Against Anarchist Apartheid

Consider the following two lists of names:

Group 1 Group 2
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Josiah Warren
Stephen Pearl Andrews
Ezra Heywood
Anselme Bellegarrigue
Lysander Spooner
Benjamin Tucker
Francis D. Tandy
John Henry Mackay
Voltairine de Cleyre (early)
Franz Oppenheimer
Gustave de Molinari
Herbert Spencer (early)
Auberon Herbert
Wordsworth Donisthorpe
Rose Wilder Lane
Robert LeFevre
Murray Rothbard
David Friedman
Randy Barnett
Samuel E. Konkin 3.0
Hans-Hermann Hoppe

It’s obvious what the two lists have in common: all the names on both lists belong to thinkers who have favoured radically free markets and the abolition of the state – hence, one might infer, market anarchists.

But it’s quite common in left-anarchist circles to insist that while the Group 1 thinkers are genuine anarchists, those in Group 2 are not true anarchists at all – on the grounds that true anarchists must oppose not only the state but also capitalism. Group 1, we’re told, is commendably anti-capitalist and so authentically anarchist; but the members of Group 2 exclude themselves from the anarchist ranks by their advocacy of capitalism. (I’m not sure into which group geolibs like Albert J. Nock and Frank Chodorov, or migrating thinkers like Karl Hess, are supposed to fall, so I left their names off.)

I am not a fan, needless to say, of this putative distinction between “true” and “false” market anarchists. I plan to criticise the case for the distinction in fuller detail on a future occasion; for now I’ll limit myself to two major points.

Benjamin R. Tucker First: those who draw this distinction are hardly ever market anarchists themselves. They are more often anarcho-communists or anarcho-collectivists who regard both Group 1 and Group 2 as making unacceptable concessions to economic individualism. (Indeed they often dismiss even their favoured Group 1 – apart from Proudhon, anyway – as “Stirnerites,” even though most of the Group 1 thinkers developed their views independently of Max Stirner; in fact even Tucker, the clearest “Stirnerite” of the lot, was already a committed market anarchist before he’d ever encountered Stirner’s ideas.) When anti-market anarchists propose to decide who is and who isn’t a genuine market anarchist, it’s a bit like Christians demanding the right to adjudicate the dispute between Shi’ites and Sunnis. (One suspects that some of the anti-market folks would really like to purge both groups of market anarchists, but the anarchist credentials of Group 1 are too well-established for that to be a practical solution.)

Rather than inquiring as to the opinions of anti-market anarchists, then, it would seem more relevant to know whether the Group 1 thinkers regarded Group 2 as fellow-anarchists or not. And in fact such Group 2 luminaries as Molinari, Donisthorpe, and the early Spencer were indeed all hailed in the pages of Tucker’s Liberty (the chief American organ of individualist anarchism, which published most of the Group 1 writers) as anarchists – and Herbert as a near-anarchist. (Donisthorpe even wrote both for Liberty and for the journal of the Liberty and Property Defence League – thus bridging a supposedly unbridgeable ideological gulf.) Thus America’s leading Group 1 spokesman, while certainly critical of Group 2 thinkers on various points, apparently had no problem recognising them as fellow-anarchists. (Compare also the largely favourable attitude today of Tuckerite Kevin Carson toward Rothbardians and Konkinites.)

Nor was this because Tucker was especially generous with the term “anarchist.” On the contrary, Tucker withheld the term from anarcho-communists like Johann Most, Pëtr Kropotkin, and the Haymarket martyrs; from Tucker’s point of view, it was they, not the Spencerians, who were “false” anarchists. Needless to say, I don’t advocate following Tucker’s example on this point; one parochialism is no improvement over the other. But the fact that the editor of Liberty – who always called his position “consistent Manchesterism” – felt less close to contemporary anarcho-communists than to the forerunners of “anarcho-capitalism” (for surely Tucker’s views on Molinari and the radical Spencerians seem like the best guide we could have to what his views would most likely have been on Rothbard, Friedman, etc.) tells against the simplistic division of market anarchists into socialistic sheep and capitalistic goats. (Indeed the contributors to Liberty cited Spencer as often as they did Proudhon; while, for that matter, Karl Marx complained that Proudhon himself was more respectful toward quasi-anarchic classical liberals like Charles Dunoyer than toward revolutionary communists like Étienne Cabet.)

