Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The neo-feudal Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party aims to roll back the state to end pensions, public healthcare support, and welfare, amongst other state programs. For the Libertarian Party, all taxes should be ended apart from those used to pay for the police and military.[1] The party’s ideological approach is a distortion of the form of classical liberalism outlined in John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government. In this book, Locke argued for a voluntarily-formed, minimal state, limited only to protecting persons’ ‘life, liberty and property’ – a phrase now used by the so-called Libertarian Party.[2] Locke was writing in late 1600s England, and his primary argument was against the idea that the king owned the country and the persons that lived in it. Rather, people owned themselves and they owned the property which they had laboured on to take out of the God-given ‘common’.

Locke’s second argument was against any type of communist system, which he worried was possibly suggested by the bible. Additionally, common ownership of land by peasants was a prominent feature in England, although it was rapidly being taken over by nobles and large scale sheep farmers. Communism at that time was further associated with Native American societies in which private ownership of nature was rejected. These Native American societies had proved popular with working class English people in the colonies, who often fled to live with the natives, prompting the introduction of a colonial martial law system to stop this mixing.[3]

As opposed to tyrannous monarchism on the one hand, and communism on the other, Locke was arguing for a decentralised peasant-proprietor society in which people owned the land they worked on. He said: ‘The measure of property Nature well set, by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniency of life. No man’s labour could subdue or appropriate all, nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part’. Whatever the soundness of Locke’s ideas, they became prominent and similar ideas of limiting government to protecting ‘life, liberty and property’ influenced the framers of the US constitution and the French revolutionary constitutions.

However, Locke’s ideas were applied very selectively by the powerful and their apologists, as they are today. Whilst the idea of property was to be upheld as ‘sacred as the laws of God’ (John Adams), Locke’s ideas on acquiring land though labouring on it were largely ignored by the powerful.[4] In England this meant that land which had been taken through violent aristocratic and royal expropriation of the peasants, particularly since the 1400s, was upheld as legitimate. It continued to be upheld as the commons became fully privatised (or ‘enclosed’) by the early 1800s and the legitimacy of this property distribution remains largely unchallenged to this day.

As Karl Marx documented, it is this inequality in land which laid the basis for capitalist development in England. The mass expropriation of the peasants turned the vast majority of the previously self-sufficient population into consumers dependent on remaining property owners (often rich through theft) for food, housing and other necessities. Needing to pay for these necessities meant renting themselves out as wage-labourers in order to raise the money. This situation left capitalist employers with the ability to exploit the dispossessed poor for profit. Workers would only be employed if, in addition to producing enough to pay for their own subsistence and the materials/equipment used in the production process, they also produced enough to pay for a profit for the capitalist employer, who gave them the ‘gift’ of employment.[5] And capitalist employers have a tendency to want as much profit as possible (this is one reason why, despite massive technological progress, working long hours are still so long - it is by getting the most work out of as few employees as possible that the most profits can be made, and capitalists only employ people with profit in mind.) Therefore, the profits that early capitalists made from workers can be considered a subsidy from the state to capitalist employers. Without the violent expropriation of the peasant lands, capitalist employers would not have had their artificially cheap, profit-generating labour. This situation is still in place today.

Albert Jay Nock documented a similar pattern of land concentration in the United States as the economic, military and political elites, including those that framed the constitution such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin, claimed millions of acres of land as their personal property by legal fiat as the colonists viciously steam-rolled the natives on the way west.[6] Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State under George Washington and John Adams said in 1796 that ‘all I am now worth was gained by speculations in land.’[7] Henry George would in the 1870s document further mass land speculation by people arbitrarily taking huge land titles all the way to the West Coast.[8] Historian Meyer Weinberg has also documented large scale acquisition of land and natural resources by on the West Coast by speculators that did not even see the land, let alone labour there, as John Locke advocated. Weinberg explains that the extreme artificial land concentration in the US laid the basis for a similar wage labour-based capitalism as developed in England.[9]  

Kevin Carson, amongst others, has documented how capitalist states (states that support capitalists) such as that in Britain and the United States, apart from creating and upholding the general pattern of property ownership, have intervened in the economy on behalf of capital in many other ways. This has included, sanctioning slavery and other forms of forced labour, suppression of wage-labour organising, infrastructure support for business, monopoly banking laws, bank bailouts, corporate procurement deals, research and development support, support for oppressive third world regimes, Third World Structural Adjustment Loans, and a host of other state services which have concentrated wealth in the hands of the rich.[10] We therefore see much private property is illegitimate according to Lockean ideals. Legitimate property is to be gained by labour or free exchange. It is not to be gained by state support. Another form of property which is illegitimate according to Lockean ideals is state-owned property (e.g. infrastructure), built by the working class, and funded by taxpayers.

These historical developments have an impact on how Lockean libertarianism should be approached. In Locke’s time his question was how to establish legitimate private property in the context of illegitimate royal and aristocratic estates on the one hand, and much common land on the other. Today the task for consistent Lockeans is understanding what it would look like to establish legitimate private property in the context of widespread illegitimately-gained private property, and much state-owned property. Simply calling for rolling back the state without challenging illegitimate property rights does not achieve this. This would be as if Locke had called for the nobility to renounce their state titles but keep private property claims over vast swathes of land. This would simply be proposing a neo-feudal system of private property that would perhaps be even more despotic than feudalism because people usually have some rights under feudalism, but in a near stateless society nobody would have any rights on someone else’s private property. The so-called Libertarian Party is promoting a similarly despotic, neo-feudal scenario when it calls for the rolling back of the state in United States without challenging illegitimate concentrations of private property. It is difficult to see how this approach has anything to do with promoting liberty.

[1] Libertarian Party 2016 Platform: (accessed 06 Dec 2017).  
[2] Locke, John, Two Treatise of Government, London, Printed for Thomas Tegg et al, 1823, available at: (accessed 06 Dec 2017). Locke uses the phrase ‘life liberty and estates’ p. 159, but ‘estates’ is usually re-phrased as ‘property’. The ‘life, liberty, and property’ phrase is also used in the Libertarian Party’s 2016 Platform.
[3] See Peter Linebaugh, and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Boston, Bean Press, 2000. 
[4] John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams, Little, Boston, Brown and Co., 1856, 10 volumes. Vol. 6, available at: (accessed: 02 Sep 2017).
[5] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels, Moscow, Progress Publishers, First English edition of 1887, online version at: Marx/Engels Internet Archive, available at: (accessed 02 Sep 2017).
[6] Albert Jay Nock, Our enemy, The State, Hallbert Pub Corp, 1983, available online at: (accessed 03 Sep 2017).
[7] Pickering quoted by Nock, op cit, p. 56.
[8] Henry George, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry in the Cause of Industrial Depressions and Increase of Want with an Increase of Wealth – The Remedy, New York, Robert Schalkenback Foundation, 1935, available at: (accessed: 02 Sep 2017).
[9] Meyer Weinberg, A Short History of American Capitalism, New History Press, 2003, (accessed 06 Dec 2017).
[10] Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Fayetteville, Ark. Anti-copyright 2004, Centre for a Stateless Society [online], available at: (accessed 03 Sep 2017). 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Brief comparison of Kevin Carson and Karl Marx on capitalism

Recently a couple of people that are newer to radical politics asked me for suggestions on what to read as a starting point for understanding capitalism. I suggested Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (SMPE).[1] Here I explain why I suggested this book instead of what some consider the standard critical text on capitalism: Marx’s Capital (or one of the summaries of Capital by Marxist academics).[2] The basic difference is that Marx mainly looks at the workings of ‘capital’ (property used to make profit) whilst Carson looks at ‘capitalism’ – the political system which creates the conditions for capital to exist and function. Below are a few notes on this difference and why I think Carson’s book is more useful for socialists.  

In the first seven sections of Capital (volume one – the only one completed by Marx), Marx considers how profit is made from commodity production, assuming a fair marketplace. He argues that workers only get a part of the value of what they produce and a part goes to the investors that employ workers (he accepts the labour theory of value, which we discuss further below). Marx says this is unfair on the workers. Marx also argues that without regulation, working conditions for the working class should not theoretically improve under capitalism despite technological development because most profit can be made by getting as much work out of as few workers as possible. And capitalists only employ people to make as much profit as possible out of them. He also argues that technological development should increase unemployment and poverty for the working class, as machines take jobs from people. He backs his arguments up with case studies from 1860s England.

Marx raises some interesting points but there are problems. The most significant, I think, is that in response to his arguments, pro-capitalists can, and regularly do, make responses such as ‘capitalists are actually benefiting workers by employing them at all’, or ‘If workers don’t like the offer being made to them, tough - capitalists don’t owe workers their hard-earned property.’ This brings Marx into a moral dispute with pro-capitalists. If you think people should be able to keep property they gained through free exchange or work, despite the poverty of others (seemingly a popular position, including amongst working class people), then Marx’s arguments will do little to shake your view that capitalism is justified.

It is perhaps for this reason that in the last section of the book, section eight, Marx introduces the idea that in reality, capitalist profit is based on violent state coercion rather than work and free exchange. This section is indispensable for understanding how capital came into existence as a historical phenomenon. Marx documents how in the early 15th century the English feudal system was mostly broken down, leaving a fairly libertarian, egalitarian system of peasant proprietors with improving standards of living. However, then began a multiple-century long aristocratic project of violent expropriation of land from the peasantry, which turned the population into a landless proletariat. Marx makes this argument with excellent historical documentation which has been backed up by multiple subsequent historians (see Carson’s book for details). The ex-peasant population was now at the mercy of property owners for food, shelter and other necessities of life, and only by working for them in a way which would make them as much profit as possible, could they earn the required wages to pay for such necessities. The property of the property owners could now be used to generate profit and therefore could be called ‘capital’. This is the secret of the origins of capital and capitalist exploitation. Really, this is the most important thesis of the book by far. It should have been made the foundation of the whole book as without this background the other arguments fall somewhat flat. Instead it is implied in the first seven sections that bad jobs and poverty are simply a natural outcome of free market exchanges, which is both misleading and leaves open the possibility of the responses we mentioned above.

Carson takes an approach closer to Marx in section eight of Capital rather than sections one to seven. He is attempting to critique capitalism as a political system for the benefit of capital, rather than looking at how capitalist investments function. Furthermore, Carson is fine with the morality of free market exchange itself, being an enthusiast for mutualist market socialism at the time of writing SMPE. (This means a market system where producers individually or collectively possess their own means of subsistence and/or workplaces. Carson now takes an ‘anarchist without adjectives’ approach, favouring free experimentation with economic organisation methods). Thus Carson’s whole critique of capitalism is a laser-like focus on the market-distorting violence and state privilege aimed at shaping property distribution and wealth accumulation in favour of capital. He therefore avoids a moral clash with those that support the right of private property gained through work or free exchange.  

He makes his argument in an interesting way. Carson starts by defending the classical labour theory of value, first outlined by pro-capitalist economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but put to radical uses by market socialists and then later, Marx. Carson argues, following the nineteenth century market socialists, but contra to Marx (although this is actually implied from a careful reading of Marx), that the implication of the theory is that in a free market workers should get the full value of the product of their labour as wages. Carson thus explains that if the theory is correct, which he convincingly argues it is (by addressing the major critiques from neo-classical and Austrian school economists), then systematic profit for capitalists can only be a result of non-market interference - that is state support on behalf of capital. Rent is treated separately by Carson. As a mutualist, he believes rent to be largely immoral, but even on traditional Lockean property grounds he argues most land owned by landlords in his case studies, the UK and United States, is illegitimate as it was originally acquired through violence or legal privilege, not by owners labouring on it.

After laying out the theoretical foundation for the book Carson systematically identifies market-distorting forms of historical violence and continued state support for capitalists, starting where Marx finished, with expropriation of the peasants in England, land-theft in the colonies, various forms of forced labour, and suppression of labour organising. Carson also discusses banking monopoly laws, patents, tariffs, infrastructure subsidies, state media and education (propaganda), state procurement, support for oppressive regimes in the Third World, structural adjustment programs in the Third World, and a host of other forms of state support for capital. Without such state support, Carson argues, systematic capitalist profits would not exist. Not only would it not have started in the first place, but the system is vulnerable to various breakdowns which require further intervention to counteract. Whilst maintaining the system in the short term, the interventions cannot stop, and also contribute to, further breakdowns requiring further intervention, and the pattern repeats. The argument is largely clear, coherent, and more relevant to understanding the capitalist system as a whole than Marx’s book.

One benefit of Carson’s approach is that because he sees capitalism as an artificial distortion of markets, he takes a far more critical approach than Marx to centralised urban capitalist development. Marx presents such developments as more of a natural and progressive process, which has ‘rescued’ people from rural life (Communist Manifesto). Marx’s enthusiasm for centralised industry perhaps inspired some of the greatest crimes in the Marx-influenced Soviet Union and China as they bled the peasants dry to fuel large-scale industrial development, attempting to emulate capitalism. It is also not uncommon for followers of Marx to fall into apologism for brutal forms of global capitalist development, as there is a tendency to see it as both innately progressive and a prelude to the post-scarcity socialist utopia. Carson falls into no such trap, instead seeing promise in freely developing, more decentralised small-scale technological advancement – taking inspiration from historical rural-based cottage industries. Carson builds on this theme in later publications arguing that modern hi-tech home-based industries could be the basis of a sustainable future socialist society. These ideas should be of interest not only to people in industrialised countries but also more rural countries with the possibility of alternative technological development paths. 

Like any book, Carson’s is not free of problems but with regards to his analysis of capitalism, these are relatively minor so I won’t discuss them here (e.g. there are question marks over his analysis of how banking laws impact interest rates). There are also other issues people may have with his book which don’t relate to his analysis of capitalism (e.g. his mutualist approach), which we won’t consider here. To conclude, Carson is more helpful than Marx when it comes to understanding the dynamics of capitalism as a whole. He also suggests some thought-provoking ideas for how to tackle it.

[1]  Keven Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy:  I also recommend Carson’s blog: