The following is a slightly edited version of the C4SS presentation for Liberty Forum 2013.
In Ken MacLeod‘s novel, The Star Fraction, we come across the following passage,
“…what we always meant by socialism wasn’t something you forced on people, it was people organizing themselves as they pleased into co-ops, collectives, communes, unions…. And if socialism really is better, more efficient than capitalism, then it can bloody well compete with capitalism. So we decided, forget all the statist shit and the violence: the best place for socialism is the closest to a free market you can get!”
From this MacLeod identifies two oppositional economic arrangements, socialism vs. capitalism, and differentiates two institutional spaces, the “free market” and “the state”.
I hope to offer an introduction to a left libertarian conception of political economy that has emerged from many collaborative and challenging conversations within the market anarchist milieu, known as Freed Market Anti-Capitalism.
We will start out by talking about C4SS, its mission and successes. Then present a couple themes to orient our approach to this subject, Freed Market Anti-Capitalism, and clarify a number of terms found in a typical left libertarian critique. And finally discuss how these change the way we talk about “markets”, with a focus on breaking down the time-honored notion of the “invisible hand” into the antagonistic invisible fist versus the resistant invisible molotov.
My particular approach to traditional libertarian puzzles is heavily influenced by the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. This, Ostromite, approach focuses on puzzles of institutional analysis and development, Institutional Economics, uses a version of methodological individualism, and has a respect for praxeological or hermeneutic issues without fully endorsing or committing to any.
C4SS, according to our “about page”:
is an anarchist think-tank and media center. Its mission is to explain and defend the idea of vibrant social cooperation without aggression, oppression, or centralized authority. In particular, it seeks to enlarge public understanding and transform public perceptions of anarchism, while reshaping academic and movement debate, through the production and distribution of market anarchist media content, both scholarly and popular, the organization of events, and the development of networks and communities, and to serve, along with the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and the Molinari Institute, as an institutional home for left-libertarian market anarchists.
C4SS was born October 10th, 2006, with the following press release: Anarchists Launch Major Media Offensive!
This Press Release quotes Molinari Institute President Roderick T. Long,
“For too long libertarians, and I mean anarchist libertarians, have treated market anarchism almost as an esoteric doctrine. It’s time to put market anarchism front and center in our educational efforts, time to start making it a familiar and recognizable position.”
And Brad Spangler, the first Director of C4SS, added,
“With [C4SS], we aim to awaken more Americans than ever before to the brutal reality that all governments everywhere are essentially nothing more than murderous bandit gangs — and show them the shining light of hope for a world without the State.”
Since October 2006, C4SS has published over 2,200 articles, to include 15 academic level studies. We have documented over 750+ reprints of our articles in mainstream media outlets. C4SS articles have been translated, by volunteers, into French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Spanish and Swedish, and we have Media Coordinators for our Spanish and Dutch translations. And C4SS is proud to be the institutional home of the innovative and prolific Kevin Carson.
I am not sure what the metrics for success are for the fringe of the fringe of the fringe of political theory, but considering that we pay our writers, are financed through micro-donations and partnerships, and are additionally staffed by enthusiastic volunteers and supporters, like myself, I feel we can reasonably claim a little success.
Thematically, as I understand it, the Freed Market Anti-capitalist conception of political economy can be developed as a response to the following notions:
- Difara: Damage Identified, Find a Route Around.
- SbyMC: State by Monocentricism.
As with most vulnerable and conditional systems, the ability to see and move are crucial. But seeing correctly and moving concordantly with a goal – not just away from danger – are just as important. One can immediately see the peril and folly inherent in leaping off a cliff in order to avoid one’s own shadow.
The ability to acknowledge and identify “damage”, whatever it maybe, is worthless, if we cannot act to avoid or change it. Yet all the mobility and flexibility in the world is equally worthless, if you don’t know what you want, what’s in your way or how it’s in your way.
Within 4th Generational Warfare or Open-Source Insurgency discussions, Difara, can be closely aligned with the Boyd Cycle or OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act – Reflect-Repeat). The quicker or more accurately one can move through this loop – and repeat – the greater your chances of success. And if you are in a contest with another individual or organization, the more likely you are to set the terms or tempo of the match. The modern Westphalian Police State has a very tight decide – act loop because it tends to default to, “everything not me is my enemy” so “kill it with fire”.
