The Organic Emergence of Property from Reputation
For centuries radicals have debated alternative property systems, and I’m glad we’re having these conversations. But what has been consistently disappointing about them is how little they generally seek to explore the underlying roots of “property” itself. To be sure, all sides provide ethical arguments for why their system is superior that make moves in this direction, but the debate happens largely as though each of these systems were politicians or platforms. Rather than illuminate why we are having our disagreements and whether they can be bypassed, the various positions slide into mere competition by presenting their own positive qualities and the downsides of their competitors.
The approach I encourage as an alternative is one where we don’t exclusively compare prefigurative endpoints — final universal systems — but instead focus on the means by which such social norms are generated from the bottom up. As anarchists it’s silly pageantry to write policy papers settling on a single and precise blueprint — as if we might debate it on some floor and raise enough voters to our side to enact it. Instead our goal should be to provide a better account of the dynamics and possibilities inherently at play so that individuals might have more tools and knowledge at their disposal to build solutions for themselves.
The question is not so much what property system might finally be settled on, but how it should emerge.
Before starting I want to underline something Kevin Carson touched on briefly, but warrants underlining for more communistic readers. There’s a history of semantic baggage around the term “property” and many communists prefer to re-label things like personal toothbrushes “possessions” instead. But “possession” is always a matter of degree and 1800s era distinctions between for example things and things that help make other things (commodities versus capital) seem very silly and arbitrary, a highly contextual framework that is rapidly dissolving with modern technological developments. I’m happy to speak this niche language of “possession” in certain settings, but on the whole I find it a misleading distraction and I will follow Kevin’s lead — as well as the rest of the English speaking world’s — in defining “property” at its most basic as any title granting primacy in determining the use of a physical object.
It should be blindingly obvious that such titles can be occasionally useful. But just to cover all the bases and to provide a firm foundation I will briefly present the case to satiate our more extremely communistic readers. The possible scope of communistic systems that attempt to put literally everything under the purview of “the community” should not be underestimated, but even the most radical communist proposals usually admit some degree of property title as we’ve defined it here.
Rare indeed is the extreme communist position that literally all things should be owned globally, with no capacity for local communities to exercise exclusive control over some of their own resources. Suffice to say if one community has a veto over the uses of something and another community does not then there is some kind of property system at play. Unless someone in New York gets a vote on the uses of a toothpick in East Timor and vice versa there’s a property system going on, whatever the limits and however informal, to recognize specialization and relevance. The actors may be “communities” but there is nevertheless some kind of system denoting and determining the boundaries and titles of what those communities claim.
As a second example, individual autonomy generally means being granted veto over the function and arrangement of one’s own body. The problem is that there’s no philosophically clean line between bodies and tools. Hair, glasses, wheelchairs, crutches, etc. Even our houses and vehicles can be seen as extensions of us, in terms of identity, causal closeness, as well as basic bodily function and survival. We’re all already transhuman and as we grow ever more so this blurring or queering of the categories of “body” and “tool” will become all the more inescapable. We send signals from our brains out to our fingers and expect them to move, and our fingers send signals out into our laptop and we expect its structures too to move the way we want them to. Many geeks today have taken to referring to our phones and computers as “exocortexes” to reflect how deeply we integrate with them and see them as extensions of our selves, our will, body and mind. Similarly the disabled often see implants or prosthetics as integral parts of themselves, as extensions of their bodies. It would be ethically repugnant to put the continued function of an artificial heart under the purview of a community rather than exclusively the control of the individual in which it resides. But it’s also clear that there are no clean lines to be drawn; some things serve a more tool-like role and others more body-like role, often smoothly transitioning in degrees between one another.
Further we often grant people exclusive purview to fiddle with a thing as a response to realities of subjective experience and knowledge. Our thoughts, desires, and contexts are rich complex things — in many regards ultimately unknowable with any precision to those outside our skulls, much less those a continent away. When working on a project like a sculpture or new device it’s often far more efficient to just let an individual work on their own, without having to justify every step or choice in a committee. We say, “It’s your block of marble or circuit board” and allow them to tinker with it exclusively.
All of this justification for the most simple and basic versions of “property” possible may seem superfluous but my point here is that they’re practical concerns grounded in realities as simple and fundamental as information and processing.
The assignment of titles to physical items is an inescapable concern — but for practical reasons. Concerns that are deeply dependent in many respects on context.
The very idea of “land” as being fundamentally distinct from say fungible commodities would make no sense in the context of outer space when we’re building ad hoc or personal biomes from melted asteroids and the volume of the void is unlimited. On the other end of things, systems that critically assume the possibility of homesteading make no sense in a highly populated information-age world where every cubic inch is constantly cataloged and monitored.
Popular conceptions of what “laying fallow” might signify could change rapidly alongside broader accelerations in cultural, technological, and economic dynamics. One moment leaving my backyard empty for a year might seem perfectly reasonable, the next moment the public might consider it an intolerable and horrific waste. I’m what? Using it to grow some grass? I haven’t done anything with the matter in it or the precious limited surface area it represents in nearly 30 million seconds! That’s unfathomable waste! Please someone, anyone dump some nanogoo on it and do something with it!
There’s a lot of talk that “communities will settle on norms” but nevermind how that settling is supposed to happen. How are these standards supposed to smoothly evolve and update to reflect new conditions or contexts? Precisely how does that work? And god forbid we critically interrogate the very idea of discrete “communities” as though an anarchist society would just settle into villages that constitute a single community rather than an incredibly complicated mesh of social relations and networks with no clear boundaries.
There’s been a tendency in this debate, particularly in market anarchist discourse, to just chuck everything at “the community” or “polycentric legal systems” and hope that move resolves the issue.
This is in some ways on the right track, but it’s not enough because appealing to formalized collective decision-making or arbitration apparatuses in many respects just pushes the buck back. How do the codes of behavior that these systems judge arise? How can these social codes be dynamically or organically changed or updated as context changes? What if it changes dramatically?
Many in this discussion have appealed at least partially to “labor mixing” as the foundation of legitimate property title. But this justification is deeply problematic.
What does it mean to mix labor? “Improvement” is at core subjective. “Labor” itself is at core subjective. If I walk into a large wild field and rearrange a few twigs or — alternatively — do copious gardening repositioning wild plants to shift the layout slightly, either in ways that I think “better channels the spiritual energy” of the field, it may look like exactly the same sort of wild field to virtually everyone else. But it might be the case that in this new configuration its utility to me has increased dramatically. I might derive immense satisfaction from the new arrangement. In the case where I only moved a few sticks (rather than breaking my back doing gardening that no one else will perceive much change from), I might nevertheless claim that I exerted immense psychological or mental effort figuring out which sticks and how to move them.
In a market one may try to just go off of “market value” but it’s not proven that there would be any singular metric of such in a truly freed market — the currency situation might be incredibly complex, fractal and overlapping, in no way mirroring the current cash nexus. “The market” might possibly be a complex organic ecosystem, not immediately globally clearing and with no clear equilibrium point for an arbitration court to go off of. Indeed arbiters or community bodies or whatever may not overlap with currencies at all. But again even if we could settle on a single notion of value improvement or even labor expended, it’s not clear how much should be requisite for unowned materials to get titles assigned to them. Titles in a legal system are relatively binary things. Either you have title to something or you don’t.
