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Iâ€™d like to think so, but I see a lot more talk than action in libertarian circles. . . .
Well, O.K. Iâ€™m not sure what kind of response you could expect to this; am I supposed to start listing off activist projects that Iâ€™ve been a part of or that my friends of have been a part of? In general, I see a lot more talk than action in all Internet political circles, regardless of orientation, but also a lot of people doing really interesting stuff. No doubt we all could and should do more.
Rather than organizing, boycotting, sitting in or divesting from established workplaces, libertarians must create new work places.
I donâ€™t see these as being in tension with each other. In order to â€œcreate new work placesâ€ you need to do two things: put your resources and your labor power into something new; and take it out of something old. That necessarily means something in the way of boycotting or divesting. Maybe it is true that building up positive alternatives is in general something that should receive more attention than it does (Iâ€™m sure this is true); or that it should receive relatively more attention than social protest or confrontational tactics do (Iâ€™m not so sure about that). But the latter are clearly not just â€œpolitical activism within established organizationsâ€ (#OWS was not an established organization; for that matter neither were the lunch-counter sit-ins, when they started; they were making up new social formations as they went along). And anyway I think Iâ€™m explicit about the importance of building up grassroots alternatives and counter-institutions. I could have gotten into a long discussion of the best balance between the two (or the best way to integrate the two approaches), but I think that would be pretty far afield from the relatively modest conceptual point I was aiming to make about left-libertarian normative commitments.
[Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL's Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.]
Left-libertarians are sometimes known to stick on distinctions and the definitions of words. We contest commonly understood definitions of political â€˜rightismâ€™ and â€˜leftism;â€™ we question the terms used in conventional economic debates over â€˜capitalismâ€™ and â€˜socialism,â€™ â€˜free trade agreements,â€™ â€˜intellectual property,â€™ â€˜privatizationâ€™ and â€˜private ownershipâ€™ of the means of production. We have been known to do funny things with verb tenses when it comes to â€˜freedâ€™ markets; we brandish subscripts and three-way distinctionsat the drop of a hat. Most famously left-wing market anarchists insist that we defend â€˜free marketsâ€™ but not â€˜capitalismâ€™ â€“ insisting that these are not synonyms, and drawing a sharp analytic distinction between the market form of exchange, and conventionally capitalist patterns of economic ownership and social control.
There are some interesting discussions to be had about that distinction; but to-day Iâ€™d like to expand on a distinction sometimes left out in discussing distinctions between the â€œmarketsâ€ that left-libertarians defend and the â€œcapitalismâ€ that we condemn â€“ two different senses that are often jammed together within the first half of that distinction â€“ within the concept of market relationships. The distinction between the two is crucial, and both advocates and critics of market economics have neglected it much too often: when we talk about â€œmarkets,â€ and â€œfree marketsâ€ especially, there are really two different definitions we might be working with â€“ one broad, and one narrow.
What is â€œa market,â€ ultimately? It is a set of human relationships. And it is a notion with a certain history and familiar examples. But in modern social and economic debates, â€œmarketâ€ has taken on meanings far beyond any concrete marketplace. What has been abstracted away, and what has been held as essential? The kind of relationships we are likely to have in mind varies, depending on which elements of marketplaces we have chosen to focus on â€“ in particular, whether we focus (1) on the elements of individual choice, negotiated contracts and free competition; or (2) on the elements of quid pro quo exchange and commercial relationships.
Focusing on (1) gives us a concept of markets as free exchange. When market anarchists talk about markets, or especially about â€œthe market,â€ we often mean the sum of all voluntary exchanges â€“ and when we speak of freed markets, we mean the discussion to encompass any economic order based â€“ to the extent that it is based â€“ on respect for individual property, consensual exchange, freedom of association, and entrepreneurial discovery. So to say that something ought to be â€œleft up to the marketâ€ is simply to say that it should be handled as a matter of choice and negotiated agreements among free individuals, rather than by coercive government.
