Markets Not Capitalism: the Book to Define a New United Front?

For the last several months, I have been reading the 2011 anthology Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty, edited by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson. It is unique in that it effectively figures out how one can engage in united front from below with Libertarians by offering the coordinates of struggle. No less than Alexander Cockburn said “We on the left need a good shake to get us thinking, and these arguments for market anarchism do the job in lively and thoughtful fashion.”

It should be pointed out that the Libertarians right now are roughly in the same space ideologically that the Democrats were on the day Franklin Roosevelt died. There is a far right element that could be called fascist in the same way that the Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats were. Yet the left wing of the party is, for all intents and purposes, a direct action anarchist group that is occupying the same space that American Communists were in seven decades ago but with one key difference, an emphasis on decentralization as opposed to Soviet-styled centralization of power. It is important to emphasize here that, when Roosevelt died, the old CPUSA had dissolved itself and become the Communist Political Association. They intended in the postwar world to be a left-progressive caucus at the grassroots level that would, according to their Constitution:

[A]ssure to its membership adequate information, education and organized participation in the political life of our country in cooperation with other Americans for the advancement and protection of the interests of the nation and its people.

Their Preamble was a collection of Popular Front slogans about Washington and Jefferson that are so innocuous they would be at home in a Democratic fundraising email. Yet while that Popular Front period was ultimately built on foundations of sand that Harry Truman was able to collapse with ease when he began the Red Scare, due in no small part to their umbilical to Moscow, such a hindrance is not present here. I would go as far as saying that this left element of the Libertarians is in reality farther to the left of the Green Party, particularly on the key issue of sex worker rights. Charles W. Johnson puts it best:

[T]he libertarian Left is the real Left…because libertarianism, rightly understood, calls on the workers of the world to unite, and to solve the problems of social and economic regulation not by appealing to any external authority or privileged managerial planner, but rather by taking matters into their own hands and working together through grassroots community organizing to build the kind of world that we want to live in.

This is a striking claim for me because it presents a future for politics that is both tenable and actionable. Could a Green-Libertarian united front from below develop out of this book and its coordinates to challenge neoliberalism, perhaps in the form of a boycott of Wal-Mart and other big box stores? The simple fact is that neoclassical marketsnoteconomics, whether under the auspices of neoliberal Democrats or neoconservative Republicans, has fundamentally redesigned the contours of class struggle in a fashion that dictates a thorough updating of the Marxist canon for the new millennium. Naysayers would do well to recall that Lenin’s corpus fundamentally overturned basic axioms of Marx and Engels, particularly in regards to imperialism, and so a century later we likewise need such a recreation of socialist politics.

“The notion that Markets Not Capitalism could help to energize a cross-ideological coalition challenging corporate privilege and the political policies that flow from it is exciting,” says Chartier. “It would be great to think that our work might help energize that.”

It is worthwhile here to note that, over the past sixteen years, we have seen grassroots populist entryists groups, progressives and libertarians, attempt to take control of both parties from the bottom up. Which has had more success? Trump is a vile bigot and narcissist but he also seems to create entire speeches that string together headlines from Reason magazine and By contrast, the elite corporatists at the Philadelphia Soviet not only scuttled the Michael Harrington-branded of Democratic Socialists of America project, they got their Lenin to deliver the insurgents to the White Armies when Bernie Sanders cancelled the floor vote at the Convention to nominate the Tsarina!

Divided into eight parts, the book is located in a uniquely American section of socialist history that is oftentimes forgotten. Benjamin R. Tucker and Voltairine de Cleyre, among many others during the Second Internationale epoch, were individualist anarchists and mutualists, meaning they believed in class warfare and socialism but also in a notion of property in terms of home ownership or a share of a cooperatized workplace run by a union. From these coordinates the contemporary authors develop a coherent set of essays that articulate a vision of the state’s withering that is not just striking but more seemingly tenable than a parliamentary or revolutionary socialist movement.

