This is a loose transcript of a “talk” I gave for my partner’s mother at Worcester State University to her communications 101 class.
So Alta asked me to be here so I could jazz you guys up about the different economic systems and how they relate to Marxism and the internet. I’ll mostly tackle the different economic systems.
To start, Marxism is based on the ideology of the German thinker and philosopher Karl Marx. This doesn’t mean the ideology is limited to Marx .For example leaders of the USSR like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and other added on to Marx’s theories and made them a bit different than they were before. So Marxists don’t live and die by Marx, but of course many take great inspiration from his thought. And particularly from his large tomes called Das Kapital.
Marxism argues that capitalism is actually (or at least can be) a transitionary stage to freeing ourselves. To an anarchist this would be tantamount to saying that slavery is pretty cool for a while as long as it results in some sort of freedom for the slaves, eventually. But either way to many Marxists capitalism is a necessary part of development in the world to get to real democracy. Lenin even used state-capitalism as a way to supposedly get to the a classless and stateless society. Of course, if you know even basic history of Stalin then you know how well that went.
But what exactly is capitalism?
Some refer to capitalism as just an economic system wherein the means of production are privately owned. Or a system where property and exchange is freely done without regulations by the government.
I object to both definitions and refer to Kevin Carson, a contemporary anarchist thinker in his “Capitalism: A Good Word for a Bad Thing”,
…it is rather odd that “capitalism” was adopted as the conventional term for a society based on private property and free exchange. There’s no obvious reason, in seeking a name for an economy in which all factors of production are ostensibly equal and enter into free contract as equals, that capital should be singled in particular out for special emphasis. The choice of “capitalism” suggests some special ideological agenda, as if the system were run of, by and for capital as distinguished from other factors of production.
And that is exactly what capitalism is.
Capitalism, as it has historically existed is a system whereby the means of production (that is, the tools necessary to produce goods, e.g. factories, certain sorts of machinery, etc.) has been concentrated into a certain class’s hands as opposed to the lower class. So the private ownership of the means of production (or POOTMOP) is certainly relevant but I don’t know that it’s defining. In any case, this higher class tends to be the management or the elites who are able to make good with politicians due to their connections.
As Marx points out this condition was largely done by violence and one of the most major locations of this violence was England during the enclosure acts. Where, according to Kevin Carson, many peasants had small and fully functioning communes with healthy and stable economies that allowed work but also allowed leisure and good rewards. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it certainly would beat being forced into factories via state-capital collusion.
But if Marxism is aiming for real “democracy” then we must understand what that means as well.
To go at this from an etymological level the word literally means people-system as in, a system powered directly by the people involved. Sounds great but people can take “people” to mean anything. So in a “representative” democracy the people “directly” involved have a voice…it’s just not theirs. And in more “direct democracies” like Sweden for example the public may have a stronger vote on certain things directly but it still has to go through a larger parliamentary system.
So both of these sorts of democracies interpret the “people” to be the ruling class or the state.
The sort of democracy that Marx would particularly favor when all is said and done is a classless and stateless society.
That is to say a society where no particular group of people (e.g. politicians, capitalists, etc.) has a distinctly higher advantageous claim over another with the means of production or the ability to make decisions over ones own life.
And a society wherein things are stateless, which is to say no government or centralized authority on the role of violence in a given society. These things would be determined by localized councils that network and federate with other ones to discuss and decide important issues.
Anarchists that are more favorable to communism (which is another word for Marx’s desired end) may be okay with this end. But the means are questionable. Marx is well-known for his “dictatorship of the proletariat” which typically has anarchists at least skeptical. To be fair to Marx what he meant by a “dictatorship” was coming from a German language and a much different time. So by this he more or less meant the supremacy of one group over another and not necessarily a totalitarian state or something along those lines.
Nevertheless I believe the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, for example, predicted how this would turn out:
“They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship—their dictatorship, of course—can create the will of the people, while our answer [the anarchists] to this is:
No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.” (Statism and Anarchy)
We can see then that at least with fairly orthodox or classical Marxism the anarchist and Marxist they may agree on the opposition to capitalism and the approval of certain forms of democracy do not agree on how to get there or what it would look like, etc.
