Market Anarchism as Stigmergic Socialism

by Brad Spangler

Brad Spangler

The Wikipedia entry on market anarchism has been ever so slightly bugging me for a while, but I've not been able to lay my finger upon the matter of precisely why until now.

Market anarchism is a philosophy opposing the state and favoring trade of private property in markets. Market anarchists include mutualists and anarcho-capitalists. Market anarchists include mutualists (such as Proudhon) and some individualist anarchists (such as Tucker), who supported a market economy and a system of possession based upon labour and use. As a result of their adherence to the labor theory of value, they oppose profit.

The term "market anarchism" is also used to describe anarcho-capitalism, a theory which supports a market economy, but unlike mutualism, does not have a labor theory of value. As a result, it has no opposition to profit.

Agorism might be considered a branch of anarcho-capitalism or individualist anarchism/mutualism. It might be considered an attempt to reconcile anarcho-capitalism with individualist anarchism and even the rest of libertarian socialism where possible.

After thinking about this a great deal, I've come to the conclusion that the above exaggerates the differences between anarcho-capitalism and mutualism as ideologies, but not necessarily as movements - an important distinction to make. As a result, I'd like to review why I believe anarcho-capitalism is, in some ways, incorrectly named and why this, in turn, has resulted in an anarcho-capitalist movement consisting of a large number of deviationists insufficient in their adherence to their own stated principles.

Once again, we must explore the various definitions of capitalism and socialism to see why. Why, for instance, is mutualism considered "socialism" while the Rothbardian strain of market anarchist thought is "capitalism"? To understand, let's first examine the anarcho-capitalist movement as a whole.

There are two sharply divided strands of thought within anarcho-capitalism, based on the stated rationale for a market anarchist society - the natural law/natural rights thought of Murray Rothbard and the utilitarianism of David Friedman. To understand the differences between the two and why they matter, let's look at Rothbard's Do You Hate The State? (originally published in The Libertarian Forum, Vol. 10, No. 7, July 1977).

The essay explains in Rothbards own words that genuine Rothbardians are motivated by a passion for pure and simple justice. The state and its allies are understood to be a criminal gang - an ongoing system of theft, oppression, slavery and murder. The thought of the Friedmanites, by contrast, is a mere intellectual discourse upon what would maximise total prosperity in a society. Utilitarianism is an academic exercise suitable for economics textbooks. Such studies are to be welcomed to the extent that they make justice (i.e. anarchy) more appealing to the amoral and boost our own confidence in the workability - but to substitute utilitarianism for natural rights theory within anarcho-capitalism is to quite literally sell out ethical principle for a mess of pottage.

For whereas the natural-rights libertarian seeking morality and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away.
Under a strictly utilitarian view, then, one loses sight of who the enemy is. Those who unfairly benefit from plunder, as an aggregate, will never willingly give up on it.

As an aside, the Anarchist FAQ touches on this matter, while insufficiently illuminating it. In a criticism of Friedmanite utilitarianism, Rothbard explains the problem of utilitarianism lacking an anti-state theory of property (unlike his own natural law approach). The FAQ offers an out of context excerpt from a passage that appears to give the impression that Rothbard was arguing in favor of tyranny, when in fact he was doing the exact opposite (in highlighting the shortcomings of the utilitarian approach). From the FAQ:

Even worse, the possibility that private property can result in worse violations of individual freedom (at least of workers) than the state of its citizens was implicitly acknowledged by Rothbard. He uses as a hypothetical example a country whose King is threatened by a rising "libertarian" movement. The King responses by "employ[ing] a cunning stratagem," namely he "proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the ‘ownership' of himself and his relatives." Rather than taxes, his subjects now pay rent and he can "regulate to regulate the lives of all the people who presume to live on" his property as he sees fit. Rothbard then asks:
"Now what should be the reply of the libertarian rebels to this pert challenge? If they are consistent utilitarians, they must bow to this subterfuge, and resign themselves to living under a regime no less despotic than the one they had been battling for so long. Perhaps, indeed, more despotic, for now the king and his relatives can claim for themselves the libertarians' very principle of the absolute right of private property, an absoluteness which they might not have dared to claim before." [Op. Cit., pp. 54-5]
So not only does the property owner have the same monopoly of power over a given area as the state, it is more despotic as it is based on the "absolute right of private property"! And remember, Rothbard is arguing in favour of "anarcho"-capitalism"…

The passage mirrors a passage making the same point (better, IMO) in For a New Liberty:

