I stumbled across a piece from half a year ago that talks about myths about capitalism and communism. While I’m not necessarily interested in promoting communism as such (I declare no allegiance to a particular political group ideology, even if some of my criticism overlaps with Marxism), I do think the author brings up a number of valuable points about myths of capitalism which also happens to be part of what one has to deal with in discourse with American libertarians. I’ve made it pretty clear that I think contemporary American libertarian thought is drenched in capitalist ideology, even often in cases in which its proponents try to disassociate themselves from capitalism and expand their thinking leftward.
Part of the problem is that libertarians typically tend to have a universalized definition of property (to the point of defining metaphysical personhood in terms of ownership, which is really what the whole “self-ownership” problem is about), and hence frequently don’t appear to recognize some meaningful distinctions in types of property and the distinction of property vs possession. The article helps clarify: “Property implies not a good, but a title – deeds, contracts, stocks, bonds, mortgages, etc“. Since libertarians frequently confuse the difference between this and simple possessions, they frame their arguments as if to attack property is to attack the apple in their hand, quickly turning the debate toward a red herring.
To expound: property as a modern concept is very much based on legal fiction and economic institutions, not small-scale individual homesteading and exchange in a vacuum. Libertarians often like to describe the nature of modern large-scale economies in terms that apply to a non-existent social context or even what would really have to be a pre-capitalist and even primitive context. The concept of homesteading is hardly applicable to a modern urban society not filled with survivalists (unless your real goal is to be an expat of modern society and try to start anew in the South American jungle), and the description of everyday market activity as if it was nothing more than a consensual exchange between two people rubs up against our everyday experiences of the market as a powerful dynamic of institutions that individuals have to maneuver within.
The institution of property rights is mainly represented by titles and contracts for land, institutional control, profit, investment, and so on – not by the things around your house. It is about special rights to resources and power, not commonplace rights to have things. By the way many libertarians talk about property, it’s as if they want to apply the logic of small-scale commonly recognized possession to things that are detached large-scale institutions and non-concrete entities. It is very typical in debates with libertarians for the libertarian to default to a simplistic scenario about possession in defense of a not-so-simple matter dealing with institutions of property, or for them to generally frame their positive description and defense of markets in terms of informal and small-scale trade or a reference to a pre-capitalist society.
The narrative that the market as we know it simply formed as a cumulative result of a process of land cultivation by settlers and isolated small-scale exchanges – including the narrative that only/chiefly the modern state is or can be to blame for modern economic problems, as the force impinging on the market as this natural spontaneous expression of freedom – is basically capitalist mythos. The libertarian myth of economics is basically that there is this thing called “the free market” that is a natural spontaneous force of freedom, and that anything that might be considered wrong with the market in general can only or predominantly be chalked up to the state’s interventions in it – and even if we recognize a sense in which the market is flawed, the optimal solution is to do nothing because it tends to work its own problems out.
Technically, libertarians talk about “the free market” as something both presently existing and not truly existing at the same time – qua libertarian ideology it exists as a natural force within society insofar as this spontaneous economic activity goes on among humans or insofar as people choose to buy, sell, and trade things, but it doesn’t “truly exist” in its ideologically consistent form because of the state. This enables them to split hairs in discourse in ways that are convenient for preserving their ideology, because whenever anyone attacks modern capitalism they can claim that it’s not a “true free market”. At the same time, the libertarian can refer to contemporary phenomenon as evidence of the virtues of “the free market”, insofar as it superficially resembles a free choice or is thought of as part of the undercurrent of natural market activity that persists in spite of the state.
Thus I don’t think statements from the article such as this one would be misguided as part of arguments against libertarianism:
“The idea that we’re all going around making free choices all the time in an abundant market where everyone’s needs get met is patently belied by the lived experience of hundreds of millions of people. Most find ourselves constantly stuck between competing pressures and therefore stressed out, exhausted, lonely, and in search of meaning. — as though we’re not in control of our lives.”
Libertarians, even some so-called left-libertarians, want us to believe that there is this natural economic force of freedom chugging along in society that is responsible for the bulk of social good, only it’s constrained by the state – and that if only we remove the constraints of the state, the natural result will tend to be an improvement in social good. In libertarian capitalist ideology, the market as a free pursuit of economic self-interest by individuals is the prime source of social good as an emergent property. In reality, the pursuit of economic self-interest within the confines of economic power introduces a whole series of social problems. It is a mixed bag at best in terms of social good, and your freedom within the market is largely illusory precisely because of the institution of property, bad human behavior, and the psychological affects of it all.