Where as the Marxist merely wants to change hands of who has supremacy the anarchists wants not supremacy at all.
The anarchist alternative to the dictatorship is the IWW tactic of building the new society within the shell of the old. Building alternative organizations based on mutuality, voluntary association, horizontal organizing and so on. This can include things like housing cooperatives, food collectives, forming powerful but autonomous unions that are not involved with the state and so on.
The idea is to build these organizations and network them so that you can eventually start building autonomous localities, neighborhoods and full blown autonomous towns if possible. All the while having means to defend yourself and handle inner-disputes in these communities through peer to peer arbitration or established community courts for more serious things.
Instead of perpetuating the models of capitalism and the state through a hierarchical placing of one class over the other (in this case the proletariat over the bourgeois) and risk perpetuating the bourgeois state we shall instead destroy it from within the society by creating a new one.
In other words the anarchist relies not on any panacea or use of an iron first via a proletarian state but rather an invisibile Molotov to quote the Director of C4SS, James Tuttle:
The Invisible Molotov embraces emergent orders, not as the pious desire to embrace their deity, awed by its power or grace, but as the readied aikido master, observant of its flow and eddies, prepared to turn, adding its force to our own or using its inertia to deflect its fist into the ground.
As William Gillis explains,
“For those of us interested in resisting and undermining coercive power, the issue is less how a truly freed market might one day improve our lives, but rather how the faint sparks of freedom in the market today are already working against hierarchy, banditry and the concentration of power and how those sparks might be stoked. Therefore our interest is not the market’s invisible hand, per se, but the invisible molotov it carries.”
In conclusion Kevin Carson steels our resolve,
“Our goal is not to assume leadership of existing institutions, but rather to render them irrelevant. We don’t want to take over the state or change its policies. We want to render its laws unenforceable. We don’t want to take over corporations and make them more “socially responsible.” We want to build a counter-economy of open-source information, neighborhood garage manufacturing, Permaculture, encrypted currency and mutual banks, leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state.
We do not hope to reform the existing order. We intend to serve as its grave-diggers.”
Some Brief Thoughts on Tax Evasion and Corporations
Recently, the headquarters of Burger King decided to move to Canada and out of the US for tax reasons. Relatedly Amazon has gotten in trouble for tax evasion in the UK and tech giants Apple and Google have been accused of the same.
Should we take these occurrences as something positive? Something that shows that companies are taking their own business into their own hands and not letting governments or bad tax code get in the way?
Or should we see this as a negative? Perhaps this shows that corporations are far stronger than governments and that these sorts of actions means more regulations on corporations or stricter tax practices with big corporations.
It’s worth noting that corporations aren’t somehow the masters over the state. At least, not in any absolute sense. Like any other power struggle over a given society the top classes who are in line push and shove and fight each other sometimes. And sometimes one even dominates another for a period but fundamentally speaking the state and the corporations have many similar interests.
Roderick Long, a philosophy professor at Auburn University made a comparison to the Star Wars universe:
The main plotline of the Star Wars prequel trilogy concerns an apparent conflict between the central government (the Senate) on the one hand and a coalition of mercantile interests (the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, etc.) on the other. As events unfold, however, it quickly becomes obvious to the audience (though much less quickly to the protagonists) that the conflict is largely a ruse, with the leadership of the two sides (Chancellor Palpatine and Count Dooku, respectively) secretly working hand in glove.
Which isn’t to say that all is rosy between them. Each wants to be the dominant partner; witness Dooku’s failed attempt to betray Palpatine in Episode II, and Palpatine’s successful backstabbing of Dooku and his corporate allies in Episode III. Still, the partnership is stable enough to succeed in manipulating the protagonists into unwittingly undermining the very liberty they have been seeking to protect. As the pseudo-conflict escalates, there are, in the words of Episode III’s opening crawl, “heroes on both sides” – but the good guys on the two sides have been duped into fighting one another, each side grasping the evil of the other side’s leadership but not yet that of its own.
