We Don't Agree on Capitalism

Anarchism, not a Libertarian Marxism

The last decade saw a dramatic increase in societal awareness of something called "capitalism" and that it's the root cause of many problems. While attempts to change or overthrow the system have either stalled or failed outright, for the first time in decades, capitalism is something up for debate.

Unfortunately little of this debate is all that meaningful. If you read summaries of various arguments people have made for and against capitalism, you can predict where like 90-95% of discourse will go.

So while there's a significant breadth of awareness, there's little in the way of depth. There is a general awareness that there's this thing called capitalism that's a problem. And there's also a general awareness that there's a thing called Marxism that explains how capitalism is fucking us and what we might do about it.

However, when you look into Marxism it quickly becomes clear that nobody really knows what to do. Marxism is not some specific theory, but rather a messy tangle of theories and assumptions with no clear path forward. Over the last century, Marxism has been patched and forked so many times that people can't agree on what constitutes "proper" Marxism. From this we have cargo cults of people endlessly trying to rehash prior, idealized attempts at change without recognizing both the contingency and the actual messiness of prior attempts at change.

Now there are some who recognize the problems here. But they frequently fail to present a serious alternative about how we should change things. Frequently the best plan anyone has is that someone really should come up with a plan.

Such an admission of ignorance is laudable! Certainly, it's a lot less damaging than those who create a cult around some guru (alive or dead). But while they've succeeded in breaking with the shackles of past dogma, they tend to be limited by the lack of any alternative. Marxism – that nebulous cloud of ideas, positions, and implicit social allegiances – defines capitalism for the overwhelming majority of those who want to fight it.

To put it formally, Marxism is the null hypothesis for anti-capitalists.

This is most clearly demonstrated by the anarchist movement. Plenty of Marxists assume that coherent anarchists (not just kids fucking around or doomers waiting for the collapse) are ultimately some kind of Marxist and that are our two traditions will ultimately reconcile if they haven't already. Anarchists, the story goes, still want a working class revolution for the purposes of overthrowing the present order, but we want to skip over the transitory "workers state" instead of conceding it as necessary evil.

Now this is a horrible simplification of the anarchist project and ignores essential shifts and evolutions over the course of the 20th century. But given how many anarchists openly accept much of Marxist economics it is not without some merit. See for example the late David Graeber:

Anarchists have long taken much of their political economy from Marxists—a tradition which goes back to Bakunin, who though he was a political rival of Marx, also was responsible for the first translation of Capital into Russian—rather than feeling obliged to set up some anarchist school of political economy of their own. Though to be fair, early anarchists also tended to point out that almost all the concepts attributed to Marx (or for that matter Proudhon) were really developed within the worker's movement of the time, and merely systematized and elaborated by the theorists.1

Even when anarchists insist that their economics totally aren't Marxist tend to basically describe libertarian Marxism when pressed. My favorite example of this sort of thinking can be found in the compilation of essays on anarchist economics in The Accumulation of Freedom. For example the definition of capitalism they give in the introduction:

Many anarchists argue that the wage labor relation is the defining aspect of capitalism. One cannot be an anarchist in any coherent sense and advocate for wage relations and economic exploitation. … The value produced under capitalism by workers, minus whatever wage the capitalist pays, is then appropriated by the capitalist in the form of surplus value—this process is exploitation2

And take the definitions they give of classes:

Working class—those who have to work for a living but have no real control over that work or other major decisions that affect them, i.e. order-takers. This class also includes the unemployed, pensioners, etc., who have to survive on handouts from the state. They have little wealth and little (official) power. This class includes the growing service worker sector, most (if not the vast majority) of "white collar" workers as well as traditional "blue collar" workers. Most self-employed people would be included in this class, as would the bulk of peasants and artisans (where applicable).

Ruling Class—those who control investment decisions, determine high level policy, set the agenda for capital and state. This is the elite at the top, owners or top managers of large companies, multinationals and banks (i.e. the capitalists), owners of large amounts of land (i.e. landlords or the aristocracy, if applicable), top-level state officials, politicians, and so forth. They have real power within the economy and/or state, and so control society.3

There's nothing in these paragraphs that any serious Marxist would reject – beyond minor quibbles on phrasing. Sure adherents of a party line are going to reject you, but they're going to do that to pretty everyone else, including other forms of Marxism.

Yet at the same time the very anarchists (or figures we draw inspiration from) that admit to sort of Marxism will say things about capitalism that directly go against core planks of Marx's theories.

Some examples are in order.

From Peter Kropotkin's Fields, Factories and Workshops:

Marx was too much of a thinker that he should not have taken notice of the subsequent developments of industrial life, which were not foreseen in 1848; if he had lived now, he surely would not have shut his eyes to the formidable growth of the numbers of small capitalists and to the middle-class fortunes which are made in a thousand ways under the shadow of the modern "millionaires." Very likely he would have noticed also the extreme slowness with which the wrecking of small industries goes on — a slowness which could not be predicted fifty or forty years ago, because no one could foresee at that time the facilities which have been offered since for transport, the growing variety of demand, nor the cheap means which are now in use for the supply of motive power in small quantities.

