Mic Check: I See What You Did There

As right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh loves to note, words mean things. What they mean isn’t always obvious, of course. Meanings change over time. Gaps between usage and reality are open to exploitation and abuse. One key task of any movement for change is to close those gaps — to help people accurately identify words with the phenomena they actually describe.

The Pew Research Center’s recent polling on public response to the words “capitalism” and “socialism” is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the frame of reference from which Pew itself poses the questions.

In an overview article on the polling, Pew asserts that “The recent Occupy Wall Street protests have focused public attention on what organizers see as the excesses of America’s free market system, but perceptions of capitalism — and even of socialism — have changed little since early 2010 despite the recent tumult.”

Do you see what they smuggled in there?

From Pew’s perspective, “excesses” are a matter of opinion … but the idea that America has a “free market system” is objective fact. And implicit in the questions is conflation of that “free market system” with “capitalism.”

Within the libertarian political movement, considerable debate continues over that conflation.

Most “right-libertarians” see free markets and capitalism as the same thing … and America’s un-free markets as therefore not capitalist at all. An interesting sub-species of “right-libertarian,” dubbed the “vulgar libertarian” by my C4SS colleague Kevin Carson, compounds the conflation by defending non-free-market entities like corporations as if they were free market, and therefore “capitalist,” entities.

Most “left-libertarians” see free markets and capitalism as not only not the same thing, but incompatible … and America, as a capitalist nation, as inherently non-free-market. The left-libertarian critique of capitalist entities such as corporations centers around their symbiotic relations with the state, through which they gain privilege and protection at the expense of freedom in the market around them.

The signal contribution of the Occupy movement with respect to this issue is that it’s closing the obvious perceptual gap in favor of the left-libertarian claim, at the expense of state involvement of any type in the economy (and therefore at the expense of the state, period).

Occupiers have come together from virtually every point of the political compass. Market anarchists, state socialists, you name it, they’re involved. What differentiates this movement from others in terms of direction is its internal dynamic — its dialectic, if you will.

Because no ideological faction has succeeded in bringing the movement under its control, its real function has become exposing (and thereby, sooner or later, collapsing) the apparent contradiction between the reality of actually existing capitalism and the perception of that capitalism as a “free market.”

If Occupy succeeds at nothing else — if the innovative tactical approaches they’ve pioneered come to nought, if a new wave of state repression sweeps them from the field as an organized force, if the stigmergic networking strategy that’s thus far kept them one step ahead of attempts to make them irrelevant fails them at some point (only to surely be taken up by others) — they’ve already given the world a great gift.

That gift is closure of a deadly perceptual gap, closure which will shape and re-shape global society in the years and decades to come.

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist
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