Anti-Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Part 2

Both Caps (like Daniel Sanchez) and Socks (like Magpie Killjoy) – aligned, as so often, in a common conflationism – have accused Macks of trying to pull a bait-and-switch by redefining “capitalism” to mean “corporatism.”

But if you look at what the Macks actually say, the accusation won’t fly. Macks have distinguished a variety of different meanings of the term “capitalism” in contemporary use – and our chief preference has been to use “capitalism” not to mean “corporatism,” but rather to mean a social condition which Macks believe is caused by corporatism, but which Socks (and some Caps) believe is caused by free markets. See, for example, Gary here and Charles here. (And of course this is essentially the way that individualist anarchists have been using the term for the past two centuries.)

If you’re going to attack us, at least attack us for what we actually say (and maybe even engage with our arguments for what we say).

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26 Responses to Anti-Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Part 2

  1. Sergio Méndez May 6, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    Firefox 12.0 Windows 7

    Unbelievable…in Sanchez blog they erased a comentary. What an unworthy blog.

  2. Danny Sanchez May 7, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Safari MacIntosh

    Sergio, what are you talking about? We haven’t deleted any comments in that thread (although the system had a bunch held for moderation over the weekend).

  3. Danny Sanchez May 7, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    Safari MacIntosh

    Roderick,
    Whether “capitalism-as-corporatism” is the “chief preference” or a subordinate preference is beside the point.

    Telling the non-libertarian left you are against “capitalism” when you mean you are against “a social condition caused by corporatism” is just as much a bait-and-switch as if you meant you are against corporatism.

    • Roderick May 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      Safari MacIntosh

      Given that a) what most leftists are referring to by “capitalism” is those very conditions we’re talking about, and b) given that we talk about “free-market anti-capitalism,” it’s hard to see how there could be a “bait and switch” involved.

      • Danny Sanchez May 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

        Safari MacIntosh

        b) does mitigate the situation to an extent, but not entirely, because even the complete “FMAC” package gives a distinctly non-propertarian vibe. “Freedom” and “markets” have both been advocated by anti-private-property types (libertarian socialists and market socialists). Whereas the classical meaning of capitalism is unmistakable: “private ownership of the means of production.”

        As for a), I just don’t buy it. Whenever I read or hear non-libertarian critiques of “capitalism,” it is always a critique of a SYSTEM (price-rationing, profit-seeking, marketing, driving competitors out of business, etc) not of CONDITIONS. The left really do hate the untrammeled disposal of private property, and the social system of production it engenders.

        • Anonymous May 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

          Chrome 18.0.1025.168 Windows XP

          You’ve explained why you disagree with the way the word “capitalism” is being used but I’m much more interested in the “weaker positions” you referenced. Like you, I’d rather focus on “actual arguments” — in this case, your arguments against left-libertarianism, market anarchism, free market anti-capitalism or whatever you want to call it — and would be very interested in reading them. I had no luck finding them on Google.

          To me, it’s just a word.

        • Roderick May 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

          Safari MacIntosh

          Re: “classical meaning” — well, there’s dispute as to what that “classical meaning” is, right?

          As for “private ownership of the means of production,” not everyone who use that phrase means the same thing by “private” — see here and here.

          “One thing that most libertarians in the so-called ‘capitalist’ tradition don’t realise (it took me years to realise it) is that when most socialists hear or use this phrase they take it to imply, by definition, the ownership of the means of production by people other than the workers who do the producing – so that a society in which most firms are worker-owned co-ops would not count, in their eyes, as one characterised by [private ownership of the means of production].”

      • Lori May 7, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

        Firefox 12.0 Ubuntu;

        I never thought of it as a bait and switch. Must admit that when I first encountered the slogan “free-market anticapitalism” ( on the masthead at http://mutualist.blogspot.com/ ) I took it to be some kind of “mindfuck” or statement that “yeah, we’re thinkink outside the box.”

    • Rad Geek May 8, 2012 at 12:22 am #

      Firefox 12.0 Ubuntu;

      Telling the non-libertarian left you are against “capitalism” when you mean you are against “a social condition caused by corporatism” is just as much a bait-and-switch …

      But Danny, the FMAC usage of “capitalism” is certainly not a matter of using it to mean “a social condition caused by corporatism,” as if any old socio-economic condition would qualify, so long as, or insofar as, it is caused by corporatism.

      When I say that I am opposed to capitalism, I am saying quite specifically that I oppose a certain set of social and economic conditions. In particular (1) the dependence of most workers on employer-employee relationships, (2) the concentration of ownership of the means of production primarily into the hands of professional capitalists and centralized corporations, and (3) the predominance of a fairly totalizing sort of commercialism and a fairly narrow sort of profit-motive in social relations. Not (only) because I think that (1)-(3) are effects of political corporatism, but because I think these conditions are fragged up in their own right.

