Saturday, 5 May 2012

Free Markets vs. Capitalism

By Jamie O'Hara & Craig FitzGerald 

Anarchists with socialist leanings associate the terms “free market” and “capitalism” with oppression and exploitation.  To anarcho-capitalists, the absence of state intervention in the market is the ultimate form of liberty.  In both the underground and mainstream political worlds, free enterprise is virtually synonymous with capitalism.  But these expressions are not one and the same.  The etymology of the word “capitalism” reveals characteristics that are completely antithetical to the concept of a free market, as well as the philosophy of anarchism.
In English, the word “capital” dates back to the thirteenth century, when it was used to mean “primary,” “chief,” or “head.”  These words all necessarily imply the existence of hierarchy; “capitalism” as an organized economic system is inherently hierarchical.  Rather than describe free markets, the word is synonymous with plutocracy, which comes from the Greek for “rule or power of the wealthy or of wealth.”  When “capital” received its financial definition in the sixteenth century, its now double meaning—“money” and “head”—began to solidify this comparison to plutocracy.  No evidence exists of the word “capitalism” until 1854 when it meant the “condition of having capital.”  In 1861, French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon coined the word “capitalism” and described it as a plutocratic economic system.

By the fourteenth century, the word also connoted mortality and life or death (hence “a capital offense” and “capital punishment”).  It is interesting to consider the way that most people today perceive money as a matter of life and death.  For those who participate in the plutocracy, abundant finances mean everything, while the lack thereof can bring one’s demise.  Our culture has been bombarded with the false value that currency equals wealth, and wealth equals life.  In actuality, the most common manifestation of capital punishment is the imposed system of fiat money.

So, capitalism is a life or death system in which money is the hierarchy’s head.  This perception of the word stemmed from an examination of the word’s etymology in English, but even more telling are the original Latin meanings of capitale.   In addition to the definitions associated with being first or on top, capitale could also mean “something stolen.”  This suggests a hint of corruption and theft (which may have influenced Proudhon’s idea that “property is theft”).  It also reflects the contemporary economic situation everywhere: banks and governments steal from the people. 

Such an understanding of the word “capitalism” allows one to draw a stark contrast between this economic system and the potential for truly laissez-faire free markets.  The theory of Agorism, posited by Canadian libertarian Samuel Edward Konkin III in 1975, is an ideal representation of real free enterprise.  The term comes from the Greek word agora, meaning “open marketplace,” and refers to the voluntary building of parallel underground economies.

Unlike capitalism, agorism is compatible with all forms of anarchism, regardless of hyphenation.  In An Agorist Primer, Konkin’s first and third Axioms of Agorism are, respectively: “The closest approach to a free society is an uncorrupted agora” and “The moral system of any agora is compatible with pure libertarianism” (i.e. anarchism).   If an anarchist community maintains an alternative economy apart from the state, that community is implementing agorism, regardless of whether that economy is communist, free market, or anything in between.  In fact, anarchist groups who do not embrace an agorist model will inevitably fail at being independent from the state and its corporate partners.  Even though agorism originated in a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist context, it is equally applicable to socialist anarchist communities.  Whether an anarchist community’s goals include socialized welfare and healthcare systems or alternative currencies and autonomous methods of trade, agorism is the only means.  

Anarchists of all stripes must bridge the gap between theory and action.  Economics is pragmatic, realistic and material.  Without it, anarchist communities are solely philosophical.  Agorism represents a way for tribes to attain successful and sustainable independence from the state. 

The intention behind anarcho-capitalism is to create free markets, not to establish hierarchies of wealth.  Anarcho-capitalists should consider completely disassociating from the label of capitalism at all, and instead employ terms like “free market,” “free enterprise,” “voluntaryism” and “agorism.”  Anarcho-capitalists who argue that their libertarian brand of capitalism is completely different from the statist-corporatist-Keynesian version of capitalism fail to recognize the historical reality that capitalism has never produced a free market.  They also ignore the etymological significance of the word.  While anarchism has enough semantic arguments and divisions, language is important.  The history of words has significance for humanity, and we should be very conscious of the messages we proclaim.