Indeed it’s worth significantly challenging the philosophical assumptions underlying the assignment of ownership according to work expended on something or degree market value improved. Having poked at something in the past is certainly not the same thing as it currently existing as an extension of one’s body or as a focus of one’s attention and interest. You might care a lot about something that you’re working on and then not really at all afterward. You may never structurally change something, you may never improve the market value of something, and nevertheless critically depend upon it. There’s plenty that can be said about ecology here, never mind the fetishization of “work” itself. Why should we start from a perspective of how much energy is exerted rather than how much desire is satiated?
At the end of the day the focus on labor-mixing seems to bundle in a defense of property (and markets) grounded ultimately in a rather modern ethos of “I am due recompense for working” rather than the more foundational ethical concern for “what arrangement best improves the lot of everyone.” The most persuasive justifications for property (and markets) is that they improve the lives of all — that they’re the most pragmatic ways to navigate concerns of bodily autonomy, subjective desires, and scarcity of resources. This is, after all, why no sane or ethical person would defend “intellectual property” — since there’s no practical need for ideas to be made scarce, no coordination problems to full communism in information. Focusing on labor-mixing as the primary certifier of ownership implicitly appeals to a tit-for-tat sense of “justice” or demand to personal recompense for work done, rather than a cosmopolitan and universalist drive to better all. This is a significant philosophical distinction over what we’re even trying to speak of with “ethics” and thus ethical justifications for various property systems. And yet it has been passed over silently in this back and forth.
But on a more practical level, the classic reductio of labor-mixing can be immediately seen with a group heading out to a deserted island or planet and the moment they get there one of them uses robots to till all the land. Does that person now justly reign as supreme king forever? Markets can exist with such unequal distributions that they just entirely replicate the existence of the state. Even Rothbard conceded that if you “privatized” title to the possessions of a communist state that owns everything into the hands of a single person or just a few literally nothing would have meaningfully changed.
In ragging so heavily on labor-mixing I’m implicitly to some degree asking that we reground our analyses to start with “bodily extension” as a more important or fundamental paradigm than the more nebulous labor-mixing — but I don’t want to pretend that there are ultimately any clean resolutions there either. If a robber baron networks thousands of factories’ cybernetic systems directly into his nervous system that hardly trumps all other concerns on the legitimacy of property titles. Indeed no ethical argument for property of yet satisfactorily resolves the question of where our bodies end without making an arbitrary move, indeed it’s unclear that there should even be such a clean binary. All definitions of bodies much less what constitutes the “facts” of who possesses what are socially constructed as well as individually subjective. They all require input parameters derived from culture and from contexts that can change fluidly. It would be a shame to enshrine rules or systems incapable of keeping up with those contextual changes.
The language I’ve used to present reductios and counterexamples deliberately baits dismissal by sneers of “science fiction” — but all our revolutionary aspirations are inherently science fiction and just as unlikely to be realized in the near future. As self-professed radicals our concern is the roots of things, the fundamentals, and this requires pressing our conceptual frameworks into extreme contexts to see what breaks down outside the effective region our approximations are good within.
Of course property itself need not extend to all possible contexts. We can surely dream of worlds where no version of ‘property’ would be particularly useful. But these effective boundaries to the concept are highly illustrative. Property loses all relevance in world without scarcity. But it also loses relevance in the absence of clearly definable individuals.
It is the current individualization of humanity into discrete and localized neural networks with drastically limited connections between them that is most fundamentally necessary for the concept of property titles exist. There are individual minds or agents acting in a physical world — literally nothing else need be said about the extent of our bodies, how we act in the world, or the nature of our interests and projects.
And here lies a blinding theoretical clarity: Our evaluation of other individuals and their evaluations of us are prior in a deep way to everything else. Such evaluations — our relationships, impressions, trust, and intentions with regard to one another — cannot be alienated from us or overruled. At least not without breaking the very Cartesian individualization and subjective experience our skulls presently impose that makes property useful. Reputation is firmly prior to any other contextual consideration. This much should be obvious and it may seem a trivial point, but it continually astonishes me how quickly our discourses leap past this primordial reality. As if the ethical frameworks we speak in terms of have no more aspiration than the most provisional or situational.
Every social norm, every standard, ultimately originates in the detentes between individuals. Society itself is a fabric of social relationships. We reach settlements, optimal meta-agreements through a rich network of relations, not a single deliberative body — there is no and has never been any “The Community”. Things quickly get complicated and thorny once you add in physical and historical context. But property titles are, at root, just an agreement to respect each other. What scariest about this to many is that property is not a single collective contract, or even a contract with the kind of hardness and permanency possible when grounded in systemic coercion. It is instead an organically emergent mesh of agreements, constantly being mediated and pressured.
Even the Marxist housemates agree not to use each others’ toothbrushes because this is an obviously optimal arrangement, an optimal détente. But there is no single magical ledger in the sky keeping track of everything. Property, in its most basic and inarguable forms, emerges bottom-up. And just as a market can settle into a perfectly cleared equilibrium — it often won’t.
People can and will disagree over property titles, not because they are mistaken in pursuit of some platonically existing ideal, but because they simply disagree.
If we arrive on a deserted island and I manage to get my robotic drones to till the entire island first you would surely not respect my claim to own all the accessible land. No matter how Lockean you claim to be.
And that’s great. Instead of partially obscuring the issue by assuming that we’ll always establish polycentric legal systems with massively overlapping meshes of formal mediators and conflict adjudicators, and then these will come to consensus on a single global and canonical ledger of property titles, we should be clear that the roots of any anarchist system lie in the agents involved. Disagreements have to ultimately be settled in terms of our relationships with others, our complicated intentionality, goodwill, and trust.
Our relationships with one another, what can be termed, if you feel like it, “the reputation market,” will sometimes be perturbed by differences and require the transmission of signals to return to a tolerable détente or equilibrium for all parties. Theft can be a valid signal. If everyone starts walking off with my goods because they’ve ceased to be sufficiently reputationally incentivised in the broader community or society to respect my monopoly, well that might be a good thing.
If — whether through distortions brought about by systemic violence as in our present world or just some kind of evolutionary misstep from a free and egalitarian state — a “market” has somehow grown so dysfunctional as to see starvation while bread is stocked in plenty then I will happily shout alongside the famous market anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, “Take bread!” And I’ll personally help you bust a window or two to do it.
It’s long been pointed out that, in the absence of a statist police system that effectively subsidizes the wealthy, it’s easier to steal from one safe containing a billion dollars than from a billion safes containing one dollar. The reassuring idea has been that while the rich might get around this by hiring tons of security guards to protect their giant silos of gold, at that point they’re hemorrhaging funds to pay for security. But such examples take an implicitly cavalier attitude towards violence, one that many social anarchists are rightfully frightened of. If we broadly accept the existence of people taking money to wield violence in defense of some claim… that introduces many severe dangers to say the least. The better approaches have been to treat violence, even “defensive”, as something to accept very very hesitantly. Instead the emphasis is that contracts and the like should only be enforced via diffuse reputation. Working to build social organisms and instincts in a direction where freedom-of-association can function as sufficient censor or sanction. The next logical step along this path is to go from treating written contracts this way to property titles themselves.
