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Understanding Markets Without Capitalism

(image not from original site)


By Will Schnack


This was composed for a speech given to the UNT Students for Liberty on April 17, 2014 in Denton, Texas.

.PDF version


A common discussion taking place amomg libertarians in recent years is in regard to capitalism’s compatibility with a free market. While some fly capitalism as a flag of freedom, others see capitalism as being antagonistic to voluntary exchange, believing capitalism to be a relationship of domination.

From my own mutualist perspective, I will be offering my understanding of a libertarian middle ground between capitalism and socialism, a free market of worker-owners. This vision is commonly called “free market anti-capitalism.” The goal will be to distinguish markets from capitalism. In order to do this, I will offer definitions grounded in ethics and in history, before describing their common usage, discussing the role they play as isms, and distinguishing them in a measurable sense. I will conclude by depicting a market without capitalism. First, a necessary discussion on semantics.

Loaded Terms

Words like socialism and capitalism are loaded terms, which come with a variety of meanings to their beholders. While some may understand the word socialism to indicate government management over the economy, for instance, others hold the view that a socialist society should manage itself more directly, without state interference.

This second view of socialism has been embraced by such normally opposing forces as individualistic and collectivistic anarchism. The anarcho-communist, Peter Kropotkin, for instance, imagined in his works a society of freely federated communes, which would supply resources to one another based on his understanding of mutual aid. Influenced by Kropotkin, a similar sentiment of freedom is reflected in Oscar Wilde’s libertarian socialist treatise, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” The individualist anarchists of the 19th century, concerned much more with individual liberty than with combinations of people into communes, also considered themselves to be socialists by fact that they believed that the masses of society should indeed manage more capital. This can be read in Benjamin Tucker’s essay, for instance, entitled “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ,” in which he suggests that anarchism is a “school” of “Socialistic thought,” which is to be understood in contrast to state-socialism.[1] Even the modern individualist market anarchist, Brad Spangler, suggests, in “Market Anarchism as Stigmergic Socialism,” that his own

contention is that Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism is misnamed because it is actually a variety of socialism, in that it offers an alternative understanding of existing capitalism (or any other variety of statism) as systematic theft from the lower classes and envisions a more just society without that oppression.[2]

One can see the confusion that can be caused by adopting a hard set of meanings for words that people use so variably. We easily speak past one another when we cannot learn to adopt each other’s definitions, at least for sake of deliberation. One does not argue that someone speaking Japanese is wrong because they use different words. Instead, we accept that similar concepts can be described with very different words. Likewise, in our own language, we must understand that the words we speak are connected with a variety of concepts, and others’ understandings of our words do not always align with our customary usage.

With this in mind, and as I continue forward, know that the word capitalism is in a similar boat as socialism. Like socialism, the word capitalism has a sense which is authoritarian, in that it has often been used to philosophically legitimize the control of those who have been disenfranchised from the institutions of the state on behalf of those who have been granted capital in its favor; and it has a sense which is libertarian, which can be seen as the rule of law, whereby even public officials must respect a citizen’s rights to their property to some degree. I aware of both of these contexts, and, for this reason, I’d like you to understand why I disavow words like capitalism and socialism, while they both maintain a positive and a negative usage. This will be rooted in the idea of equilibrium, here reflected in both economics and ethics, and will tie in with my working definitions, which I will state briefly, before following up later, as: a) capitalism is the absence of things commonly associated with socialism, and b) socialism is the absence of things commonly associated with capitalism. Things I commonly associate with capitalism are property rights, markets, state-granted privilege to business, and a renting class (workers, tenants, debtors, etc.). Things I commonly associate with socialism are communal ownership, democracy, centralism, and state-control of the economy. Before we establish the difference between markets and capitalism, we must be clear what we mean by capitalism, and to do this we must contrast it to its opposite.

Ethics and Ideology

In a way, my definitions of capitalism and socialism negate one another, placing each on an extreme. According to this view, any mixing of the elements of capitalism and socialism dilutes them both into a neutral third solution. In this way, capitalism and socialism are found on opposites sides of an equilibrium, which I associate with mutualism, and which can be addressed also as free-market anti-capitalism. Such a dialectical process of sublation—that is, the mixing of the best parts of capitalism and socialism— toward a neutral equilibrium does not only reflect healthy economic systems as they adjust prices, but also reflects a society grounded in virtue-ethics, and can be related then to Aristotle.

