Cutting Through “Free Trade” Rhetoric

In a recent Guardian commentary, Timothy Snyder opines that “those who benefit from the Tea Party are more like British lords than American rebels.” Snyder argues that Tea Partiers are “rightwing anarchist[s]” whose “mantras of low taxation and small government have become the way to avoid discussing the challenges of globalisation.”

Snyder is more right than he knows regarding American conservatives’ thinking on globalization, which has given Western multinational corporations (MNCs) free rein to run roughshod over the world. American “small government conservatives,” ostensibly epitomized by the Tea Party, are quick to equate the corporate globalization that Snyder is rightly skeptical of with “free markets.”

There are indeed good reasons to object to this kind of globalization. But by lumping the sham “free market” creed of contemporary globalization in with anarchism (of any sort), Snyder muddles an otherwise important point. The truth is that conventional, American conservative models of global free trade and capitalism involve very active state intervention in the economy on behalf of MNCs.

For the average person, anarchism is scary, little understood and certainly to be avoided in polite discourse, a position that sensible adults just don’t condone. Many don’t accord it the status of a legitimate position at all, regarding it with the scorn due the mindless chaos-worship it represents to them. Standing outside of morality, promoting indiscriminate violence, anarchists are, they believe, nihilists with a message of destruction rather than a constructive vision.

But are these characterizations accurate, or is anarchism something quite different from the cartoon versions of the conventional wisdom?

The first thing to understand about anarchism is that, like all movements in their most broadly-defined incarnations, it constitutes a wide range of views. Like statists, anarchists appear as both communists and advocates of the free market, often holding contrasting views on everything from wage labor to land rent and interest.

A good starting point for understanding anarchism as an historical phenomenon and set of core tenets is to be cognizant of the areas where all anarchisms (if you will) overlap. Per the word itself, all anarchists oppose the state, on a variety of ethical and other grounds, as an impermissible instance of authority.

Under sociologist Max Weber’s famous definition, promulgated in a 1919 lecture, the “state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Today, Weber’s is the most commonly accepted definition of the state, and the one that most anarchists cite in explicating their reasons for opposing it.

Anarchists believe that relationships between individuals should be governed by principles of mutual respect, a consequence of which is that no person or group has right of recourse to arbitrary violence. The kind of “authority” anarchists reject, then, is not necessarily something like moral authority, but rather coercive authority that grants one person rule over another.

Proposing that every individual should rule himself or herself, anarchists see the power or authority imbalances created by the state as giving rise to such social problems as exploitation and the rampant violation of civil liberties.

Market anarchists conclude that a society without the state and its coercive privileges for the elite would see a genuine free market. That free market would look nothing like the inappropriately named “free market capitalism” of the present, which in fact incorporates special advantages for the ruling class at virtually every level of analysis. Today, even those exchanges which seem completely voluntary and consensual take place within a framework distorted by the state’s coercive adjustments.

The free trade treaties that give us Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” of globalization are a prime example of these distortions. Their version of “free trade” typically involves accession to stringent “intellectual property” protections and coercive monopolization of land and natural resources for “private” companies — nothing like what anarchists consider a free market.

When Big Business employs the rhetoric of “free markets,” it comes as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Consistent advocacy of free markets requires effort, because its insights are often counterintuitive, at least within the context of the prevailing conversation. And in that warped conversation, neither “anarchism” nor “free trade” are what they appear to be.

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