In a review of anchorage anarchy in a recent edition of Anarchy, A Journal of Desire Armed, I am described by the author as a “non-anti-capitalist anarchist.” Around the same time I read this article, I also received a letter from a contributor to aa in which I was called to task for my use of the word market to describe the sort of economic relations I think would best serve free people. While the Anarchy writer did not elaborate on why he chose the description he did, my correspondent did go on to say that he thinks “free people would determine the means of exchange/sharing/distribution that is most suitable for them & it would tend to be disorganized and fluid, where market implies a more structured approach.”
Both the reviewer and the letter-writer are people who have read a lot of what I have written about social and economic matters, yet one believes that I do not oppose capitalism despite my frequent statements to the contrary over the years, while the other thinks I use the wrong word to describe my vision of free economic exchange even though I have taken great pains on numerous occasions to clarify what I mean by the word market. Which leads me to believe that there must be others out there less familiar with my ideas who are also misinterpreting what I write. This leaves me in somewhat of a bind. If I continue to express my ideas using the words I customarily do, I apparently run the risk of not communicating my ideas clearly. But I am not convinced that if I simply start using other terms to talk about social and economic interactions between free individuals that I will be understood any better. What’s an anarchist to do?
All of us use words that can be interpreted in more than one way. Sometimes this is just in the nature of the word itself. If one looks up the word nature, for instance, you will find that it has two quite different meanings: “the phenomena of the physical world collectively” and “the basic or inherent features of something.” Despite this, most of the time people are able to figure out the meaning intended by the speaker or writer from the context in which the word is used and confusion seldom ensues.
This is not unreasonable. Although new words and new meanings for old words are added to languages all the time, this generally happens gradually and unpredictably. Which means there are only so many words out there to use in any language to describe interactions and relationships between people. Since it is very convenient in both writing and speaking to have a word or two one can use to describe a set of ideas or a type of social arrangement, people tend to use old words which may have multiple meanings, but have a least one definition that encompasses the ideas which they are attempting to communicate about. When we discuss social and economic ideas and institutions, however, things become more complicated. People of very different viewpoints commonly use the same word to describe quite different interactions and arrangements, even thought the word itself really has only one meaning. The word socialism is a perfect example. Stalin and Hitler both called the political systems they ruled forms of socialism, mildly left members of the american democratic party call themselves socialists, social democratic parties in europe are part of the socialist international, and some anarchists use the word socialist to describe their outlook. In discussing these various forms of socialism, different descriptors are often tacked on to clarify the differences between these institutions and/or schools of thought: state socialism, democratic socialism, libertarian socialism, etc. So even though the word socialism was used by nazis to describe themselves, libertarian socialists continue to use the word because they believe both that it accurately describes the type of world they strive for and that they are able to adequately explain to others that the society they envision has nothing in common with national socialism.
This may breed confusion and misinterpretation, but the only alternatives are to either make up new words, or reuse words from other languages or eras to symbolize a specific school of thought. Marx was very successful using the latter approach when he gave life to the latin word proletarius in the form of the terms proletarian and proletariat. Sam Konkin, a capitalist anarchist tried something similar with the word agorist, from the greek word for market, agora. In neither case, however, did these new-fangled terms for workers and markets add any clarity to the arguments of the writers. Proletarian was all the rage in marxist circles for quite a while but has largely been replaced by the word worker, for which it was designed as a substitute, except when the writer or speaker is trying to emphasize their leftist credentials. Agorist and agorism never took off the way Marx’s terms did in the first place and remain only as a form of insider-speak among some market anarchists.
As for making up words de novo to solve the problem of how to communicate when words have more than one meaning, the best example of this fool’s errand is bolo’bolo. This book came out in 1983 and was a description of or recipe for a new type of society based on autonomous communities that would set their own rules. Similar to the theories of the panarchists, the writer envisioned a world where people could choose from all sorts of different communities with their own social and economic setups and could move from bolo to bolo as their needs and wants changed over time. But in describing the features of this society he used a bunch of made-up words to label objects and groupings of people which could be more than adequately described using conventional words and phrases. Whatever the merits of the ideas contained in this book, the writer’s neologisms created more confusion than clarity for readers.
