Markets Not Capitalism (Book Review #2)

Column by Alex R. Knight III

Exclusive to STR

In November of 2011, a book was published that immediately captured my attention, not only because its central theme was market anarchist economics, but in that its very title challenged the label “capitalism” – long the sacred cow of free-marketeers, self-styled and otherwise.

I must admit that I too had partially fallen prey to the notion of capitalism as referring exclusively to laissez-faire free market activity. In fact, prior to reading Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty, I had never heard the term “freed markets” – meaning an economy in which many often conflicting models of exchange in goods and services coexist, and in which laissez-faire free markets, as such, are only a part of a potential plethora of voluntary systems.

Enter this anthology, compiled and edited by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson, of 48 separate essays whose authors range from the 19th Century individualist anarchists (Benjamin R. Tucker, Dyer D. Lum, Voltairine de Cleyre), to today’s advocates of libertarian anarchy -- among whom are, including the editors themselves, Roderick T. Long, Kevin A. Carson, and Brad Spangler – many of whom are active with the Center for a Stateless Society. Divided into eight different parts or chapters, the reading selections cover a range of commonplace concerns that many statists, in particular those who identify most strongly with the Left, seem to raise frequently in connection with capitalistic economic constructs.

From “Corporate Power and Labor Solidarity” (Part Four), to “Inequality and Social Safety Nets” (Part Six), to essays culminating in Part Eight, “Freed-Market Regulation: Social Activism and Spontaneous Order” – that address subjects such as racism, the environment, and community organizing from a voluntaryist perspective – the volume’s theme is to demonstrate how traditional government-based thinking and applied “solutions” in relation to such economic and societal maladies merely exacerbates existing conditions while creating a dystopia of new problems. In a nutshell, it challenges the left to rethink paradigms about government regulation. Even Alexander Cockburn, editor and publisher of the leftie news site Counterpunch, is quoted on the back cover as saying, “We on the left need a good shake to get us thinking, and these arguments for market anarchism do the job in lively and thoughtful fashion.” And indeed, “left-wing market anarchism” and even “stigmergic socialism” (as per Brad Spangler’s essay at page 85) seem to be some of the more recent descriptive monickers applied to what has been otherwise more customarily thought of as “anarcho-capitalism.”

Perhaps the definitive essay of the compilation in toto is Charles W. Johnson’s “Markets Freed from Capitalism,” in which he delineates three separate models of capitalism, at pages 64-65, divergent from laissez-faire. The first he points to are simply government monopolies or cartels, such as police, roads, or courts, in which private or alternative competition is shut out or actively suppressed. Second, Johnson points to “regressive redistribution,” in which government seizes or confiscates the assets of ordinary people, to be then turned over to bigger and more economically powerful interests. One especially egregious landmark example of this was the 2005 Kelo v. New London U.S. Supreme Court case stemming from Connecticut, where eminent domain provisions were used to hand private homes over to developers involved in non-public construction projects. Thirdly, Johnson defines “captive markets,” whereupon government coercively creates a demand or increase in demand for goods and/or services via mandates backed by penalties or other punitive measures. A prime example of this would be the coming Obamacare mandatory health insurance laws, due to kick into high gear in 2014.

Obviously, these perversions of freed market principles do not square with the purely voluntary exchange and transaction arrangements envisioned by libertarians. Yet, they are all too demonstrative of commonplace occurrences in American and other modern societies generally thought of or referred to as “capitalist.”

Moving into much deeper territory where even libertarian orthodoxy itself can find itself challenged are pieces such as Roderick T. Long’s “A Plea for Public Property” (1998), in which he envisions market mechanisms that embrace non-private interests. One idea Long advances is the idea of rotating ownership, similar to a time-share arrangement in which there is no central owner. At any event, he pens a provocative paragraph at page 162, wherein he states: “Far from providing a sphere of independence, a society in which all property is private thus renders the propertyless completely dependent on those who own property. This strikes me as a dangerous situation, given the human propensity to abuse power when power is available.” Long’s point is that an all-private property system can be just as oppressive as the “public” (government) status-quo. Hence his ultimate assertion on page 168: “But a system that allows networks of private spaces and public spaces to compete against each other offers the greatest scope for individual freedom.”

In “Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It” (2007), Charles Johnson returns to explain in some detail how America’s poorest and most disadvantaged are prevented by myriads of government licensing schemes, health and fire regulations, and bans on occupation of abandoned properties, from lifting themselves by their own bootstraps out of inner-city slums. In fact, he points out quite succinctly at page 384, that: “The poorer you are, the more you need access to informal and flexible alternatives, and the more you need opportunities to apply some creative hustling. When the state shuts that out, it shuts poor people into ghettoized poverty.”

Overall, Markets Not Capitalism is a landmark text in the development of market anarchist theory, in that it is the first unabashed and cohesive attempt to woo the left away from government statism and state socialist economic models. And while I can certainly recommend you procure a hard copy book version, delightfully, thanks to the efforts of Stephanie Murphy of Porc Therapy, a free downloadable and very well orchestrated audio version, in full is available here. As if that weren’t enough, a serialized YouTube version is also available here (to view further videos, click on the YouTube username ALLtowardliberty).

