Markets Not Capitalism — Introduction

Ρу́сский: Рынки, не капитализм — Введение
Türkçe: Kapitalizm Değil, Piyasalar – Bir Giriş
Indonesia: Pasar Bukan Kapitalisme
Español: Mercado, no capitalismo – Introducción
Italiano: Mercato, non Capitalismo
Português: Mercados não capitalismo — Introdução

The individualist anarchist tendency is alive and well. Markets Not Capitalism offers a window onto this tendency’s history and highlights its potential contribution to the global anticapitalist movement. We seek in this book to stimulate a thriving conversation among libertarians of all varieties, as well as those with other political commitments, about the most fruitful path toward human liberation. We are confident that individualist anarchist insights into the liberatory potential of markets without capitalism can enrich that conversation, and we encourage you to join it.



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 anticapitalist — 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.

The Market Form

This book is intended as an extended introduction to the economic and social theory of left-wing market anarchism. Market anarchism is a radically individualist and anticapitalist social movement. Like other anarchists, market anarchists are radical advocates of individual liberty and mutual consent in every aspect of social life — thus rejecting all forms of domination and government as invasions against liberty and violations of human dignity. The market anarchists’ distinct contribution to anarchist thought is their analysis of the market form as a core component of a thoroughly free and equal society — their understanding of the revolutionary possibilities inherent in market relationships freed from government and capitalistic privilege, and their insights into the structures of political privilege and control that deform actually-existing markets and uphold exploitation in spite of the naturally equilibrating tendencies of market processes. Since they insist on so sharp a distinction between the market form as such and the economic features of actually-existing capitalism, it is important to carefully distinguish the key features of markets as market anarchists understand them. The social relationships that market anarchists explicitly defend, and hope to free from all forms of government control, are relationships based on:

  1. ownership of property, especially decentralized individual ownership, not only of personal possessions but also of land, homes, natural resources, tools, and capital goods;
  2. contract and voluntary exchange of goods and services, by individuals or groups, on the expectation of mutual benefit;
  3. free competition among all buyers and sellers — in price, quality, and all other aspects of exchange — without ex ante restraints or burdensome barriers to entry;
  4. entrepreneurial discovery, undertaken not only to compete in existing markets but also in order to discover and develop new opportunities for economic or social benefit; and
  5. spontaneous order, recognized as a significant and positive coordinating force — in which decentralized negotiations, exchanges, and entrepreneurship converge to produce large-scale coordination without, or beyond the capacity of, any deliberate plans or explicit common blueprints for social or economic development.

Market anarchists do not limit ownership to possession, or to common or collective ownership, although they do not exclude these kinds of ownership either; they insist on the importance of contract and market exchange, and on profit-motivated free competition and entrepreneurship; and they not only tolerate but celebrate the unplanned, spontaneous coordination that Marxists deride as the “social anarchy of production.” But left-wing market anarchists are also radically anticapitalist, and they absolutely reject the belief — common to both the anti-market Left and the pro-capitalist Right — that these five features of the market form must entail a social order of bosses, landlords, centralized corporations, class exploitation, cut-throat business dealings, immiserated workers, structural poverty, or large-scale economic inequality. They insist, instead, on five distinctive claims about markets, freedom, and privilege:

  • The centrifugal tendency of markets: market anarchists see freed markets, under conditions of free competition, as tending to diffuse wealth and dissolve fortunes — with a centrifugal effect on incomes, property-titles, land, and access to capital — rather than concentrating it in the hands of a socioeconomic elite. Market anarchists recognize no de jure limits on the extent or kind of wealth that any one person might amass; but they believe that market and social realities will impose much more rigorous de facto pressures against massive inequalities of wealth than any de jure constraint could achieve.
  • The radical possibilities of market social activism: market anarchists also see freed markets as a space not only for profit-driven commerce, but also as spaces for social experimentation and hard-driving grassroots activism. They envision “market forces” as including not only the pursuit of narrowly financial gain or maximizing returns to investors, but also the appeal of solidarity, mutuality and sustainability. “Market processes” can — and ought to — include conscious, coordinated efforts to raise consciousness, change economic behavior, and address issues of economic equality and social justice through nonviolent direct action.
  • The rejection of statist-quo economic relations: market anarchists sharply distinguish between the defense of the market form and apologetics for actually-existing distributions of wealth and class divisions, since these distributions and divisions hardly emerged as the result of unfettered markets, but rather from the governed, regimented, and privilege-ridden markets that exist today; they see actually-existing distributions of wealth and class divisions as serious and genuine social problems, but not as problems with the market form itself; these are not market problems but ownership problems and coordination problems.
  • The regressiveness of regulation: market anarchists see coordination problems — problems with an unnatural, destructive, politically-imposed interruption of the free operation of exchange and competition — as the result of continuous, ongoing legal privilege for incumbent capitalists and other well-entrenched economic interests, imposed at the expense of small-scale competitors and the working class.
  • Dispossession and rectification: market anarchists see economic privilege as partly the result of serious ownership problems — problems with an unnatural, destructive, politically-imposed maldistribution of property titles — produced by the history of political dispossession and expropriation inflicted worldwide by means of war, colonialism, segregation, nationalization and kleptocracy. Markets are not viewed as being maximally free so long as they are darkened by the shadow of mass robbery or the denial of ownership; and they emphasize the importance of reasonable rectification of past injustices — including grassroots, anti-corporate, anti-neoliberal approaches to the “privatization” of state-controlled resources; processes for restitution to identifiable victims of injustice; and revolutionary expropriation of property fraudulently claimed by the state and state-entitled monopolists.