Being a thinker, [Marx] would have studied these facts, and very probably he would have mitigated the absoluteness of his earlier formulae, as in fact he did once with regard to the village community in Russia. It would be most desirable that his followers should rely less upon abstract formulae — easy as they may be as watchwords in political struggles — and try to imitate their teacher in his analysis of concrete economical phenomena. (emphasis added)4

David Noble in Forces of Production:

It is a common confusion, especially on the part of those trained in or unduly influenced by formal economics (liberal and Marxist alike), that capitalism is a system of profit-motivated, efficient production. This is not true, nor has it ever been. If the drive to maximize profits, through private ownership and control over the process of production, has served historically as the primary means of capitalist development, it has never been the end of that development. The goal has always been domination (and the power and privileges that go with it) and the preservation of domination. There is little historical evidence to support the view that, in the final analysis, capitalists play by the rules of the economic game imagined by theorists. (emphasis added)5

James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State:

Capitalist profit requires not only efficiency but the combination of efficiency and control. The crucial innovations of the division of labor at the subproduct level and the concentration of production in the factory represent the key steps in bringing the labor process under unitary control. Efficiency and control might coincide, as in the case of the mechanized spinning and weaving of cotton. At times, however, they might be unrelated or even contradictory. (emphasis added)6

Kevin Carson in The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand:

Industrial capitalism, to the same extent as manorialism or slavery, was founded on force. Like its predecessors, capitalism could not have survived at any point in its history without state intervention. Coercive state measures at every step have denied workers access to capital, forced them to sell their labor in a buyer's market, and protected the centers of economic power from the dangers of the free market. (emphasis added)7

And even Graeber in Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit:

Another assumption we need to rethink is that capitalism is in its nature technologically progressive. It would seem that Marx and Engels, in their giddy enthusiasm for the industrial revolutions of their day, were wrong about this. Or, to be more precise: they were right to insist that the mechanization of industrial production would destroy capitalism; they were wrong to predict that market competition would compel factory owners to mechanize anyway. (emphasis added)8

I contend that these passages are theorists grasping the contours of a yet undescribed anarchist theory of capitalism.

A Theoretical Absence

What's weird is that this absence exists despite the importance many put on moving past Marxism. The most rigorous anti-capitalist critics of Marxism like the analytical anarchist Alan Carter or the radical institutional economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler both emphasize that we need an alternative to Marxism. Yet they don't present one.

The final chapter of Alan Carter's Marx: A Radical Critique is dedicated to showing how the implicit assumption that Marxism is the theory of anti-capitalism hurts anarchists and the left more broadly when it comes to fighting for social change. But despite writing:

Radicals cannot progress theoretically or practically until Marxism is abandoned9

Carter does not present an alternative theory of capitalism there or anywhere else.

Nitzan and Bichler are somewhat better. Their central text, Capital as Power, is hundreds of pages of analysis detailing the various problems with neoclassical and Marxist economics, as well as a novel analysis of how capitalism functions. But when it comes to how we might utilize their theory to fight capitalism, they have little in the way of practical advice. They admit:

When activists ask us, 'OK, so what do you recommend we do?' Our answer is simple: establish ten autonomous research institutes around the world, and you will have taken the first step toward changing it. There is enormous pent-up autonomous energy in the world, but most of it is undirected and therefore wasted. In order to change the world, you need to know what kind of world you want; in order to know what you want, you need to know what exists; and in order to know what exists, you need radical, autonomous – and therefore non-academic – research.10

There's certainly value in admitting you don't know what to do and that other people should try to figure it out. But it really is a shame that the best plan the authors of the most ambitious attempts at a non-Marxist model of capitalism in recent decades can come up with is that someone ought to really come up with a plan.

The closest we've gotten to a serious anarchist economics that is both distinct from Marxism and can be used to inform practical action is the work of independent scholar Kevin Carson. He gives us many examples of dynamics within capitalism, as well as examples of action that might leverage those dynamics. But they are never condensed into a model of what capitalism is.

I suspect part of why the number of people who've tried to give an alternative is so low is that people understandably default to humility.

After all, the sheer number of smart people who have identified as some sort of anti-capitalist is reason to assume that our frameworks are more or less right since surely if something was wrong, someone would have fixed it.

Yet just because lots of smart people have worked on a problem does not mean that there's nothing left. One can point to major unsolved problems in domains that are magnitudes more rigorous like physics or mathematics as a simple example of how things can still be improved.

The humility becomes even harder to justify when you actually look at how anti-capitalists have, by and large, gone about trying to understand capitalism in the 20th century. Marxism did not occupy and maintain its status as the null hypothesis of anti-capitalism through reasoned debate. Rather the success of Marxist ideas about capitalism is first and foremost a consequence of politics.

The limitations of Marxism become quite clear if we look at European radicalism prior to the First World War.