9/03/2005

Coke vs Pepsi

Over on the Fantagraphics Forum, there's been some discussion of the upcoming "V" For Vendetta movie, which is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore. Moore's story had strong political themes, one might say anarchistic themes, and so naturally I involved myself in the chattering.

At one point I opined that "when the happy day comes when government is small enough to strangle in the bathtub," it will mean the end of corporations as we know them, as corporations are creatures of state power. I described this as an "anarchist" position.

I was challenged on this point, one of those left-anarchists who insist that you're only a real anarchist if you want to do away with capitalism as well as the state. I want to respond, but have been reluctant to do so, because this forum is not really a political forum, but one devoted to comic-books and graphic novels, and I can't think of a suitable tie-in.

So I'm going to respond here, and just leave a link in the forum so that people who are interested in following this may do so.

To wit:

Gavin's remarks touch on an on-going debate over whether one can be an "anarchist" while also supporting free-market economics theory. Such people tend to call themselves "anarcho-capitalists" or (my preferred term) "market anarchists."

Since we market anarchists want to do away with government, I'm not sure what else we should call ourselves. "Anarchy" simply means "no rulers," it doesn't have to specify one economic arrangement or another.

If one defines "capitalism" the way Marx did, as a political system dominated by the owners of capital, or simply as the system which has developed in the West over the last couple of hundred years, then I would agree with Gavin that one can't get rid of corporations without getting rid of "capitalism" thus defined. Going back at least to the Hanseatic League, we can see collusions of private owners of capital with government forces to establish trade monopolies.

But the system that evolved out of this arrangement, going into the 18th Century, was properly called "mercantilism." In fact, what we have today might better be described as a "neo-mercantilism" in which mercantilist corporations use Western governments to subsidize themselves at taxpayer expense and ram sweatheart deals down the throats of foreign firms and less poweful governments.

I think it's fair to say that in the past, many market anarchists have failed to sufficiently acknowledge the fact of merchantilist power and how it distorts natural market systems in its favor, although this is beginning to change. But in our defense I'd like to quote Steve Gilliard, who said,

"The reason that some of us are more concerned about government power than about corporate power is that Coca Cola very rarely strafes the villages of Pepsi drinkers."

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And Bill Gates can't send you to Iraq.

1:09 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

Good post, and welcome to the blogosphere!

One thing to keep in mind is that free markets and capitalism are not synonymous. One need only recognize the existance of free market anti-capitalists to realize this.

All true market anarchists condemn state (or political) capitalism, which is what the anti-capitalist left rightly condemns as well. They, however, don't make the distinction between that brand of capitalism and economic capitalism.

I personally support any voluntary transactions and organization that would develop in a truly free market. Some of those transactions may be considered to be capitalistic in nature, although many would also be more egalitarian or socialist in nature.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Scott Bieser said...

Quite right, freeman.

The confusion over the two varieties of "capitalism" is why I generally avoid the term when describing the system I favor. I use terms like "market" or "free market," or sometimes "laissez-faire."

I usually imagine that absent a state, we would wind up with various communities in which different forms of economic organization would be practiced. Some would be very communitarian, others very individualistic, and probably most would have some combination of the two features.

For example, it's difficult for me to imagine city streets and sewage systems being offered in a "competitive" fashion. But someone might figure out a way, and we need a condition of political freedom to test the idea.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Gavin Burrows said...

I’m not sure you’ve ‘got’ my point here so I’ll take the liberty of posting my original comments here…

“Nope, an anarchist agenda would mean the end of government and capitalism. Corporations do indeed have a symbiotic relationship with the state, but these days it’s truer to say the state is the creature of the corporation rather than the other way round. As Burrroughs said the President is just “the dumbass frontman who takes all the rap”. Multinationals can treat states just like workers. To workers they say “who wants to work the cheapest?” To states it’s “who wants to take the least taxes and impose the least regulations?” Before becoming President, Dubya passed laws in Texas limiting the amount individuals could get from sueing a corporation (for negligence etc). The new limits were made to be below what a standard lawyer’s fee, making it effectively impossible to sue a corporation. As if that wasn’t enough they were made retrospective, so people who had already had money awarded by the courts had the majority of it clawed back again.

Moreover, I find this currently fashionable thinking that corporations can be got rid of while keeping capitalism a bit absurd. In the first place the existing corporations aren’t likely to let it happen. In the second, even if it was forced on them somehow they’d soon be replaced by some new crew of corporations.

I’ll grant you the end of capitalism may not currently seem particularly… um… likely. But it is ultimately feasible. The end of the corporation within capitalism is neither likely nor feasible.”

The “whose worse” argument is therefore not particularly germane, the point is the symbiotic relationship between state and capital. For all that corporations complain about state regulation, I doubt they’d survive long without nation-states.

…but for that matter Bill Gates didn’t send folk to fight in Iraq but Chevron and Haliburton sure did.

I also find it amusing that people often argue anti-capitalism can’t be viable because it’s never existed in a modern society, but then argue their form of capitalism has never really existed either!

PS on semantics: I wouldn’t strictly call myself an anarchist (and definitely not a “left wing” anarchist), so maybe the terms “anti-capitalist” vs. “free market capitalist” work better.

2:46 AM  
Blogger Scott Bieser said...

