In response to Professor Walter Block’s response to the ‘anti-capitalist’ proponents of free markets.
20 Mar 2010 | InfoShop News
Austrian economist, philosopher and professor Walter Block wrote an article for LewRockwell.com called, “Say ‘Yes’ to Capitalism,” (h/t: Wendy) in response to left and pluralist libertarians’ abandonment of capitalism—its pejorative historical meaning and the manner in which it exists.
‘Capitalism’ entered the libertarian vernacular largely through the libertarianism-framing of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in What is Property? (1840). He used ‘capitalist’ not only to describe “robbers” who expropriate the production of laborers, pay a portion of that production in the form of a wage “which is too small” and keeps the excess ‘stolen capital'; but also that these ‘proprietors’ are able to do so because of the parasitic, tyrannical State. ‘Capitalist’ was used to describe indirect forceful expropriators; the State being their agents, gravy train, etc.
Fast forward to today and what’s referred to as ‘capitalism’ within the conventional wisdom is what Austrian economists, voluntaryists, “anarcho-capitalists” and the neoclassicals call ‘corporatism‘ to distinguish capitalism as a goal for society to reach as opposed to a classification of anything near the status quo. Prof. Block runs off a list of neoclassicals and neoconservatives who call themselves ‘capitalists’ and calls them wrong. Are they?
The common argument against the far-left and more pluralist socio-economist philosophers who employ Proudhon’s logic is that the laborer voluntarily contracts his labor to produce for the capitalist in exchange for the wage he/she receives. That the laborer chooses to produce and ‘earn a living’ with this capitalist as opposed to other capitalists. That the laborer’s capital is his/her labor, therefore the laborer is also a capitalist and capitalism is simply the voluntary economic interpersonal relations among human action.
Ignored in this logic is the extent to which laborers’ choices in the marketplace are limited by State violence employed by the capitalist as Proudhon referred to capitalists. The question left by this cognitive dissonance is: is the laborer a capitalist or forcefully dominated by capitalism? If the latter, capitalism should be opposed by libertarians because libertarians by any objective definition are uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian in all aspects of interpersonal relations.
Prof. Block says his argument in favor of ‘capitalism’ is “not etymological but rather linguistic” in way that the meaning of ‘liberal’ today and throughout the 20th century has morphed over time to be an incorrect one. The difference is that the definition of ‘liberal’ changed. ‘Capitalist’ has always meant ‘corporatism’ outside of one revolutionary economist, Ludwig von Mises; but his definition was not linguistic. It was reactionary.
Karl Marx used varying forms of ‘capitalism’ throughout his work as Proudhon did—pejoratively—but took Proudhon’s analysis of the status quo to different conclusions. It’s important to note that before Marx, ‘socialism’ was not used to describe State ownership of the means of production. Marx laid the framework for the early-20th century Bolshevik Revolution in Russia where the State’s robbery of all property would be an incremental phase toward socialism, which would be a stateless society. But the Bolsheviks incorrectly called themselves ‘socialists’ before the society became stateless and never sought to become stateless.
Socialism’s antipathy for capitalism and the totalitarians calling themselves ‘socialists’ laid the framework for Mises’ linguistically incorrect arguments against the Bolsheviks. To call the antithesis of Bolshevism ‘capitalism’ is only correct when the Bolsheviks are incorrectly accepted as ‘socialists’. And this is where the linguistics of libertarians like Prof. Block carries faulty reasoning.
(There is some standard Block-Shock in defense of ‘capitalism’ against its pejorative historical meaning relating to the differing uses of “faggot” and nigger” that I won’t justify with a response here that would too easily serve as a distraction. Another time, perhaps.)
Free marketeers in support of the facebook group ‘Libertarians Against Capitalism‘ (to which Prof. Block is reacting), the writings of Kevin Carson, the analysis of Gary Chartier and the presentation of Sheldon Richman are not reacting to the ‘incorrect conventional wisdom’ on ‘capitalism’ today; but to the incorrect conventional wisdom on ‘socialism’ when the likes of Mises latched onto ‘capitalism’.
Linguistically, ‘socialism’ is not State ownership of the means of production and ‘capitalism’ is not a market freed from coercion.
