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Sprachkritik: “Privatization”

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2007, on the World Wide Web.

Left libertarians, like all libertarians, believe that all State control of industry and all State ownership of natural resources should be abolished. In that sense, libertarian Leftists advocate complete and absolute privatization of, well, everything. Governments, or quasi-governmental public monopolies, have no business building or running roads, bridges, railroads, airports, parks, housing, libraries, post offices, television stations, electric lines, power plants, water works, oil rigs, gas pipelines, or anything else of the sort. (Those of us who are anarchists add that governments have no business building or running fire departments, police stations, courts, armies, or anything else of the sort, because governments — which are necessarily coercive and necessarily elitist — have no business existing or doing anything at all.)

It’s hard enough to sell this idea to our fellow Leftists, just on the merits. State Leftists have a long-standing and healthy skepticism towards the more utopian claims that are sometimes made about how businesses might act on the free market; meanwhile, they have a long-standing and very unhealthy naïveté towards the utopian claims that are often made on behalf of government bureaucracies under an electoral form of government. But setting the substantive issues aside, there’s another major roadblock for us to confront, just from the use of language.

There is something called privatization which has been a hot topic in Leftist circles for the past 15-20 years. It has been a big deal in Eastern Europe, in third world countries under the influence of the IMF, and in some cases in the United States, too. Naomi Klein has a new book on the topic, which has attracted some notice. Klein’s book focuses on the role that natural and artificial crises play in establishing the conditions for what she calls privatization. But privatization, as understood by the IMF, the neoliberal governments, and the robber baron corporations, is a very different beast from privatization as understood by free market radicals. What consistent libertarians advocate is the devolution of all wealth to the people who created it, and the reconstruction of all industry on the principle of free association and voluntary mutual exchange. But the IMF and Naomi Klein both seem to agree on the idea that privatization includes reforms like the following:

  • Tax-funded government contracts to corporations like Blackwater or DynCorp for private mercenaries to fight government wars. This has become increasingly popular as a way for the U.S. to wage small and large wars over the past 15 years; I think it was largely pioneered through the U.S. government’s efforts to suppress international free trade in unauthorized drugs, and is currently heavily used by the U.S. in Colombia, the Balkans, and Iraq.

  • Tax-funded government contracts to corporations like Wackenhut for government-funded but privately managed prisons, police forces, firefighters, etc. This has also become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the past 15 years; in the case of prisons, at least, it was largely inspired by the increasing number of people imprisoned by the U.S. government for using unauthorized drugs or selling them to willing customers.

  • Government auctions or sweetheart contracts in which nationalized monopoly firms — oil companies, water works, power companies, and the like — are sold off to corporations, with the profits going into the State treasury, and usually with some form of legally-enforced monopoly left intact after privatization. One of the most notorious cases is the cannibalistic bonanza that Boris Yeltsin and a select class of politically-connected Oligarchs helped themselves to after the implosion of Soviet Communism. Throughout the third world, similar auction or contract schemes are suggested or demanded as a condition for the national government to receive a line of tax-funded credit from the member states of the International Monetary Fund.

  • Yet Another Damn Account schemes for converting government pension systems from a welfare model to a forced savings model, in which workers are forced to put part of their paycheck into a special, government-created retirement account, where it can be invested according to government-crafted formulas in one of a limited number of government-approved investment vehicles offered by a tightly regulated cartel of government-approved uncompetitive investment brokers. This kind of government retirement plan is supposedly the centerpiece of privatization in Pinochet’s Chile, and has repeatedly been advocated by George W. Bush and other Republican politicians in the United States.

Klein and other state Leftists very claim that these government privatization schemes are closely associated with Right-wing authoritarian repression, up to and including secret police, death squads, and beating, torturing, or disappearing innocent people for exercising their rights of free speech or free association in labor unions or dissident groups.

And they are right. Those police state tactics aren’t compatible with any kind of free market, but then, neither are any of the government auctions, government contracting, government loans, and government regulatory schemes that Klein and her comrades present as examples of privatization. They are examples of government-backed corporate kleptocracy. The problem is that the oligarchs, the robber barons, and their hirelings dishonestly present these schemes — one and all of them involving massive government intervention and government plunder from ordinary working people — as if they were free market reforms. And Klein and her comrades usually believe them; the worst sorts of robber baron state capitalism are routinely presented as if they were arguments against the free market, even though pervasive government monopoly, government regulation, government confiscation, government contracting, and government finance have nothing even remotely to do with free markets.