Gavin, thanks for your attempt at clarification, and I'm sorry I called you an "anarchist" if you don't accept the term for yourself.

But I don't think you made things more clear, probably because you haven't been clear on what you mean by "capitalism."

For example, I own the computer and other tools I use to create my artwork -- these are my "means of production." I then sell (or attempt to sell) this artwork in the marketplace. Is this "capitalism" according to your meaning?

If not, I'd love to hear a definition of capitalism which excludes both what I do and state-created corporations.

Most curious is this paragraph:

"The “whose worse” argument is therefore not particularly germane, the point is the symbiotic relationship between state and capital. For all that corporations complain about state regulation, I doubt they’d survive long without nation-states."

I thought that's more or less what I said originally.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Gavin Burrows said...

Scott Bieser said...

Gavin, thanks for your attempt at clarification, and I'm sorry I called you an "anarchist" if you don't accept the term for yourself.

Well I originally pitched in with “no, anarchism means…” so I’m hardly blameless! Like you say, whether you take the term by derivation or historically, it’s got quite a loose catch-all sort of meaning which isn’t always useful.

Most curious is this paragraph:

"The “whose worse” argument is therefore not particularly germane, the point is the symbiotic relationship between state and capital. For all that corporations complain about state regulation, I doubt they’d survive long without nation-states."

I thought that's more or less what I said originally.


Well on the Journal board it was, and the argument became “which way up”. But as soon as we got to here we got the “Gates won’t send you to Iraq” thing.

For example, I own the computer and other tools I use to create my artwork -- these are my "means of production." I then sell (or attempt to sell) this artwork in the marketplace. Is this "capitalism" according to your meaning?

Yep. Human association mediated through the marketplace. Capitalism.

For example, it's difficult for me to imagine city streets and sewage systems being offered in a "competitive" fashion.

And how! I wouldn’t like to have to negotiate half a dozen different access contracts every time I want to walk a few blocks from my house. I may even prefer the existing system to what you’re proposing, which is saying something!

Moreover, you may act as a ‘free agent’ selling your artwork on the marketplace. But as you imply you need your computer and other tools to be able to do this. I can’t conceive of a computer and all it’s components readily being created by a single individual, and even if it was it would be so damned unweildy compared to mass production it seems to me a non-starter. We’ve evolved to the point where we’ve got sophisticated tools which needs to be made by groups of humans. As soon as you allow that you have to accept human collectivity on some level. This either means wage-labour, which would surely inevitably lead to corporations, or free exchange. I can’t see your third alternative as viable.

On a more philosophical level, I don’t find it appealing. The free market model seems to envision human interaction not as a society but as an agglomeration of individuals, like we’re all Newtownian particles or billiard balls which travel on their own trajectories and occasionally bump into each other. Of course (barring siamese twins) we’re physically discrete from one another, but I don’t think we psychologically are. The environment you live in or grew up in, the people you interact this, they have no effect on the kind of person you are? You’re just an ‘essential self’ travelling through it all? I don’t think the world works that way and I’m glad it doesn’t.

Moreover, human developments are cumulative and rely on some underlying sort of shareware. You talk of owning roads but to be consistent surely some innovator should own the concept of roads. (Or probably some guy would own dirt tracks, then some other guy own the concept of sticking tarmac on top of it.) This already unweildy model needs several extra layers on it!

Or take the internet. Universal communication over the internet is only possible in the way it happens because the underlying protocols are owned by nobody, hence anybody can use them.

So in general I guess what I’m saying is that I find the uber-free market thing neither achievable nor desirable!

3:01 AM  
Blogger Scott Bieser said...

Gavin, if I thought the straw man you're describing were the system I am advocating, I wouldn't want it either.

Individualism doesn't ignore the fact that we can accomplish more by cooperation than by acting singly; it doesn't ignore the importance or influence of social organizations, or social culture. All it does is insist on the _primacy_ of the individual, and that social organizations exist to serve their individual members, not the other way around.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Gavin Burrows said...

Gavin, if I thought the straw man you're describing were the system I am advocating, I wouldn't want it either.

Okay fair enough, but I got here late and I’m still trying to figure out what system you’re on about! Once you acknowledge the necessity of “social organizations”, you either need co-ops (where the individual is by definition not paramount) or hierarchical organizations which I can’t see as ending up any way but oligarchies. (Unless there’s some more powerful force which keeps ‘em below a certain size, but then we’re talking about a state really!)

All it does is insist on the _primacy_ of the individual…

As said, I don’t think the market mechanism does this. I think what it creates is the primacy of the market mechanism. Our relations are mediated through the exchange of commodities, making our communications at best indirect and more often garbled.

…and that social organizations exist to serve their individual members, not the other way around.

That sounds a bit like “are you in favour of apple pie and Christmas?” But what does it mean in practice? Against your unproblematic concept of ‘the individual’ I don’t think you’ve really answered my (bones of a) critique of the ‘essential self’. I don’t see this neat divide between the individual and the social. I’m by no means an orthodox Marxist but when Althusser said “ ‘Man’ is a conception of bourgeois ideology” I agree with him.

I also find it somewhat ironic that these free market critiques and ideologies arise most in the nation (reputed to be) the most laissez-faire in the world. (Note “reputed to be” before you start yelling!) Is there a time and place where you think these ideas came closest to happening in practice?

2:38 AM  

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