Wealth is in many respects subjective. What might most deliriously satisfy one person (having a guitar and a pond to write poems beside) can be very different from what would best satisfy another (having a radio telescope array). But the market provides a good means to balance between these preferences; the SETI geek might to demonstrate through revealed preference on many levels that a radio telescope array really is critical to her core desires. This can happen through market pricing of the resources she uses, but also through the effective “pricing” being transmitted through her relationships with others. And if her project’s concentration of resources would leave others destitute or barred from achieving their own core desires they may simply fail to respect her claim/title to it.
There are of course good game-theoretic reasons to gravitate towards categorical-imperative equilibria where disrespecting someones’ claim is no casual affair, and I would certainly encourage more thought into dynamic and responsive strategies and what schelling points we might find in dealing with this. But nevertheless we should reflect more on the subjectivity of theft itself and remember that society is ultimately made up of individuals with relations, not organizations and rules, and blinding ourselves to those root realities impedes our agency, just like any other self-deception.
Yes, it must be admitted frankly and openly that naive or simple reputation dynamics alone are dangerous. Social capitalism can be at least as vicious as any other system. One of the primary critiques left market anarchists have increasingly leveled against communistic anarchists is that their prescriptions risk chaining us in the sociopathic quagmire so often seen in social anarchist scenes whereby power structures are just shifted entirely to the realm of popularity contests and team sports. Where almost every action is reduced to social positioning and triangulation.
The abstractions of property and markets provide some defense against this nightmare — the freedom to engage in relatively impersonal interactions can be incredibly important and necessary, as David Graeber has argued in The Utopia of Rules. He used this to justify bureaucratic systems like consensus meetings. But here questions of centralization crop up. Systems that appeal harder to organizationalism and collective decisionmaking than autonomous action inherently create effective concentrations of social power, capable of being seized and leveraged.
Decentralization, when paired with sufficient technological freedom/complexity that conflict becomes asymmetric to the benefit of minorities, provides additional security and resilience against power structures. And a general tendency within a mature and enlightened reputation market to move towards property titles would provide security against the horrors of raw social capitalism. One hopes a balance point can be reached organically, like a price, between the dangers of naive and immediate reputation games and the dangers of an overly rigid property system. Reputation is the soil in which we must cultivate a rich and highly-evolved ecology of social relations.
But in some sense it doesn’t matter whether or not you’d like property titles to ultimately be emergent from reputation. They empirically are. There’s a reason credit preceded currency — as Graeber had to remind a number of economists — trust and goodwill are simply the foundation of the world we move in. We can try to blind ourselves to this or we can take the more anarchistic route of informed agency, refusing to fetishize or enslave ourselves to structures and conventions.
And here’s where the divide between the hardest of Lockean Rothbardians and the more communistic georgists or mutualists starts to buckle:
If trying to problematize our injunctions against or even defend outright theft is a terrifying step to some, the flipside to viewing property titles as emergent from reputation is that it provides us with greater security against the possible downsides of numerous market mechanisms. And thus it gives us greater security and latitude in adopting them.
Land ownership, capital ownership, rent, interest, all of these can serve useful functions in transmitting important market information, in facilitating our broader collaboration by supplying additional information and nuance to the market. While all of these dynamics can grow cancerous, it would be insane to try and suppress pricing for risk, for example. The efficient allocation of resources to satiate everyone requires means to integrate predictions of future developments.
The market and the assignment of property titles within it is a garden we grow. A tool. Just like consensus process or breaking out into working groups. Like any means of organization we should not fetishize it. It is an extraordinarily useful and necessary tool, but just like any procedure we might adopt it is not a god. And its precise happenstance structure is surely not foundational to our ethics.
We must retain our critical faculties and agency, our capacity to both immediately and smoothly respond the moment our tool stops working. If some post-revolution market does in fact develop cancers of severe capital or wealth accumulation that runaway faster than the myriad diseconomies of scale and centrifugal forces within freed markets can suppress… then we can always just stop respecting some of the property titles of those in danger of becoming new rulers.
Similarly there are plenty of contexts in which the problems markets and property titles are supremely useful at resolving are not the most pressing ones. Three shipwrecked people aren’t going to divide up their island, write elaborate contracts, and start a fish subprime derivatives stand. Not unless they’re sociopaths. In simple subsistence conditions with small communities it makes far more sense to never even think about titles, but discuss the uses of everything collectively. You can put a reasonable bound on the community discussions necessary to coordinate the growing of potatoes.
Context matters, and what as anarchists we should be doing is encouraging people to think for themselves, to understand and appreciate the dynamics at play. That property and markets can be and are useful, but for underlying reasons dependent upon a host of things.
Sadly when we talk about property norms being determined by the community this very quickly tends to assume a single coherent community rather than a very complicated mesh of individuals, and our talk of “norms” likewise seems to assume the form of edicts, rather than a more dynamic and shifting reality like prices. Set rules versus constantly and organically mediated agreements.
The foundation of property shouldn’t hinge on what rocks you’ve poked some point in the past or even what you’ve chosen to extend your cybernetic nervous system into, but what best satiates your desires or aspirations in balance with everyone else’s. This is after all what markets at their best promise: The notion that everyone’s subjective preferences will be satiated more efficiently than would be possible attempting to talk them out in a global consensus meeting.
If markets have a hard time resolving something then they shouldn’t complain if the answer turns out to be to extend the dynamics of markets deeper, to make the very foundations of the economic sphere more organic. And oh, whoops, now no one condemns me for driving off with one of Bill Gates’s cars.
There are two sets of ultimate justifications for property and markets. One is rooted in an entitled tit-for-tat demand for 1-on-1 “fairness.” The other is grounded in a wider ethical lens, seeking only the betterment of all. It should be no surprise if the market structures ultimately promoted by either differ. We’ve already seen that this is the case with “intellectual property.” Libertarians and even state socialists have split hard internally on this issue, some demanding “but I put energy into this, I am due recompense, that’s what fairness is” while others aghast that anyone would even think of seeking to exclude or control what others can have when scarcity is no longer relevant. This poorly papered over chasm between selfish and selfless core perspectives deserves widening. I know what side I’m on.
A Short Parable
I’m standing over a howling chasm while three anarchists clutch to the edge. The computational problem of collective decisionmaking whips and batters our loose clothes. “Come on! Take my hand!” I scream above the wind. “You don’t know the power of markets! We can use them for good! Join me and together we will destroy the ancaps and finally bring a potent anarchism to the world.”
“Meetings aren’t that bad. You’re just antisocial. What would be so wrong with having to talk things out forever?” says one comrade and lets go.
“Look maybe we like being inefficient. Maybe being effective at doing stuff is what’s caused all the problems we have,” says another comrade and lets go.
“It may be the case that forms of centralized organizing that don’t force results upon people don’t get much done, but see this is why we vote on shit and let the Leninists make all the big decisions,” says the last one, “it’s important not to fall to partisanship. Humility about our foundational ideals is the best way to maintain a mass coalition capable of eventually doing an undefined thing utterly at odds with said ideals. Honestly I feel more at home among state communists than with most anarchists.” And I kick him into the chasm.
