Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

This was something I posted on Facebook, in a discussion in which folks were using words like “socialist” and “capitalist” to define their political points of view:

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a lot of people I respect and admire identify themselves as “socialists” and some even as “capitalists.” I think we have gotten to the point, however, where these terms are almost indefinable without a mountain of modifying adjectives such that we find ourselves twisted into neo-logistic pretzels.

Having been introduced to libertarian thinking through Ayn Rand, who embraced capitalism “the unknown ideal”—that is, something which has never existed in the way she defined it (it was, essentially a Weberian ideal type)—it took years for me to abandon that term for good (in 2005), because capitalism “the known reality“, like virtually every social system before it, and any “post-capitalist” or “socialist” system after it, has been built on blood and massive state oppression.

Oppression must be opposed across political, cultural, and social dimensions—and to me, this is essential to any project aiming for human freedom and individual flourishing within a communal context. I have found all these terms to be like ideological straitjackets, which led me to embrace “dialectical libertarianism” as that to which I adhere. This of course has its own linguistic baggage, but I think that the politics of change needs to transcend right and left, “capitalism” and “socialism” (scare quotes intended), enabling us to embrace the kernels of truth in Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand, and so forth, on the one hand and Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, Chomsky, Goldman, Luxemburg, Bookchin, and so forth, on the other hand.

Again, though I deeply respect people for whatever labeling they’ve chosen, and the ways in which they’ve defined it, I think we need to begin the process of breaking out of this binary divide. Every time we embrace any term or phrase that has this much baggage, we face the impenetrable problem of communicating with people who simply can’t think outside the intellectual boxes to which they are accustomed, the boxes that make them feel “safe” but that never challenge them to “check their premises” (to use a Randian phrase). There’s got to be a better way of moving this dialogue forward. The “dialectics of liberty”—and our very lives—depend on it.

On Facebook, the discussion advances. I added the following points:

Too many people are talking past each other and the definitions of “capitalism” and “socialism” have never been stable, partially because the “real” history is in stark contrast to the “ideal” definitions being offered, even by these system’s most ardent defenders.

Let’s focus on Ayn Rand herself, for whom definition of terms must accord with reality. She saw capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” Very nice description—but “ideally conceived.” (I might add that Rand also embraced similarly “ideal” conceptions of “selfishness” and “government” that were just as starkly different from the overwhelming conventional understanding of these terms.)

Capitalism did not have a virgin birth through the homesteading of untouched lands and the sanctity of “individual rights”. The whole schema of private property and the consequent recognition of the “individual rights” to such property only happened after the state—working at the behest of large medieval landowners—used such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations.

“Capitalism” in its origins—like every other “social system” before it—was bathed in blood. Hardly in accord with the Weberian ideal-type “definition” that Rand provided.

The well-known record of “socialism” in the twentieth century is also bathed in blood. The description of “socialism”, given by Karl Marx himself, was that of a post-scarcity society in which the abundance of goods is such that each can take according to their needs, without sacrificing anyone else in the process. Again, “ideally” conceived. No “socialist” country has ever been built upon such “post-scarcity” and the results have been murderous.

I would prefer not to speak in terms of these “isms” as goals because their history has severely tainted any possible rational understanding of what a genuinely free society might look like. Given the historical records of both “capitalism” and “socialism” and the role that the state has played in the founding of both “systems,” I’d prefer to sidestep the whole binary discussion. We might wish to talk in terms of such things as “markets” (which, as Pete Boettke once said, grow “like weeds” throughout all historical periods). Or better still: “freed markets“, that is, markets “freed” from the insidious role of political, institutional, and cultural forces that undermine the achievement of human liberty and individual autonomy. And freed and voluntary markets as such can have many different incarnations, from worker cooperatives to exchange relationships.

I have found that the usage of words like “capitalism” and “socialism” just does not advance the discussion, no matter how clearly one defines them—especially when the “ideal” definitions depart so dramatically from the real, historical record.

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