The Market Anarchist Tradition

Early anarchist thinkers such as Josiah Warren and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon emphasized the positive, socially harmonizing features of market relationships when they were conducted within a context of equality — with Proudhon, for example, writing that social revolution would abolish the “system of laws” and “principle of authority,” to replace them with the “system of contracts” [1].

Drawing on Warren’s and Proudhon’s use of contract and exchange for models of social mutuality, distinctive strands of market anarchism have emerged repeatedly within the broad anarchist tradition, punctuated by crises, collapses, interregnums and resurgences. The history is complex but it can be roughly divided into three major periods represented in this text — (i) a “first wave,” represented mainly by “individualist anarchists” and “mutualists” such as Benjamin Tucker, Voltairine de Cleyre, and Dyer Lum, and occupying roughly the period from the American Civil War to 1917; [2] (ii) a “second wave,” coinciding with the radicalization of formerly pro-capitalist American libertarians and the resurgence of anarchism as a family of social movements during the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s; and (iii) a “third wave,” developing as a dissident strand within the anarchist milieu of the 1990s and the post-Seattle movement of the new millennium.

In spite of discontinuities and differences, each wave has typically revived the literature of the earlier waves and drawn explicitly on its themes; what has, in general, united them is their defense of market relationships and their particular emphasis on the revolutionary possibilities inherent in the market form, when it is — to the extent that it is — liberated from legal and social institutions of privilege.

The anticapitalism of the “first wave” individualists was obvious to them and to many of their contemporaries. Benjamin Tucker famously argued that four monopolies, or clusters of state-guaranteed privileges, were responsible for the power of the corporate elite — the patent monopoly, the effective monopoly created by the state’s distribution of arbitrarily engrossed land to the politically favored and its protection of unjust land titles, the money and credit monopoly, and the monopolistic privileges conferred by tariffs. The economically powerful depended on these monopolies; eliminate them, and the power of the elite would dissolve.

Tucker was committed to the cause of justice for workers in conflict with contemporary capitalists and he clearly identified with the burgeoning socialist movement. But he argued against Marx and other socialists that market relationships could be fruitful and non-exploitative provided that the market-distorting privileges conferred by the four monopolies were eliminated.

The radicalism of Tucker and his compatriots and that of the strand of anarchism they birthed was arguably less apparent after the breaking of the first wave than it was to their contemporaries. Perhaps in part this is because of their disputes with representatives of other anarchist tendencies, whose criticisms of their views have influenced the perceptions of later anarchists. It is also, unavoidably, a consequence of the identification of many of their twentieth-century descendants with the right wing of the libertarian movement and thus as apologists for the corporate elite and its social dominance.

Though there were honorable exceptions, twentieth-century market-oriented libertarians frequently lionized corporate titans, ignored or rationalized the abuse of workers, and trivialized or embraced economic and social hierarchy. While many endorsed the critique of the state and of state-secured privilege offered by Tucker and his fellow individualists, they often overlooked or rejected the radical implications of the earlier individualists’ class-based analysis of structural injustice. There were, in short, few vocal enthusiasts for the individualists’ brand of anticapitalism in the early-to-mid-twentieth century.

