated market. And there are good a priori reasons – from the public choice analysis of the incentives faced by politically-appointed regulators — to believe that such regulatory efforts will always be highly prone to capture by the concentrated interests of market incumbents, to be wielded against the dispersed interests of consumers, workers, and would-be start-up competitors.

Second, it is important to keep in mind questions of priority and scale. While I object to SBA loans, antitrust legislation, social welfare programs, and other government interventions as much as any other free marketeer, I think that in this age of trillion-dollar bank bailouts it ought to be clear that, even if government is putting its finger on both sides of the scale, one finger is pushing down a lot harder than the other.

You may also be concerned that I have had so little to say, so far, about some of the conventional explanations that free market economists have offered for the efficiency and scalability of capitalistic arrangements – arguments based, for example, on the division of labor, or on economies of scale, or the gains from trade. But I am not denying the value of either the division of labor, or gains from trade; I am suggesting that labor and trade might be organized along different lines than they are currently organized, in alternative forms of specialization and trade such as co-ops, worker-managed firms, or independent contracting, with comparatively less centralization of decision-making, less hierarchy, less management, and, in many cases, more trade and entrepreneurial independence among the workers involved. Centralized, capitalistic forms of organization are only one sort of cash nexus among many others. And the cash nexus itself is only one way of facilitating a division of labor and a mutually-beneficial exchange can take place; returning to the broader sense of markets as a space of social experimentation, there are all kinds of other social experiments, not necessarily based on quid pro quo exchanges or on cash media, that provide places for people to meet, work and swap.

It is also common for pro-capitalist libertarians to point to economies of scale as an economic reason for believing that large, centralized corporations, industrial agribusiness, et cetera would survive even without the government subsidies and monopolies they currently enjoy. But while I’d hardly deny the importance of economies of scale, I think it is important to remember that economies of scale represent a trade-off between gains and losses. There are diseconomies of scale, just as there are economies of scale – as scale increases, so do the costs of communication and management within the larger workforce, the costs of maintaining heavier equipment, the difficulty of accounting and efficiently allocating resources as more transactions are internalized within the firm, and the difficulty of regearing such a large mechanism to respond to new challenges from new competitors and changing market conditions.[2] The question is not whether or not there are economies of scale; there are, and there is also a point at which the economies of scale are outweighed by the diseconomies. The question is where that point is; and whether, in a free market, the equilibrium point would tend to shift towards smaller scales, or towards larger scales. When government monopolies and rigged markets artificially encourage large, consolidated, bureaucratic forms of organization — organizations which can better afford the high fixed costs imposed by regulatory requirements, can better lobby for subsidies, can better capture regulatory bodies and use them to advance their own interests, etc. — that shifts the balance by forcing up the rewards of scale. When the same measures punish small competitors in favor of market incumbents, and especially when it punishes informal, small-scale community or personal uses of scarce resources, in favor of formalized commercial uses, government forcibly pushes the diseconomies of scale down, by suppressing competitors who might eat the eggs of the political-economic dinosaurs. In both cases, the most pervasive and far-reaching forms of government economic intervention tend to deform economic life towards formalization, commercialization, consolidation, hyperthyroidal scale and the complex hierarchy that’s needed to manage it. Not because these things are naturally demanded by economies of scale, but rather because they grow out of control when the costs of scale are socialized and the competitive pressures and alternatives burned out by government monopoly.

  1. [1] For more on the last point, see Three notes for the critics of the critics of apologists for Wal-Mart.
  2. [2] For a detailed discussion of the diseconomies of scale, see Kevin Carson (2007), Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth.