Posts tagged Jackson Reeves

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.