      You may of course disagree that (1), (2) or (3) is really a social problem; you may even deny that some or all of them are social realities at all. But neither FMAC’s dispute with non-libertarian leftists, nor our dispute with non-leftist libertarians, has any basic dependence on a dispute about the definitions of words. It has to do with questioning a specific causal claim about the relationship between private property and markets, on the one hand, and capitalistic social relationships, on the other.

      As I commented elsewhere:

      … when some of our fellow libertarians go around defending (for example) giant corporations or third-world sweatshops … it’s not clear that the difference between those libertarians’ defense of “capitalism,” and their critics’ opposition to “capitalism” is just a matter of differences in the use of words. It’s not just that sweatshop-defending libertarians are using the word “capitalism” to mean “free markets,” and defending that. Rather, what they have in mind seems to be a particular kind of causal claim. They think that they are for free markets. And they think that free markets will (among other things) inevitably tend to produce giant corporations and sweatshop labor conditions in very poor parts of the world. So they think that they need to defend that, in addition to defending free markets, on the principle that if you endorse a system you need to take what comes. But the thing to do here is not to back up and say, “Well, they should keep defending what they are defending, but they should stop calling it ‘capitalism,’ and call it something else instead.” Rather what they need to do is see that the central causal claim about free markets is false.

      As for this:

      Whereas the classical meaning of capitalism is unmistakable: “private ownership of the means of production.”

      … I see your completely unsourced declaration that this is “the classical meaning of capitalism,” but I don’t see your argument, or any indication of what “classics” you have in mind. There are other uses of the term that go back to the 1840s, and sources today are not at all unanimous on what they mean by it either. In any case, though, if we are going to stick with “private ownership,” that doesn’t help settle the question, either.

      And as for the vibes that these things give off, what non-libertarian leftists really do or really do not hate, etc., well, really, who cares? I’m not particularly interested in the emotional life of the non-libertarian left; I am interested in what they mean by what they say, what they can argue for themselves, what kind of arguments they might be given reasons to accept, and what those reasons might plausibly look like.

      • Lori May 8, 2012 at 11:59 am #

        Firefox 12.0 Ubuntu;

        “In particular (1) the dependence of most workers on employer-employee relationships”

        This is my “in particular,” too. I guess I’m more inclined to blame the market than capitalism per se because the opposite of dependence is independence, and the key to independence in a market economy (“freed” or otherwise) is skill at marketing. Teach a man [sic] to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Teach him to sell ice cubes to Inuit, and he’ll also be able to pay the gas bill. An economy in which enterprise (whether you call it capitalism or not) is a key feature is an economy in which some people are more independent than others. Good luck getting them to not lord it over the rest of us.

        • JOR May 9, 2012 at 8:21 am #

          Firefox 12.0 Windows 7

          That would seem true of any society in which people use resources or otherwise exist at all. Maybe replace skill at marketing with skill at tribal repression/demagoguery/scapegoating/fighting and military organization for non-market societies.

        • Lori May 9, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

          Firefox 13.0 Linux

          When the tone of marketist rhetoric turns to “this is the highest level of civilization theoretically possible” it starts looking to me like appeal to authority, and the relentless drive to cap the debate with a superlativity clause along the lines of Revelation 22 (22 being the last chapter) or Mohammed’s designation as “seal of the prophets.”

          “There is no alternative” I can get from Thatcher.

          I’m guessing JOR is an “anarcho”-capitalist by the tone, but I never hear anything from the so-called left libertarians that directly refutes or rejects JOR’s either-or, persuasion-or-force doctrine. A society in which one can persuade one’s way to the top is a society with a top. To persuade is to prevail. The choice, it seems, is between more explicit ways of prevailing and less persuasive ones. I’m inclined to say persuasion is a lesser evil (with the emphasis on evil) than “force,” but if the end result is the strong in some sense prevailing over the weak in that sense, there is some appeal in the refreshing candor of the form of competition that is more explicit.

        • Roderick May 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

          Safari MacIntosh

          But in fairness, you originally wrote “the key to independence in a market economy,” not “the key to dominance in a market economy.” So it’s a bit unfair to respond to JOR as though he had responded to the latter rather than the former.

        • Lori May 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

          Firefox 13.0 Linux

          I’m simply opining that to me, a mixture of successfully and unsuccessfully independent persons looks like a hierarchy. Sometimes LL’s suggest independence will be a lower-hanging fruit (which I’m inclined to believe), but they don’t make many claims as to how low. When freed-market is a done deal, will failure/insolvency/non-independence kick in at the 10th percentile? 5th? 1st? Of course it’s an untested hypothesis (or referring back to the title of the post, an unknown ideal) but I wouldn’t mind hearing people speculate.