Second: it’s thoroughly unclear by what criteria Group 1 and Group 2 are supposed to be distinguished. Defenders of the dichotomy insist that Group 1 is “anti-capitalist” while Group 2 is “pro-capitalist”; but in order for this to be a useful marker it needs to be substantive, not merely terminological. The fact that Group 1 thinkers tend to use “socialism” as a virtue-word and “capitalism” as a vice-word, while Group 2 thinkers tend to do the reverse, by itself means little; because the two groups clearly do not mean the same things by these terms. Most Group 2 thinkers use the term “capitalism” to mean an unregulated free market, and use the term “socialism” to mean government control; most Group 1 thinkers use those terms differently, but agree with their Group 2 counterparts in favouring free markets and opposing government control, by whatever names they may call them. In Thomas Hobbes’s words: “Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.”

Given the enormous variability in the use of the term “capitalism,” then, it will hardly do to base a crucial distinction among antistate thinkers on their attitudes to some undefined abstraction called “capitalism.” We need to know what specific positions are supposed to divide Group 1 and Group 2. But it’s awfully hard to find positions that divide the two groups in the desired way.

Is it their stand on the labour theory of value? Except insofar as that translates into policy differences, what difference does that make?

Sweet Land of Anarchy Is it their stand on the wages system and the exploitation of labour by capital? By that standard, Group 2 thinkers Spencer, Konkin, and Friedman, who favoured abolition of wage labour, all belong in Group 1, while Molinari and Donisthorpe, who favoured reforming the wages system to shift the power balance in workers’ favour, fall somewhere between the two groups.

Is it their stand on land ownership and rent? By that standard Spencer, in rejecting land ownership entirely, is more “socialistic” than Tucker and so belongs in Group 1, while Spooner, in endorsing absentee landlordism, is more “capitalistic” than Tucker and so belongs in Group 2.

Is it their stand on protection agencies and private police as quasi-governmental? By that standard Tucker, Tandy, and Proudhon, who all favoured private police, belong in “pseudo-anarchistic” Group 2, while LeFevre, who rejected all violence even for defensive purposes, would have to be moved to Group 1.

Is it their stand on intellectual property? By that standard, IP fan Spooner would have to be assigned to the “pro-property” Group 2, while most present-day Rothbardians, as IP foes, would need to be shifted to the “anti-property” Group 1.

Is it their stand on the legitimacy of interest? Well, perhaps in the abstract; but both sides tend to predict a drastic fall in the price of loans as the result of free competition in the credit industry; and both deny that it will fall to zero. Group 1 thinkers tend to call this nonzero residuum “cost” while Group 2 thinkers tend to call it “interest”; ho-hum. This seems a weak reed to burden with so weighty a dichotomy.

None of the criteria I’ve most often seen appealed to, then, seem to divide the two groups in the desired manner based on concrete positions. I suspect what actually drives proponents of the purported dichotomy is no specific policy dispute but rather a general feeling that Group 2’s pro-market rhetoric is a cover for a rationalisation of the power relations that prevail in existing corporate capitalism, while Group 1’s likewise pro-market rhetoric – however misguided it may appear in the eyes of the dichotomists – is not. And that perception in turn is based, I suspect, on the fact that Group 2 thinkers are more likely than Group 1 thinkers to fall into what Kevin Carson has labeled “vulgar libertarianism,” that is, the error of treating defenses of the free market as though they served to justify various features of the prevailing not-so-free order.

Now it’s true enough that Group 2 is more liable to this unfortunate tendency than is Group 1. But:

a) few Group 2 thinkers commit the error consistently;

b) some Group 2 thinkers (e.g. Konkin, or 1960s Rothbard – or Hess, if he counts as Group 2) don’t seem to commit it much at all;

c) vulgar-libbin’ seems no worse an error, no stronger a reason to kick somebody out of the anarchist club, than, say, Proudhon’s egregious misogyny and anti-Semitism; and

d) if confusing free markets with corporate capitalism isn’t grounds to disqualify anti-market anarchists (who often seem to commit the same error in the opposite direction), why should it be grounds to disqualify vulgar-libbers?

Hence I see no defensible grounds for accepting any dichotomy between Groups 1 and 2. They are all market anarchists – with various virtues and various flaws, but comrades all.

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28 Responses to Against Anarchist Apartheid

  1. Administrator March 9, 2008 at 2:47 am #

    Well, anarcho-syndicalists come in many flavours. Some of them do indeed seem to me to be advocating a centralised state run by associations of unions, in effect, even if they don’t call it a “state.” But there are plenty of other anarcho-syndicalists of whom that doesn’t seem true at all.

    All labels should come with a warning (a label? a meta-label?): “Use with caution.”


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