[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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38 Responses to Pootmop!

  1. Belinsky June 29, 2008 at 5:59 pm #

    *universal definition of socialism

  2. Belinsky June 29, 2008 at 6:01 pm #

    Hell, I won’t even make any claims about what other socialists accept. It’s just my definition, and it (WOOTMOP) is one of the core socialist ideals.

  3. Bob Kaercher June 30, 2008 at 4:11 pm #

    Karl Hess used the term “free market pluralist” in his autobiography ‘Mostly On the Edge,’ which I think is a term that best suits my own views on this discussion. Exchange between people can happen in a very wide array of forms as diverse as humanity itself, some of which can be characterized as “capitalist” OR “socialist.”

    But as far as I’m concerned, call what you like capitalism or socialism and promote it to your heart’s content, just so long as there’s no initiation of force or coercion.

  4. freeman June 30, 2008 at 4:38 pm #

    “Free market pluralist”, eh? I kinda like that. Thanks for sharing that, Bob!

  5. Anon73 June 30, 2008 at 9:09 pm #

    For what it’s worth, I heard a socialist give a talk where he explicitly referred to boycotts as a form of ‘coercion’. So I guess the terminological disputes can’t be resolved that easily Bob.

    • Roderick March 13, 2018 at 11:14 pm #

      Some of the individualist anarchists thought that too; there was a big debate over it in Liberty.

      • dL March 13, 2018 at 11:53 pm #

        Some of the individualist anarchists thought that too; there was a big debate over it in Liberty.

        hmmm, bumping this old thread!

        FWIW, I’ve come to view state socialism as a thing that only exists in academic textbooks. The early 20th century socialist calculation debate was a theoretical discussion that never played out in the real world. The real world is just some variant of authoritarian capitalism. This explains how, say, the Chinese Communist Party today is the leading exponent of global capitalism, an impossible fact that no doubt would blown the minds of yesterday’s 20th century intellectuals.

  6. Bob Kaercher June 30, 2008 at 10:44 pm #

    Anon73: Did anyone dare ask the socialist how simply declining to purchase someone’s goods or services qualifies as “coercion”? His claim would imply that everyone has a right to have their product purchased by somebody!

  7. Black Bloke June 30, 2008 at 10:56 pm #

    I like the term Catallaxy.

  8. Mark July 1, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    I always assumed “capitalist” meant someone that sang a soothing song for a crying child because they could.

    But cereal, Kevin Carson’s term Vulgartarian is most useful for this debate.

    How many Capitalists think they earned the right to property just because they “did something?” That, for me, is the Vulgartarian credo: I DID WORK, I EARNED IT!!!

    Karen DeCoster works for a 100% libertarian company I’m sure.

  9. Anon73 July 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm #

    Did anyone dare ask the socialist how simply declining to purchase someone’s goods or services qualifies as “coercion”?

    Actually no, but I just figured it was par for the course for leftists. 🙂

  10. Mark July 7, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    “His claim would imply that everyone has a right to have their product purchased by somebody!”

    Sounds more like an ethnic blackmarket gang than a socialist… er, wait nevermind.

    The Atlas Shrugged 2: Shrug Harder satire bit that got some attention a while back made me think Rand was actually the one writing satire on socialist means.

    “You want a boycott? Here you go punks.”


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