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Anarchism, Capitalism, and Anarcho-Capitalism

ANARCHISM HAS NOTHING to do with the exploitative, rule-based and oppressive system of capitalism. Yet there is a part of the anarchist movement calling themselves “anarcho-capitalists.” Some argue this term is simply an attempt by conservative, big business forces to hijack the concept of anarchism, some argue anarcho-capitalism is rather a state-minimalizing classical liberalism, and still some claim anarcho-capitalism is truly anarchist.

The Internet, as well as printed anarchist media, covers an extensive library of argumentative essays on the oxymoron of anarcho-capitalism and why this political tradition needs to be refuted. Anarchism is by necessity opposing the exploitative system of capitalism, in the same way anarchism opposes the authoritative, exploitative, and coercive structures of the church and the government or the State.
   This argumentation usually begins with the history of anarchism and its obvious socialist heritage. The “father” of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was in essence socialist and sought a society based on equality and freedom. As for his and the anarchists opposition to capitalism he stated that “[w]e do not admit the government of man by man any more than the exploitation of man by man.” [1]
   The identification of anarchism as a socialist movement is echoed by proponents of the later schools of anarchism, such as anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin and individualist anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker. The former defined anarchism as “the no-government form of socialism” while the latter called for anarchism as “the abolition of the State and the abolition of usury.” [ibid]
   These quotes show the history of anarchism as a socialist movement. It can therefore be claimed that anarcho-capitalism inevitably is an oxymoron--with no real ties to the general anarchist tradition. Anarchism “has always challenged all forms of authority and exploitation, and has been equally critical of capitalism and religion as it has been of the state.” [2] How can one from this historical heritage claim to be both anarchist and advocate of the exploitative system of capitalism? The truth is that no one can, and no one does. There are no anarchists approving of such a system, even anarcho-capitalists (for the most part) do not.
   This unfortunate situation of fundamental misinterpretation of anarcho-capitalism (and other political movements) originates from the confusion in definitions of terms and concepts. Anarchism as a term has two specific meanings which have nothing in common: it is both a political movement seeking a free society without rule, and at the same time a term describing chaos and disorder. In the anarchist political movement only the first definition of the concept is used, while the general public usually refers to the second when using the term “anarchism.” Just as anarchism is a confusing concept, so can other concepts have different meaning depending on the context and people using the term.
   One may argue about which definition of a certain term is the correct and which should be abolished, but this approach is rather misplaced. Instead of arguing that most people in the world should abandon the “chaos, disorder” definition of anarchism one should advance the ideals of the anarchist political movement. This is the only rational and effective approach to this confusion--the term is not what is important, but the ideals, ideas, and values the anarchist movement associates with the term.
   Capitalism in the sense of wealth accumulation as a result of oppressive and exploitative wage slavery must be abandoned. The enormous differences between the wealthy and the poor do not only cause tensions in society or personal harm to those exploited, but is essentially unjust. Most, if not all, property of today is generated and amassed through the use of force. This cannot be accepted, and no anarchists accept this state of inequality and injustice.
   As a matter of fact, anarcho-capitalists share this view with other anarchists. Murray N. Rothbard, one of the great philosophers of anarcho-capitalism, used a lot of time and effort to define legitimate property and the generation of value, based upon a notion of “natural rights.” [3] The starting point of Rothbard’s argumentation is every man’s sovereign and full right to himself and his labor. This is the position of property creation shared by both socialists and classical liberals, and is also the shared position of anarchists of different colors. Even the statist capitalist libertarian Robert Nozick claimed contemporary property was unjustly accrued and that a free society, to him a “minimalist state,” needs to make up with this injustice. [4]
   Thus it seems anarcho-capitalists agree with Proudhon in that “property is theft,” where it is acquired in an illegitimate manner. But they also agree with Proudhon in that “property is liberty” [5] in the sense that without property, i.e. being robbed of the fruits of one’s actions, one is a slave. Anarcho-capitalists thus advocate the freedom of a stateless society, where each individual has the sovereign right to his body and labor and through this right can pursue his or her own definition of happiness.
   As we can see, the exploitative, force- and rule-based system of capitalism is not championed by any anarchists, not even the anarcho-capitalists. The critique directed from the leftist camps of anarchism towards anarcho-capitalism is therefore misplaced, inaccurate and rather ignorant. To refute the ideas and values of a philosophical movement one will have to use their definitions, or the critique will be virtually worthless.
   Anarcho-capitalism is thus not the oxymoron many anarchists claim it to be. The term “capitalism” is here rather used in a way of emphasizing the importance people of this movement put in the creation of value in the free market. This position of advocating the free market without interference is shared by individualist anarchists such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin R. Tucker, of whom the latter demanded that interferences with the free market must be abolished. As Tucker claimed, “if a man has labor to sell, he has a right to a free market in which to sell it.” [6]
   It may seem as an unproductive and confusing way of using such a widely discussed and refuted concept as “capitalism” in the anarchist movement--there must be other terms more suitable for these ideals. Actually, anarcho-capitalists rather often refer to themselves as contractists or voluntaryists to stress the fact that they disapprove of any coercive or force-based measures and champion a society where every individual is free to arrange his or her life as seen fit.
   But on the other hand, there are a number of such seemingly contradictory constructions of specific anarchist ideals. The anarchist position to oppose the powers of religion, perhaps as opium of the people, and the church seems to be contested by anarcho-christians. And anarcho-socialists use the term “socialism,” which originally was defined as a theory advocating state ownership and administration of the means of production. [7] The combined terms seemingly create an inherent conflict, which in reality is nonexistent.
   As we can see, anarcho-capitalism is not different from anarchisms in the refusal of exploitative capitalism. But there are of course differences which need to be stressed and discussed, as is the case with every anarchist “branch” using their own label. Anarcho-capitalism puts great value into the freedom of each individual to be involved in the free market and take part in voluntary, mutual agreements for one’s own benefit. [8]
   Anarcho-capitalists as most anarchists agree with Tucker in that “[l]iberty insists ... [on] the abolition of the State and the abolition of usury; on no more government of man by man, and no more exploitation of man by man.” [9]

[1] Quoted by Peter Marshall in Demanding the Impossible, p. 245 [back]
[2] From Brian Morris’ “Anthropology and Anarchism” in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed no. 45, p. 40 [back]
[3] See Murray N. Rothbard’s “The Ethics of Liberty” [back]
[4] See Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, Utopia” [back]
[5] See Albert Meltzer’s short analysis of Proudhon’s “property is liberty” in Anarchism: Arguments For and Against, p. 12-13 [back]
[6] See “Strikes and Force” in Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker [back]
[7] See most dictionary definitions or e.g. the many works of Karl Marx [back]
[8] For a discussion on the free market and voluntary agreements please see the essay Anarchism, Barter Trade and the Market [back]
[9] Quoted by Eunice Schuster in Native American Anarchism - A Study of Left-Wing American Individualism, p. 140 [back]

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