One of the biggest drawbacks of thinking in “vulgar libertarian” fashion is that you forget that there were ever alternatives available to people, that the way that we live now or the way we’re used to living is the only way that was ever reasonable or good. The rise of the modern state marks a time in history when authorities began to and continue to control more about people’s lives. The modern state also intrudes on people’s lives in a fashion that is so much greater than before. With that being said, we are still hesitant to look at other society organizational possibilities even though the modern state continues to control us more than most would prefer. Kevin Carson joins us to discuss the depths of capitalism and if the possibility for a post‐capitalism world exists.
What is the definition of capitalism? What is the history of the word “capitalism”? Who were the Boston Anarchists? What is “vulgar libertarianism”? Are there alternative social structures that we do not acknowledge because we are stubborn and stuck in our ways? Is post‐capitalism occurring?
00:03 Anthony Comegna: Several months ago now, we had Gary Chartier on the show to talk about the corporation problem in libertarian thought. As an actual historical phenomenon, the modern corporation was a direct outgrowth of medieval kingship. Over the early modern centuries, monarchs broke up their bodies of special powers and privileges to distribute them for a price to their most favored toadies. After the revolution, congress and state legislatures usurped the monarch’s role. By democratizing the corporation, our early libertarian Locofocos began a long process by which we came to positively identify ourselves as part of the modern capitalist class. Capitalism seems to include space for you and me just as much as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, but maybe we need to go back to that actual historical phenomenon before we go around making it part of our identity or endorsing the modern economy. To do this and more, I’ve invited Kevin Carson to join us, a self‐described “anarchist without adjectives.”
01:10 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
01:18 Anthony Comegna: So my first question to you is gonna be to give us a definition for capitalism, and especially because I know that you’re concerned with rooting our definitions of capitalism in the actual historical development of capitalism. So could you go ahead and start us off there?
01:37 Kevin Carson: When I refer to capitalism, I’m referring to the actual historical system that succeeded feudalism 500 or 600 years ago, and not to any kind of idealized or normative free market system. And I see the defining features of capitalism as including a very high degree of state involvement on behalf of the propertied classes with the state acting in many cases as an agent of the propertied classes. Capitalism was founded on large‐scale robbery, enclosure and expropriation of land, imperial conquest of foreign resources, enslavement, state repression of the laboring classes, and legal prohibitions against freedom of association and movement by them. Yeah, that’s basically it.
02:56 Anthony Comegna: I mean, in some sense, that makes capitalism sound like everything that’s wrong with modernity. What is the essential feature of capitalism that makes it different from those earlier pre‐modern economic systems?
03:15 Kevin Carson: Well, the dominance of the cash nexus is probably the main thing that distinguishes it from feudalism, and the dispossession of the laboring classes from actual occupancy of the means of production. I think Marx put it as the freedom of the working classes, both from obligation to their employer and from ownership of the means of production, turning them into propertyless market agents who were forced to sell their labor on the boss’ terms in order to survive.
04:02 Anthony Comegna: So would you really mark enclosure in a place like early modern England as the origins of capitalism?
04:12 Kevin Carson: That, and the predominance of the cash nexus in place of direct production for use.
04:24 Anthony Comegna: So, if… We recently talked to Nima Sanandaji, who is an Iranian‐Kurd historian, and he treats capitalism or entrepreneurship, free markets, in a very broad sense as something that’s a fundamental component of civilization throughout world history. But then there are, of course, these historians who treat it as a sort of singularly modern phenomenon with a definite origin point. And I think, in part at least, that’s because that’s how Marx wanted to talk about it when he really invented the term. Could you take us back to just the history of the use of the word “capitalism” to describe the culture of exploitation or expropriation that Marx was trying to describe?