The most radical fringe of the market-oriented strand of the libertarian movement — represented by thinkers like Murray Rothbard and Roy Childs — generally embraced, not the anticapitalist economics of individualism and mutualism, but a position its advocates described as “anarcho-capitalism.” The future free society they envisioned was a market society — but one in which market relationships were little changed from business as usual and the end of state control was imagined as freeing business to do much what it had been doing before, rather than unleashing competing forms of economic organization, which might radically transform market forms from the bottom up.

But in the “second wave” of the 1960s, the family of anarchist social movements — revived by antiauthoritarian and countercultural strands of the New Left — and the antiwar radicals among the libertarians began to rediscover and republish the works of the mutualists and the other individualists. “Anarcho-capitalists” such as Rothbard and Childs began to question libertarianism’s historical alliance with the Right, and to abandon defenses of big business and actually-existing capitalism in favor of a more consistent left-wing market anarchism. Perhaps the most visible and dramatic example was Karl Hess’s embrace of the New Left radicalism, and his abandonment of “capitalist” economics in favor of small-scale, community-based, non-capitalist markets. By 1975, the former Goldwater speechwriter declared, “I have lost my faith in capitalism” and “I resist this capitalist nation-state,” observing that he had “turn[ed] from the religion of capitalism.” [3]

The “second wave” was followed by a second trough, for anarchism broadly and market anarchism in particular. By the later 1970s and the 1980s, the anticapitalist tendency among market-oriented libertarians had largely dissipated or been shouted down by the mainstreaming pro-capitalist politics of well-funded “libertarian” institutions like the Cato Institute and the leadership of the Libertarian Party. But with the end of the Cold War, the realignment of longstanding political coalitions, and the public coming-out of a third wave anarchist movement in the 1990s, the intellectual, social stages were set for today’s resurgence of anticapitalist market anarchism.

By the beginning of twenty-first century, anticapitalist descendants of the individualists had grown in number, influence, and visibility. They shared the early individualists’ conviction that markets need not in principle be exploitative. At the same time, they elaborated and defended a distinctively libertarian version of class analysis that extended Tucker’s list of monopolies and highlighted the intersection of state-secured privilege with systematic past and ongoing dispossession and with a range of issues of ecology, culture, and interpersonal power relations. They emphasized the fact that, while genuinely liberated — freed — markets could be empowering, market transactions that occurred in contexts misshapen by past and ongoing injustice were, not surprisingly, debilitating and oppressive. But the problem, the new individualists (like their predecessors) insisted, lay not with markets but rather with capitalism — with social dominance by economic elites secured by the state. The solution, then, was the abolition of capitalism through the elimination of legal privileges, including the privileges required for the protection of title to stolen and engrossed assets.

The new individualists have been equally critical of explicitly statist conservatives and progressives and of market-oriented libertarians on the right who use the rhetoric of freedom to legitimate corporate privilege. Their aggressive criticism of this sort of “vulgar libertarianism” has emphasized that existing economic relationships are shot through with injustice from top to bottom and that calls for freedom can readily be used to mask attempts to preserve the freedom of elites to retain wealth acquired through state-tolerated or state-perpetrated violence and state-guaranteed privilege.

The Natural Habitat of the Market Anarchist

This book would not have been possible without the Internet. The reader of Markets Not Capitalism will quickly notice that many of the articles do not read quite like chapters in an ordinary book. Many of them are short. Many of them begin in the middle of a dialogue — one of the most frequent opening phrases is “In a recent issue of such-and-such, so-and-so said that…” The contemporary articles often originally appeared online, as posts to a weblog; they refer frequently to past posts or pre-existing discussions, and often criticize on or elaborate comments made by other authors in other venues. While the articles have been reformatted for print, many still read very distinctly like the blog posts that they once were.

But this is not merely an artifact of Internet-based social networks. The history of the individualist and mutualist tradition is largely a history of ephemeral publications, short-lived presses, self-published pamphlets, and small radical papers. The most famous is certainly Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty (1881-1908), but also includes such publications as Hugh Pentecost’s Twentieth Century (1888-1898), as well as “second wave” market anarchist journals such as Left and Right (1965-1968) and Libertarian Forum (1969-1984). All these publications were short and published frequently; their articles were typically critical rather than comprehensive, idiosyncratic rather than technical in approach and tone. Long-standing, far-reaching debates between papers, correspondents, and the surrounding movement were constant sources of material; where a specific interlocutor was not available for some of these articles, the author might, as in de Cleyre and Slobodinsky’s “The Individualist and the Communist: A Dialogue,” go so far as to invent one. The most famous book-length work from the “first wave” — Tucker’s Instead of a Book, by a Man Too Busy to Write One (1893) — is simply a collection of short articles from Liberty, the majority of which are clearly themselves replies to questions and arguments posed by Liberty’s readers or fellow journal editors. The critical exchanges read very much like those one might encounter today on Blogger or WordPress sites — because, of course, today’s blog is merely a new technological form taken by the small, independent press.