This may explain the anxiety and desire-stress – the emergency-heart attack – experienced by activists. Activists tend to have tight observe – orient loops and paralyzed, inoperable or slow decide-act loops. Imagine, as I am sure you have, being able to see a problem and recognize it’s relationship to you, but unable to decide what to do quickly enough to act appropriately or effectively.
The anarchist author and activist, Scott Crow, describes anarchism in very Difara terms:
“Anarchism means not waiting for others to do something. It means knowing what the right thing to do is, recognizing we have the power to do it, then doing it.”
Open-Source Insurgency streamlines a number of the features of the OODA Loop by focusing on virtualization, repetition and RE,RO – release early, release often – deployment/development strategies. If we are good on OO, then why not streamline the DA.
But, all organizational or institutional streamlining run a risk – SbyMC: State by Mono-centricism.
Generally the state is regarded as a territorial or jurisdictional monopoly on the use force. Most libertarian projects focus on de-legitimizing or reducing this “use of force”, which is good, but a closer look at monopolies – what they are, how they shape and constrain, and how they creep into our institutions – is just as important.
Murray Rothbard takes Robert Nozick to task, in his essay “The Immaculate Conception of the State“, over Nozick’s fable regarding how a state could be immaculately conceived, as if through an invisible hand; which is then assumed to justify or vindicate states as they presently exists. But I don’t think, from an institutional development point of view, Rothbard’s strictures stave off the development of a state as such. As Roy Childs explains, in his essay “The Invisible Hand Strikes Back“, paraphrasing Marx, our goal is not “only to explain and justify the State. The point, however, is to abolish it.”
A monopoly on the use of force is undesirable, not only because it is force, but also because of its status as a monopoly. We are not morally discouraged or confused with the use of force in the pursuit of justice, in self defense, or even, I submit, in acts of extreme desperation – for aesthetic convenience think of a starving Jean Valjean stealing bread.
Monopoly, on the other hand, is morally discouraging, and as it blocks our every attempt to “find a route around” our moral confusion grows until we either submit or explode.
Roderick T. Long points out, in his article “Libertarian Anarchism: Responses to Ten Objections“, with monopoly comes moral problems; “why us? What’s so special about us?”, incentive problems; “why should I attempt to improve production, offer a lower price, or better quality?”, leverage problems; “if the monopolist doesn’t like me, for this or that reason, the price could become impossible to meet or impossibly contingent”, and knowledge problems; “how do I know I am offering the best product for the best price?”.
Dawie Coetzee adds, to Roderick’s list, another important problem of monopoly:
“One very important objection to monopoly in the example of shoes: the desire for unusual or unique shoes, that is, creative liberty. One of the most offensive aspects of monopoly is the power it gives to say, ‘this is how your shoes will be.'”
If the state is understood as a monopoly and with it comes an inevitable and compounding cascade of legibility, incentive, knowledge and moral problems, then how do we guard against it? Where does the state come from? Is it like turning on a light switch, all of a sudden we have a state? Does it only come purposefully from one obvious direction? Or does it slowly fill in the spaces available, prohibited or abandoned from any avenue available?
Herbert Spencer offers a sociological continuum that ranges from the Society of the Militant Type to the Society of the Industrial Type. From the regime of status to the regime of contract.
The Militant Society exalts loyalty, orderliness, bravery, and nationalism. Its institutions are insular, conspicuous and rigid. The Industrial Type, by contrast, prizes novelty and personal liberty; it is suspicious of authority and nationality. Its institutions are less conspicuous and plastic.
What makes this continuum approach insightful is that is offers us a framework for explaining the transition of a Militant Society into an Industrial One and, vice versa, a Industrial Society into a Militant One.
Spencer anticipates or compliments, I submit, William James and Robert Higgs. William James describes the “moral equivalent of war” as a social program that can be used to marshal and order society towards the achievement of progressive ends. Robert Higgs demonstrates the Higgs Effect or the ratcheting effect of crises on society leaving a net increase in state power along with an increased desire and structural need for more war. For Spencer, war is also a dominate factor in the change of an Industrial Society into a Militant one.
But war is not alone.
Monocentricism and polycentricism are also orientated along a continuum. Horia Terpe, in his article “Between Monocentricity and Polycentricity“, clarifies this relationship as oppositional:
“The meaning of polycentricity was understood, both in the original 1961 article and later conceptual refinements, in opposition to monocentricity, as a system with multiple centers of power and decision making that are formally independent of each other.”