05:19 Kevin Carson: Well, I’m not really a scholar of the history of the term, but from what I’ve been able to gather, it was… The term “capitalism” was first coined by anti‐capitalist radicals in the early to mid‐19th century in reference to the actually existing system they lived under. And by the late 19th century, it was being used in some cases as synonymous with Marx’s… I’m sorry. With markets. There were some individualist radicals in the Boston anarchist group in the United States who seemed to oscillate quite a bit between considering themselves socialists or anti‐capitalists and referring to their position as “capitalist anarchism,” just depending on the context or who they were debating with. I think Voltairine de Cleyre wrote a piece on a debate between a capitalist anarchist and a communist anarchist, where she was using “capitalist anarchist” in reference to the same Tuckerite position that Benjamin Tucker himself had considered socialistic. And then by the early 20th century, when Von Mises was writing, he used “capitalism” unambiguously as the idealized system he was advocating, I think, as a sort of in‐your‐face attempt at recuperating the term from its enemies, and Ayn Rand followed suit.
07:43 Anthony Comegna: Now this does get me to my next point, which is that I find it very interesting that my favorite documents or some of my favorite historical documents from the 19th century are from both the most libertarian people you could ever encounter from the time period, and they are visceral anti‐capitalists, and they are condemning the exact kinds of historical phenomenon that you’ve been talking about and the conflation of concepts that you’ve been pointing out here. And it makes me… It prompts me to ask you the question, can you describe your concept or term “vulgar libertarianism” for us?
08:31 Kevin Carson: It’s a lot like what Marx referred to as “vulgar political economy,” when the industrial capitalists supplanted the Whig landed oligarchy as the primary political power in Great Britain political economy, which had been a fairly radical and anti‐establishment doctrine when Smith and Ricardo were writing, it was critical of the landed interest and mercantilism and so forth, shifted gears into a defensive or apologetic mode on behalf of industrial capital, acting, as Marx said, as hired prizefighters on behalf of the ruling class. And that’s what I see vulgar libertarianism as today. There were major currents of classical liberalism in the 19th century that were radical or anti‐capitalist, including Thomas Hodgskin in Great Britain, the individualist anarchist in the United States, Henry George, and so forth. But by the late 19th century, the bulk of the movement or the mainstream of the movement had shifted into defending the interests of industrial capital. And today, mainstream libertarianism uses the rhetoric of the free market in order to defend big business against criticism. We see articles written in defense of sweatshop labor, saying that sweatshops are good because they’re the best available option for the people who work there, and they completely ignore the fact that the options are deliberately restricted by the state acting in collusion with employers. So, they’re defending actually existing capitalism as if it were a free market.
11:11 Anthony Comegna: It strikes me that all sorts of people are vulgar versions of whatever their ideological group is, at least to the extent that people have membership in some ideological group. I think that has something to do with what purposes history serves for us. For most people, it seems to be that the purpose of history, of learning it and studying it, caring about it, is to confirm your biases, whatever they might be. Even libertarians do that all the time. You end up defending what you like about the status quo, the world that you inherited, however it is. And rather than embracing a sort of totally hands‐off libertarian futurism where you just say, “I’m not gonna try to shape and control the future,” people get wound up in protecting what they feel like they already have. I wonder if you could comment on what you think our study or understanding of history has contributed to vulgar libertarianism.
12:15 Kevin Carson: I’m not sure. To be honest, it’s something I’ve not thought of a lot, although I remember reading a passage in Human Action, where Mises admitted that the enclosures were bad things and that they were unjust, but framed the capitalists as the good guys by offering employment to all of these dispossessed peasants and saving them from starvation, and he argued that the capitalist employers were just basically master tradesmen who had been unusually frugal and productive and saved up their income to invest in industry and expand it. So, there’s some I guess you’d say unrealistic or falsified view of history in that case, because that was obviously not… That was obviously not factually correct, but as far as the question goes of whether there’s any consistent or comprehensive vulgar libertarian view of history, it’s not something I really thought of a lot. I think most of the people I’ve encountered just ignore the question of history altogether. They treat capitalism as a system that’s axiomatic or self‐evident or a universal set rules of human behavior rather than a system with a historical beginning and end, or the ongoing laws of motion.
