By: Rad Geek


I agree with you that it is very important to watch how people use terms in conversation, and to pay attention to the ways in which libertarians arguing for “capitalism,” and progressives (for example) arguing against “capitalism,” are often really arguing about two different things. And it can often be really useful to look carefully at the label “capitalism” as a source of some of the miscommunication. So, props on that point.

But (1) I’m a bit puzzled by the claim that “capitalist” just means someone who uses capital goods. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever used the word that way with the exception of this post. Historically the way people used the word was to describe someone in a particular line of business — as someone who makes most or all of their income by their ownership of capital, rather than other sources, like the proceeds from land or personal labor. (That is, who owns capital but does not make income by working directly with it — but rather rents it out for a fee, or else employs other people to work with it and takes the profits.) Certainly, if you went around calling someone an “oxygenist” in an economic context, I wouldn’t expect that that meant “someone who breathes oxygen;” that sounds a lot more like “someone who makes a living furnishing oxygen for profit.” Anyway, part of the point of the free-market anticapitalists that Julia mentions above (Proudhon, among others) is that a lot of the worst features of modern economies seem to be the result of a political and social system dominated by the interests and privileges of professional capitalists — not in the sense of capital-users, but in the sense of employers and financiers. What they wanted was not for nobody to have capital, but for everybody to have capital — their own capital, rather than having to rent it out from a monopolistic class of professional capital-providers.

And (2) given this, when some of our fellow libertarians go around defending (for example) giant corporations or third-world sweatshops — and while many of us do not do this, many of us do — it’s not clear that the difference between those libertarians’ defense of “capitalism,” and their critics’ opposition to “capitalism” is just a matter of differences in the use of words. It’s not just that sweatshop-defending libertarians are using the word “capitalism” to mean “free markets,” and defending that. Rather, what they have in mind seems to be a particular kind of causal claim. They think that they are for free markets. And they think that free markets will (among other things) inevitably tend to produce giant corporations and sweatshop labor conditions in very poor parts of the world. So they think that they need to defend that, in addition to defending free markets, on the principle that if you endorse a system you need to take what comes. But the thing to do here is not to back up and say, “Well, they should keep defending what they are defending, but they should stop calling it ‘capitalism,’ and call it something else instead.” Rather what they need to do is see that the central causal claim about free markets is false. Actually-existing sweatshops are not the result of free markets; they are ripple-effects of massive government violence and a toxic system of international government-driven debt financing. And genuinely freed markets would not tend to produce sweatshop conditions; they would tend to produce a vibrant economy of small worker-owned shops, the bankruptcy of most of the Fortune 500, vigorous competition to provide the best wages and working conditions, much more localized forms of production, forms of exchange that often operate outside of formal employment or wage-labor, etc. etc. So libertarians should go on defending half of what we have defending — the demand for freed markets. But we should also recognize — and insist — that the economy that they produce would look nothing at all like the privilege-riddled corporate economy that we have today. In fact in many ways it would look much more like the kind of human and social relationships that political progressives and Leftists claim to want. But achieved, not by economic control or political legislation, but rather by competition and the economic forces of liberated people.


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