Archive | June 27, 2008


[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

As a number of left-libertarians have noted, both “capitalism” and “socialism” are ambiguous terms, bound up with various sorts of confusions. (That’s one reason I try to avoid using them, at least without some sort of qualifying prefixes, adjectives, or scare-quotes. Incidentally, I’m pleased to see that one of my own discussions of this problem is featured – for now – on Wikipedia’s Issues in Anarchism page.) But there’s one definition of the word “capitalism” that might seem perfectly straightforward and unambiguous. Yet actually I think it is no such thing.

Lenin and Trotsky The definition I have in mind is: private ownership of the means of production (henceforth pootmop). 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 pootmop.

This of course is not at all what “capitalist” libertarians take the phrase to mean; although they may tend to assume the traditional hiring-of-labour as the paradigm or default instance of pootmop, a society of worker-owned co-ops – whether or not “capitalist” libertarians would find such a system likely or desirable – would be a perfectly acceptable instance of pootmop. To “capitalist” libertarians, pootmop contrasts not with worker-owned co-ops but with the ownership of the means of production either by the state or by society at large.

Now there are, to be sure, many “socialist” advocates of worker control who envision such control as being exercised either via the state (e.g., Marx, at least in the short run) or via society at large (e.g., Kropotkin). But there are a good many “socialists,” particularly in the anarchist tradition, who favour something like decentralised, bottom-up networks of autonomous local workers’ co-ops – which would count as pootmop by some standards and not others.

A problem for mutual communication between the “capitalist” and “socialist” libertarians, then, is that one group hears the phrase “private ownership of the means of production” and thinks, “ah yes, producers getting to keep what they produce,” and the other group hears the same phrase and thinks, “ah yes, producers not being allowed to keep what they produce.” My advice to both groups, then, is: try not to use this phrase without explaining it, and don’t automatically assume you know what others mean by the phrase when they use it.

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