Let us illustrate with a hypothetical example. Suppose that libertarian agitation and pressure has escalated to such a point that the government and its various branches are ready to abdicate. But they engineer a cunning ruse. Just before the government of New York state abdicates it passes a law turning over the entire territorial area of New York to become the private property of the Rockefeller family. The Massachusetts legislature does the same for the Kennedy family. And so on for each state. The government could then abdicate and decree the abolition of taxes and coercive legislation, but the victorious libertarians would now be confronted with a dilemma. Do they recognize the new property titles as legitimately private property? The utilitarians, who have no theory of justice in property rights, would, if they were consistent with their acceptance of given property titles as decreed by government, have to accept a new social order in which fifty new satraps would be collecting taxes in the form of unilaterally imposed "rent." The point is that only natural-rights libertarians, only those libertarians who have a theory of justice in property titles that does not depend on government decree, could be in a position to scoff at the new rulers' claims to have private property in the territory of the country, and to rebuff these claims as invalid.
So, that part of the Anarchist FAQ critique would appear to lead to an inaccurate perception of what Rothbard was arguing for. It applies to Friedman's version of anarcho-capitalism, and Rothbard was the one who first pointed it out - long before the Anarchist FAQ was even around.

In fact, Rothbard's natural law theory very much laid an alternative foundation for understanding of why the distribution of property under existing capitalism is unjust - because the so-called "property" of the plutocracy is typically unjustly acquired. Natural law theory and the resulting radically anti-state Rothbardian take on Lockean principles of property can potentially be expanded upon to offer a framework for the revolutionary anti-State redistribution of property - in that state granted title to property is often a fraudulent perk of the political class.

The only genuine refutation of the Marxian case for revolution, then, is that capitalists' property is just rather than unjust, and that therefore its seizure by workers or by anyone else would in itself be unjust and criminal. But this means that we must enter into the question of the justice of property claims, and it means further that we cannot get away with the easy luxury of trying to refute revolutionary claims by arbitrarily placing the mantle of "justice" upon any and all existing property titles. Such an act will scarcely convince people who believe that they or others are being grievously oppressed and permanently aggressed against. But this also means that we must be prepared to discover cases in the world where violent expropriation of existing property titles will be morally justified, because these titles are themselves unjust and criminal.
Refer also to Rothbard's Confiscation and the Homestead Principle. In it, he makes the case for anarcho-syndicalist style worker takeover of large enterprises that have become mammoth concentrations of capital because of markets being skewed in favor of the corporation by government favoritism. I believe he only retreated from this position because he did not see a clear path to revolution and did not trust the state to redistribute property in an ethical manner. Yet if the matter of who defines the bounds of property rights is handled in a de-statized manner with open registries for property claims that must stand up to popular approval if those claims will be of actual use in resolving disputes in a market anarchist "court" (i.e arbitration) system, such can and should be an organic component of market anarchist revolutionary strategy of the sort Konkin envisioned.

Compare the above with the matter of why mutualism is considered "socialism". Mutualism is considered "socialism" because of its foundation on the labor theory of value. Socialism, however, has never been a mere intellectual discourse upon why the labor theory of value was supposedly a superior line of academic thought. Socialism is not and never has been a "club". Socialists have always been motivated by a passion for social justice as best they understand it - which naturally implies that understanding is capable of being raised to a greater degree of accuracy and sophistication. The labor theory of value previously provided the chosen theoretical understanding for why and how the lower classes in society were systematically robbed by the upper classes. That understanding of existing capitalist society as systematic theft (oppression) and speculation about how to achieve a more just society has, I contend, always been the defining quality of all earnest socialists.

It is my contention that Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism is misnamed because it is actually a variety of socialism, in that it offers an alternative understanding of existing capitalism (or any other variety of statism) as systematic theft from the lower classes and envisions a more just society without that oppression. Rather than depending upon the labor theory of value to understand this systematic theft, Rothbardian market anarchism utilizes natural law theory and Lockean principles of property and self-ownership taken to their logical extreme as an alternative framework for understanding and combating oppression.

I'll say it - although his cultural roots in the Old Right would, if he were still alive, admittedly cause him fits to be characterized as such, Murray Rothbard was a visionary socialist. The inconsistencies in Rothbardian thought derive from Rothbard's failure to fully develope libertarian class theory and a theory of revolution - work that was largely completed within the Rothbardian tradition by Konkin.

Because the market anarchist society would be one in which the matter of systematic theft has been addressed and rectified, market anarchism (with the exception of Friedmanite utilitarian anarcho-capitalism) is best understood a new variety of socialism - a stigmergic socialism. Stigmergy is a fancy word for systems in which a natural order emerges from the individual choices made by the autonomous components of a collective within the sphere of their own self-sovereignty. To the extent coercion skews markets by distorting the decisions of those autonomous components (individual people), it ought to be seen that a truly free market (a completely stigmergic economic system) necessarily implies anarchy, and that any authentic collectivism is necessarily delineated in its bounds by the the natural rights of the individuals composing the collective.

In conclusion, lack of adherence to the labor theory of value does not mean Rothbardian market anarchists are not socialist. The labor theory of value served as an attempted illumination of the systematic theft the lower classes have always suffered from under statism. Rothbard's natural law theory and radically anti-state version of Lockean property rights theory serves the same role.

Ancap FAQ

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Ancap FAQ
Library of Liberty