Focusing on (2) gives us quite a different concept, markets as the cash nexus. We often use the term â€œmarketâ€ to refer to a particular form of acquiring and exchanging property, and the institutions that go along with it â€“ to refer, specifically, to commerce and for-profit business, typically mediated by currency or by financial instruments that are denominated in units of currency. Whereas free exchange is a matter of the background conditions behind economic and social agreements (that it is mutually consensual, not coerced), the cash nexus is a matter of the terms of the agreements themselves â€“ of agreeing to conduct matters on a paying basis, in a relatively impersonal quid-pro-quo exchange.
Now one of the central points of free market economics is that â€œmarketsâ€ in these two senses are positively interrelated. When they take place within the context of a system of free exchange, there can be a positive, even essential role for social relationships that are based on the cash nexus â€“ producing, investing, buying and selling at market prices â€“ in the sustaining and flourishing of a free society. But while linked, they are distinct. Markets taken broadly â€“ as free exchange â€“ can include cash-nexus relationships â€“ but also much more. Free exchange may, in fact, include many features that compete with, limit, transform, or even undermine impersonal cash-nexus relationships in particular domains. Family sharing is part of a free market; charity is part of a free market; gifts are part of a free market; informal exchange and barter are part of a free market. In a freed market there would be nothing to outlaw the features of business as usual in our actually-existing economy â€“ wage labor, rent, formalized business organizations, corporate insurance, corporate finance and the like would all be available as theoretically possible market outcomes.
But so would alternative arrangements for making a living â€“ including many arrangements that clearly have nothing to do with business as usual or capitalism as we know it: worker and consumer co-ops, community free clinics and mutual aid medical coverage are examples of voluntary exchange; so are wildcat, voluntary labor unions. So are consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and other alternatives to prevailing corporate capitalism. This broad definition of markets is so broad that you might suggestively describe a fully free market, in this sense, as the space of maximal consensually-sustained social experimentation.
But while the freedom and growth of spaces for economic and social experimentation is always something to be desired and defended from a libertarian standpoint, the value of a cash nexus, in economic and social relationships, depends entirely on the social context within which it is embedded. Free-market anticapitalists have pointed out the central role that â€œpro-businessâ€ government intervention has played in shaping our daily encounters with bills and business, livelihoods and labor, commodities and consumption. Political privileges to corporate business models, government monopolies and captive markets are deeply entrenched, centrally positioned, pervasive in the actually-existing corporate economy, and overwhelming in scale. Moreover, interlocking government interventions systematically act to restrain, crowd out, bulldoze or simply outlaw less hierarchical, less commercial, grassroots or informal-sector alternatives to corporate-dominated rigged markets for daily needs, whether in making a living, or in housing, or health care, or access to credit, or mutual aid, insurance and crisis relief.
These deep, structural features of the economy shove us into labor, housing and financial markets on artificially desperate terms; they deform the markets we are pushed into through an intense concentration of resources in the hands of the privileged, without the fallback of small-scale enterprise and grassroots alternatives that might otherwise prove far more attractive. Left-libertarians insist on the importance of this point because in discussions of market economics it is so easily missed, mistaken simply as business as usual and everyday life in a market economy. But when it is missed, people who oppose the worst inequities of the rigged-market system too easily blame the inequities on the freedom, or unregulated character, of market institutions; while those who wish to stand up for freed markets find themselves on the defensive, trying to defend indefensible institutions when they should be pointing out that their worst features are the product of market constraints.
When leftists complain about commercialism gone mad, about the looming presence of bosses and landlords and debts in our day-to-day lives, about the crises that workers face every month just to pay the rent or the medical bills, we must realize that they are talking about real social evils, which arise from markets in one sense, but not in another. They are talking, specifically, about what the cash nexus is made into by political privileges and government monopolies, when competing alternatives among businesses, and competing alternatives to conventional business models, have been paralyzed, crowded out, or simply outlawed by the actions of the corporate state. And they are talking about social relationships that libertarians need not, and should not, waste any energy on defending. Whatever positive and liberating roles cash-nexus relationships may have in the context of free exchange â€“ and it is important that they have many â€“ they can just as easily become instruments of alienation and exploitation when forced on unwilling participants, in areas of their life where they donâ€™t need or want them, through the immediate or indirect effects of government force and rigged markets.
