28 March 2013

Anarchism and capitalism reconsidered

The April 2013 issue of Reason, the libertarian monthly, has a critical but sympathetic review by Aeon J. Skoble of Anarchy and Legal Order, a new book by Gary Chartier. When libertarians and anarchists confront one another, on friendly terms or otherwise, the inevitable question arises: what's the difference? Historically, what's distinguished anarchists from libertarians is a hostility toward capitalism as well as the state. Anarchists trace their heritage to a specific moment in history, and to specific parts of the world, where the state made itself obnoxious by taking the side of capital against organized labor. Libertarians have a broader frame of reference, looking further back to periods when the state impeded free enterprise and technological innovation and forward to periods when the state has taken a more adversarial stance toward capital, at least in the eyes of capitalists. Chartier complicates the issue needlessly, as far as Skoble is concerned, by dubbing himself a socialist as well as an anarchist. For libertarians this does not compute, since to them socialism means the state above all else. As Skoble realizes, definitions count. That's even more crucial when it comes to Chartier's discussion of capitalism.

"Isn't capitalism a system wherein people are free to make voluntary exchanges of their property?" Skoble asks. He finds that Chartier approves of such a system, but means something else when he writes about capitalism. Author and reviewer can agree on their opposition to "crony capitalism," defined by Skoble as "the quasi-free economy we live in now, which is famously riddled with market distortions caused by state interference and political cronyism." Leftists might define it as an economy in which the market and the state alike are distorted by the influence of concentrated wealth, but that's mostly a difference in emphasis. But what makes "capitalism" itself, as Chartier understands the term, ultimately unacceptable is its connotation (as summarized by Skoble) of "domination of the many by a small number of people -- capitalists -- who control resources."  As Skoble notes, Chartier sees domination and "subordination" as morally wrong. The state, in Chartier's anarchist account, is an engine of domination and subordination because it relies inherently on aggression, coercion, etc. The state isn't the only such engine, however, but Chartier's answer to what Skoble calls "non-governmental problems" isn't anarchy as such but a small-is-better philosophy towards which anarchy is most conducive. Skoble himself, however, is "agnostic as to whether an anarchist society would be one without bosses and large corporations." Implicit in his agnosticism is a deeper skepticism toward Chartier's premise on the immorality of subordination. A libertarian most likely can't accept the premise, since libertarians make a fetish out of freedom of contract. In more philosophical terms, they see no contradiction between freedom and necessity and no degradation of someone's freedom if necessity compels him to take a miserable job. The libertarian utopia encompasses wage labor and a hierarchy of employer and employed, while Chartier's anarchist ideal, as described by Skoble, is one "where the 'boss' figure is minimized or avoided altogether." By contrast, Skoble takes Chartier to task for espousing socialism when Skoble understands socialism to be something other than the "voluntary" society both anarchists and libertarians claim to prefer. While Skoble understands that Chartier prefers to define socialism in voluntary terms -- rather than Leninist terms, presumably -- he thinks that the word "socialism" has so many bad connotations that a proper anarchist should reject it as decisively as Chartier rejects "capitalism." If you're "anti-capitalist" because "capitalism" means bad things to many people, shouldn't you be "anti-socialist" for the same reason, even while promoting a voluntary egalitarian society without hierarchy or bosses? That may be a fair point, if only because so many socialists despise anarchism that Chartier may as well cultivate his own brand.

Skoble recommends Anarchy and Legal Order as "an impressive contribution to libertarian thought generally," an acknowledgment of persistent affinity between libertarianism and anarchism despite the significant differences exposed in his own review. Since I've read Skoble but not Chartier, all I can say is that the reviewer seems to have summarized the book's strong points while making his own criticisms clear and distinct. I'm just left wondering how anarchy actually prevents domination. According to Skoble, who seems to approve of this part, Chartier believes that "a stateless society will have mechanisms for resolving conflicts and rectifying injury that do not depend on relentless government aggression." Both writers seems to believe that "there is no contradiction in opposing the state and supporting a system of legal rules." But rules depend on enforcement, don't they, and both anarchists and libertarians have problems with force. Skoble hints at a considerable body of literature addressing the possiblity of "polycentric legal order" and rectification without "aggression." I may have to read some of those works someday before I can take this argument seriously.


Anonymous said...

"I'm just left wondering how anarchy actually prevents domination."
This is an example of what I stated earlier. Their explanation that "a stateless society will have mechanisms for resolving conflicts and rectifying injury that do not depend on relentless government aggression." This assumes the best behavior under what [they deem as] the best circumstances.

History and current trends tells us otherwise. The question it makes me ponder is why is it okay in their view for one person or one small group of persons to profit by exploiting the economic needs of the many, but it is NOT okay for the many to form a union to increase their profit by exerting control over the price of their labor?

I can come up with no logical justification for this hypocritical and destructive viewpoint.

Samuel Wilson said...

I suspect that libertarians don't object to unions so much as they object to the "closed shop" concept that compels employees to join unions. Their belief is that each individual should have the right to negotiate what he considers the best deal for himself. If one person thinks collective bargaining will get him the best deal, fine. But he shouldn't prevent coworkers from negotiating their own deals. This ignores whether employers want to be bothered negotiating separate contracts with every employee, though employers seem to be happy when individual negotiations result in workers undercutting each other.

Anonymous said...

Do they also object to licensing requirements for medical personnel or bar exams for lawyers? It always seems to boil down to profit. If it somehow impedes [or is merely believed to impede] someone's ability to turn a profit, then it's wrong or bad.

The minute I hear someone proclaim themselves a libertarian, the phrase "would sell his own mother for a profit" enters my mind.