Thoughts on “free markets” in an anarchist society
The terms “capitalism” and “the free market” carry a lot of historical weight and baggage.
For the right, they are basic neccesities for freedom and prosperity. For the left, they are the root of social and class inequality, the primary source of misery and injustice in the name of human greed. For the vast majority on both sides, they are synonymous.
Needless to say, the spectrum of opinion is more complex than that outlined above. However, that brief charicature is roughly accurate of the main strands of economic thinking. In this simplification I, as anarchist communists and anarcho-syndicalists more generally, fall very definitively on the left. As a trawl through the archives of this site, particularly on the subject of capitalism, should tell you.
However, I am one of those for whom the free market and capitalism are not automatically synonymous.
Capitalism is an economic system wherein capital goods (that is, land, raw materials, tools, industrial machines, and factories) are owned by a separate class of people to those who use them to produce consumer goods (televisions, cars, computers, houses, etc). The owners, reaping the profits of the workers’ productivity, have dominion over the latter, who must sell their labour to survive.
If the owners of capital are state bureaucrats rather than private bosses, this is still capitalism. That is, in Kevin Carson’s words, “a system of power in which ownership and control are divorced from labor.”
If this is the case, then clearly capitalism doesn’t automatically entail a free market. The “communism” of the USSR was actually state-capitalism. Both Mussolini’s fascism and the military Keynesianism that has dominated the world economy since World War II are corporatist, the apparatus of the state being used to aggressively enforce the interests of capital and the ruling class.
In Why the “free” market isn’t free, I went further. Citing Carson’s point that capitalism, as he defined it, “cannot occur without state coercion to maintain the privilege of usurer, landlord, and capitalist,” I argued that “capitalism, as a system, descends directly from feudalism” and that it “makes a mockery of [anarcho-capitalist Murray] Rothbard’s conception of “voluntary agreement” for the “exchange” of “economic goods.”” As such, “a truly free market without any form of coercion would not be capitalist.”
Why does this matter?
Put simply, because it goes to the heart of the economic debates and struggles that have shaped the past 150 years, at least.
By conceding that capitalism is a free market without so much as a pedantic whine, we accept the ideological framework of the ruling class. This not only hands over the economic debate to those who advocate the dominant socio-economic model, it makes it harder to present the argument against that model and convince people of why it is worth fighting for something different.
It’s a simple point, but nonetheless one that needs to be made.
Returning to the main issue of free markets, what does this mean in practical terms?
In the preface to Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Carson describes his politics as “both a socialist movement and a subcurrent of classical liberalism.” The book is part of his effort to “provid[e] a new theoretical and practical foundation for free market socialist economics.”
But what is a non-capitalist free market? Does it fit into anarchist communism? And if so where?
When explaining What I believe in, I wrote the following;
But what if people don’t want to be part of a commune or collective? That’s fine, you don’t have to be, it certainly wan’t forced during the Spanish Revolution and to do so would be contrary to anarchist principles. Even if someone chooses to live within the bounds of a community, but not to participate in collective works, anarchists would not have an issue. Obvioulsy they could not benefit from the fruits of the labour they had no part in and may have to trade for services, but they would not be ostracised or forced out. In Errico Malatesta’s words, “free and voluntary communism is ironical if one has not the right and the possibility to live in a different regime, collectivist, mutualist, individualist – as one wishes, always on condition that there is no oppression or exploitation of others.”
What if people want to trade in an open market for currency? That’s fine too, with the above reservations in regard to capitalism. In an anarchist world, each community would be autonomous and interaction between each community would be through loose federation and free association. So, even with each community operating “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” when a community lacks something that another has excess of, there clearly has to be some kind of trade system in place, taking any form those trading so choose.
Carson speculates that “had not the anarchism of [mutualist thinker Benjamin] Tucker been marginalized and supplanted by that of [Emma] Goldman, it might have been the center of a uniquely American version of populist radicalism.” I don’t neccesarily agree.
For instance, I share the reservations of other anarcho-syndicalists over the practical applications of market anarchism. There are technical details such as “who, for instance, would issue money in his anarcho-market economy and guarantee its value?” But there are also the broader issues. For instance, the fact that “in a market system the prices of products are determined according to their relative scarcity,” and so we have the tendency “towards economic depressions.”
As previously stated, I see no justification for prohibiting people from trading or separating themselves from communist or collectivist organisation. A market, after all, is just a platform for the voluntary exchange of goods and services. In itself, it is no more intrinsically evil than intrinsically good.
What I do distrust is the Mutualists‘ “ultimate vision” of “a society in which the economy is organized around free market exchange.”
They claim to “favor a society in which all relationships and transactions are non-coercive, and based on voluntary cooperation, free exchange, or mutual aid.” However, it is questionable how far this would go in practice when “the market” is not just an option but the central form of economic organisation and interaction.
I won’t say that it can’t work. But I will say that I am highly sceptical. The mutualists do not hold to absolutist property rights in the same way as right-“libertarians.” But they offer more concessions to it than communists would, and openly admit to “petty bourgeois tendencies,” claiming that they “make us relevant to the needs of average work[ers].”
These tendencies, combined with the inclination towards an extremely gradual progress from the current system, borne of a desire to “not deliberately provok[e] the state to repression,” suggests an ineffectiveness in moving from theory to practice. The seeming lack of mutualist organising in communities and workplaces, as we see from anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist communists, testifies to this. It is the working class who are fighting and organising, whilst – as is the case with the Tea Party movement – the more privileged “petty bourgeois” seem more drawn to reaction.
This is all aside from the quite obvious risk that a movement by the petty bourgeois will become a movement for them.
Carson admits that “most people who call themselves “individualist anarchists” today are followers of Murray Rothbard’s Austrian economics, and have abandoned the labor theory of value” since “much of the movement created by Benjamin Tucker was absorbed or colonized by the right.” After all, “the market” is their driving principle.
There is a high justification, then, to follow suit. Especially as even a “non-capitalist” market would allow for the accumulation of individual wealth. It is not a leap from that to private property in the capitalist sense of the word, and thus the pitfalls of the “libertarian” right.
Ultimately, it would be unlibertarian to “ban” markets. The voluntary self-organisation of communities in an anarchist communist society would provide the appropriate checks against force, fraud, and physical or economic coercion. But, where the market is the basis of social and economic organisation, that is not the case.
Markets can exist within libertarian socialism, but it would be folly to try and build libertarian socialism out of markets.