On the Shoulders of Giants

by Kevin Carson
On the Shoulders of Giants

I was pleased — not to mention honored — to see my work included in Vol. 3 (The New Anarchism: 1974-2008) of Robert Graham’s anthology “Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.” It’s grouped together, in a section entitled “Libertarian Alternatives,” with Murray Bookchin, Graham Purchase and Adam Buick, among others.

But I’d hate for anyone to get the impression that my “free market anti-capitalism” is sui generis. In fact for well over a decade it’s been “steam engine time” for left-wing free market analysis. And the intellectual foundations of our thought go back very far indeed.

First, the classical liberalism of two centuries ago was in many ways a left-wing critique of the large landed and mercantile interests. Classical liberalism and classical socialism were very closely related in their origins, and the two currents often overlapped considerably. Although the “Ricardian socialist” label conventionally ascribed to him is somewhat misleading, Thomas Hodgskin — one of the major influences on my own thought — was in fact both a classical liberal in the tradition of Adam Smith and an anti-capitalist who gave lectures in radical political economy to the London Mechanics Institution.

Since then there has been a broad current of thought that is both socialistic in its objectives and free market libertarian in its praxis; it has included the individualist anarchists of Benjamin Tucker’s “Liberty” group, figures like Dyer Lum and Voltairine de Cleyre on the border between individualist anarchism and labor radicalism, and Georgists and quasi-Georgists ranging from Henry George himself to Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock and Ralph Borsodi.

Second, the modern libertarian movement has had left-leaning strands. As far back as the late ’60s, in the mainstream American libertarian movement, Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess were seeking areas of commonality with the libertarian wing of SDS, and with revisionist scholars like William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko and David Horowitz (long story), in critiquing the fundamentally statist character of American corporate capitalism. Or as Rothbard put it, in “The Student Revolution”: “… our corporate state uses the coercive taxing power either to accumulate corporate capital or to lower corporate costs.”

And third, even as I was groping toward what I eventually labeled “free market anti-capitalism,” I found many others on the same path. My first close affiliation in the anarchist milieu was with Ed Stamm’s affinity group, the Voluntary Cooperation Movement — a major component of which was the revived Proudhonian mutualism promoted by Larry Gambone at Red Lion Press. Jonathan Simcock, editor of Total Liberty in the UK — while not an avowed individualist anarchist — provided a clearinghouse for surviving members in the individualist anarchist community. In the U.S., Joe Peacott of the Boston Anarchist Drinking (B.A.D.) Brigade adhered to the original, anti-capitalist version of individualist anarchism. To the extent that you could squeeze the rather prickly and irascible Fred Woodworth of Tucson’s The Match! into any particular category, individualist anarchism is probably it.

Meanwhile Auburn University philosophy professor Roderick T. Long had already been evolving from a fairly orthodox Rothbardianism toward a left-wing free market critique of capitalism. His former grad assistant Charles Johnson, a left-wing social anarchist in his origins, was — although never embracing Rothbardianism as such — influenced by Long in adopting a free market critique of capitalism.

Long, Johnson, and other leftward-evolving Rothbardians like Brad Spangler (founder of Center for a Stateless Society) have since coalesced — along with assorted individualist anarchists (like yours truly), Georgists and others disgruntled with the conventional libertarian right (like C4SS Media Director Thomas Knapp ) into a large and loosely organized movement that includes the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and C4SS. We include Sheldon Richman (who published or wrote a great deal of left-libertarian commentary at The Freeman, and now edits Freedom Monthly), Gary Chartier of La Sierra University who has written a considerable body of left-libertarian books and articles, and a whole community of excellent writers who engage in free market critiques of capitalism and anarchist critiques of state and cultural authoritarianism: David D’Amato, Ross Kenyon, Anna Morgenstern, Keith Taylor, James Tuttle and Darian Worden, among many others (to whom I apologize for leaving out).

During the same period Shawn Wilbur has amassed an impressive body of scholarly analysis and recovered an enormous collection of mutualist and individual anarchist literature from the early and mid-19th century.

In the UK, Sean Gabb has created a welcoming space for left-libertarian commentary at the Libertarian Alliance. From the Randian community, Objectivist Chris Sciabarra and post-Objectivist Arthur Silber have developed the neglected anti-corporatist and culturally libertarian aspects of Ayn Rand’s thought.

And it’s hardly as if this mushrooming tendency is limited to the ALL/C4SS community or even to the legacy libertarian movement. As I said earlier, it’s steam engine time for critiques of the corporate welfare state, corporatism and crony capitalism. They can be found in Dean Baker‘s The Conservative Nanny State and Naomi Klein‘s The Shock Doctrine, among other places. Even the Koch Brothers, of all people, pay lip-service to them.

What all this amounts to, I think, is that the raw materials for a free market critique of capitalism from the Left have been lying to hand for a long time. The problem was that the old broadcast/gatekeeper media culture erected enormous transaction cost barriers against aggregating these raw materials into a coherent school of thought. Bits and pieces of this free market anti-capitalist analysis were picked up and developed by larger pre-existing schools of thought, but for the most part they groped their way around separate parts of the elephant. The people who were most likely to develop all these bits and pieces into a coherent whole were largely limited to angry letters to the editor and photocopied ‘zines.

The rise of the Worldwide Web, and the near-zero transaction costs of aggregating ideas, changed all this. Throughout history, there have always been those who (pick your cliche) saw the fnords or glitches in the Matrix — who saw the internal contradictions in the ruling class ideology, and attempted to recuperate its concepts as a weapon against the system of power. From the mid-90s on, everyone capable of putting two and two together has been doing so — and rapidly making the acquaintance of all the others who’ve been drawing the same conclusions. Since then, we’ve been coalescing like a liquid metal Terminator into a self-conscious movement, dedicated to using the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house.

