Coloring “Competition”

CNN reports on the controversy surrounding discovery of horsemeat in beef products in the United Kingdom, France and Sweden: “UK food businesses have been ordered to test all processed beef products for ‘authenticity’ and report back to the authorities by Friday.” Calls for more stringent regulatory structures are already proliferating in Europe and the United States.

Professor Tim Lang of City University in London typifies the knee-jerk reaction, complaining that “for too long we have had light-touch regulation.” Elites in academia and government, uniformly regard competition as insufficient to produce quality consumer goods.

It’s commonly thought that unlimited, free competition, sans regulations and restrictions of any kind, would yield a “cutthroat” system, sacrificing consumer health and safety to the pursuit of profit. The state, this argument goes, must intervene to temper the natural tendencies of competition and safeguard hapless and vulnerable consumers.

Obviously, certain assumptions about the state are embedded in this narrative — assumptions that warrant scrutiny in their own right and entail far-reaching consequences in many areas of social theory. That the state or government exists to protect “the people,” versus the interests of a small, elite plutocracy is probably a relatively new idea (or at least its wide acceptance is).

One reason for that acceptance is a language of democracy and of social and economic justice which envelops the political process and its legislative and regulatory consequences. If the whole populace is conflated with the state, there’s no real reason not to accept the state as benign bulwark against the grievous effects of free market competition.

Market anarchists don’t accept such a narrative precisely because of the definitional and conceptual confusion built into it. In history, in theory and according to all the data we can gather today, the state neither serves the common good nor hinders predatory plutocratic interests. It intercedes in economic affairs not to aid ordinary, working people — who are in fact powerless in the political process — but to restrict their opportunities and options so that dominant corporate actors (today’s feudal lords) may prey upon them.

“Competition,” though constantly discussed and held out for criticism, is entirely unknown today, at least in its genuine form — a form untainted by the machinations of a political class that has only ever served the rich. Contrary to the imagined end products of competition that most unquestioningly take on faith, anarchists have long argued for free competition as the best means of protecting consumers and ensuring quality at low prices.

Indeed, American anarchists like Benjamin Tucker regarded free and open markets in a stateless society as the truest form of socialism, the only way to ensure that labor was reward equitably (i.e., paid with the equivalent of its full product) and to prevent outcomes like the horsemeat fiasco.

Leading corporations take advantage of consumers not in spite of, but through, state intervention, in the form of barriers to entry like costly regulations and licenses which cut those consumers off from the advantageous results of competition. When the London Evening Standard blames the Findus scandal on some “global free-market,” it shows a conspicuous lack of nuanced understanding where the subject of market competition is concerned.

The international blame game created by the horsemeat story, one company fingering the next ad infinitum, is itself a symptom of the present system of corporate capitalism. One reason that these international markets for food exist in the first place — that by and large people don’t eat food that’s from where they’re from — is governmental intervention to make shipping food across the world in a long, complex supply chain cheaper than it would be in a legitimate free market.

Today’s is an economy of big business cartels. And that’s exactly the point of the state in society and economic relationships — in the words of Dyer D. Lum to fashion privilege that “can be artificially bestowed upon capital by which he who has it can command an economic advantage over him who lacks it.”

Instead of smearing competition and exchange, we ought to be pressing for far more of it, empowering individuals and communities against the dominion of a handful of moneyed conglomerates.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory