An Interview With Kevin Carson
Today, as you can see from the title, we bring you the first of two parts of an interview with Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at C4SS who holds the Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. Recently there has been a translation of both his first book into Spanish, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (by the Innisfree publishing house), and also a translation of recent work, such as the one done by Confederatio Think Tank of the C4SS study entitled: “Libertarian Municipalism: Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition.” Given the arrival of this and more content to the Spanish language, we saw ourselves in the search to do an interview with Kevin Carson, to update us on the progress of his ideas such as his current vision on different topics: from the current opinion of his book Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, on common goods as topics related to his new book Exodus, on the situation in Venezuela and Latin America for the development of interstitial movements, etc.
We are really very happy to have been able to do this comprehensive and diverse interview for the Spanish-speaking audience, and we hope that it can also reach people in other languages. With nothing more to say, enjoy the interview:
1. First of all, we are glad that you have accepted an interview, it is a pleasure to interview you.
Kevin Carson: Thanks for the invitation!
2. Ten years have passed since you published Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. What do you think of the book today?
KC: It was actually published in 2004, so it’s been longer than that! Some parts of it hold up well. I’m especially proud of the first chapter and my treatment of the points in dispute between the classical political economists and the marginalists. I think the chapters on monopoly capitalism and imperialism also hold up pretty well.
3. Would you change or add anything? Could there be such thing as Studies in Mutualist Political Economy 2.0?
KC: Well there’s not going to be a new edition, that’s for damn sure. I stopped considering myself a market anarchist a long time ago, which entailed pretty much losing my interest in defending exchange value in general and labor/effort as a normative standard from the Marxists and non-market anarchists. I see the law of value much less in terms of micro-economic price formation theory or in relation to the classical political economists’ version of the LTV, as I did in 2004, and more as Marx did (at least as interpreted by Harry Cleaver) in light of primitive accumulation and the surplus-extracting imperative of capital. So responding to attacks on it in terms of microeconomic theory, or defending it in those terms — e.g. the obsession with the “transformation problem,” etc. — is beside the point.
I probably wouldn’t treat Bohm-Bawerk’s time preference theory with even the level of respect I did in Chapter Three, if I were writing it today. I briefly touched on the fact that time preference correlates strongly to poverty, and therefore is a form of positive feedback that reinforces and intensifies inequality. Coupled with the fact that it’s based on a money theory of credit (in Schumpter’s terms) rather than the reverse, I would have simply examined it for the purpose of dismissing it.
I have, however, maintained some interest in attacking the operating assumptions of marginalist economics, and other orthodoxies of right-libertarianism like Mises’ calculation argument (e.g.https://c4ss.org/content/52310; https://c4ss.org/content/52718). Someday I might organize all these commentaries into a single appendix to the value theory chapters of MPE for separate publication.
Aside from all that, I’d rework a lot of the property analysis in Chapter Four, make some major changes in my analysis of the crisis tendencies in Chapter Eight, and write a completely different Chapter Nine based on my research for Homebrew Industrial Revolution, Desktop Regulatory State, and Exodus.
4. Could you explain your subjective labor theory of value? In a way that wouldn’t scare subjectivists to death.
KC: The short and sweet version is that it’s based on the disutility of labor. The owners of other factors will distribute them according to their most profitable uses, but there’s no subjective sense of disutility in investing or allocating them in the same sense that effort is subjectively unpleasant for a worker, and leisure is subjectively good. Labor is the only factor that has to be persuaded to contribute its services.
5. Given you speak about Mutualist Political Economy, what can you say about the relationship between mutualism as an ideology and economics as a science?
KC: Probably not much that I haven’t touched on already in my two previous answers.
6. Your book is also known for its discussion of several forms of property rights (you discuss the georgist, lockean and mutualist view) What do you think of the lockean view? (Given it is the dominant view, we are curious about your thoughts)
KC: The Lockean view is dominant mostly ideologically, albeit in its non-proviso form. But for the most part I doubt Locke himself, let alone most of the mainstream pro-property polemicists who name-drop him, take even that version at all seriously. Certainly none of the folks like Niall Ferguson or Tom Friedman who lionize “property rights” could give a damn in practice what was the source of current land titles, or would give a damn that the overwhelming majority of them can be traced to conquest, robbery, or enclosure. And certainly no property law in any Western capitalist country involves anything like Locke’s theoretical standards for initial appropriation.