The everyday experiences of most people should attest to the fact that consumer sovereignty is a myth and that the voluntary nature of employment is a myth. Markets represent an environmental condition that one has no choice but to engage with, no less than the state. For most people, conventional employment is just an adaptive necessity of life and entraps them into playing along with organizational dynamics and competitive pressures. Marketing teams and businessman in the hierarchy, who for most of us are faceless strangers, essentially engage in attempts to *pitch* products to you or tell you what you need, have organizational incentives to do whatever it takes to bring in profit, and significantly have a role in determining what your practical options are before you even start making decisions. The idea that the production cycle is all just a reactive mechanism to people’s authentic needs and wants is misleading.
Perhaps markets don’t adapt to people as much as people adapt to markets. The psychological affects of markets on employers and various businessmen often amounts to a series of incentives for them to do what is necessary for the economic institutions they are beholden to, even if it means actively working against the interests of employees and consumers and turning themselves into moral monsters. Once they are ideologically embedded in the system, they even think that their moral monstrosity is virtuous and just. It’s called drinking the corporate cool-aid. Try working under someone in management in the retail industry who’s been invested in it for some years, and you’ll likely see what I mean. They’ve built their whole lives and personal identity around this, have bought in to the buzzwords and ideology of sell sell sell, and unfortunately their roles often make them into crass, petty, penny-pinching people who internalize a conservative ethos and treat their workers as expendable resources.
The article states this point well enough:
“Even that boss (the apparent victor in the “free exchange”) isn’t free: the market places imperatives on the ownership class to relentlessly accumulate wealth and develop the forces of production or else fail. Capitalists are compelled to support oppressive regimes and wreck the planet, as a matter of business, even as they protest good personal intentions”.
On the side of average workers and consumers, the conditions presented to them as the market are something that they have had to adapt their lives around. Their corporate cool-aid drinking bosses are just something that they have to work with. The bureaucratic norms of businesses are something that they just have to engage with to maneuver through society. And competition with others for the chance to secure the necessities of survival (plus a bunch of manufactured wants that have taken on a life of their own) is incentivized. Some people become brown-nosers and aggressive social climbers, some people internalize the values transmitted through markets against their own concrete interests, some people take to crime. All this is a matter of psychological incentives involved in markets and the consequences of basing societal needs on markets.
Since the incentives of capitalism are based around continual growth and the pursuit of profit, it has become a kind of machine that subsumes human values. The libertarian idea that the market is just *us* and our internally or autonomously determined values, manifest through trade, relies on isolating individuals as market actors devoid of real social context. The people who realistically are in control of the market have a notable affect on the setting of the framing for what is portrayed as valuable in popular culture. More broadly, the market has generated its own values that more or less tend to encourage and reward narcissism, dishonesty, and the drive to “win” at the expense of others. The market has its own culture, and it will not balk at appropriating any culture or value it comes across for the higher value of its economic self-actualization.
Much of the problem with libertarianism centers around the fact that it can’t square its lionization of markets with social and psychological reality, and that it therefore ends up disguising tyranny and social ill in an illusionary narrative about individual choice and personal freedom; whether conciously (libertarianism as snake-oil salesman for capitalism) or not (libertarianism as dupes for capitalism). It is an ideology that does not particularly recognize that economic forces as such can be a significant infringement on personal freedom, and that the nature of modern economic life determines and restricts choices. It is stuck in the trap of either crassly denying or even rationalizing the problems and nastiness involved in markets (vanilla and right libertarianism), or gaining conciousness of them only to default to denialist anti-statism anyway and continueing to promote ideological tenets that perpetuate/enable what they want to decry (left libertarianism).
Ultimately, I had to leave libertarianism because my experience of the world clashed dissonantly with its rhetoric about property and markets, and as I teased out the negative social consequences of taking those ideas to their conclusions. What started as horror at the overtly nasty underbelly of libertarian ideology (which is a big part of the impetus to left-libertarianism) eventually turned into a deconstruction of its basic tenets and common tropes (self-ownership, property rights, homesteading, the non-aggression principle, methodological individualism, and so on). When I look at it now, much of it is capitalist apologetics even when it isn’t trying to be, and much of what I wanted to separate myself from as a left-libertarian is perfectly compatible with that core ideology. The core ideology needs to be addressed at the root.
As some libertarians like to say: strike the root.