Demagoguery Not Anarchism
You know what I love most about the milieu? The level of our discourse.
Magpie Killjoy’s lobbed a short trollish broadside at Markets Not Capitalism calling it “racist” and “disgusting.” Of course he’s couched his hodgepodge assembly of emotionally-charged misreads with a few notes about how he has no fundamental objection to market anarchism per se and that many of the views inside Markets Not Capitalism are legitimately anarchist, but nuance doesn’t bring the pageviews and rallying the troops against teh ancap scourge–tendrils to be found in your very collective!–does.
There’s not much to work with here but I’ll throw down for the heck of it, if only because there’s a thread of reasonableness to his objections, however inaccurately they fit his target. (more…)
Trust Feedback Loops In Situations of Forced Consumption
The spontaneous emergence of oligarchies from egalitarian markets is a reoccuring fear to communists of all stripes and while the historical prompts of this fear can be easily shown to be horribly misinterpreted, the concern itself is not entirely without merit. Every so often a mathematical model comes along that bears some metaphorical resemblance to actual markets under certain conditions/assumptions and demonstrates a disturbing emergence of oligarchal tendencies. Markets, like ecosystems, are richly dynamic systems and the dangers exposed by toy models can speak to real ones, but they also tend to ignore emergent meta-complexities to the market that are in reality fundamental mechanisms of course-correction. Markets work precisely because they’re not simple and can evolve around problems by taking into account more context, moving into a higher-dimensional phase-space and generating new feedback loops to suppress lower level ones.
Today’s big hit is a cute little paper by a couple econophysicists in Bremen. They built a toy model where a whole bunch of limited agents each have two types of interactions: they decide a ‘trustworthiness’ value for themselves [0-1] as well as who all to contract with, and strategize to maximize the number of folks contracting with them times those folks’ trustworthiness and minimize their own trustworthiness in the contracts they initialize with others (each agent is forced to initiate said contracts/interactions with a set number of people per round). This asymmetry between initiated interactions and responsive interactions is intended to mirror a distinction between selling and buying and I’ll stick to that metaphor from here on out although it’s not unproblematic. Who to buy from in this model is decided by a straight comparison of prices while sellers set prices (quality/trustworthiness) by comparing the immediately preceding prices and resulting payoffs of their competitors. Long story short there were three major environmental variables, the set number of people the buyers were forced to buy from, a randomness factor localized to a single agent each iteration and the relative speed at which buyers updated their strategies versus sellers. The resulting system behavior revealed that this market had only two stable points: extreme competition (selling with next to no profit above marginal costs) or extreme cartelization (sellers get ridiculous profit).
No freaking duh. Said runaway cartelization is a direct result of the defining obligations imposed upon buyers. The number of sellers one’s obliged to sell to [K] is explicitly recognized as a big one, if the whole market is raising prices like crazy and one person deviates a little to undercut their competitors they don’t get appropriately flooded with payoffs from buyers because those buyers are obliged to buy from K sellers (of which the undercutter is just one). But most importantly K isn’t a strategic choice that can be set to 0 (through savings, austerity, DIY, etc) for extended periods by the buyers or lowered via model-external tradeoffs. Essentially what’s being modeled is forced consumption. It should be intuitively obvious that forced consumption will have a tendency to drive up prices as if sellers were operating as a cartel, if only because whatever’s artificially forcing buyers to buy no matter what IS usually in reality a cartel. The authors repeatedly emphasize gas prices as the best example and it doesn’t take unusual knowledge of history or political economy to recognize the role the state has plated in establishing the fixed demand there.
Predictably, coverage of this paper has largely played to the popular myth that free markets inexorably lead to oligarchies, which is a little sad because the best part of the paper is the quantitative analysis of response time in determining the critical point between competition and cartelization. How fast sellers and buyers pick up on market changes and adapt their strategies relative to one another is obviously of huge importance in the fight over what emerges. And this is actually a left-libertarian point: insofar as situations arise where smaller market actors are forced to consume rigidly they can leverage their well-known calculational advantages against larger more sluggish actors (usually the ones responsible for the situation). And in the other direction, where larger firms typify the position of buyer and individuals typify sellers (as with labor), such “cartelization” effects would be positive. Whether through solidarity unionism or more diffuse mechanisms like RateMyBoss.com, we want to drive them out of business after all.
Of course while this provides further impetus for the development of information technologies empowering consumers, there are obvious difficulties in practice for unrestrained market mechanisms alone when our existing “market” is already so far gone to cartelization (precarity, etc), but that’s what molotovs and pikes are for.
Markets Not Capitalism
The notion that capitalism exemplifies a free market is akin to the notion that a few wilting geraniums in a greenhouse constitute an ecosystem. Markets are useful tools for an egalitarian society — properly defined they are of unparalleled potential — but explaining this utility has become as difficult as explaining the utility of ecology to residents of a hermetic space station who only remember the upsets caused by runaway fungus in their food vats. We cannot expect our abstract proofs to spark the imagination of radicals until the cancers and catastrophes of our near-terminal society are properly contextualized. And boy are there are a lot of them.
Markets Not Capitalism is a powerful and long-overdue compilation of Market Anarchist thought. And although editors Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier seem to have made the farcical mistake of including a couple of my pieces they have done an amazing job on the whole.
Quoth Charles in his excellent introduction:
Market anarchists believe in market exchange, not in economic privilege. They believe in free markets, not in capitalism. What makes them anarchists is their belief in a fully free and consensual society — a society in which order is achieved not through legal force or political government, but through free agreements and voluntary cooperation on a basis of equality. What makes them market anarchists is their recognition of free market exchange as a vital medium for peacefully anarchic social order. But the markets they envision are not like the privilege-riddled “markets” we see around us today. Markets laboring under government and capitalism are pervaded by persistent poverty, ecological destruction, radical inequalities of wealth, and concentrated power in the hands of corporations, bosses, and landlords. The consensus view is that exploitation — whether of human beings or of nature — is simply the natural result of markets left unleashed. The consensus view holds that private property, competitive pressure, and the profit motive must — whether for good or for ill — inevitably lead to capitalistic wage-labor, to the concentration of wealth and social power in the hands of a select class, or to business practices based on growth at all costs and the devil take the hindmost.
Market anarchists dissent. They argue that economic privilege is a real and pervasive social problem, but that the problem is not a problem of private property, competition, or profits per se. It is not a problem of the market form but of markets deformed — deformed by the long shadow of historical injustices and the ongoing, continuous exercise of legal privilege on behalf of capital. The market anarchist tradition is radically pro-market and anti-capitalist — reflecting its consistent concern with the deeply political character of corporate power, the dependence of economic elites on the tolerance or active support of the state, the permeable barriers between political and economic elites, and the cultural embeddedness of hierarchies established and maintained by state-perpetrated and state-sanctioned violence.
Markets Not Capitalism will be available in print on the 5th of November from Autonomedia, AK Press and the Distro of the Libertarian Left. It’s also available online to read at Scribd or download directly because that’s how real anarchists roll.