  4. Lori May 7, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Firefox 12.0 Ubuntu;

    FWIW, my working definition of “capitalist” is “someone who owns and/or operates a business,” without regard to scale. Perhaps the and/or makes the definition too fuzzy and I should distinguish between financial capitalism and entrepreneurial capitalism. This definition of capitalism is functional, not ideological. There is no reason a functional capitalist couldn’t be an ideological communist, for example. If there is such a think as ideological capitalism, I would say it is the assertion that for-profit enterprise is uniquely qualified to create wealth.

  5. Danny Sanchez May 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Safari MacIntosh

    Anon, if you click on my name, you’ll find an article in which I address the syndicalism that left-libertarianism seems to tend toward.

    • Roderick May 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      Safari MacIntosh

      You mean an article attacking a position that hardly any left-libertarian holds.

      • David Gordon May 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

        Firefox 12.0 Windows XP

        Although you and Danny have many differences, at least the two of you agree on the definition of “capitalism”. That is grounds for optimism.

    • Lori May 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

      Chromium 18.0.1025.151 Ubuntu 11.10

      Why do so many left libertarian blogs link to mises.org anyway? I’m tempted to say that when you mix left and libertarian, you get libertarian.

      • Roderick May 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

        Safari MacIntosh

        Why do so many left libertarian blogs link to mises.org anyway?

        Because some of what they do supports left-libertarian positions, so we link for the kudos, and some of what they do attacks left-libertarian positions, so we link in order to respond.

        I’m tempted to say that when you mix left and libertarian, you get libertarian.

        If it gives you any comfort, right-libertarians think when you mix left and libertarian, you get only left. I think you and they are each half-right.

        Recalling this.

        • Lori May 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

          Firefox 13.0 Linux

          Yes. I’ve noticed that BHL-ism has showed up on econlog’s radar screen in the last couple of weeks.

          Since I’m not getting much acrimony from the statist left, I must not be doing it right.

    • Anonymous May 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      Chrome 18.0.1025.168 Windows XP

      I probably should have been more clear when I said “I had no luck finding them on Google”. I did not mean I had no luck finding your writing, I meant I had no luck finding “your arguments against left-libertarianism, market anarchism, free market anti-capitalism or whatever you want to call it”. In fact, I was already familiar with “Anarcho-Syndicalism: A Recipe for Ruin” when I wrote my question but, because it addresses the problems with left-libertarianism in much the same way Naomi Klein addresses the problems with “the free market”, it’s not what I was looking for.

      Thanks anyway though. Mises.org is one of many sites I check regularly so, if you post something new on the subject, I’ll be sure to read it.

  6. James Wilson May 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    Firefox 12.0 Windows Vista

    This is as fruitful as discussions about the meanings of “republic” or “democracy.” We get the general idea of what is meant when using “capitalist” as an adjective, just as we are aware that Saddam’s Iraq was republican but not democratic, where as Elizabeth’s United Kingdom is not republican but is democratic.

    That’s why we can recognize that today’s China or Nazi Germany has capitalistic elements, just as does the United States, and that these elements are relatively non-existent in, say, North Korea or Cuba.

    That capitalist element, it seems to me, is the voluntary or discretionary use of personal property for the purpose of production and exchange. “Capitalist” or “capitalistic” could be

  7. James Wilson May 8, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    Firefox 12.0 Windows Vista

    (My publishing of the above was the result of incidental contact on my touch pad with the Post Comment button. So, I might as well continue the point…)

    “Capitalist” or “capitalistic” are best used as descriptions reflecting this state of voluntary or discretionary use of personal property for the purpose of production and exchange.

    “Capitalism,” however, is no more an ideal than “democracy” or “republic.” What does “true” democracy, true republicanism, or true capitalism look like? Nobody knows.

  8. James J. May 21, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Safari MacIntosh

    Off-topic but now I’m wondering… how exactly does libertarian theory handle “bait-and-switch” and similar scams?

    Best Buy just tried to charge me nearly $50 for two items on clearance that were together $20, and I thought of this post.

    I’m guessing you couldn’t force someone to sell an item at the advertised price because merely lying about the price at which you are willing to sell a good isn’t itself a rights violation (though it’d be morally vile). But if you lie about the price, you’d be obligated to tell me you lied and inform me of the real price at some point before the purchase actually goes through.

  9. Roderick May 22, 2012 at 2:39 am #

    Safari MacIntosh

    But if you lie about the price, you’d be obligated to tell me you lied and inform me of the real price at some point before the purchase actually goes through.

    If the stated price is the basis of the exchange, then it’s not even a lie any more (just as “I hereby promise …” can’t be a lie — they do thereby promise), it is the agreed-on price; so if they actually charge you another price, then yes, that’s illegitimate.

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