The Free Market as Class Warfare

A recent story on the British elections reports on a letter warning voters that a Labour government would prove harmful to the country’s economic recovery. Endorsed by leaders in Britain’s business community and submitted to The Telegraph, the letter argues that the election of a Tory government would signal to the rest of the world that “the UK is open for business,” steady on the course established by David Cameron and his cut to the corporate tax rate. The story goes on to contend that Ed Miliband’s attacks on business have turned the clock back to the 1980s, putting British politics “squarely back on to the old class-war formula that some of us are old enough to remember.” The story’s headline — “Class war vs the free market: haven’t we been here before?” — is especially interesting insofar as it assumes that class war and free markets sit on opposite sides of the political divide, that one cannot consistently advocate both.

The notion that free markets simply mean corporate domination and monopolization is among the key underlying assumptions in almost all popular political dialogue today. Hardly ever seriously questioned, this premise about the causal relationship between markets and economic injustice suffuses the rhetoric even of the advocates of supposed free markets. Everyone on all sides of a given policy debate seems to take it for granted that those who are seriously concerned about issues like wealth inequality will oppose free markets, and further that being anti-business is practically the same as being anti-market.

As an individualist anarchist, I don’t buy this narrative, and I believe that we have very good reasons to reject it. To begin with, given the amount of state-granted privilege and favoritism to big business in the economic system, it seems odd that the mainstream conversation ought so consistently to blame the concept of mere voluntary exchange for corporate abuses. It has become popular lately to think of “crony capitalism” as a deviation from the norm, which ostensibly is a system of unalloyed free enterprise. But we would be much closer to the mark if we looked at international capitalism itself as a system essentially characterized by violations of our normal, common sense idea of free markets.

That is, if a “free market” just means a system in which free individuals are able to associate and contract with one another without outside interference, protected in their legitimate private property rights, then the system obtaining in the world today is a very far cry from a free market — the whole system is a deviation. Perhaps, then, the phenomenon of historical capitalism does not deserve the benefit of the doubt from libertarian champions of free markets; and if it doesn’t, then maybe the consistent defenders of open competition, private property, and individual sovereignty actually belong with the radical left, committed to challenging the present economic system and vindicating the rights of the poor and underprivileged.

Then the free market is itself a form of class war, not a violent insurgency, intended to take back what was stolen, but a gradual movement in the direction of both freedom and fairness, a slow disconnection of the political from the economic. In the UK and in the rest of the world, labour doesn’t need special coddling or new protections from the government. Rather, all it needs to have its bargaining power restored is the removal or abolition of the government’s many favors to big business — the subsidies, regulatory and licensure protections, and intellectual property laws that prevent working class people from paving their own routes of egress from the corporate economy.

Translations for this article:

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