From Whence Do Property Titles Arise?
Many market theorists take property titles as axiomatic and then develop coercive apparatuses to enforce them — justifying such coercion by appealing to notions like implicit consent and/or the justness of contracts that sell off part of one’s agency in the future. This rightfully bugs the crap out of many anarcho-communists. Left market theorists in turn tend to write off these apprehensions as a contention over differing ideal systems of property — ie differences over what constitutes abandonment and the general viability of collective property.
But this, as I’ve argued time and time again, is a profoundly limited understanding of the criticisms being lobbed against them.
First off, not every system of mediating between different people’s desires or uses for objects is describable in terms of property titles. Property titles are claims by discrete agents to absolute veto power over the use of an object; they’re a construct used for negotiating between the justness of uses by individuals with competing intentions for an object. Property titles solve the problem by determining whether A or B then gets to personally make the decision between direction 1 or 2 for a given object.
But this clearly isn’t the only way to approach such situations.
When anarcho-communists talk of societies without the concept of property they often mean a social system where decisions over how to use any specific object or resource are never limited to a discrete body of select individuals but are rather discussions open to anyone and everyone with a stake, desire or idea to contribute. There the critical economic entities are directions rather than veto-titles, concepts rather than individuals. The mediation processes possible can be incredibly complex and dynamic. So on a protozoic level you might have simple discussion or unchallenged focus (I specialize in the use of a single toothbrush and consequently, given that toothbrushes’ historical context, not many people are going to have a more useful proposal for its use). While aggregate systems of more advanced mechanisms are visible in the open source development. In short where the most scarce resource is personal time and the weight of one’s voice is the nearest thing to currency. At the same time there are often scarcities in space (functionally identical to material) for widely varying projects and in response entire ecosystems of discussion open up. It’s worth noting that under many systems of property-titles if the legal experts cannot reach consensus on who is the legitimate owner of an object nothing is done with the object in the meantime. Those involved in contending differing uses for an object in a property-less society are directly capable of far more diverse means of negotiation, but so to, if they can’t reach consensus, then nothing is done with the object. Because literally everyone in the world has the capacity to veto.
To some this might appear — while a philosophically coherent counter-proposal to property, and even briefly workable on a small level — completely batshit insane. And maybe so. But in practice such external-to-property approaches are often workable enough. The lone immature interjecting troublemaker, or any other conceivable exploit of consensus, simply doesn’t exist after a few social iterations. Because everyone is dependent upon everyone else, no matter how distant a community they come from and thus its in their interest to maintain, develop and convey goodwill.
Obviously however, just because such differing economic approaches might make better software for a fraction of the energy Microsoft spends doesn’t mean that it can do things like move goods between locations to satisfy demand efficiently or signal all the costs of one consumption versus another. Without the capacity to assign value to spatial/physical relationships (as with the realm of actors and objects) one can’t concretely mediate between those relationships. And whatever the dominant dilemmas might be in primitive cultures of plenty or posthuman hives of nanobots, it shouldn’t be particularly controversial to assert that the placement of material objects is the central calculational problem in the world today. Some form of property titles seems called for, however sticky, however collectively or individually managed.
The point is that’s a debate over fitness. While it may be undesirable, it remains entirely possible to construct a society outside of property altogether.
Following the popular slogan “Everything for Everyone” the stubborn market theorist might still proclaim that such a society would still count as a system with property title expanded to everyone. While practically meaningless this wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But as a theoretical framework in such instance property titles would be missing the point. No one in that society would think in anything approaching such terms.
Which leads us to a second critique of property.
It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the very adoption of property titles in our minds leads toward a worldview of increasing compartmentalization and taxonomy. Indeed this is a popular assumption. By progressively chopping up the world around us, the notion goes, we become inclined to view the world solely as a tally sheet of ownership.
Forgive the digression to my 90s Nickelodeon childhood, but in illustration I am reminded of an episode of Angry Beavers in which the brothers suddenly discover that they each have a musk pouch capable of marking items with a colored personal stench that repels everyone but themselves. This quickly sets off a war of personal claim until the entire world is divvied up with one stench or the other, each brother more and more completely obsessed with the tally until they can think of nothing else.
This is perhaps the most classic criticism of capitalism — one of simple psychology — and yet it seems to be a critique market theorists are incapable of parsing. To many an anti-capitalist the problem with the capitalist framework is its inherent bent towards materialism, ultimately to the point of treating human beings as objects. But this is incomprehensible for Libertarians because they see respect for property titles as entirely stemming from a respect for personal agency. In practical, everyday terms respect for another person’s agency often comes down to a respect for the inviolability of their body. Do not shoot them, do not rape them, do not torture them. Because humans are tool using creatures like hermit crabs there is often no clear line between our biomass and our possessions (we use clothes instead of fur, retain dead mass excreted as hair follicles, etc.), and so a respect for another’s person seems to extend in some ways to a respect for things that they use. Begin to talk of Rights and these associations must be drawn more absolutely. And sure enough we already have a common sense proscription often enforced in absolutist terms that matches this intuition; do not steal.
Yet the anti-capitalists are clearly on to something. Even setting aside the evolutionary cognitive biases of homo sapiens, we as individuals have limited processing. We can’t think everything at the same time. If some of the thought processes necessary to succeed and flourish under in a given system run out of control and take up more and more space, others — like those behind why we adopted that system in the first place — will get pushed to the periphery.
If a certain metric is set as the alpha and omega of a society, whether it be the acquisition of a specific universal currency or simply aggregate atoms, its status as the requirement or key to any pursuit or desire can end up having an effect upon those pursuits and desires.
Anti-capitalists often disingenuously blur the distinction between wealth and coercive power — wealth and/or disequilibria in wealth do not inherently have to grant any capacity for social control — but it’s certainly true that direct pursuits of power and wealth share the same form. Singlemindedness is progressively rewarded, until the inertia of this approach crowds out of mind the reason we originally assigned value to wealth or power.
Consequently, rather than focus on accumulating property titles or money as a gateway to opportunity, anarcho-communists argue, we should focus on accumulating goodwill.
I don’t disagree.
But once you characterize this focus on goodwill in market terms, a la something similar to Doctorow’s reputation markets, the path out of all these tangles becomes apparent. It seems pretty damn clear that property titles are a tool with incredible utility in the world as it exists today and the technical challenges we face. As such it stands to reason that those within a goodwill focused anarcho-communist society stand a comparative advantage to negotiate and adopt a second-order system for developing and recognizing property titles. Regardless of precisely how their market ends up dynamically mediating this, goodwill would remain the primary good capable of being turned into, among other things, selective veto use titles to physical objects. As such we can clear the psychological hurtle: without a state coerced enforcement system underpinning property titles or centralized banks and currency, property titles are not as stable or universally applicable an investment as goodwill. And goodwill, as opposed to property titles, is directly, methodologically tied to appreciating and respecting people as agents.*
This suggests a way to tackle fringe conditions in ownership. Rothbard readily recognized, for instance, that a world in which one man held title to everything would clearly be indiscernible from tyranny. Expand the number of owners and you’d still have an oligarchy. Even granting a token amount of wealth to the rest of the populace wouldn’t necessarily jump start the market and allow it to drift back in a more dynamic and egalitarian direction, because said wealth may simply be insufficient as capital.