I’d like to suggest that this confusion needs to be exposed, and combated. In order to combat it, we may very well need to mint some new language. As far as I know, privatization was coined by analogy with nationalization; if nationalization was the seizure of industry or resources by government, then privatization was the reversal of that process, devolving the industry or the resources into private hands. It is clear that the kind of government outsourcing and kleptocratic monopolies that Klein et al condemn don’t match up very well with the term. On the other hand, the term has been abused and perverted so long that it may not be very useful to us anymore, either.

So here’s my proposal for linguistic reform. What we advocate is the devolution of state-confiscated wealth and state-confiscated industries back to civil society. In some cases, that might mean transferring an industry or a resource to private proprietorship (if, for example, you can find the person or the people from whom a nationalized factory was originally seized, the just thing to do would be to turn the factory back over to them). But in most cases, it could just as easily mean any number of other ways to devolve property back to the people:

  1. Some resources should be ceded to the joint ownership of those who habitually use them. For example, who should own your neighborhood streets? Answer: you and your neighbors should own the streets that you live on. For the government to seize your tax money and your land and use it to build neighborhood roads, and then to sell them out from under you to some unrelated third party who doesn’t live on them, doesn’t habitually use them, etc., would be theft.

  2. Government industries and lands where an original private owner cannot be found could, and probably should, be devolved to the co-operative ownership of the people who work in them or on them. The factories to the workers; the soil to those who till it.

  3. Some universally-used utilities (water works, regional power companies, perhaps highways) which were created by tax money might be ceded to the joint ownership of all the citizens of the area they serve. (This is somewhat similar to the Czechoslovakian model of privatization, in which government industries were converted into joint-stock companies, and every citizen was given so many shares.)

  4. Some resources (many parks, perhaps) might be ceded to the unorganized public — that is, they would become public property in Roderick’s sense, rather than in the sense of government control.

Now, given the diversity of cases, and all of the different ways in which government might justly devolve property from State control to civil society, privatization is really too limiting a term. So instead let’s call what we want the socialization of the means of production.

As for the IMF / Blackwater model of privatization, again, the word doesn’t fit the situation very well, and we need something new in order to help mark the distinction. Whereas what we want could rightly be called socialization, I think that the government outsourcing, government-backed monopoly capitalism, and government goon squads, might more accurately be described as privateering.

I’m just sayin’.

Update 2007-11-08: Minor revisions for typo fixes, clarity, and to add a link I forgot to add.

Further reading:

30 replies to Sprachkritik: “Privatization” Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Sheldon Richman

    Rad, you are definitely on to something. We can’t reinvent the language, but discussion of it will clarify our thinking. Years ago the libertarian James Dale Davidson, in his book The Squeeze, I believe, called for the “socialization of rules,” by which he meant the bottom-up generation of customary law through voluntary social interaction. I’ve long thought that the great debate in politics ought to be between the Socialists and the Statists. The terminology is obvious and natural. “Individualism” doesn’t really capture what we want to say about politics either. Are libertarians against collectivism? It would seem so. But what about the Misesian point that society (the mass of consumers) collectively actually determines who controls the means of production? Legally, ownership is private. But economically, it’s governed collectively by the market.

  2. Bunty

    Don’t see why we can’t re-invent the language, I mean if lolcats can haz doned it, surely we can haz :D

    As the chap (Orwell– Politics and the English Language) said:

    Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

    Clarification and differentiation from other more vulgar definitions of terms would go a long way towards making left-libertarian ideas more palatable towards people on the left in general. Accuracy of meaning is everything.

    As indeed would be making clear that left-libertarian ideals are different. I suspect a lot of would-be allies are put off by the belief that one of the central tenets of Libertarianism (as popularly understood) is (before all else) doing away with things like public healthcare, and all those aspects of government that are actually re-distributive and of benefit to the poorer segments of society (as perceived ), that it essentially wants a more uncaring dog-eat-dog, I’m all right Jack, society. Helped along in this belief by the fact that most right-libertarians are very gung-ho to do just that, and tend to have quite a fair degree of contempt for any public displays of (profitless) compassion or fellow feeling for the less well off.

