Kevin Carson‘s piece over at C4SS, “Free Market Capitalism is an Oxymoron,” offers a brief history of governments’ intervention in the formation of markets, which has led to the evolution of a modern form of capitalism more synonymous with feudalism than with free markets. Carson argues that, were markets truly free to develop based on voluntary arrangements, the “foundations of corporate power” in our current mess of a system would have never been formed. While the argument is valid, it is not by any means sound. The distinction here is important for any proponent of a truly free society.
The matter of whether or not “free market capitalism” should be considered an oxymoron or not should be addressed outright. Capitalism is simply an economic system which employs “capital” as a means of exchange. The nature of said capital may be as broad or as limited as a society may imagine or a government may constrain, respectively. Whereas the words, “capitalist” and “capital” carry with them sundry negative connotations, those who subscribe to the connotations implied by our sick history may as well give in completely to the statists, allowing them free reign in the realm of defining terms. We are voluntaryists. Language is our only medium in this debate; how will we ever win in the arena of ideas while letting the statists define the terms? This may simply be a matter of semantics; the meaning of words does tend to change with time as certain connotations are attached to them in accordance with historical fact. That said, there are two senses from which “free market capitalism” may be perceived.
In one sense, “free market capitalism” may be viewed as a system in which individuals make voluntary arrangements involving the exchange of capital. This sense of the phrase embodies every imaginable transaction; probably some that are unimaginable in a world so dominated by state intervention in otherwise free markets.
In another sense, “free market capitalism” may be viewed (as I believe Carson does) as a phrase combining words interpreted via historical realities and implications. In other words, “free market” implies voluntary arrangements, whereas “capitalism” has become (rightly so) known as a system in which business and coercive state forces collude to serve whatever arbitrary interests may be lobbied for by the businesses or championed for reasons of power by the politicians. Viewed from this perspective, “free market capitalism” is indeed an oxymoron.
These two views are essentially irrelevant to any discussion among those who are seriously interested in the elimination of the state apparatus and subsequent formation of voluntary societies independent of central control. The aforementioned fact remains; capitalism is a system by which capital is utilized as a means of exchange. Free market capitalism is a pure phrase; it refers to a system that might be established voluntarily and underpinned by virtually any form of capital. That capital could be gold, silver, cigarettes, or dirt. There are reasons why various forms of capital are deemed more valuable than others, though it is enough for the sake of this piece to mention that truth in passing.
Insomuch as the exchange of capital is concerned, it is notable that neither anarcho-communists nor any of their ilk can be deemed true anarchists so long anarchism is understood to imply voluntary arrangements outside of intervention by some collective body.
Wendy McElroy reduced the issue to a difference between the advocation of voluntary means and the advocation of “voluntary ends.” In a speech, she said,
Communist anarchism contains the notion of economic coercion; that is, even if a worker consents to a certain wage, consents to have a portion of his labor stolen by the capitalist, the consent doesn’t count because it was obtained through duress. The economic situation created by the capitalist is the equivalent of a gun pointed at the head of the worker: the capitalist says: work on my terms or starve.
Returning to the point of free market capitalism as an achievable reality rather than an oxymoron, it is a logical contention that even the stupidest and most unfortunate of voluntary decisions are, indeed, voluntary. Defiance of the “capitalists” referred to in McElroy’s speech is based within a system of state coercion. To the anarchist, views on the “capitalist” stealing from the “worker” must be abandoned completely. As evidenced by Carson’s piece, capitalism is a concept defined by a sorry history of thinly veiled attempts of governments to allow their populations the right to interact freely. Similarly, “worker” is a term only understood by most as a delegation of class; i.e., there are “workers” and there are “capitalists.”
To advocate the elimination of the state as an institutionalized means of force, then later to demand that “voluntary” associations meet certain criteria (e.g., no interest on loans or labor theory of value) is not voluntaryism at all. The anarchist does not suppose to know what intricacies a voluntary society may bring about; only that no man may lay claim to another’s life. We’ll discuss the details of “another’s life” later.
For now, it is enough to know that “free market capitalism” is not an oxymoron. It may reasonably seem so to those who rightly observe that there has never been such a thing. In response to their argument, I would say that there has never been such a thing as a voluntary society either. We seek these things, hopefully absent the blinders put on us by our poor historical record.