However, if property is a second-order good derived from market institutions based in reputation/goodwill/credit, then if one class systematically fucked over their credit with all of another class the underclass would no longer have any incentive to respect their title claims because no individual within it would fear even marginal sanction or loss of goodwill for occupying and appropriating their wealth. Simply put, if before anyone else can do anything on a new colony I create robots to till the entire surface of the planet, that doesn’t inherently create an incentive among the rest of the colonists to respect a veto-use claim on my part to the entire planet. If others admire and derive value from my mass-tilling project (or from the potential products of it) then my voice is more likely to be respected in discussion over its uses, but if I want to obtain acceptance of a veto-use claim, it would have to derive from the desire of others’ desire of social conditions of respect conducive to undertaking their own projects and having their own stuff respected. One gravitates towards adopting property titles because through their exchange one can much further maximize the satiation of one’s desires (agreeing to butt the hell out of other people’s decisions when it comes to the use of certain objects in exchange for them butting the hell out of your decisions with other objects). Accepting my ownership of literally everything would make that impossible.
Not only does this cope with such boundary conditions, but it also addresses old marxist paranoia about the runaway accumulation of wealth through usury.
Viewed in the light of a reputation market, Jeremy Weiland’s old point is even more apt: without the state the more wealth you control the more ridiculously you stand to risk having to pay through the nose to secure against theft and betrayal from those you’re paying.
It’s easier to steal a million dollars from the bank, or a vault, than to rob a thousand or so common people. … It may be that in a free market there will exist a natural, mean personal wealth value, beyond which diminishing returns enter quickly, and below which one is extremely disposed towards profit and enrichment.
It’s a distinction between information and objects; ultimately you can’t steal good credit. People’s trust, goodwill and their whole panorama of intention towards you exists within them internally. It’s accessible by anyone anywhere, but they’re the only ones capable of changing it. There are no banks it can be kept within, only distributed collective or institutional relay points through which it can be conveyed. And trust critically underlies all material transactions.
Incidentally this renders the entire debate over proposed systematic prohibitions of wages, rent, and interest moot. Obviously all will be, in some contexts, however fringe, desirably or neutrally regarded by all parties. But even if they crop up as large phenomenon, that’s not reason to panic, flip the fuck out and organize shit like armed roving ‘homesteaders’ with ideologically precise definitions of legitimate property. Instead the market will already be ready to grind down or impede any vast swathes of accumulated wealth because it will be the market that negotiates the acceptance of said wealth. Not necessarily through malicious crime, but through higher-level market mechanisms that ultimately give rise the extent and strength of claim.
As a market it might not look much like the idealized American myth of our simplistic contemporary ‘market.’ But then we knew it wouldn’t.
* There is a point to be made here about the problem of manipulation, but I think it’s a much broader point that no structural system can address directly, because on such a level we can’t dictate intent, we can only recognize and work around biases. So it’s no more a fundamental problem than it is for anarcho-communism. That said, I think intent and psychological issues of control are rightfully at the very core of the anarchist project. It just falls outside the purview of this discussion.
Calling All Haters Of Anarcho-Capitalism
Roderick T Long has a wonderful article on Market Anarchism and Anarcho-Capitalism that you absolutely need to read. But if I just put it in a link, chances are you won’t follow it. So I’m going to make things even easier for you and quote the whole friggin article here so you won’t even have to go anywhere.
It’s fun, interesting and short, I promise. And afterward I’ll savage it so you won’t have to.
Okay? Here goes [emphasis mine]:
Consider the following two lists of names:
Group 1 Group 2 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Stephen Pearl Andrews
Francis D. Tandy
John Henry Mackay
Voltairine de Cleyre (early)
Gustave de Molinari
Herbert Spencer (early)
Rose Wilder Lane
Samuel E. Konkin 3.0
It’s obvious what the two lists have in common: all the names on both lists belong to thinkers who have favoured radically free markets and the abolition of the state – hence, one might infer, market anarchists.
But it’s quite common in left-anarchist circles to insist that while the Group 1 thinkers are genuine anarchists, those in Group 2 are not true anarchists at all – on the grounds that true anarchists must oppose not only the state but also capitalism. Group 1, we’re told, is commendably anti-capitalist and so authentically anarchist; but the members of Group 2 exclude themselves from the anarchist ranks by their advocacy of capitalism. (I’m not sure into which group geolibs like Albert J. Nock and Frank Chodorov, or migrating thinkers like Karl Hess, are supposed to fall, so I left their names off.)
I am not a fan, needless to say, of this putative distinction between “true” and “false” market anarchists. I plan to criticise the case for the distinction in fuller detail on a future occasion; for now I’ll limit myself to two major points.
First: those who draw this distinction are hardly ever market anarchists themselves. They are more often anarcho-communists or anarcho-collectivists who regard both Group 1 and Group 2 as making unacceptable concessions to economic individualism. (Indeed they often dismiss even their favoured Group 1 – apart from Proudhon, anyway – as “Stirnerites,” even though most of the Group 1 thinkers developed their views independently of Max Stirner; in fact even Tucker, the clearest “Stirnerite” of the lot, was already a committed market anarchist before he’d ever encountered Stirner’s ideas.) When anti-market anarchists propose to decide who is and who isn’t a genuine market anarchist, it’s a bit like Christians demanding the right to adjudicate the dispute between Shi’ites and Sunnis. (One suspects that some of the anti-market folks would really like to purge both groups of market anarchists, but the anarchist credentials of Group 1 are too well-established for that to be a practical solution.)
Rather than inquiring as to the opinions of anti-market anarchists, then, it would seem more relevant to know whether the Group 1 thinkers regarded Group 2 as fellow-anarchists or not. And in fact such Group 2 luminaries as Molinari, Donisthorpe, and the early Spencer were indeed all hailed in the pages of Tucker’s Liberty (the chief American organ of individualist anarchism, which published most of the Group 1 writers) as anarchists – and Herbert as a near-anarchist. (Donisthorpe even wrote both for Liberty and for the journal of the Liberty and Property Defence League – thus bridging a supposedly unbridgeable ideological gulf.) Thus America’s leading Group 1 spokesman, while certainly critical of Group 2 thinkers on various points, apparently had no problem recognising them as fellow-anarchists. (Compare also the largely favourable attitude today of Tuckerite Kevin Carson toward Rothbardians and Konkinites.)
Nor was this because Tucker was especially generous with the term “anarchist.” On the contrary, Tucker withheld the term from anarcho-communists like Johann Most, Pëtr Kropotkin, and the Haymarket martyrs; from Tucker’s point of view, it was they, not the Spencerians, who were “false” anarchists. Needless to say, I don’t advocate following Tucker’s example on this point; one parochialism is no improvement over the other. But the fact that the editor of Liberty – who always called his position “consistent Manchesterism” – felt less close to contemporary anarcho-communists than to the forerunners of “anarcho-capitalism” (for surely Tucker’s views on Molinari and the radical Spencerians seem like the best guide we could have to what his views would most likely have been on Rothbard, Friedman, etc.) tells against the simplistic division of market anarchists into socialistic sheep and capitalistic goats. (Indeed the contributors to Liberty cited Spencer as often as they did Proudhon; while, for that matter, Karl Marx complained that Proudhon himself was more respectful toward quasi-anarchic classical liberals like Charles Dunoyer than toward revolutionary communists like Étienne Cabet.)