So I have generally chosen to use ordinary words to describe my ideas and my vision of the free society. I use the term market when I talk about how people could fairly and freely exchange goods and services because the word can mean just such equitable commerce. I am careful to differentiate between a true free market, where the state would play no role and monopolies would not exist, and the mainstream concept of a free market which includes the new york stock exchange and general motors. When I have written about economic exchanges between people in different regions and criticized what passes for “free trade” in today’s world, I make my best effort to explain that there can be trade that is both free and fair, but it would look nothing like NAFTA or the european union. And when I speak of privatization I make it clear that I mean eliminating the role of government in the affairs of individuals and allowing people to provide goods and services to each other without intervention in and oversight of their interactions by the state—I do not mean handing over firefighting and health care to capitalist corporations.
But words are obviously loaded. Simply using words like market, free trade, privatization makes my viewpoint suspect to some anarchists. They cannot envision truly anarchist exchange and trade and assume that anyone who does is some sort of closet capitalist. This is remarkable to me since these same anarchists do not similarly suspect anarchist communists of harboring leninist tendencies (despite the fact that some clearly do) even though they use a word to describe themselves that was also used by some of the worst butchers ever to exercise power over other people.
I have written in multiple publications that I oppose state-sponsored monopoly capitalism because it is based on force and is by its nature coercive. I advocate an economic arrangement where people, whether as individuals or as voluntary groupings of individuals, freely exchange goods and services with each other either by barter or utilizing some form of money (another touchy term). But I oppose interest, profit, rent and absentee land ownership because they are unjust and constitute a form of theft of the wealth of others and are not the product of equitable exchange. No matter how many times I explain what I mean when I use the word market or exchange, or the expression free trade, and no matter how strongly I criticize the state and capitalism some anarchists refuse to take me at my word.
Part of this suspicion may be due to the fact that I have published articles written by anarchists who believe in a form of stateless, libertarian capitalism. But I have also published articles by anarchists from the other end of the economic spectrum, like Malatesta, and even non-anarchists like Rosa Luxemburg. I believe that all of these writers have things to say that are worth presenting and discussing. But that does not mean that I necessarily agree with all the things I have published. Just as I believe in a free market in goods and services, I favor a free market in ideas.
A Rose by Any Other Name
I realize that non-socialist, non-collective, non-syndicalist, non-feminist visions of a libertarian world are difficult for the typical anarchist to wrap their head around. And that, I believe, is the real problem here. Many socially-oriented anarchists are and have been tolerant and understanding of the individualist approach, but others are suspicious of any libertarian who doesn’t see the beauty in cooperatives and collectives and federations. Using different words to talk about what I think and believe will not change that. To me, market is shorthand for exactly what my correspondent described above: an unstructured, unsupervised method of exchange between free people. While that may not be the first thing that comes to mind when some of my readers see it in print, I know of no more appropriate one-word description of such a complex set of freely-chosen interactions. Neither capitalism nor socialism are models for a free society, so I will continue, at the risk of misinterpretation, to write about the anarchist alternative of free people, free exchange, free minds, and free markets. Mainstream newspapers talk of anarchy in the streets in “failed states,” but that has not dissuaded libertarians from continuing to use the word to describe their goal. The fact that there were and are (authoritarian) collectives in state socialist/communist societies doesn’t keep some anarchists from using that word to describe their own projects. And though feminist can mean almost anything to anyone, anarchists still use it to describe themselves as well.
I realize that non-socialist, non-collective, non-syndicalist, non-feminist visions of a libertarian world are difficult for the typical anarchist to wrap their head around. And that, I believe, is the real problem here. Many socially-oriented anarchists are and have been tolerant and understanding of the individualist approach, but others are suspicious of any libertarian who doesn’t see the beauty in cooperatives and collectives and federations. Using different words to talk about what I think and believe will not change that. To me, market is shorthand for exactly what my correspondent described above: an unstructured, unsupervised method of exchange between free people. While that may not be the first thing that comes to mind when some of my readers see it in print, I know of no more appropriate one-word description of such a complex set of freely-chosen interactions. Neither capitalism nor socialism are models for a free society, so I will continue, at the risk of misinterpretation, to write about the anarchist alternative of free people, free exchange, free minds, and free markets.