Some of the figures who appear along the way are surprising. Karl Hess, the Goldwater speechwriter turned New Left anarchist and tax resistor, has several contributions that are as radical as Noam Chomsky’s best writings while also providing stunning inversions of typical anti-racist critiques of the movement. For example, he says in one essay:

Libertarians hold that the South should have been permitted to secede so that the slaves themselves, along with their Northern friends, could have built a revolutionary liberation movement, overthrown the masters, and thus shaped the reparations of revolution.

For those who are unclear, such a utopia was also proposed in the form of New Leftist Terry Bisson’s classic alternate history, Fire On The Mountain, wherein John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was a success and led to a black southern socialist republic of emancipated slaves and their descendants named Nova Africa, not unlike the case that was presented at the time Bisson was writing by the split of East and West Germany.

The basic unit of discourse in this book is around the creation of “freed markets”, which William Gillis explains:

Freed markets don’t have corporations. A freed market naturally equalizes wealth. Social hierarchy is by definition inefficient and this is particularly evident in freed markets. It moves us out of the present tense and into the theoretical realm of “after the revolution,” where like the Reds we can still use present day examples to back theory, but we’re not tied into implicitly defending every horror in today’s market.

From here descends a series of essays that critique neoclassical capitalism on its own turf. Unlike most self-professed leftists of today, who really are closer to religious fundamentalist Manichaeans worshipping a Freudian totem in the garb of Gilded Age or Soviet era socialism, we have presented here perhaps the best critique of political economy in a generation.

Some of the essays, like one suggesting that Murray Rothbard was in reality an anarcho-syndicalist, are audaciously challenging. Others, like one comparing the Soviet collectivization to the English enclosures, take up the challenges of Stalinism posed by humanitarians in a sound and logical way. Kevin Carson’s argument for the “the repeal of Wagner, of the anti-yellow dog provisions of Norris-LaGuardia, of legal protections against punitive firing of union organizers, and of all the workplace safety, overtime, and fair practices legislation” in exchange for “the repeal of Taft-Hartley, of the Railway Labor Relations Act and its counterparts in other industries, of all state right-to-work laws, and of SLAPP lawsuits” in the name of the asymmetrical class warfare that was substantially hindered by the National Labor Relations Act is an essay that would simultaneously infuriate and excite a grassroots organizer.

The book is not perfect. There is really nothing substantial articulating a critique of systemic racism in a fashion going beyond a brief piece by Sheldon Richman that challenges the Libertarian resistance to desegregation. Of course, one might find this sort of material in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose arc of development was towards a Sino-Soviet bloc that, at the time, was believed to operate in a libertarian fashion. Few today remember that important fact, up until the 1956 Khrushchev secret speech it was honestly claimed by Communists worldwide that they were creating a social order roughly akin to what Rothbard argued for also in his essay Confiscation and the Homestead Principle, a piece that sang praises for Tito’s Yugoslavia and their cooperative-based economy. The material regarding ecological issues would be worthy of expansion also, as would that regarding gender and sexuality topics.

As a corollary to this review, I would be remiss if I did not advise those already familiar with this volume to read at least Black Revolutionaries in the United States: Communist Interventions, Volume II by the Communist Research Cluster , a similar anthology that assembles important writings in the black radical tradition in a fashion that is accessible and provocative. Statistically speaking, we know that black and brown voters are the most left-leaning demographic in both the Democratic Party and the United States, favoring in an issue-based spectrum single-payer healthcare, LGBTQQI protections, abortion care rights, and other progressive issues far more than white counterparts. It is therefore imperative for Libertarians, particularly those of a centrist and leftist orientation, to familiarize themselves with this tradition so to actualize a genuine united front from below that does not prove to be exclusionary towards such a key population.

Nevertheless, this is a vital volume. If we hope to build a truly revolutionary movement, it requires a united front from below that includes Libertarians, the actual Liberals in our society, as well as Greens. This volume is the conversation piece around which such efforts can be based and it is therefore to be seen as a blessing.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.