Suppose we grant, for argumentâ€™s sake, the modest explanatory claim about the dominant players in the capitalist economy â€“ from the business practices of Fortune 500 corporations, to our daily confrontations with employers, landlords or financial corporations. Their size, competitive dominance, and much of their everyday business practices, are substantially the result of the subsidies they receive, the structural privileges they enjoy, and the political constraints on competing businesses, or more informal, less commercial alternatives to their business just as such â€“ competitors who might check them, unseat them, or simply dissolve the need for them in the first place. In an age of multitrillion-dollar bank bailouts, it is not hard to accept that much of actually-existing fortunes and business as usual in the corporate economy as we know it â€“ specifically including much of the abusive power condemned by critics on the Left â€“ are not the result of serving willing customers or ruthlessness in market competition; they are to a great extent the product of exploiting political constraints forged by the alliance of interests between big government and big business.
Even if you accept this explanatory claim, you may may still wonder why left-libertarians insist as confidently that we do that uncontrolled economic competition will not only alter the position of these incumbents, perhaps with some ceteris paribus tendency towards less concentrated wealth and less corporate or businesslike arrangements in economic life â€“ but will positively and qualitatively transform the economic landscape. Left-libertarians are radicals and typically quite optimistic that from fully liberated market processes will naturally emerge the grassroots, alternative economies that they favor, with qualitative social shifts away from (among other things) wage-labor, landlordism, corporate ownership, large firms and to some significant extent corporate commerce as a whole. This is a strong claim, stronger than the explanatory claim alone â€“ call it the bold predictive claim â€“ not only about ceteris paribus tendencies, but about the prospects for mutualistic economies to arise from freed market processes, and to bring about the greater economic equality, social equality, cultural progress, and ecological sustainability that left-libertarians promise to achieve through libertarian means.
Of course, as I have argued at length, there is a straightforward case for a possibility claim that they might arise. A â€œmarket economyâ€ in the broad sense need not be an economy dominated by cash nexus relationships, and people might choose to adopt any number of radical experiments. And as as left-libertarians have repeatedly pointed out, the empirical fact that a qualitatively different economy hasnâ€™t yet arisen cannot be explained simply by the dynamics of free markets â€“ we donâ€™t have a free market, and the actually-existing dominant model is (as we have granted) dominant precisely because of the regressive redistribution of wealth and the political constraints that state capitalism has imposed.
The boldness of the bold predictive claim comes, Iâ€™d argue, from the combination of two distinct elements of the left-libertarian position. The first â€“ the economic tendency claim â€“ involves a cluster of empirical observations and theoretical developments in economics. It is, really, not so much a single critical claim or a unified theory, as a sort of research programme for a mutualistic market economics, drawing attention to a number of areas for study and discussion. If the modest explanatory claim demonstrates some ceteris paribus tendency towards a weaker and more unstable position for corporations, and towards greater roles for anti-capitalist, non-commercial, informal-sector or independent alternatives, then the stronger economic tendency claim would draw attention to factors affecting the strength of the tendency, and the strength or weakness of countervailing factors that might keep ceteris from staying paribus after all. Areas it marks out for attention include principal-agent problems and knowledge problems in large organizations or hierarchical relationships; the assumption of risk, time horizons, transaction costs and other factors in conventional corporate forms and also in alternative, non-corporate models of ownership, management and financing; the possible shifts in risk tolerance, consumption spending, or interest in social capital under conditions of greater freedom and less precarious material conditions; and many other questions for detailed empirical research that I can only hint at within the scope of this essay.