Second: it’s thoroughly unclear by what criteria Group 1 and Group 2 are supposed to be distinguished. Defenders of the dichotomy insist that Group 1 is “anti-capitalist” while Group 2 is “pro-capitalist”; but in order for this to be a useful marker it needs to be substantive, not merely terminological. The fact that Group 1 thinkers tend to use “socialism” as a virtue-word and “capitalism” as a vice-word, while Group 2 thinkers tend to do the reverse, by itself means little; because the two groups clearly do not mean the same things by these terms. Most Group 2 thinkers use the term “capitalism” to mean an unregulated free market, and use the term “socialism” to mean government control; most Group 1 thinkers use those terms differently, but agree with their Group 2 counterparts in favouring free markets and opposing government control, by whatever names they may call them. In Thomas Hobbes’s words: “Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.”
Given the enormous variability in the use of the term “capitalism,” then, it will hardly do to base a crucial distinction among antistate thinkers on their attitudes to some undefined abstraction called “capitalism.” We need to know what specific positions are supposed to divide Group 1 and Group 2. But it’s awfully hard to find positions that divide the two groups in the desired way.
Is it their stand on the labour theory of value? Except insofar as that translates into policy differences, what difference does that make?
Is it their stand on the wages system and the exploitation of labour by capital? By that standard, Group 2 thinkers Spencer, Konkin, and Friedman, who favoured abolition of wage labour, all belong in Group 1, while Molinari and Donisthorpe, who favoured reforming the wages system to shift the power balance in workers’ favour, fall somewhere between the two groups.
Is it their stand on land ownership and rent? By that standard Spencer, in rejecting land ownership entirely, is more “socialistic” than Tucker and so belongs in Group 1, while Spooner, in endorsing absentee landlordism, is more “capitalistic” than Tucker and so belongs in Group 2.
Is it their stand on protection agencies and private police as quasi-governmental? By that standard Tucker, Tandy, and Proudhon, who all favoured private police, belong in “pseudo-anarchistic” Group 2, while LeFevre, who rejected all violence even for defensive purposes, would have to be moved to Group 1.
Is it their stand on intellectual property? By that standard, IP fan Spooner would have to be assigned to the “pro-property” Group 2, while most present-day Rothbardians, as IP foes, would need to be shifted to the “anti-property” Group 1.
Is it their stand on the legitimacy of interest? Well, perhaps in the abstract; but both sides tend to predict a drastic fall in the price of loans as the result of free competition in the credit industry; and both deny that it will fall to zero. Group 1 thinkers tend to call this nonzero residuum “cost” while Group 2 thinkers tend to call it “interest”; ho-hum. This seems a weak reed to burden with so weighty a dichotomy.
None of the criteria I’ve most often seen appealed to, then, seem to divide the two groups in the desired manner based on concrete positions. I suspect what actually drives proponents of the purported dichotomy is no specific policy dispute but rather a general feeling that Group 2’s pro-market rhetoric is a cover for a rationalisation of the power relations that prevail in existing corporate capitalism, while Group 1’s likewise pro-market rhetoric – however misguided it may appear in the eyes of the dichotomists – is not. And that perception in turn is based, I suspect, on the fact that Group 2 thinkers are more likely than Group 1 thinkers to fall into what Kevin Carson has labeled “vulgar libertarianism,” that is, the error of treating defenses of the free market as though they served to justify various features of the prevailing not-so-free order.
Now it’s true enough that Group 2 is more liable to this unfortunate tendency than is Group 1. But:
a) few Group 2 thinkers commit the error consistently;
b) some Group 2 thinkers (e.g. Konkin, or 1960s Rothbard – or Hess, if he counts as Group 2) don’t seem to commit it much at all;
c) vulgar-libbin’ seems no worse an error, no stronger a reason to kick somebody out of the anarchist club, than, say, Proudhon’s egregious misogyny and anti-Semitism; and
d) if confusing free markets with corporate capitalism isn’t grounds to disqualify anti-market anarchists (who often seem to commit the same error in the opposite direction), why should it be grounds to disqualify vulgar-libbers?
Hence I see no defensible grounds for accepting any dichotomy between Groups 1 and 2. They are all market anarchists – with various virtues and various flaws, but comrades all.
Okay. Still with me? Cool. Now I said I would savage Professor Long’s underlying point –that is to say the inclusion of group 2 as valid anarchists– and I will, but first let’s stop and have a look at what he’s saying because he makes some very valid points along the way.
1.) The sacred, blessed division between individualist anarchists and the dread anarcho-capitalists is a distinction largely invented and arrogantly imposed by Kropotkin followers who have absolutely no understanding, experience with or connection to market anarchism.
2.) Using opposition to the term “capitalism” as a litmus test for inclusion in “anarchism” is a slimy, underhanded decades-old tactic on the part of the reds to ideologically center the movement on their own tradition and purge divergent perspectives. And furthermore it bears little or no reality given the obvious fluidity of the term and the deep intermingling of both groups. (Voltairine herself wasn’t afraid to associate with the label of capitalist.)
Both of these points are absolutely right on the money. And they lay out how and why Social Anarchists crusading against Anarcho-Capitalism often come off as such assholes. (If not immature stalinists.)
Plain fact of the matter is a good number of the people in Group 2 –that is to say “anarcho”-capitalists– are obviously, plainly and resoundingly not anarchists.
That’s non-negotiable. We may be pretty loose and encompassing on some things… But we’re not an open tent for every wayward anti-state fascist to come in and shit all over the floor just because they feel like it. (I would direct you towards postmodernism.)
Professor Long addresses a whole bunch of academic criteria, but they’re all beside the fucking point. “Anarchy” –in one of the most brilliant, clear and crystalline etymologies available in political ideology/idealism– is defined by its opposition to rulership. All forms of rulership.
Insofar as you begin to oppose all forms of rulership you move towards anarchism.
One can whine and wheedle all one likes about Spooner’s support for intellectual property or Bakunin’s anti-semitism –and let’s not even begin on Proudhon!– but you can’t compare today’s vulgar-libertarian excusists for privilege and corporate power with our fledgling predecessors. Even if there ever was an excuse for the failings of such proto-anarchists, there certainly exists no such excuse today.
We have moved on.
Moved closer to anarchism. Adopted a stronger rejection of rulership. And that progress –that fervent and passionate pursuit– is clearly not mirrored within the libertarian tradition.
“Race-realists,” social-Darwinians, corporatists, classists, misogynists, homophobes and plain authoritarian bastards abound in the “anarcho”-capitalist movement.
And certainly we too have our share of assholes and stalinists –as our abhorrent handling of anarcho-capitalism so clearly demonstrates. But we’re working on it.