    For me, I believe that (por exemplia gratis) a healthcare system that is free at the point of delivery is a great thing, and hugely enhances the positive freedom of the individual (and improves the lot of society as a whole). Furthermore I don’t think that libertarian (left variant) precludes that at all. In fact currently, I would say that the healthcare system serves four (at least) masters, to whit (to whoo!):

    • The owners/capitalists/profiteers.
    • The politicians who use it as a tool for party/personal political gain.
    • Those for whom it is their livelihood (doctors, nurses, researchers, etc).
    • The patients.

    The ‘left’ wish to remove the first from the equation, the vulgar libertarians the second. I think it would be a far finer thing to remove both.

    It brings to mind a quote actually that is rather analogous, and serves perhaps to illustrate the difference between L and R libertarianism.

    “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” — Richard Dawkins.

    Both wish to remove state based compulsion from society. The left just goes one master further, wishing also to free man from the (largely artificially engendered, c.f. Fromme et al) profit compulsion.

    Removing or at the very least ameliorating/rationalising these, would free up just so very much human potential and imagination. Which could (and I believe would) be put towards achieving traditional left goals. To take just one example, imagine if all the human effort and resources that go into the diet industry, were instead turned towards something like eliminating the scourge of malaria worldwide…

    It wouldn’t be a utopia by any means, but it would be a bloody-sight-better-topia than the one we have now.

    (apologies if the formatting on this is odd, never used it before–also, the barrage of parentheses :D )

  3. John Hays

    Charles – Great post. You have an uncanny knack for synthesizing information and re-explaining it in a way that makes it compelling even for those not already convinced of the virtues of left-libertarianism. I tend to avoid the phrase ‘devolution,’ even though entirely appropriate, simply because of its association with ‘evolution’ and the connection people tend to draw between it and ‘Social Darwinism.’ I’ve found that accusations of Social Darwinism tend to be rife in conversations with non-libertarians. I prefer to use the language of “reclamation” of confiscated property/wealth. For some reason I find State socialists and left anarchists respond better to it. Anyway, same idea. Great post.

  4. Discussed at www.paxx.tv

    paxx:blog » Blog Archive » Sozialisation statt Privatisierung?:

    […] Geek entwickelt diesen Gedanken jetzt weiter und unterzieht die zugrunde liegende Begriffe einer Sprachkritik. Seine interessante Schlussfolgerung: As for the IMF / Blackwater model of “privatization,” […]

  5. John

    Corporations like Blackwater and Wackenhut are actually like government employees in a way. Instead of a government hiring individuals (soldiers, prison guards, etc.) to do the work, it hires a group of individuals (the company).

  6. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2007-11-16 – Urban homesteading:

    […] first project, the Umoja Village shanty-town (1, 2), was as good an example as you could like of socializing the land through direct action. And now, Max Rameau writes that their new project is to Take Back the […]

  7. labyrus

    The idea that “private” oHow does the positive model of privatization you’ve suggested here apply to the Americas, where most publically owned land was stolen or coerced from original owners through a system of genocide?

  8. Rad Geek


    Well, I don’t think that the case of the Americas is special in this regard. Most public (i.e. government controlled) land everywhere in the world was seized through systematic violence, either in the form of conquest and occupation, or ethnic cleansing, or class cleansing. Often all three at once. See, e.g., the history of landlordism in Ireland or England or France.

    The general answer that I’d give is that it depends on the state of use. If the land is currently owned and occupied by someone who could count as a peaceful homesteader (i.e., somebody who wasn’t directly complicit in the seizure, who actually transformatively uses the land rather than merely controlling it through a state-fabricated title, etc.), then the land properly belongs to the current homesteader and can’t justly be yanked out from under her.

    If, on the other hand, there is no current occupant, or the current occupant can’t make a genuine claim based on homesteading (e.g. the state or various complicit state profiteers), and either the person who was dispossessed of the land, or that person’s heirs, can be reliably identified, then that person or those people have a just claim to the land which ought to be recognized.

    If no specific victim or victim’s heirs can be identified, then the land is properly available for homesteading by whoever is willing to put in the labor of staking the claim and working the land. If the beneficiaries of this reclamation turn out to be victims of a different land theft, so much the better.

    Unfortunately it’s likely that in any such system, due to the large number of basically innocent homesteaders and the generations that have passed since the initial crimes, there will be massive historical damages for which it’s not possible to get a direct return of the stolen land, and may not be possible to get any kind of reparations at all. But that’s hardly going to be a justification for perpetual State control, or for robbing innocent third parties (through either taxation or confiscation) in order to pay off the State’s accumulated debts.

