Archive | June 22, 2009


Stephan objects to Kevin’s defense of the term “socialism.” “Words have meanings,” Stephan insists, and apparently the word “socialism” just means “centralized control of the means of production” – while “capitalism” likewise apparently just means “a system in which the means of production are privately owned.”

Stephan Kinsella vs. Kevin CarsonBut there’s no simple fact of the matter as to what either of these much-contested terms means. As I’ve pointed out previously, many people – especially socialists, but often capitalists too – hear “private ownership of the means of production” as implying, by definition, “ownership of the means of production by someone other than the workers,” and take this to be definitive of capitalism; that’s not part of what Stephan means by the term, but it’s a widespread and longstanding use – as is the use of the word “socialism” (by the 19th-century individualist anarchists, for example) to mean worker control of industry, not necessarily in a centralised or collective or communal manner. The ownership-by-capitalists/ownership-by-workers way of understanding the capitalism/socialism distinction is at least as old and well pedigreed as the private/public way of understanding it.

To quote from one of my favourite authors (i.e. myself):

We’ve seen a number of anarchist thinkers – Hodgskin, Proudhon, Andrews, Spooner, Spencer – whose views are not easily classified as “socialist” or “capitalist,” since, in one way or another, they seek the putatively socialist goal of worker control of industry, via the putatively capitalist means of private ownership and market exchange. Part of the problem is that there are (at least) two distinct ways of understanding the contrast between capitalism and socialism. In the first meaning, socialism-1 favours control of the means of production by society (whether organised via the state or not), whereas capitalism-1 favours control of the means of production by private (albeit perhaps contractually associated) individuals. In the second meaning, socialism-2 favours control of the means of production by the workers themselves, while capitalism-2 favours control of the means of production by someone other than the workers – i.e., by capitalist owners.

These two meanings are often run together, with socialism entailing control by the workers in their social capacity (perhaps anarchically, perhaps via the state) and capitalism entailing control by capitalists in their private capacity. But that leaves open two harder-to-classify options – control by capitalists via the state, and control by workers via the market and laissez-faire; the aforementioned anarchist thinkers – to whose ranks Tucker also belongs – favour the latter option. (Thus when Tucker calls himself a “socialist,” he means socialism-2.) The following chart may be helpful:

capitalism/socialism chart

Thus Hodgskin, Tucker, et al. would fall in the upper left quadrant, and Marx and Kropotkin in the upper right. The chart doesn’t accommodate everyone (Godwin and Bakunin seem to fall somewhere between the top two quadrants, for example), but it’s a start.

A further complication is that it’s a matter of dispute among the various parties whether existing capitalist society is closer to the bottom left or bottom right quadrant (and why). Also, both state-socialists and right-wing libertarians tend to regard capitalism-2 (capitalist control) as a natural result of capitalism-1 (private control) – though they disagree as to whether to cheer or boo about that result – while left-wing libertarians tend to regard capitalism-2 (capitalist control) as the pernicious result of socialism-1 (state intervention), and promote capitalism-1 (a genuine free market) in the expectation that it will eventuate in socialism-2 (worker control).

Thanks to the ambiguity of the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” I tend to avoid using them without some kind of qualifier – e.g. “state socialism,” “free-market socialism,” “corporatist capitalism,” “worker-controlled capitalism,” or the like – to prevent my being taken to mean something I don’t. (The common use of the term “capitalism” to apply to the existing social system is yet another reason to avoid using it without an explanatory qualifier as a term for what one is defending, lest one be taken for a defender of the status quo.)

Incidentally, Stephan uses Rand’s words to explain why he embraces the term “capitalism”: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.” But this is a straight line if I ever heard one; it’s practically begging Kevin to make precisely the same response about “socialism.” The truth is, though, that there are good and bad reasons to be afraid of the term “capitalism,” just as there are good and bad reasons to be afraid of the term “socialism.” (And ditto, of course, for “selfishness,” the term Rand was defending in the passage Stephan quotes.) That is precisely why one needs to disambiguate, and to avoid assuming that everyone means and has always meant the same thing by terms like “capitalism” and “socialism,” or phrases like “private ownership of the means of production,” that one does oneself.

Them Poor Ole Bosses

pointy-haired bossAccording to Trevor Bothwell:

Barack Obama enthusiastically supports punishing the most productive members of society in order to put capital to less efficient uses. Put more simply, he wants to take money from the “rich” and give it to the “poor.”

I’m no fan of Obama’s tax plan, but what on earth justifies the assumption that the richest members of society are the most productive, or that their uses of capital are the most efficient?

No doubt that would tend to be true in a freed market, but in a system like the one we live under – a system of government-granted privilege to the corporate elite – it seems extraordinarily unlikely to be true; and indeed the evidence is pretty overwhelmingly to the contrary.

Maybe someone should buy Bothwell a copy of Kevin’s book?

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