But in addition to the empirical research programme the economic tendency claim suggests, left-libertarians also defend a second, normative claim, drawing on the possibility of less hierarchical, less formalized, and less commercialized social relationships, and the desirability of conscious, concerted, campaigns of stateless social activism to bring about the social conditions we value. Left-libertarians do not only suggest that employers, management hierarchies, or conventional commercial enterprises will tend to face certain ready-made economic difficulties and instabilities in a freed market; we aim to make ourselves and our neighborhoods more difficult to deal with, by consciously organizing and becoming the alternatives we hope to see emerge. Our leftism is not a research programme only, but an activist manifesto.
The shape of a free society is formed not only by anonymous economic tendencies and â€œmarket forces,â€ but also by conscious social activism and community organizing. â€œMarket forcesâ€ are not superhuman entities that push us around from the outside; they are a conveniently abstracted way of talking about the systematic patterns that emerge from our own economic choices. We are market forces, and in markets broadly understood as spaces of freewheeling social experimentation, it is in our hands, and up to us, to make different choices; or shift the range of choices available, through the creative practice of hard-driving social activism, culture jamming, workplace organizing, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, divestiture, the development of humane alternatives, counter-institutions, and the practice of grassroots solidarity and mutual aid.
This is, of course, simply to state the normative claim; Iâ€™ve only outlined the conclusion, not (yet, here) given an argument in its favor. Left-libertariansâ€™ case for stateless social activism rests on a set of arguments that I can only hint at within the space of this essay, but the normative defense of a broadly leftist programme of social and economic activism
may draw support from (1) independent ethical or social considerations in favor of greater autonomy, less hierarchical, less privileged, less rigid, more participatory and more co-operative social relationships. And it may draw support also from (2) arguments in favor of a â€œthickâ€ conception of libertarianism, drawing from and mutually reinforcing integrated commitments to a radical anti-authoritarianism, and to concerns about broad social dynamics of deference, privilege, participation and autonomy.
At any rate, the normative and activist element of left-libertarian claims about freed markets may help explain the strength of the bold predictive claim, as follows. Market anarchistsâ€™ inquiries under the economic tendency claim give us reasons to suggest, more or less strongly, that getting rid of rigged markets and interlocking radical monopolies would be sufficient to bring about a sort of laissez-faire socialism â€“ the natural tendency of freed markets may well be for ownership to be more widely dispersed and for many forms of concentrated social or economic privilege, stripped of the bail-outs and monopolies that sustained them, to collapse under their own weight. But left-libertarians see freed markets as characterized not only by laissez-faire socialism, but also entrepreneurial anti-capitalism: whatever reasons we may have to predict that some concentrations of economic or social power may not simply collapse on their own, left-libertarians, drawing on the resources of grassroots, nonviolent social activism, intend to knock them over. The strength of the predictive claim, then, comes from its double origins: it is both a prophecy about the likely effects of market freedom; and a radical proposal about what to do with what remains.
Hector: Can someone explain me what is happening the photograph please?
During the SNCC sit-in protests, the nonviolent protesters were very often surrounded by angry crowds of white neighbors who were trying to intimidate or humiliate the protesters. Most of the people in the crowd verbally taunted them; some, mainly young white men, physically attacked them. The SNCC protesters wouldnâ€™t fight back (they had adopted a code of nonviolence and spent days role-playing and training themselves not to retaliate), so most often the assaults amounted to extended efforts to humiliate them. In the photograph, the white man extending his arm from the left-hand side of the frame is about to dump a glass of water on the head of a black woman who is protesting the segregated lunch-cuonter. All three of the protesters in the photograph have already been smeared with food by the vigilantes in the crowd.
And if it was, it is poorly written.