6 responses to “On the Shoulders of Giants

  1. Ricardian economics is wrong – especially the interpretation of the ideas of David Ricardo that Kevin pushes.

    It is wrong on land – as Frank Fetter and others showed.

    It is wrong on the Labour Theory of Value – which is a totally false theory.

    And it is wrong on…… (on and on).

    And, to go on to something else in the post……

    “Anti capitalism” is in no way “free market”.

    If it were, then Black Flag people (like Kevin) would not happily cooperate with Red Flag (Marxist) people in such things as the international “Occupy” movement.

    On the contrary…..

    If Kevin and co were really in favour of the free market they would be deadly enemies of the Marxists – not kiss-kiss friends of the Marxists, working together in everything from the teacher unions to rioters on the streets.

    But then if Kevin and co were really pro free market they would be pro capitalist (but trying to make the economy a lot more capitalist than it currently is – trying to roll back collectivist “Social Justice”) not anti capitalist.

    The West has many problems.

    Government spending is half the economy in many major nations – and most of this government spending is on “Social Justice” stuff that is destroying the culture (not “just” the economy).

    The economy is choked by endless regulations – and, contrary to Kevin and co, regulation at this level certainly does not benefit “big business” as a “class” (even the few “pets” are getting hit).

    And the financial system (and capital struture) is twisted and undermined by the government “cheap money”, “low interest rate” policy (in a free market lending would be from real savings – not credit-money expansion).

    These problems are so bad (and so far advanced) that what is left of civil society (of the nonaggression principle) may well be doomed.

    However, Kevin and co are not part of the solution – they are not going to open any doors to a bright new world.

    Kevin and co are, in fact, part of the problem – and the only things they are going to open are the gates of Hell.

  2. “corporate welfare state, corporatism and crony capitalism”
    If that’s what they are critiquing then I don’t see how they disagree with anarcho-capitalists. Anarcho Capitalism is, after all, the NAP taken to its logical conclusions.
    There is absolutely no reason why you cannot practice hierarchy-less communities in an Anarcho-capitalism, noone would try to stop you.

    Unfortunately the types of people that left-libertarianism(componants which reject property ideals) ultimately attracts those who are apposed to the NAP.

    If they don’t have any issue with these, then in my eyes there is no need to be arguing, or for them to be critiquing what they call “Capitalism”, because it only seeks to annoy anarcho-capitalists and those anarchists who may consider themselves of the right.

    In my eyes they see capitalism as an easy target rather than simply going after the immediate issue – the State. Everything else is trivial.

    Would be interested to hearing anyones views on this.

  3. JFen

    Anachocapitalists do not tend to support Chevez in Venezuela, or the international (and fantatically collectivist) “Occupy” movement, or the savage mobs of Egypt, or…. (well all the rest of what Kevin and co are on the side of – I suspect a little faction of Druze up in the Golan will be their next hero figures).

    They are not just against “corporate welfare” they are against companies in general, and they are not just against companies, they are also against rich inidviduals.

    They (Kevin and co) are Cong – they just wave a Black Flag rather than a Red Flag, and they happily cooperate with those who wave the Red Flag.

    The, part, taking of the word “Libertarian” and the subversion of libertarian writers (by old Marxist tricks such as twisting words to mean the opposite of what the author meant) has been a professional job.

    However, no matter how cunning people like Kevin are they could not have done so much damage without help (without their stuff being pushed) – help from people such as Sean Gabb.

  4. Free market anti-capitalism???
    Looks like a misnomer to me, by definition.

    However, i have seen enough or Mr. Gabb´s writings to know what
    he means. The “anti-capitalism” here means being against
    o Chrony-capitalism
    o Big gov/Big Biz conspiracy to keep barriers to entry high
    o The big gov/big labour conspiracy attached to big biz to create
    a corporatist society

    About right, Sean?

    Nils Andersson

  5. Nils,

    Unfortunately, whatever Sean personally thinks, the article is by Kevin Carson and we do know what he thinks, which is that he is against all capitalism, since he defines capitalism as always and everywhere “crony” capitalism, rather than making a distinction between cronies and non-cronies.

    It is a bit like somebody who says they are against “Zionists”, and the defenders of this person say, “he is not against the Jews, just against Zionist Jews”. But then when you read his writing he makes it clear that in his opinion every Jew is a Zionist, so the two things (Jews and Zionists) are synonymous.

    Carson’s basic schtick is to produce reams of writing trying to prove that everything we know about economics is wrong; there are no such things as economies of scale, or benefits from specialisation, and so on. Having “proved” this, he then falsely begs the question of why some businesses are large and successful, and some are not- since this cannot be due to being more efficient or better serving the consumer (since he has “proved” these things impossible) he concludes that the only answer must be that their success is entirely and utterly due to State support.

    Carson’s “free(d) market”, expounded in his writings, is better described as a “no market”. It is a naive romantic communalist utopianism of small cooperative workshops and home production, in which there is little room for an actual marketplace since nobody trades anything and producers do not compete (since Carson has already “proved” that differences in value in commodity goods are an illusion generated by State intervention). In this bizarre vision, even a road between two towns (e.g. Kettering and Northampton) becomes the enemy, since it may allow Northampton’s bakery to ship bread to Kettering and undercut the Kettering Bakery, disturbing his idyllic static market. Kettering people should eat Kettering bread, made by Kettering people, you see. In this model, the road (which happens to have been constructed by the State) is a “subsidy” to Northampton’s bakers and thus evil, so we have to erase it from the land.

    So anyway, that’s Carson’s philosophy in somewhat abbreviated form. The freed market is no market, and competition is a sin. Which eerily puts Carson in the same ideological boat as John D. Rockerfeller.