Engagement with the Left on Free Markets
The following article was written by Kevin Carson and published on his blog Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-CapitalismFebruary 3rd, 2005.

A very provocative discussion, provoked by Chris Sciabarra’s post at Liberty&Power.

Anthony Gregory first commented:

If libertarians can explain that the right actually opposes free markets, but instead embraces corporatism and state capitalism, the battle to win them over will be half-won. One reason they don’t like markets is because people like Bush pretend to like them, but I think the left is catching on.

Jeanine Ring added that much of the Left’s problem with corporate capitalism is cultural: an “antagonism to corporations into just mercantilist exploration but the heirarchical, conformist structure and “Dilbert” culture of corporate modernity.” She goes on

If libertarians favor a world where corporations aren’t the specially priviledged, legally impersoned default forms of social organization, they should some thoughts as to what ‘human scale’ forms of socio-commercial relations might look like.

Sciabarra responded, however, that most radical leftists see the corporate system as an inevitable outgrowth of the free market.

They, like many libertarians, have argued that the state has always been intimately involved in markets, acting on behalf of those who are most adept at using political power. For Marxists and other radical left-wingers, however, this means that political power is systematically skewed in favor of business interests. The ideology of free-markets is, therefore, a mere apologia for a class-biased reality that is inescapable as long as private property and market exchange exist.

It follows, he said, that “until or unless libertarians can convince the left that there is an ‘unknown ideal’ to free markets, that corporatism is not an inevitability, I doubt that there will be any lasting peace with the left.”

So it seems that any attempt by the anti-corporatist free market movement to engage with the mainstream Left will focus, of necessity, on a few issues. First is a rehabilitation of the term “free market” itself to mean more than the cash nexus, encompassing rather the entire sphere of voluntary non-coercive social relations. As Karl Hess pointed out over thirty years ago, the free market movement is (or should be) a people’s movement. Any “free market” ideology that has no room for the commons as a form of “private property,” for workers’ and consumers’ co-ops, or for hippie dippy stuff like Hess’ own “community technology” experiments in the Adams-Morgan Organization, is no “free market” ideology that I want to be a part of (apologies to Rosa Luxembourg).

Second item on the agenda is getting right with Robert Anton Wilson. That is: to identify the free market with the system of voluntary exchange of labor between producers that remains when the state no longer intervenes on behalf of privileged classes. It would help mightily if the Left could see the free market as a residuum of voluntary relations that persists in any society, in the interstices of state power, and exists in potentia as the basis of a new society when state-enforced class domination is abolished. The libertarian Left is fond of the Wobbly slogan, “Building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” So they are already familiar with the idea that the seeds of a free society exist within the present system, and can gradually supplant the system of class privilege as the state is rolled back. The Left is already amenable to Gustav Landauer’s “condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behavior” with which to supplant the state; and Paul Goodman’s “spheres of free action.” We just need to do a better job of expressing our free market vision in similar terms.

If the market and the state have coexisted historically, they can be separated logically. The question of whether class differences originally arose from successful competition in the market, and the state was then called in to reinforce the position of the winners; or whether the class differences first arose from state interference, is a vital one. The fact that the state has been intertwined with every “actually existing” market in history is beside the point; social anarchists themselves face a similar challenge — that the state has been intertwined with every society in history. The response, in both cases, is essentially the same — the seeds of a non-exploitative order exist within every system of exploitation. Our goal, not only as anarchists but as free market anarchists, is to supplant the state with voluntary relations. If the absence of something in historical times, in a society based on division of labor, is a damning challenge — well then, they’re damned as well as we are.

The questions of whether state capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of the free market, of whether decentralized and libertarian forms of industrial production can exist under worker control in a market society, etc., are at least questions on which we can approach the Left with logic and evidence. They are, for the most part, rational and open to persuasion. At the very least, there is room for constructive engagement. And remember, it is not an all-or-nothing matter. It is possible, if nothing else, to reduce the area of disagreement on a case-by-case basis.

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