Perhaps most relevant to the spirit of this book overall, in that it seeks to bridge philosophical gaps that may have up to this juncture seemed unbreachable, is the closing paragraph (at page 240) of Roy A. Childs, Jr.’s essay, “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” which first appeared in two parts in the February and March 1971 issues of Reason magazine: “Libertarians themselves should take heart. Our hope lies, as strange as it may seem, not with any remnants from an illusory ‘golden age’ of individualism, which never existed, but with tomorrow. Our day has not come and gone. It has never existed at all. It is our task to see that it will exist in the future. The choice and the battle are ours.”

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Alex R. Knight III's picture
Columns on STR: 153

Alex R. Knight III is the author of numerous horror, science-fiction, and fantasy tales.  He has also written and published poetry, non-fiction articles, reviews, and essays for a variety of venues.  He currently lives and writes in rural southern Vermont where he holds a B.A. in Literature & Writing from Union Institute & University.  Alex's Amazon page can be found here, and his work may also be found at both Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.  His MeWe group can be found here.


Jim Davies's picture

From Lewis Carroll's Alice in the Looking Glass:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'
So does this book use an uniform defintion of what "capitalism" means, to which all its authors subscribe? Or is one of them "master"?!
Emulating Humpty, I use the word to refer to the process of deferring consumption so as to save, and investing the saved "capital" in promising ventures such as one's own; all these actions being done on an individual, voluntary basis.
I think Marx, for one, meant by it something different; so he didn't like it. Today lefties often mean by it the alliance between big business and government, with confusion about which is the tail and which, the dog. I join them in disliking that.
But I really like it, the way I define it.

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Me too, as you can see from my first hyperlink to an older essay.  This book did, however, open my eyes to a lot of other views and angles, which is one of its points.  :-)

Paul's picture

Well, the word "capitalism" is ruined in any case. It is so variable in meaning that it is pointless to attach ourselves to it. Calling for free markets makes a lot more sense and is less likely to be misinterpreted by the observer.

"Long’s point is that an all-private property system can be just as oppressive as the “public” (government) status-quo."

I too have my doubts about this, particularly since if there were ever a conversion over to all private ownership, the now-government land would be bought up via the ill-gotten gains of such parasites as the banksters. Rothbard in "Conceived in America" noted many cases where vast lands were simply handed over to cronies of the British Court, and we would just be seeing a modern-day version of the same thing. I've made other questions about private property in this article:
It behooves us to question some of our own assumptions about property, and have an open mind for real solutions.

Thanks for the book review. I will take a look...

Suverans2's picture

Well, the word ["anarchism"] is ruined in any case. It is so variable in meaning that it is pointless to attach ourselves to it. Calling for [self-government] makes a lot more sense and is less likely to be misinterpreted by the observer.

Mitrik_Spanner's picture

The word "democracy" is ruined in any case. It is so variable in meaning that it is pointless to attach ourselves to it. I second the idea to promote "self-government" as the term of choice.

Suverans2's picture

Yeah, Mitrik_Spanner, can you imagine getting a negative response to the question, "Providing that I do not trespass on anyone else's natural rights to life, liberty and justly acquired property, do you mind if I govern myself?"

Perhaps, a more important question is, can you imagine the kind of person who would answer that question in the affirmative, once they discovered that that would mean that they would have to keep their hands off of that which you have a just claim (right) to, and therefor have a just claim (right) to defend and protect? Unfortunately, we are surrounded by them. It is our neighbors who make it possible for 'the government' to murder, enslave and plunder, not the few greedy sociopaths who wish to rule over everyone and everything.

"All governments must have citizens in order to exist." ~ Tom de Lorenzo

Glock27's picture

Human Nature is fickel. Humanoids were designed to survive and the self will do just about anything to defend its self--lie, cheat, steal,murder and etc. True. There are some altruistic people,other "Mother Tereasa types" and they do some good but not enough becaue they do not conribute to survival.

Scott Lazarowitz's picture

I agree with Suverans2. I prefer "voluntaryism" rather than "anarchism" because "anarchism" has connotations attached that are not helpful to the cause of freedom (just as the term "capitalism" in many people's minds connotes State-coerced privilegs, and NOT actual "free markets").

Suverans2's picture

voluntarism (n.) 1838, in philosophy, from voluntary + -ism. As the theory or principal of using voluntary action rather than coercion (in politics, etc.), from 1924, American English (Voluntaryism in this sense is recorded from 1883). ~ Online Etymology Dictionary

Good word, I'd say, Scott Lazarowitz. But, be forewarned, you may tarnish your reputation here by openly agreeing with me.

Jim Davies's picture

I don't agree that the word "capitalism" is ruined, it has just been given several meanings. That's a nuisance, but that just means that when one uses it, one has to clarify which ne is meant. Alex's opening point, as he reminds us.
The same is true for "anarchism" and others: "liberal" comes to mind. Not so sure about "democracy" though - has the meaning there changed much; people-rule? It never did mean individual self-government, surely?
"Free market" is a fine term and we know it includes capitalism in its proper sense of deferred consumption, but many people don't know that, so it has to be spelled out anyway. "Anarchism" is particularly fine, for a quick reference to its etymology exposes not only its real meaning but also the wickness of the language twisters in equating it to "chaos." Quite useful; the home page of The Anarchist Alternative shows an example.
Just this morning, I came across this from 1939: Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Heil- und Anstaltspflege. This article explains and translates: Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care. In reality, it was the German government's program for euthanizing the mentally ill. 
Humpty Dumpty hardly knew the half of it.