Well, you know, if Sheldon writes that he thinks something is â€œappropriateâ€ as a tactic and you respond to him by concluding that he thinks it is â€œinappropriate,â€ or if he says that â€œa sit-in at a private lunch counterâ€ categorically is â€œa trespass,â€ and then goes on to defend sit-ins at private lunch counters, and then you interpret him as â€œnot allowing trespass against the private property operated by bigots,â€ then Iâ€™m not really sure how much better writing could possibly have helped you.
He also believes (this is the point of the closing paragraph that I assume youâ€™re referring to when you inaccurately summarize Sheldonâ€™s view as being motivated by â€œeconomic reasonsâ€) that in the actual historical context of the Jim Crow South, white store owners â€” as the economic beneficiaries of massive racist violence, and the use of this violence to dispossess black workers and suppress competition from anti-racist alternatives â€” may not have had any really legitimate claims of ownership in the stores that they controlled. Now this is it seems to me an interesting view and in fact it is exactly the view that you claim to think an anti-capitalist Anarchist ought to hold â€” that the â€œprivate propertyâ€ operated by bigots is (at least in that historical context) not in fact owed any respect, that their private property claims in that context have little or no ethical significance for the kinds of protest you can direct against them. Yet you interpret him as holding exactly the opposite.
He does not hold the opposite. But his defense of nonviolent trespass is in any case not based on that claim; it would hold up even if he rejected it. It is in that sense a broader defense of the legitimacy of sit-in protests and similar forms of trespass than the one that you offer. He spends the entire article up to that very paragraph arguing that even when a sit-in at a private lunch counter does count as a trespass against the legitimate owner of the counter, thatâ€™s still perfectly compatible with the kind of nonviolent confrontation that Sheldon (following SNCC) is defending. If it turns out that there wasnâ€™t even a trespass worth discussing â€” because the â€œownerâ€ did not really have legitimate proprietary rights over the counter â€” then thatâ€™s just gravy.
Perhaps you think that this is not clear from what Sheldon wrote, and if itâ€™s what he meant, he should have said so more clearly. No doubt we could all be clearer. But it seems to me that when he explicitly tells you that heâ€™s OK with trespass as a protest tactic, when he phrases this in the form of a simple question-answer (â€œIsnâ€™t a sit-in at a private lunch counter a trespass? â€” It is.â€), when he states that his argument there is not dependent on, but is only â€œbuttressedâ€ by, the paragraph that follows, etc., and you come away from this with the conclusion that you did, that sounds to me more like motivated misreading than it does like bad writing.
He says that a sit-in is an appropriate response to segregated businesses, and then in the first sentence of the next paragraph he also categorically states that a sit-in is a deliberate form of trespass. Thus he states that trespass is an appropriate response to segregated businesses. Your interpretation of the conclusion in his article seems to be exactly the opposite of what he actually wrote in that article. Will you admit that this reading of yours was mistaken?
The question of how sit-in protesters should have responded when threatened with arrest for their trespassing is a separate question from the question of whether the trespass and the sit-in itself was justified. Perhaps sometimes the right thing to do is something that will get you arrested; and perhaps sometimes you ought to accept arrest as a consequence of doing the right thing. Now Sheldon says that the students in the sit-in movement were right to sit in, and also that they were right to accept arrest without resisting it by force. That is â€œnonviolenceâ€ without a doubt, and thereâ€™s a conversation to be had about that. Maybe Anarchists should reject that position. Maybe that position is wrong. But right or wrong it is a position that is being completely misrepresented if you claim that he is criticizing the use of â€œtrespassâ€ as a tactic. Rather the position being defended is that the sit-in activists were right to trespass, and also to accept arrest, when it came to that, without violent resistance.