  9. labyrus

    That’s a very good point about the history of landlordism in Europe.

    I’m not entirely clear on what you mean by “homesteading”. Would you mind elaborating?

    I’ve found that libertarians tend to use the term a bit differently than the rest of us, but to me it seems like it at least implies a sort of privileging of settlement and agricultural production as a use of land, something which I don’t think really makes sense everywhere.

  10. Rad Geek

    I’m using homesteading broadly, to mean any process of acquiring a rightful claim to land or goods, which were previously unowned, abandoned, or lost, through possession and labor. (Compare Rothbard’s gloss on the homestead principle early in Confiscation and the Homestead Principle).

    One of the paradigm cases of homesteading is clearing and cultivating a parcel of wild land, but that’s not the only case. Possession needn’t involve continuous settlement, and labor can take a lot of forms besides tilling the soil. For example, I’d argue that any plausible version of the homestead principle would have to recognize substantial rights for nomads and hunter-gatherers when they make habitual or transformative use of land and natural resources. If an individual person or a community fishes a river from time out of mind, or uses a particular seasonal hunting ground habitually, then some johnny-come-lately settler can’t just come along and dam up the river or fence off the fields without violating their rightful standing claims.

    Depending on the details of the situation, there are a couple of different possible cases. (1) It might be the case that the standing users should have an exclusive claim to the land or resources–i.e., latecomers shouldn’t be able to take any part of it for their own use without prior permission). Or (2) it might be that their claims should just protect their current use, without excluding other users–i.e., latecomers could set up to use parts of the land without prior permission, but only as long as they do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the longstanding prior use. Which of these two is the right answer depends on further details about how continuous the use was, how well-defined the range of the habitual use was, how far the use of the land was transformative and not merely opportunistic, etc.

    In actual American history, at least, both hunting and fishing tribes often substantially transformed their natural environments over the course of many seasons in order to improve the catch, so that would tend towards a more exclusive claim. On the other hand, to the extent that nomadic tribes’ use of substantial parts of the Great Plains, for example, tended to be fairly wide-ranging, not very precisely bounded, and interrupted for long periods of time every year, that would tend towards something more like case (2), in which latecomers would have a legitimate claim to use of the land, but only to the extent that they are able to share it without interfering with the established traditional use. Certainly nothing like the outrageous history of sabre-point “settlement” by whites in the American West.

    Hope that clarifies.

  11. labyrus

    That does clarify quite a bit. I had no idea that Rothbard had ever written something that seems to so expressly endorses an Anarchist-Communist Economic system. This “homestead” principal seems to be in a lot of ways compatible with traditional Syndicalism (which holds that wealth belongs to the class that creates it, although not neccessarily to the individuals since the creation of wealth is a collective effort).

    In a lot of ways I think that I’m finally seeing that the real difference between Left-Libertarianism and Anarchist Communism is more in the way the two movements look at class than in the type of society the advocate for.

    Personally I really like the idea that “ownership” really means a claim to use something in a certain context rather than an absolute right over land or things protected by State power. I think that a lot of the environmental damage done by modern capitalism has been facilitated by the fact that we live in society where property rights are viewed as unlimited. Without State power protecting someone’s right to “use” their land in any way shape or form, would anyone allow nuclear testing to happen on a parcel of land adjacent to them?

    This is also, interestingly, pretty similar to Baldelli’s construction of the idea of usrufruct as an alternative to property. In his idea of a social anarchist society, you can have things that are yours to use, but you cannot have exclusive property rights over something like land because the whole of society (and future generations) depend on land to be managed well. I find it really interesting when I can see parallels in left-libertarian thinking to Social anarchist ideas.