Monocentric systems, by contrast, have reduced, singular, or hierarchical centers of power and decision making with fewer and fewer formally independent units.
This reduction in the number of centers of power and decision-making can be accomplished in many ways, but two identified ways are know as “monocropping” and “monotasking”.
Peter Evans describes monocropping as the “imposition of blueprints based on idealised versions of institutions whose applicability is presumed to transcend national cultures and circumstances.” Monocropping can also be achieved through the removal of what are perceived as useless redundancies.
Elinor Ostrom describes this in her paper, “A Frequently Overlooked Precondition of Democracy“,
“The dominant view of metropolitan institutions was that they are chaotic and incomprehensible. Given that scholars studying metropolitan service delivery arrangements could find no order in them, the reaction has been to recommend that metropolitan institutions should be radically consolidated and streamlined. Many articles, books, monographes, and reports written by urban scholars recommend the elimination of smaller jurisdictions and the creation of a few, large, general-purpose governments to produce all local services in any given metropolitan area.”
She goes on to document that these recommendations have lead to the decimation of social capital, local agency and participation particularly in the administration of education As Ostrom catalogs, “Currently (as of 2002), the number of school boards in the United States is still around 15,000. Thus, around 75,000 citizens are serving on school boards (instead of the 550,000 in the 1932).” “One consequence of this effort was the elimination of an overwhelming number of opportunities for regular citizens to engage in local problem-solving and politics.
This reduction in “regular citizen” participation opens the door to what Butler Shaffer, in his book Calculated Chaos, calls the division of purpose.
“What begins as a simple division of labor, a system of specialization designed to allow the work of the group to get done more efficiently, becomes a division of purpose, with group members segregated into a chain of command.”
Monotasking takes place when, to quote from Thandika Mkandawire’s “Institutional Monocropping and Monotasking in Africa“, “institutions are reduced to servicing a standard set of often imposed policies or tasks and [reduced] from the endless institutional experimentation that renders them highly unstable and unpredictable.” There is a focus on institutions as instruments of restraint at the expense of regarding institution as the raw materials and points of reference for social experimentation, development and transformation.
In summary, the state is undesirable because monopolies are undesirable. Monopolies are stupid, impractical, insular, authoritarian and immoral, yet monopolies are also emergent and grow organically and incrementally. They creep into our social lives as either expedient solutions to unanticipated problems or fill in the gaps available or abandoned by “regular citizens.”
The two parts that make up Freed Market Anti-capitalism are designed around taking these concerns or themes, Difara and SbyMC, seriously.
By rejecting one society we are implicitly endorsing its opposite, but it is an opposite of wide open space.
The American Mutualist and New Harmony Participant, Josiah Warren, declared, in a Manifesto, that,
“An impression has gone abroad that I am engaged in forming societies. This is a very great mistake, which I feel bound to correct.
Those who have heard or read anything from me on the subject, know that one of the principal points insisted on is, the forming of societies or any other artificial combinations IS the first, greatest, and most fatal mistake ever committed by legislators and by reformers.”
To which Vincent Ostrom, in his book The Meaning of American Federalism, could sympathetically clarify,
“Societies that place substantial reliance upon polycentric patterns of order present contestable options that must necessarily challenge systems organized on autocratic principles. The world cannot remain half free and half servitude. Each is a threat to the other.”
This is the prescriptive space of Freed Market Anti-capitalism. A Freed Market critique discusses the ways we may identify damage and discover routes around it. Going back to Terpe:
“The monocentric/polycentric distinction refers to the character of an outcome of change and thus constitutes a dyad of institutional change. The dyad works as a compass of institutional change, pointing towards one of the two ends of the dyad.”
An Anti-capitalist critique, one the other hand, offers us insight into how we can avoid monocentric solutions and tendencies, maintaining the needed space for the effective use of our Difara dependent exploratory desires. Terpe again,
“This basic characteristic, the multiple centers of power, is the precondition for maintaining an open public realm. The open public realm, allowing for the functioning of various means of public contestation represents a second condition of existence for polycentricity”.
Therefore, I submit, Freed Market Anti-capitalism is such a polycentric order, but what are freed markets, and what is anti-capitalism?