14:37 Anthony Comegna: That brings up another interesting thought to me. It strikes me that one of the biggest drawbacks of thinking in this vulgar libertarian fashion is that you forget that there were ever alternatives available to people, that the way that we live now or the way they we’re used to living is the only way that was ever reasonable or good or just or whatever, and that there probably weren’t any better alternatives available to people, otherwise they would have taken them. But of course, that’s not true. And to me, a great example of this is pirate ships in the golden age of Atlantic piracy, where people, ship by ship, were literally revolutionizing society on the ship and creating their new micro‐societies and micro‐civilizations that floated around the world.
15:28 Anthony Comegna: And the great empires of the day had to all get together and prosecute an international war against pirates to clear them out because they were such a threat to international trade under corporations, and insurance companies were being hit, and the navies were having to pay a lot to defend from pirates, and they were a serious threat to the global status quo of massive empires. And if [chuckle] we see ourselves identifying more with the merchant and the imperialist side of that divide, that spells big problems, because we forget that there are all sorts of ways for people to live more freely. I wonder if you could give us some examples of maybe alternative social structures out there that really are available as historical examples but we just don’t give enough time to them.
16:27 Kevin Carson: Well, I think they’ve only existed for the most part since the rise of the most… Of the first states in the most marginal areas outside of state control, and the dominant trend in history has been for those kinds of alternatives to be deliberately suppressed in order to prevent any kind of competition from existing that would weaken the ability of ruling classes to exploit. And to the extent that these systems have existed, again, they’ve mostly been marginal and ephemeral, but they generally fit the pattern that David Graeber… Or not David Graeber, James C. Scott referred to as “Zomian,” non‐state spaces in areas that are not amenable to control: Marshlands, mountainous areas, and so forth.
17:54 Kevin Carson: The classic example would be Israel under the judges, which I think was originally a Zomian‐type population of runaway peasants and debtors and slaves from the Canaanite [18:10] ____ who settled in the central highlands of Palestine and formed a tribal confederation with laws deliberately designed to keep a landed or monied ruling class from ever arising again. And other examples are the kinds of the things you described, the various pirate utopias, Zomian societies on the edge of American society, like amalgamations of Native American tribes and runaway slaves and runaway white debtors and indentured servants forming communities in the backwaters of the American southeast, or the Cossacks on the frontiers of imperial Russia, so forth, traveling people, like the British travelers, the Romani, and so forth.
19:24 Anthony Comegna: A lot of these sorts of examples that libertarians might point to or that they really like pointing to strike back to the pre‐modern world. And on the hand, that tells us, well, one of the key features of modernity is the rise of the modern state, this massive, totally new sort of institution that’s able to control more about people’s lives than pharaohs of old were ever able to, right? Its ability to intrude on the average person’s life is so much greater than before. So then, why are we so antagonistic sometimes to other ideas that stretch back to the same sort of time period? And I… [chuckle] What might be a controversial question for you, which is, if you could address the labor theory of value and your economic philosophy of mutualism, and where do you think that fits into the broader libertarian tradition…
20:25 Kevin Carson: Okay. Before I do that, could I go back to the previous question, because I think… Like that old important facet of that, things that are going on in the present day within the interstices of capitalism, like the new municipalist movements in Spanish cities created by post‐M15 activists in Barcelona and Madrid and so forth and other European cities as well, in Jackson, Mississippi in the United States, the Cleveland evergreen initiatives, and all these different interstitial attempts at building counter‐institutions, there are things, I think, that are coalescing together and forming the kernel of a post‐capitalist system. As the existing system decays, there are also contemporary systems on a Zomian pattern, like the Kurdish Rojava experiment.
21:52 Kevin Carson: But anyway, to answer your last question, to be honest, I don’t really consider myself a mutualist, or at least I don’t identify primarily as a mutualist or market anarchist. These days, I usually call myself an “anarchist without adjectives,” but I can say that mutualism as a philosophy, it’s… The name itself is identified with Proudhon, with his emphasis on mutuality or reciprocity, his basic organizing principles of society. But when I called myself a “mutualist,” when I wrote the book on mutualist political economy, the primary concrete economics I had in mind were those of radical or socialistic classical liberals like Thomas Hodgskin, the American individualists and friends, Oppenheimer. The uniting idea was that the defining feature of modern capitalism is state intervention to enforce artificial scarcities and artificial property rights of various sorts that enable monopoly rent returns on the ownership of land, capital, and so on, as well as more recent forms of state intervention to socialize the operating costs of big business, to suppress competition, and so forth. And that if you abolished all of these state‐enforced monopolies and all of these artificial scarcities, market competition would destroy rent and profit and interest for the most part and result in labor receiving the full value of its product as a wage.