And Locke’s historical theory of “homesteading” as a justification for individual, fee-simple private property — which has been taken up uncritically by the overwhelming majority of right-libertarians — his absolute nonsense from the standpoint of history and anthropology. The idea that individual private property is some kind of naturally emerging institution that’s existed throughout history is a “nursery fable” or “just-so story” of the same kind as Smith’s emergence of the cash nexus through a “natural propensity to truck and barter,” or the emergence of specie currency as a response to the problem of “double coincidence of wants.” And it’s been utterly demolished by a whole host of historians and anthropologists, most recently David Graeber.
If there’s anything that was a historical norm for property models that existed almost universally from the neolithic revolution until the rise of the state — and persisted in many places under the state until just the last century or so — it would be Ostrom’s commons-based model of natural resource governance, and communal forms of land tenure like the open-field village model in India and the Mir in Russia. And those are also the models I would favor a return to.
I don’t want to devote a lot of space to rehashing the arguments here, but they can be found in my latest study for C4SS: https://c4ss.org/content/53305
7. How do the previously stated views relate to your support for commons-based property forms?
KC: I think I got ahead of myself and mostly answered this question in my response to the previous one. Suffice it to say I think commons-based property forms were the historic norm, and that if any particular form of property has ever truly emerged peacefully and been maintained by consensus, it was them. The current model of land and resource titles derived from robbery and enclosure is at the heart of capitalism’s treatment of land and resources as artificially abundant, and its growth model of extensive addition of material inputs and treating nature as a free sink for carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. A commons based model is necessary for overcoming the structural effects of this artificial abundance. And commons-based ownership of land and commons-based living arrangements — a sort of return to Bookchin’s “irreducible minimum” of the necessities of life guaranteed to people as members of organic social units like hunter-gatherer groups and neolithic villages — will be what ensures our survival after state- and employer-based safety nets collapse.
8. We also know you’re working on this new book Exodus: General Idea of the Revolution in XXI Century that sums up several topics you have developed throughout the years. Could you tell our readers what is the basis of this book?
KC: It was inspired by the previous research I’d done in my C4SS studies on horizontalist revolutionary strategy, on post-scarcity and techno-utopianism, and on the new municipalism. The general theme is the shift from Old Left strategies for post-capitalist transition through insurrectionary rupture, or revolutionary or electoral seizure of the state, and centered on mass-based institutions like political parties or syndicalist unions, to strategies based on horizontalist organization and interstitial development of the future society. The significance of technological changes, like cheap high-tech machinery suited to small-scale production for use in the social economy, and networked communications systems, figures strongly in making Exodus more feasible relative to the seizure of existing institutions.
9. In light of analysis about “seeds under the snow” (municipal structures, counterinstitutions) How do you see that development in Latin America?
10. What guidelines, advices or ideas would you give to us people of that region, in order to implement the ideas you sketch in your work?
11. We would like to focus on the case of Venezuela, being a country that faces several difficulties (economic, institutional, etc) for planting these seeds. How could these ideas be implemented with such difficulties? How could it help fight the authoritarian Venezuelan State?
12. You’ve also spoken of a “bolivarian communitarianism” that is using the structure of existing communes (that are a way of control rather than an anarchist commune) to generate authentic anarchic communes they have generated conflict within the Bolivarian movement. Could you explain to us what that Bolivarian communitarism is? What do you think of chavismo and the Bolivarian movement?
KC: If you don’t object, I’m consolidating my answers to these four questions because they’re so closely related.
In general, I see the Latin American counter-power movements confronted with the same kind of dilemma that the Syntagma movement faced in dealing with the Syriza government in Greece, and that Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson faced dealing with Mayor Lumumba’s administration. Leftist electoral or revolutionary movements may — and in most cases do — come to power sincerely motivated to implement the agendas of allied social movements and counter-institutions. But once in power, the party governments are faced with their own institutional imperatives, and confronted with problems they must address as governments, which means their focus will be almost entirely on pursuing the kinds of conventional policy options available to governments to increase revenue, develop the economy and increase output/employment, combat capital flight, etc. — even when it means weakening the social movements that put them in power, and coopting their counter-institutions. Even through the best of intentions, the governments will pursue developmentalist/extractivist economic policies; they will negotiate with neoliberal regimes in the West and neoliberal multilateral bodies based on “what’s possible” (see, for example, the way Syriza threw the Syntagma movement under the bus in negotiating with the European Central Bank, and imposed austerity because from their perspective it was the “only realistic option”); and they will coopt the counter-institutions, turn them into transmission belts for state policy, and make them dependent on state funding.