They are two mutually informing and ruthlessly critiquing parts: Freed Markets and Anti-capitalism.
First, it should be made clear that what I am calling “capitalism” is an institutional structure that is simply an expression of monopoly privilege, the economics of states, if you will, or, complexly a bundle of ethical-cultural-structural norms that suffer significantly from monocentric tendencies.
Second, if your use of the word “capitalism” does not point to the economics of states or monocentric tendencies, then this critique does not apply to you, per se. But it may still offer some waypoints for navigating our situated and contaminated ideological contexts, avoiding vulgar libertarian misdiagnosis or vulgar liberal mischaracterizations of our state-full status quo.
Gary Chartier, in his article “Advocates of Free Markets Should Embrace ‘Anti-Capitalism’” offers a three part distinction of “capitalism”,
capitalism-1: an economic system that features property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.
capitalism-2: an economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government.
capitalism-3: rule — of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state — by capitalists (that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of production).
“Capitalism-2 is clearly inconsistent with capitalism-1, and so with a freed market. Under capitalism-2, politicians interfere with personal property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services to enrich themselves and their constituents, and big businesses influence politicians in order to foster interference with personal property rights and voluntary exchanges in order to enrich themselves and their allies.
There are three ways in which capitalism-3 might be understood to be inconsistent with capitalism-1, and so with a freed market. The first depends on a plausible, even if contestable, view of the operation of markets. Call this view Markets Undermine Privilege (MUP). According to MUP, in a freed market, absent the kinds of privileges afforded the (usually well-connected) beneficiaries of state power under capitalism-2, wealth would be widely distributed and large, hierarchical businesses would prove inefficient and wouldn’t survive.
Capitalism-2 is uncontroversial within libertarian discussions. The state’s interference with the iterative interactions between individuals and groups is understood as an obvious violation of free association and trade. But the historical record, time and time again, shows that the state’s interference in not random or unmotivated. The state interferes for a reason. Sometimes the reasons are personal and motivated along political vs. industrial class lines, to exact tribute, maintain jurisdictions or expand borders. Sometimes it is at the behest of developing or empowered privileged plutocratic class, to stifle competition through monopoly privileges on grants of land, eminent domain, incorporation, subsidies, out right murder or legal recognition and support for questionable contracts.”
Kevin Carson refers to this as the subsidy of history. Through each act of state brutality society is further deformed, sculpted or conditioned into a submissive, desperate, dependent, property-less, or powerless working-industrious-employed class occupying the bottom segments of pyramidal structure of privilege. The economic landscape we see today is not one that has been brought about through peaceful voluntary cooperation. Whatever semblance of voluntaryism achieved or experienced has been in spite of and through struggle with this subsidy of history.
The Two-Gun Mutualist, Shawn Wilbur, has likened the giant corporations dominating our economic landscape to exotic hothouse flowers lovingly nurtured within the state’s greenhouse. The flip-side of this simile is that if the greenhouse were ever damaged or removed the rest of us “weeds” would take them down or out.
Clarence Carson, in his article “Capitalism: Yes and No“, makes the following observation,
“One dictionary defines [capitalism] as ‘a system under which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are in large measure privately owned and directed.’ On the face of it, the meaning may appear clear enough. We can come in sight of the difficulty, however, if we turn the whole thing around and look at what is supposed to be signified, shutting out of our minds for the moment the word used to signify it. Suppose, that is, that we have a set of arrangements in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods “are in large measure privately owned and directed.” I am acquainted with such arrangements, both from history and from some present-day actualities.
But why should we call such arrangements capitalism? So far as I can make out, there is no compelling reason to do so. There is nothing indicated in such arrangements that suggests why capital among the elements of production should be singled out for emphasis. Why not land? Why not labor? Or, indeed, why should any of the elements be singled out?”
These two points are crucial. If the “private ownership of the means of production” is capitalism, then what is our critique of the status quo? If what we want is what we have, then what is the crisis? If the process that brought it about is what causes us anxiety, is there a similar anxiety that a history devoid of large scale privileged violence might yield a non-capitalist out come? And if it would have, could this, in turn, bring about or warrant a consequentialist longing for such a history? Maybe a plan for the future?
Regarding Carson’s second point, why single out one factor of production over others? Why capital over labor or land? Why material capital over social, human or network capital?