24:10 Anthony Comegna: Now do you see… Moving to the subject of a post‐capitalism that we might be opening on, do you see that happening right now?
24:21 Kevin Carson: I do. I think, as I’ve said before, capitalism is a historic system with a beginning and an end, and there are a lot of crisis tendencies going on right now that indicate that the system has reached its limits and it’s in the process of decay.
24:47 Anthony Comegna: And I mean, it seems to me that… Especially with some of the radical new production technologies where you can produce things in your home in ways that you could not before and especially with 10, 20 years of more research and development, who knows what sort of a world we’ll be living in? But it seems like there will be a much smaller role for concentrated capital if people can create so many things cheaply on their own or share things cheaply on their own.
25:22 Kevin Carson: Yeah, a big influence on me has been the… In the last few years, has been the autonomist Marxists especially the most recent writers like Nick Dyer‐Witheford and Negri and Hardt. And their idea is that the production process is becoming less something where the means of production are owned by capitalists and more the sort of thing where the production process is becoming coextensive with society as a whole, with the social factory and the main source of productivity is human relationships and social capital. And the model they promote is Exodus, where workers basically pick up their social capital and vote with their feet, and cut the capitalists out as superfluous parasites from the social economy, and it’s already in process of formation.
26:45 Kevin Carson: They don’t really… These writers don’t really address very much, from what I’ve seen, the cheapening or ephemeralization of physical production technology or the ability to produce directly for use within the social economy or within the commons, though that is something Massimo De Angelis, excuse me, has written about in his work on the commons. Also, I think another thing that’s really influenced me a lot is the framework of Michel Bauwens at the Foundation for Peer‐to‐Peer Alternatives. He argues that there are two major crisis tendencies in late capitalism until the present capitalist business models and rent extraction have depended on the artificial abundance of material resources that have been looted and enclosed with the help of the state so that they’re able to pursue a growth model based on extensive addition of material inputs rather than more intensively or efficiently using existing inputs. And that depends on free access to these looted resources.
28:29 Kevin Carson: And the other thing capitalism is dependent on is the artificial scarcity of information through intellectual property laws and so forth. And it’s become even more dependent on these things in recent years as the means of production become cheaper and smaller in scale because the means of production themselves are becoming more amenable to small‐scale ownership by individuals or small groups and so forth. I think a garage shop using tabletop C&C machine tools could probably… Open‐source tools could probably produce a lot of the goods that previously required a million‐dollar factory with a set of machinery equivalent to skilled blue‐collar workers’ wages for six months. So, capitalism depends increasingly on not capitalist ownership or the means of production but in legal monopolies over the right to produce, like patents.
30:08 Kevin Carson: And Bauwens argued that both of these pillars of capitalism are becoming eroded. In the case of artificial abundance of material resources, it’s through peak resource crises of various sorts, like peak oil, the fiscal crisis of the state and its inability to continue providing subsidies on the scale they’re required, and so on. And in the case of information, the growing un‐enforceability of intellectual property laws so that the state is no longer able to prevent people from producing directly for themselves and the common, just going to an industrial equivalent of The Pirate Bay and downloading CAD files to produce stuff in the garage factories. Capitalism has reached the limits of its ability to grow and is in process of decay. And again, as it’s decaying, we’ve got all these things growing up in the interstices to handle the pressures that are put on people by precarity and the collapse of the welfare state and so forth, like we see with the common‐space municipal movements in Barcelona and Madrid, and they’re the seeds of a post‐capitalist system that are coalescing together.
31:51 Anthony Comegna: Kevin Carson holds the Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory at the Center for a Stateless Society, where he’s also a senior fellow. Some of his latest books include The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, Organization Theory, and The Desktop Regulatory State. His current project is Exodus: General idea of the revolution in the 21st century.
32:24 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.