Now again, maybe you have a problem with the last half of that position. But we should at least keep in mind that that half of the position that Sheldon is defending was you know, for good or for ill, the considered tactical and ethical position adopted by people in the sit-in movement at the time, who did, after all, think they had some good reasons not to use violence in their resistance. (This is not incidentally the same thing as being â€œtotally passive,â€ unless you think that the only way not to be passive is to be violent instead. But you can hardly expect advocates of nonviolent resistance to agree with you.) Sheldon is here taking his lead from and defending the chosen tactics of the social movement, not criticizing or policing their behavior. Now thereâ€™s an important and perfectly valid discussion to be had about nonviolence in different contexts, but I would like to suggest as gently as possible that your position on this is hardly the only one that might possibly qualify as Anarchistic. And that I have some trouble seeing much coming of any conversation on the topic if it is going to proceed from a presumption that a bunch of white activists and commentators would know better than SNCC how to put on an appropriately anti-racist sit-in.
I think you should re-read the paragraph you just quoted from Sheldonâ€™s article. Itâ€™s specifically an endorsement and a defense of the deliberate use of trespass as a tactic for anti-racist social activism. Not a rejection of it.
The claim that Sheldon is â€œtalking about how it would not have been appropriateâ€ when the first sentence in the quoted passage directly and specifically refers to â€œmy inclusion of sit-ins in the list of appropriate nonviolent forms of protest,â€ seems like a pretty bizarre misreading.
Well, OK; but do you think that the only possible or effectual constraints on people's behavior, or countervailing powers that might check recklessness or cruelty, areÂ legalÂ constraints? If so, why?
Because I think there are lots of people who are not very cooperative, and not much moved by the forces of consensus and team play.
OK; but, again, why think that appeals to "consensus" and "team play" are the only alternatives available to (1) not having any checks at all on other people's conduct; or (2) employing legal force to make people stop?
I'm all for consensus and team play, but I can think of lots of other means that people have used historically when they weren't forthcoming -- there are positive financial incentives (corporations and government agencies are not the only forms by which people can pool their resources); there's social pressure; cultural activism; scurrilous verses; protest songs; preaching; boycotts and "pro-cotts;" strikes; pickets; sit-ins; teach-ins; ogle-ins; and a whole host of other non-violent social and economic things that people can and have and will continue to do, all of them perfectly compatible with a free market. (It was, just to pick one example, sit-ins and boycotts, NOT antidiscrimination laws, which desegregated lunch counters and gas station bathrooms in the Jim Crow South. Not because white store owners were just all about "consensus" and "team play" with their Black neighbors; but because Black people got together, organized, and -- long before there was any legal sanction for doing so -- made it perfectly clear that they were willing to act, socially and nonviolently, in such a way that the stupid racist-ass policies of Woolworth's et al. would no longer be socially sustainable.)
Indeed, there's good reason to think that in free markets they would be far more effective -- insofar as the regulatory methods and direct subsidies by which governments insulate big players from market pressure and competition would no longer be in place. When markets are dominated by political decision-making, they have to worry only about pleasing politicians, not about what the neighbors think of them. When there are no big institutional contracts to be had, no legally guaranteed monopolies, no bail-outs, etc., they depend on the neighbors' consumer spending, and have a lot more reason to care about the social and economic pressure that ordinary people can -- without any political action at all -- bring to bear on them.
On your earlier point,Â allÂ corporations are hierarchical and all of them represent concentrated wealth. Â Yet most have them are not much involved in the bailouts, military-industrial complex or state-enabled monopolies.
No, not "most [of] them;" just the largest and most important ones. (I would maintain that basically every corporation within the top 10-20 of the Fortune 500 is a direct and obvious beneficiary of government bail-outs, major corporate-welfare programs, for-profit eminent domain, the military-industrial complex, or one of the Four Monopolies -- the Money Monopoly, the Land Monopoly, the Tariff Monopoly and the Patent Monopoly -- outlined by Benjamin Tucker. Indeed many are beneficiaries of several of these at once.) But there are many other forms of government privilege we could discuss beyond the biggest ones that go to the biggest corporations; and most forms of government privilege have ripple effects that go beyond their direct beneficiaries. Corporations typically deal best with other corporations, and where government privileges prop up one, they tend to indirectly nourish a lot of others.