"Not being able to govern events, I govern myself." ~ Michel de Montaigne
Markets Not Capitalism (Book Review #2)
Column by Alex R. Knight III
Exclusive to STR
In November of 2011, a book was published that immediately captured my attention, not only because its central theme was market anarchist economics, but in that its very title challenged the label “capitalism” – long the sacred cow of free-marketeers, self-styled and otherwise.
I must admit that I too had partially fallen prey to the notion of capitalism as referring exclusively to laissez-faire free market activity. In fact, prior to reading Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty, I had never heard the term “freed markets” – meaning an economy in which many often conflicting models of exchange in goods and services coexist, and in which laissez-faire free markets, as such, are only a part of a potential plethora of voluntary systems.
Enter this anthology, compiled and edited by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson, of 48 separate essays whose authors range from the 19th Century individualist anarchists (Benjamin R. Tucker, Dyer D. Lum, Voltairine de Cleyre), to today’s advocates of libertarian anarchy -- among whom are, including the editors themselves, Roderick T. Long, Kevin A. Carson, and Brad Spangler – many of whom are active with the Center for a Stateless Society. Divided into eight different parts or chapters, the reading selections cover a range of commonplace concerns that many statists, in particular those who identify most strongly with the Left, seem to raise frequently in connection with capitalistic economic constructs.
From “Corporate Power and Labor Solidarity” (Part Four), to “Inequality and Social Safety Nets” (Part Six), to essays culminating in Part Eight, “Freed-Market Regulation: Social Activism and Spontaneous Order” – that address subjects such as racism, the environment, and community organizing from a voluntaryist perspective – the volume’s theme is to demonstrate how traditional government-based thinking and applied “solutions” in relation to such economic and societal maladies merely exacerbates existing conditions while creating a dystopia of new problems. In a nutshell, it challenges the left to rethink paradigms about government regulation. Even Alexander Cockburn, editor and publisher of the leftie news site Counterpunch, is quoted on the back cover as saying, “We on the left need a good shake to get us thinking, and these arguments for market anarchism do the job in lively and thoughtful fashion.” And indeed, “left-wing market anarchism” and even “stigmergic socialism” (as per Brad Spangler’s essay at page 85) seem to be some of the more recent descriptive monickers applied to what has been otherwise more customarily thought of as “anarcho-capitalism.”
Perhaps the definitive essay of the compilation in toto is Charles W. Johnson’s “Markets Freed from Capitalism,” in which he delineates three separate models of capitalism, at pages 64-65, divergent from laissez-faire. The first he points to are simply government monopolies or cartels, such as police, roads, or courts, in which private or alternative competition is shut out or actively suppressed. Second, Johnson points to “regressive redistribution,” in which government seizes or confiscates the assets of ordinary people, to be then turned over to bigger and more economically powerful interests. One especially egregious landmark example of this was the 2005 Kelo v. New London U.S. Supreme Court case stemming from Connecticut, where eminent domain provisions were used to hand private homes over to developers involved in non-public construction projects. Thirdly, Johnson defines “captive markets,” whereupon government coercively creates a demand or increase in demand for goods and/or services via mandates backed by penalties or other punitive measures. A prime example of this would be the coming Obamacare mandatory health insurance laws, due to kick into high gear in 2014.
Obviously, these perversions of freed market principles do not square with the purely voluntary exchange and transaction arrangements envisioned by libertarians. Yet, they are all too demonstrative of commonplace occurrences in American and other modern societies generally thought of or referred to as “capitalist.”
Moving into much deeper territory where even libertarian orthodoxy itself can find itself challenged are pieces such as Roderick T. Long’s “A Plea for Public Property” (1998), in which he envisions market mechanisms that embrace non-private interests. One idea Long advances is the idea of rotating ownership, similar to a time-share arrangement in which there is no central owner. At any event, he pens a provocative paragraph at page 162, wherein he states: “Far from providing a sphere of independence, a society in which all property is private thus renders the propertyless completely dependent on those who own property. This strikes me as a dangerous situation, given the human propensity to abuse power when power is available.” Long’s point is that an all-private property system can be just as oppressive as the “public” (government) status-quo. Hence his ultimate assertion on page 168: “But a system that allows networks of private spaces and public spaces to compete against each other offers the greatest scope for individual freedom.”
In “Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It” (2007), Charles Johnson returns to explain in some detail how America’s poorest and most disadvantaged are prevented by myriads of government licensing schemes, health and fire regulations, and bans on occupation of abandoned properties, from lifting themselves by their own bootstraps out of inner-city slums. In fact, he points out quite succinctly at page 384, that: “The poorer you are, the more you need access to informal and flexible alternatives, and the more you need opportunities to apply some creative hustling. When the state shuts that out, it shuts poor people into ghettoized poverty.”
Overall, Markets Not Capitalism is a landmark text in the development of market anarchist theory, in that it is the first unabashed and cohesive attempt to woo the left away from government statism and state socialist economic models. And while I can certainly recommend you procure a hard copy book version, delightfully, thanks to the efforts of Stephanie Murphy of Porc Therapy, a free downloadable and very well orchestrated audio version, in full is available here. As if that weren’t enough, a serialized YouTube version is also available here (to view further videos, click on the YouTube username ALLtowardliberty).
Perhaps most relevant to the spirit of this book overall, in that it seeks to bridge philosophical gaps that may have up to this juncture seemed unbreachable, is the closing paragraph (at page 240) of Roy A. Childs, Jr.’s essay, “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” which first appeared in two parts in the February and March 1971 issues of Reason magazine: “Libertarians themselves should take heart. Our hope lies, as strange as it may seem, not with any remnants from an illusory ‘golden age’ of individualism, which never existed, but with tomorrow. Our day has not come and gone. It has never existed at all. It is our task to see that it will exist in the future. The choice and the battle are ours.”