We don’t and haven’t ever seen our present condition to be adequate or acceptable. We’re perpetually self-critiquing, always looking for ways to grow. To be better anarchists. To be more anarchist.
And that’s something that’s plainly not apparent or important in anarcho-capitalist circles. The buzzword is stagnation. Anarcho-capitalism as a political philosophy and as a social movement has grown around the self-justification of power and identity. Of privilege and psychosis. They already have all the answers —abolish the US government– in a neat, clean packaging that comfortably strokes the rest of their identity.
Because the abolition of the Westphalian nationstate system magically frees them from all moral quandaries. Don’t like something, well then that’s your fault. It’s an instant get-out-of-empathy-free card, a quiet euthanasia for their pesky conscience. With socialism as the all-purpose big baddie, they can divorce themselves from all connection to their humanity… all under the rubric of resisting Soviet Death Camp Evil.
But here’s news for yah: Anarchism has as little to do with anti-statism as it does with anti-capitalism.
That’s not the point.
Such minor details are byproducts of our underlying morality. …And almost inconsequential in our day-to-day lives.
As an Anarchist my first and foremost priority is the abolition of power structures and blind faiths. And the most powerful, most pressing, of these are in the daily interpersonal relations and frameworks we all associate within. Racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, these are no more abstract platonic forces than the battered-child psychosis that moves a cop to raise his truncheon. They are products of our minds.
Acquiescence to authority, to the ‘state’ of social power structures in our world. To domination, subjugation and victimization. To the irrational calculus of hatred and greed. These are the viral roots –the radis– of rulership. Of what is known alternatively as authority, hierarchy and sociological power. And our unflinching pursuit of these roots, our inability to accept blithe abstractions or simplifications is what makes Anarchism the most radical realization of political philosophy.
I harp on a lot about anarcho-capitalism and market anarchism to my friends within the social movement. But what drives my distaste with the scene’s inquisition against ancaps is not the equal or acceptable nature of the anarcho-capitalist movement compared to our own, but horrified outrage at the manner, the behavior and conduct of those I expect better from. I could give a shit if David Friedman’s a homophobe. I’ve never been given any reason to consider him an anarchist and I don’t. But when social anarchists start behaving like stalinist goons I get seriously upset.
Because interpersonal forms of power, of coercion, of violence… of rulership are not acceptable. And yes, that damn well means the subtle stuff. You can’t extract the cruel words spoken from husband to wife from the whole fucking system of inequalities (in opportunity) and domineering psychological coercion backed up with centralized, structured physical force. You want to tell me that psychological forms of control are less important than some direct and showy physical instrumentation? It’s all psychological! The gun or the schoolteacher’s blackboard, the BET music video, that’s a bullshit distinction. And every time an ancap makes it –spewing their aloof privilege all over the place– their economic ideas are taken a lot less seriously.
Let me tell you, every time I get social anarchists to put aside their immature hate-mongering of anarcho-capitalism and have a serious discussion it’s not the historically fluid definition of capitalism that concerns them, it’s the nature of the anarcho-capitalist movement. Okay, fine, they eventually smilingly cede, they may have some interesting or semi-valid anti-authoritarian economics, blah, blah blah. But come on Will, do you seriously think they’ve got the interpersonal down? Have you ever been to their websites?! Sure, they may be anti-state but even if I grant that they’re effectively anti-kapitalism, does that really add up to a hill of beans? Come on.
And every time I’m forced to cede that yeah, okay, so they’re not really anarchists by and large. Anymore than we’d consider those old dead white male proto-anarchists were they to suddenly be resurrected. But, hey, let’s stop being dicks to them.
Well… because there are some good ones. Some. Okay, they may not have been part of the dozens you’ve interacted with. But I swear to you they do exist. No it’s not like some rare bird.
And if I really persist they’ll end the conversation like so: When they do something anything, anything. Besides sit behind a computer screen, act like assholes and maliciously dilute the definition of anarchism to meaninglessness. When they organize a single factory with an individualistic alternative to union collectivism. When they start a project to feed the homeless. When they take up arms in a campaign against a fascist government. When they do more than talk. Or even just address the racism, sexism and assorted bullshit rife in their movement and start seriously working to self-improve. …Then maybe I’ll consider your points. But until then. Dude. CAPITALISM.
And then we drop the issue and walk on. Talking about how beauty is hierarchy. How patriarchy may in fact make it impossible for males to indicate interest without breaking some measure of consent. How the singularity might impose new hierarchies through energy-matter concentration. How relativity will make post-earth societies equalize towards anarchism. How Stirner’s authoritarianism came from his unwillingness to fully explore individualism. How symbolic logic is the root of all alienation. How anarchist parenting circles have begun to incubate justifications for ever-so-slight forms of authoritarianism. Who’s becoming a rockstar personality within the scene. Where the best Hummus can be dumpstered. And what’s the latest from the comrades we know in Greece/Argentina/Mexico/Ireland/Palestine/Turkey/Denmark/Korea…
And we don’t talk about market economics. We don’t exchange examples and models of Rothbardian solutions to organizing problems. We don’t apply the subjective theory of value to more fluidly and organically back up our criticisms of economic authoritarianism. And at the end of the day they don’t move beyond the same old creaking Marxist bullshit.
The Freed Market
One of the tactics I’ve taken up in the anarchist economics wars is to refer to our modern corporatist/mercantilist/lovecraftian mix of economic systems as “Kapitalism” and when referencing Ancaps go out of my way to use “Anarcho”-Capitalist and Anarcho-“Capitalist” as distinct labels.
These have proved decent if not pretty effective ways of kicking a wedge into their thinking and forcing a degree of nuance into the discussion. But they’re distinctions primarily aimed at the willfully ignorant bullying Reds who – while certainly annoying – are nowhere near as atrocious as the out-and-out Vulgar Libertarians. The corporate apologists who actually approve of the modern cesspit the Reds call “Capitalism.” You know the ones. The contrarian brats who consider Somalia a utopia. The ones that fit the Reds’ stereotypes so hardcore that all intelligence is immediately sucked into an event horizon of “poor people obviously deserve to starve to death, screw ’em” and “yeah, well after the Revolution we’ll put your family in death camps and expropriate all your stuff.”
Well, by blessed typo I’ve stumbled across a very effective counter to them. Instead of referring to the behavior and dynamics of the free market, I refer instead to “a freed market.”
You’d be surprised how much of a difference a change of tense can make.
“Free market” makes it sound like such a thing already exists and thus passively perpetuates the Red myth that Corporatism and wanton accumulation of Kapital are the natural consequences of free association and competition between individuals. (It is not.)
But “freed” has an element of distance and, whatsmore, a degree of action to it. It becomes so much easier to state things like: Freed markets don’t have corporations. A freed market naturally equalizes wealth. Social hierarchy is by definition inefficient and this is particularly evident in freed markets.
It moves us out of the present tense and into the theoretical realm of “after the revolution,” where like the Reds we can still use present day examples to back theory, but we’re not tied into implicitly defending every horror in today’s market. It’s easier to pick out separate mechanics in the market and make distinctions. Also, have I mentioned that it makes an implicit call to action?
I don’t know if anyone else has stumbled over this before, but it’s been useful and I felt I should share.