Markets Freed from Capitalism

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This essay, first appearing as Chapter 4 of Markets Not Capitalism (eds. Charles W. Johnson and Gary Chartier), is an examination of the mechanisms of state capitalism and the monopolistic privileges that sustain it, as well as a close and critical consideration of the nature of the market form that left-wing market anarchists defend — looking at markets, on the one hand, in the sense of spaces of free social experimentation; but also, on the other hand, as networks of relationships reduced to the cash nexus. What kind of market relations do free-market anti-capitalists defend? In what contexts, and playing what kinds of social roles?

“However often they may be linked in fact, free exchange and the cash nexus are distinguishable in concept. Markets in the first sense (the sum of all voluntary exchanges) include the cash nexus — but also much more than the cash nexus. If a ‘freed market’ is the sum of all voluntary exchanges, then family sharing takes place within a freed market; charity is part of a freed market; gifts are part of a freed market; informal exchange and barter are all part of a freed market. Similarly, while markets-as-free-exchange may include ‘capitalistic’ arrangements — so long as they are consensual — they also encompass far more than that. There is nothing in a freed market that prohibits wage labor, rent, corporate jobs, or corporate insurance. But a freed market also encompasses alternative arrangements —including many that clearly have nothing to do with employer-employee relationships or corporate management, and which fit awkwardly, at best, with any conventional meaning of the term ‘capitalism:’ worker ownership and consumer co-ops are part of the market; grassroots mutual aid as­soc­i­at­ions and community free clinics are part of the market; so are voluntary labor unions, consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and countless other alternatives to the prevailing corporate-capitalist status quo. To focus on the specific act of exchange may even be a bit misleading; it might be more suggestive, and less misleading, to de­scribe a fully freed market, in this sense, as the space of maximal con­sen­su­ally-sustained social experimentation. . . .

“For a principled anti-statist, the growth of ‘markets’ as spaces for consensual social experi­ment­ation is always a liberating development — but these social ex­peri­ments may be mediated by the cash-nexus, or may be mediated by entirely different social relationships, and may look nothing like conventional business or commerce. The growth of ‘markets’ as cash-nexus exchanges, on the other hand, may be liberating or violating, and its value must depend entirely on the context within which it arises — whether those relationships come about through the free interplay of social forces, or through the direct or indirect ripple-effects of government force and coercive creation of rig­ged markets. Forms of interaction that are positive and productive in the context of free exchange easily become instruments of alienation and ex­ploit­ation when coercive government forces them on unwilling participants, or shoves them into areas of our lives where we don’t need or want them. . . .

“When they take place within the context of a system of free exchange, the social relationships based on the cash nexus — producing, buying, and selling at market prices, saving money for future use, investing money in productive enterprises, and the like have all positive, even essential, role in a flourishing free society. I do not intend to argue that these will disappear in a society of equal freedom; but I do intend to argue that they may not look like what you expect them to look like, if your picture of commercial relationships is taken from commerce under the conditions of corporate capitalism. Commerce under capitalism does have many of the exploitative and alienating features that critics on the Left ac­cuse ‘private enterprise’ or ‘market society’ of having. But not because of the enterprise, or because of the market. The problem with commerce under capitalism is capitalism, and without it, both freed-market exchange and cash-nexus commerce will take on a wholly different character. . . .

“The need for a shift to freed-market anti-capitalist ana­lysis is press­ing because — with apologies to Shula­mith Firestone — the political eco­nomy of state capitalism is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear to be a super­ficial set of inter­vent­ions, a problem that can be solved by a few legal reforms, or perhaps the elimin­at­ion of bail-outs and the occasional export subsidy, while preserving more or less intact the basic re­cog­niz­able patterns of capit­al­istic business as usual. The free market anti-capit­al­ist holds there is something deeper, and more per­vasive, at stake than the sort of surface level policy debates to which pro-capitalist libertarians too often limit their discussions. A fully freed market means the liberation of vital command posts in the economy, re­claim­ing them from points of state control to nexuses of market and social entre­pren­eurship — trans­form­at­ions from which a market would emerge that would look profoundly different from anything we have now. That so pro­found a change cannot easily fit into trad­it­ion­al categories of thought, e.g. ‘libertarian’ or ‘left-wing,’ ‘laissez-faire,’ or ‘socialist,’ ‘entre­pre­neur­ial’ or ‘anti-capitalist,’ is not because these categories do not apply but be­cause they are not big enough: radically free markets burst through them. If there were another word more all-embracing than revolut­ion­ary, we would use it. . . .”

Charles W. Johnson (b. 1981) is an individualist anarchist writer in Auburn, Alabama. He keeps a blog at He is a founding member of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and the author of many works on left-wing market anarchism, the individualist anarchist tradition, and the philosophy and history of left-libertarian views, as well as the co-editor (with Gary Chartier) of Markets Not Capitalism: Individu­al­ist Anarchism against Bosses, Inequality, Corpor­ate Power, and Structural Poverty (Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2011).

Introduced March 2014.

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