The fact is that descriptive terms of economic, political and ethical philosophies are usually linguistically flawed to very high degrees. Words like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘capitalism’, ‘democracy’, ‘republican’ and many others are barely usable anymore because the subjective etymology conflicts with objective derivatives of the words. Unlike ‘liberal’, the linguistic derivative of ‘capitalism’ doesn’t really lead to the formation of an economic system, so the etymological usage really does reign supreme to comprise an accurate definition.
Mr. Richman articulates briefly in his lecture “Capitalism vs. The Free Market” that the antithesis to statism is socialism because without the State dipping its fingers into the marketplace, the interpersonal relations of individuals within society—the social ability to cooperate with one another, regardless of the economic system—human action dictates the conditions under which we live and are faced with which to interact on a massive, decentralized scale.
Brad Spangler, director of the Center for a Stateless Society, has contested in the more forward manner that market anarchists of the self-proclaimed agorist, voluntaryist and “anarcho-capitalist” variety are socialists.
Etymologically speaking, ‘libertarian’ is a word to describe what is today more clearly called a ‘libertarian socialist’, ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ or ‘mutualist’. In the U.S., ‘libertarian’ is not attributed to anarchism, but to the minarchist philosophies of Ayn Rand and Objectivist circles, the studies of the Cato Institute, the propaganda of Reason magazine and the politics of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). When the derivative of ‘libertarian’ is analyzed, like ‘liberal’, ‘libertarian’ can only correctly be defined as someone who is anti-State to the logical conclusion of being an anarchist.
Anarchist, moral and free market principles taken to their logical conclusions lead to each other, as well. Therefore, ‘capitalism’ and the markets free from coercive domination are neither one nor the same.
The reasoning flaws within the philosophies of self-proclaimed libertarian socialists of the communitarian variety are pretty well described by you. But with all due respect, Prof. Block, your reasoning is flawed on ‘capitalism’, sir.
That said, I respect the debate on ‘capitalism’ as a word. I still very tightly cling to self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” Murray Rothbard’s activism and anaylsis of morality, ethics, political science and economics. Left-libertarians at the Center for a Stateless Society and the Austro-libertarians at the Ludwig von Mises Institute agree with me in this respect for the late-Prof. Rothbard’s revolutionary wisdom. Therefore, I propose the two organizations provide thorough independent analysis of ‘capitalism’ as a word—its historical usage and linguistic derivations—in a review complied of articles within each ‘school’. To this, I would gladly, respectfully participate in a morally intellectual study free of ad hominem insult and juvenile cynicism. If thesis statements are built upon counterpoints of ‘appealing to the left’ and ‘appealing to the right’, I’ll respectively go back to sitting on the sidelines of this discovery process.
EDIT: Thank you, Prof. Block for aiding in the treatment of my writer’s block. [Insert your own pun here]
EDIT 2: Prof. Gary Chartier’s libertarian redistribution post, today, reflects an important aspect of how libertarianism conflicts with capitalism. It should be noted libertarians who are relatively conservative defenders of capitalism are largely in line with accepting Prof. Chartier’s points on the application of libertarian justice in reference to property. Read “Libertarians for Redistribution” at his blog, LiberaLaw, here.
EDIT 3: As expected, Mr. Richman promptly responded to Prof. Block’s criticism. Read it at his blog here.
EDIT 4: Thanks to Prof. Chartier for alerting me to an error in initially noting Proudhon as the one who introduced ‘capitalist’ into libertarian analysis. This indeed was free market anarchist Thomas Hodgskin, who was also a harsh critic of capitalism.
- Sheldon Richman on Capitalism v. The Free Market (Video)
- Advocates of Freed Markets Should Embrace “Anti-Capitalism” (Gary Chartier)
- When You ‘Work Hard and Play by the Rules,’ the House Wins (Kevin Carson)
- The Cold War is Over and We Lost (Brad Spangler)
- I Pledge Allegiance to the… GO TEAM AMERICA CAPITALIST JESUS! (Little Alex)
- Statism ≠ Socialism; Pro-Market ≠ Pro-Business (Kevin Carson)
- Left-Libertarians are the Real Liberals (Brad Spangler)
- Karl Hess on the ‘Specifics’ of Libertarianism (1969)
- When Only Abolition is Just, Reform is Naïve (Little Alex)
- Michael Albert on Participatory Economics