· December 2007 ·

  1. Discussed at www.lifeloveandliberty.com

    Life, Love, and Liberty » Blog Archive » Digest 38:

    […] Sprachkritik: “Privatization” by Charles Johnson […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2007-12-08 – Privateering illustrated:

    […] bureaucratic, monopolistic State apparatus. In short, a perfect illustration not of free markets or the socialization of the means of production, but of the crudest and most ruinous forms of tax-funded […]

— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-03-11 – Colonialist logic:

    […] the way in which what it reveals lives on to this day, in the theory and practice behind countless privateering government development projects, both at home, and abroad. This is from Sonia E. Howe’s 1938 […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-07-15 – I feel safer already… (#2):

    […] that I know the bright bulbs within the federal government air travel Securitate are mulling over a privateering firm’s proposal to force all airline passengers to wear a remotely controlled electric human […]

— 2009 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-01-14 – Repudiation now:

    […] and providing government funding for massive forced-modernization boondoggles and corporate privateering — with the costs, as always, taken out of the hides of Ecuadorian workers and farmers. As […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-04-04 – The State of the Debate:

    […] say, a genuine notion of personal freedom, or a principled opposition to government planning and privateering corporate development scams — you will quickly find that such arguments find no purchase, and […]

  3. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-04-07 – Against privateering:

    […] From an excellent recent feature on Strike the Root on a distinction I’ve discussed here before — what he calls a distinction between privatizing and marketizing, and what I called the distinction between privateering and the socialization of the means of production: […]

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-05-09 – Priorities:

    […] lot of different things. I understand the reaction, if they are thinking of the kind of legislative privateering where the University simply being sold off to the best-connected corporate bidder. What I think is […]

— 2012 —

  1. Discussed at www.cato-unbound.org

    From State to Society | Sheldon Richman | Cato Unbound:

    […] problem is that we don’t have a suitable word for what liberals want. Charles W. Johnson suggests that “[w]hat we advocate is the devolution of state-confiscated wealth and […]

  2. Discussed at bleedingheartlibertarians.com

    The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] @@e2;20ac;2dc;capitalism’ and @@e2;20ac;2dc;socialism,’ â€˜free trade agreements,’ @@e2;20ac;2dc;intellectual property,’ @@e2;20ac;2dc;privatization’ and @@e2;20ac;2dc;private ownership’ of the means of production. We have been known to do funny things […]

  3. Discussed at bleedingheartlibertarians.com

    The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] @@e2;20ac;2dc;capitalism’ and @@e2;20ac;2dc;socialism,’ @@e2;20ac;2dc;free trade agreements,’ @@e2;20ac;2dc;intellectual property,’ @@e2;20ac;2dc;privatization’ and @@e2;20ac;2dc;private ownership’ of the means of production. We have been known to do funny things with […]

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2013-08-17 – Pigs as a Paradigm:

    […] GT 2007-11-08: Sprachkritik: Privatization […]

— 2014 —

  1. Discussed at abolishwork.com

    The Use of the Word Capitalism (Or, My Follow up Notes to “Introduction” Part 2) | Abolish Work:

    […] Johnson says in Sprachkritik: “Privatization” that it isn’t as simple as some libertarians would like to think because in […]

  2. Discussed at abolishwork.com

    Hardly Working – What Sort of Life to Live? | Abolish Work:

    […] or exist in some perfect equilibrium, but the means of production would certainly be more socialized than it is now – as well as much more accessible by your average individual. This in turn […]

— 2015 —

  1. Discussed at bleedingheartlibertarians.com

    Libertarian Theory for the Real World | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] as both Charles Johnson and Sheldon Richman have noted, there are serious problems with this superficial analysis. First, […]

  2. Discussed at freedomsfloodgates.com

    Two Words on Privatization on Feed 44 | Freedom's Floodgates:

    […] Feed 44 presents “Two Words on Privatization” from the book Markets Not Capitalism, written by Charles Johnson, read by Stephanie Murphy and […]

  3. Discussed at freedomsfloodgates.com

    From Society to State: How and How Not to Socialize - Freedom's Floodgates:

    […] Johnson on his Sprachkritik: “Privatization” laid it out rather thoughtfully on the topic of socialization when he […]

— 2016 —

  1. Discussed at www.theanarchisttownship.freedom-blogs.com

    14 Questions and Answers on Left-Libertarianism – The Anarchist Township:

    […] of privatization we also tend to dislike the monocentrism via communizing. We’d prefer to socialize/mutualize (see also here and here) functions in society so that individuals, cooperatives, collectives, […]

— 2022 —

  1. Discussed at www.anarchistfederation.net

    Anarchist news from 300+ collectives ? AnarchistFederation.net:

    […] way, with its definition being “to change from public to private control or ownership,” but, as Charles Johnson contends, “‘privatization,’ as understood by the IMF, the neoliberal governments, and the robber baron […]

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