This is not to say that social movements centered on interstitial transition and the construction of counter-institutions, building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old, etc., should not engage with the state or — selectively — make common cause with electoral or revolutionary movements.
But it requires a realist approach based on a division of labor, which will persist regardless of whether the political arm achieves state power. The social movements must be firm in their understanding that their purpose is to construct the successor society within the interstices of the existing one, through the creation and development of counter-institutions, regardless of who controls the state. And they must be openly resolved not to defer to the party in power, even if it is an offshoot of their own movement, or allow it to constrain their range of alternatives.
And while the electoral or revolutionary party is still entirely an opposition party, with no immediate hope for power, it must be given to understand that the social movements will not recognize its authority to restrain their efforts in constructing the successor society. The political arm’s central purpose, whether in or out of power, is to run political interference on behalf of the social movements, and to maximize their space for independent action — whether it be through popular mobilization against domestic and international forces, or in negotiations with neoliberal actors abroad. In face both the political and social arms must operate from the explicit understanding that the latter will always maintain their entire independence, and will not be bound by any concessions made by the political arm (as was the case with Syriza in its negotiations with the European Central Bank). Rather, it is to be understood that the entire autonomy of the social movements will serve to cloak the political arm with plausible deniability, enabling it to play “good cop” in negotiating with the United States, IMF or whomever, and to say “We’d like to grant this concession, but we have no authority to enforce it on the local communes. If we make a deal they don’t like, they’ll just do something even more radical than they’re doing now.”
I hesitate, as a white man in the Global North sitting in front of my computer, to give unsolicited advice to anyone actively engaged in real-life struggle in the neo-colonial world. But to the extent that I have any, it would be the same whether for those in Venezuela or elsewhere. For social movements whose political arms have not yet taken power, my advice would be essentially what I outlined in the paragraphs above.
For those in countries where the political arm has taken power, the situation is much harder. For the Left while the Workers’ Party was in power in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia, and for the grassroots Bolivarian movement in Venezuela to the present day, it seems to be a tightrope walk between, on the one hand, fighting for freedom of action against the official parties of the Left that are in power, and resisting their conventional Old Left developmentalist/extractivist approach, and on the other, defending the regimes in power against attempts by the West to impose neoliberal coups from without (as has already been done in Brazil and Bolivia, and is being attempted through Guaido in Venezuela).
Their range of action is quite limited, and they face realities on the ground many of which I know little or nothing of. So my “advice,” such as it is, is entirely tentative. To the extent that Maduro depends on the mass, communal, and neighborhood organizations to stay in power, they should do their best to keep his mind constantly on that fact, and to make clear what they expect in return for their loyalty. To the extent that his remaining in power depends on their active mobilization and intervention in his defense, they should use that mobilization as much as possible to secure a permanent organizational base for leverage in the future (the position of increased leverage obtained by the Bolsheviks, as a result of the Red Guards’ role in turning back Kornilov’s assault, is what comes to mind for me). They should send out feelers to political factions within the Bolivarian regime, and to individual actors in the state bureaucracy, that are friendly to the original Bolivarian model and to the counter-institutions, and develop stronger alliances with them. They should take advantage of all material and technical resources that act as force-multipliers or facilitate community bootstrapping, in order to shift the communal counter-institutions towards a model of actual production for subsistence rather than disbursement of state revenues.
I think the Bolivarian movement that put Chavez into power was of the same general type as the EZLN in Chiapas, and the Kurdish communalists in Rojava — that is, a movement aiming at, in John Holloway’s words, changing the world without taking power. Or creating cracks in the system, and expanding the cracks and joining them together, until they become the system. Hugo Chavez was sincerely motivated to make this vision a reality through state power, but he fell victim to all the perverse institutional incentives I mentioned above facing leftist parties in power, and Maduro even more so. He was essentially taken prisoner by his own power.