Kevin Carson addresses this point, in his essay “Capitalism: A Good Word for a Bad Thing“,
“This is a very telling set of priorities: ‘capitalism,’ as opposed to ‘socialism,’ is not defined by the degree of economic freedom as such; it’s defined by a particular institutional structure which is disproportionately to the benefit of a particular class of market actors.
‘Capitalism,’ simply put, is the most honest term for the unfree market we live under. It’s a system of, by and for the owners of capital; so long as it retains that primary characteristic, it’s ‘capitalist,’ no matter how unfree the market.”
On the other side of this perspective is the Freed Market. This step away from the present tense is important here, a free market implies points on a map where this community has a free market, but this one doesn’t. By shifting tenses we turn apologetics into perpetual ruthless critique.
We have William Gillis to thank for this innovation, he explains, in his essay, “The Freed Market“,
“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.
But ‘freed’ has an element of distance and, whatsmore, a degree of action to it. … an implicit call to action.
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.”
Charles Johnson, in the introduction to the book Markets Not Capitalism, offers another oppositional continuum between the Market Form vs. the Market Deformed. The Market Deformed points to discernible, identifiable violations of the Market Form. While the Market Form offers a never satisfied and searching critique of the institutional systems we find ourselves nested and embedded.
Historically, within classical liberal, libertarian and anarchist discussions, one of the challenges inevitably brought to the defense of the status quo, is the question of social order. The status quo offers a semblance of order, legibility, regularity or predictability. The light-switch turns on the light-bulb, you can buy food at the grocery store, and our enemies are kept at bay; how would this be accomplished without a state.
The answer to this question is typically The Invisible Hand. A theory of spontaneous order explains that even in the absence of “leadership” or “control” an order will emerge. But what kind of order will emerge and what role, if any, can we play in deciding its outcome.
There is a neutrality to the Invisible Hand, the order that emerges may be benign or malign. It merely offers us a side constraint against types of organizing and a warning against unintended consequences.
One of the ways we can describe this dichotomy between the spontaneous benign order and the spontaneous malign order is with the term the Invisible Fist.
The invisible fist is that emergent order that constrains our options and our lives, the result of human action, but not the execution of any grand human design. The invisible fist can be used to offer insights into perennial, ubiquitous or inconspicuous structures of oppression like sexism, racism, or heteronormativity.
Ross Kenyon explains this operation and hints at way out in his article “The ‘Market’ Doesn’t Discipline, Ron Paul. We Do.“,
“The acts of producing and consuming in and of themselves have no moral content. All a free market means is that what is effectively demanded will be efficiently supplied, and if we demand garbage then we will have garbage. This freedom to choose connotes the responsibility to choose well or the world in which we might live may not be very much better than the one we have now.”
So what is our way out, when it is obviously not the state, emergent orders appear to be brute facts of this reality, passivity is not an option and withdrawal is defeat. Ken MacLeod describes the terms of “this way out” in his article “Socialism On One Planet“,
“A society of conscious and voluntary co-operation can’t be established unconsciously or unwillingly. It can’t be imposed from above or from outside or from behind our backs.”
As an Ostromite, panacea solutions are, to the best of my ability, removed from my strategic vocabulary, yet with that understanding, I would like to offer William Gillis’s Invisible Molotov.
The Invisible Molotov embraces emergent orders, not as the pious desire to embrace their deity, awed by its power or grace, but as the readied aikido master, observant of its flow and eddies, prepared to turn, adding its force to our own or using its inertia to deflect its fist into the ground.
As William Gillis explains,
“For those of us interested in resisting and undermining coercive power, the issue is less how a truly freed market might one day improve our lives, but rather how the faint sparks of freedom in the market today are already working against hierarchy, banditry and the concentration of power and how those sparks might be stoked. Therefore our interest is not the market’s invisible hand, per se, but the invisible molotov it carries.”
In conclusion Kevin Carson steels our resolve,
“Our goal is not to assume leadership of existing institutions, but rather to render them irrelevant. We don’t want to take over the state or change its policies. We want to render its laws unenforceable. We don’t want to take over corporations and make them more “socially responsible.” We want to build a counter-economy of open-source information, neighborhood garage manufacturing, Permaculture, encrypted currency and mutual banks, leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state.
We do not hope to reform the existing order. We intend to serve as its grave-diggers.”