We can see this fictional situation happening in reality in a lot of the work by New Leftists like Carl Oglesby and his talk of “corporate liberalism”. As well as New Left historians like William Appleman Willaims and Gabriel Kolko. Kolko is most known for his historical work on railroads and his book “The Triumph of Conservatism” which revealed the interlocking power dynamics of corporations and governments. Libertarians like Butler Shaffer also highlight this in his book “In Restraint of Trade” and argue that often the heaviest and most so-called “damaging” regulations were actually crafted in part by the top executives and CEOs because it minimized their competition.
The smaller businesses would pay the price of the regulations and the big businesses would just largely absorb the costs and externalize them through state-granted privileges or friends in political office and so on.
Given all of this what sense does it make to treat these tax avoidances as the coming of a one-sided relation? Or to see more regulations as the answer?
Now, multi-national corporations have plenty of power (economic, social, etc.) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come from somewhere. The charters of incorporation are fundamentally a state privilege and if you remove this privilege (more or less an insulation from price mechanisms and the flows of the market) then the corporations have much less of a leg to stand on.
On the other hand, I don’t think tax evasion from these corporations makes these corporations particularly heroic. As much as I believe that taxation is illegitimate and inefficient way of organizing society I wouldn’t just blindly call anyone who rebels against them my friend or say I supported them. And besides, for Burger King this is purely an economic move as far as I am aware. It’s not a political statement, or at least not intentionally.
But even if it was, I feel no obligation to celebrate when corporations are able to go through legal loop holes or invalidate the state’s laws in some important sense. While I don’t lament it in the same way some people would I also don’t think it’s inherently a good thing to stick it to the man when you are part of the “man” too.
Too quote professor Long once more,
We might compare the alliance between government and big business to the alliance between church and state in the Middle Ages. Of course it’s in the interest of both parties to maintain the alliance — but all the same, each side would like to be the dominant partner, so it’s no surprise that the history of such alliances will often look like a history of conflict and antipathy, as each side struggles to get the upper hand. But this struggle must be read against a common background framework of cooperation to maintain the system of control.
Do I think tax evasion is ordinarily a good thing?
Do I think Burger King doing it is in some non-nuanced way good?
The synthesis of these positions might look something like:
Down with corporations and the government and down with certain classes of people having the privilege to evade taxes while others do not.
In other words, let us all aim to be the next Burger King, just without the corporation part.
Piketty, Social Reform and the New Left
Finally, I just want to briefly comment on social reform and the idea of a New Left and suggest that the New Left already exists. A New Left that doesn’t task itself with pleading with Washington or regressing to corporatist apologetics. This New Left would take seriously the critiques of both state and capital and resolve that social reform can’t be anything less than revolutionary. This doesn’t mean it needs to be immediate or violent; a revolutionary movement can be one that builds as it destroys through beautiful creation of vibrant and meaningful alternatives for the larger society. We don’t need to appeal to politicians with our votes or favors but nor do we need to appeal to corporate giants with our money and our apologetics.
We can oppose both the state and big businessin meaningful and interesting ways by taking from radical libertarianism (e.g. I have in mind Murray Rothbard’s market anarchism of the 60s and 70s) with something like anti-authoritarian leftism (e.g. David Graeber, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, etc.).
What I’ve gathered from Piketty is that he thinks (for some reason or another) the gaps and inequality can be undone by not only appealing to state and capital but by concentrating these two very mutually cooperative (and antagonistic to be sure) parties in some sort of wordly fashion and imposing some sort of global tax on everyone.
I don’t have all of the specifics on this proposal but the logistics of this sound insane and way too farfetched for me to really take seriously. I’d sooner take Luxemburg seriously that, “The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” Then Piketty’s, “The counter-revolution is its means and the counter-revolution is its aim”. Because that’s all I’m really seeing here.
I certainly agree with Alta that we shouldn’t just disparage Piketty and we should take his claims of inequality seriousness or at least his concerns about this topic even if his statistics aren’t right (I’m not sure myself having not read it, but I’ve heard mixed things). Even so though that doesn’t make his solutions particularly attractive even if some of his underlying premises make total sense.
With that in mind, sure, let’s create a New Left but one that’s aiming for a revolutionary gradualism. Gradually building the new world within the shell of the old.
Or as Pierre Joseph Proudhon, one of the first people to call themselves an anarchist said:
“To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system, by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great