The independent, dialogue-based small press has provided a natural habitat for market anarchist writing to flourish — whereas liberal and Marxist writing found their most distinctive habitats in declarations, manifestos, and intricate, comprehensive treatises. Why this might be the case is a large question, worth exploring far beyond what the limits of this preface might allow. However, it may be worth noting that market anarchism has more or less always emerged as a critical and experimental project — on the radical fringes of social movements (whether the Owenite movement, the freethought movement, the labor movement, the American market-oriented libertarian movement, or the counter-globalization movement and the associated social anarchist milieu).

Market anarchism aims to draw out social truths not by dogmatizing or laying down the law, but rather by allowing as far as possible for the free interplay of ideas and social forces, by looking for the unintended consequences of accepted ideas, by engagement in an open-ended process of experimentation and discovery that permits the constant testing of both ideas and institutions against competitors and bottom-line reality.

The revolutionary anarchist and mutualist Dyer D. Lum (1839-1893) wrote in “The Economics of Anarchy” that a defining feature of market anarchy was the “plasticity” of social and economic arrangements as opposed to the “rigidity” of either statist domination or communist economic schemes. The substance of market anarchist ideas has arguably shaped the form in which market anarchist writers feel most at home expressing them. Or perhaps, conversely, the form of the writing may even be what has often made the substance possible: it may be that market anarchist ideas most naturally take shape in the course of dialogue rather than disquisition, in the act of critical give-and-take rather than one-sided monologue. The value of spontaneity, exploratory engagement, and the rigors of the competitive test may be as essential to the formation of market anarchist ideas in writing as they are to the implementation of those ideas in the world at large.

If so, then these articles must be read with the awareness that they have, to a certain extent, been lifted out of their natural environment. There are longer, sustained treatments of the topics they address, but most articles were originally contributions to longstanding, ongoing projects, and took place in the course of wide-ranging debates. We have collected them in a printed anthology to do a service to the student, the researcher, and anyone else who is curious about alternative approaches in free market economics and anarchist social thought. But they are best understood not as identifying the end of the subject, or even really the beginning, but rather as offering an invitation to dive in in medias res, to see left-wing market anarchist ideas emerging from the dialogical process itself — and to participate in the ongoing conversation. …


1. See “Organization of Economic Forces,” General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, ch. 3 (37-58), in this volume.

2. The exact differences between “individualists” and “mutualists” during the first wave were hardly ever cut and dried; many writers (such as Tucker) used each word at different times to refer to their own position. However, a few differences might be sketched between those who were most frequently called “individualists,” such as Tucker or Yarros, and those who were most frequently called “mutualists,” such as Dyer Lum, Clarence Swartz, or the European followers of Proudhon — in particular, that while both supported the emancipation of workers and ensuring that all workers had access to capital, the “mutualists” tended to emphasize the specific importance of worker-owned co-operatives and direct worker ownership over the means of production, while “individualists” tended to emphasize that under conditions of equal freedom, workers would settle on whatever arrangements of ownership made most sense under the circumstances.
Complicating matters, “mutualism” is now retrospectively used, in the twenty-first century, to refer to most anti-capitalist market anarchists, or specifically to those (like Kevin Carson) who differ from the so-called “Lockean” position on land ownership — who believe that land ownership can be based only on personal occupancy and use, ruling out absentee landlordship as undesirable and unworthy of legal protection. “Mutualists” in this sense of the term includes both those who were most frequently called “individualists” during the first wave (such as Tucker) and those who were most frequently called “mutualists” (such as Lum).
3. To be sure, while Hess’s social attitudes do not seem to have changed substantially after he made these statements, he became less wedded to the language of anti-capitalism; he published Capitalism for Kids: Growing Up to Be Your Own Boss in 1986. But there is no reason to doubt that what Hess meant by “capitalism” here was what contemporary left-wing market anarchists mean when they talk about peaceful, voluntary exchange in a genuinely freed market, rather than what he had rejected in 1975. Certainly, as the book’s sub-title suggests, he had no intention of steering young readers into careers as corporate drones.
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