In Aristotle’s Ethics, he outlines his system of eudemonia, wherein virtues are esteemed as a means to maintain and achieve happiness. Virtues, he suggests, are never found on the extreme end of a spectrum, but are rather found somewhere in the middle. Vices, the opposite of virtues, are found in the extremes of deficiency and excess, while virtue is found in balance. A real world example tells us that it is neither healthy to eat in excess, nor to starve ourselves—gluttony and anorexia are equally vicious—, but rather to eat a decent amount, being an exhibition of virtue. Likewise, I argue, with the economy.

If we apply Aristotle’s virtue ethics to the economy, we can understand capitalism as a vice of excess, and socialism as a vice of deficiency. This is because, in capitalism, prices are kept artificially high by way of monopoly, and a surplus is built up, which then must be pushed on the masses by way of advertising. In contrast, socialism artificially forces prices down, in an attempt to make everything more affordable, but this actually makes things scarcer, because no one wants to do harder work without more compensation. This is why socialism often ends up in work camps.

Here we can clearly see that capitalism, which builds up an economic surplus due to monopoly, is on the side of excess, while socialism, which exhausts its resources, is on the side of deficiency. If we are working with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, these are clearly vices. Virtue would be found somewhere in between. I offer mutualism as that spring of virtue.[i]

Interestingly enough, mutualism does not only satisfy Aristotle’s virtue ethics, it also appeals to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. While ideas within capitalism and socialism carry valuable purposes, this remains only so far as they satisfy conditions of mutuality and reciprocity, which are universalizable, and in accord with Kant’s categorical imperative. In other words, any useful ideas within capitalism and socialism are not truly rooted in a harsh individualism, nor in a dense collectivism, which neglect one another, but instead in the middle ground of reciprocity, which is universally acceptable. Always acting on one’s own behalf, for instance, without thought for others, unless it is materially beneficial, does not satisfy the categorical imperative. Neither does allowing one’s self to be needlessly harmed for others’ benefit. Self-defense is allowed by the categorical imperative, as the goal is to protect, not to dominate. Reciprocity includes the well-being of all involved individuals, and thus society as a whole. Thus, extreme individualism and extreme collectivism, alike—the individual at the expense of the collective, or vice versa—, do not satisfy the categorical imperative, while elements of these may, to the degree they are mutually beneficial. These mutually beneficial elements of capitalism are the marketplace and private possession, but not to the detriment of society, or at the expense of the equally beneficial aspects of socialism, such as positive rights to influence social contracts, or the benefits gained by shared ownership.

Before we move on, it’s pertinent to our topic of ethics that mutualism also satisfies utilitarian outlooks on the world. If there’s anything that does well at sorting out utility, it’s a society full of free exchanges, without state interference. There is no need to comment further on this obvious fact.

I’ve so far grounded my own working definitions in a spectrum having two poles—capitalism and socialism being vices on the extremes of the economic spectrum, where, when one grows, it is at the expense of the other—, but I’d like also to place them in history, focusing this time on distinguishing capitalism, as a vice, from one of its aspects, which can be considered a virtue. This aspect of capitalism is markets.

Defining Our Terms Historically

A market without capitalism, according to my definitions grounded in ethics, would be a market which does not exclude the positive aspects of socialism. Just as capitalism has positive aspects—markets being primary— socialism also has its virtues. A market exists without capitalism to the degree to which these positive aspects of socialism are allowed to flourish. These positive aspects, to which you may be inquisitive, are influence in social contracts—that is, democracy in association— and shared-ownership of cooperatively-used capital. The degree to which such a market exists is the degree to which free-market anti-capitalism exists. Let’s take a look at these words, markets and capitalism, from a historical context.

The word market has been used for centuries! Being derived from the Latin, mercatus, meaning trade, markets express an ancient form of human interaction, where people get together, set up store fronts, specialize in various trades, and bargain with one another. Though there has historically always been state influence present in a market, this is not a distinguishing characteristic of markets themselves. Historically, an increase in the market has come with a reduction in the state. This can be seen, for instance, in the transition from feudalism into mercantilism, whereby barons lost control to merchants, and a middle class ushered in aristocratic forms of government, such as modern republics.

In contrast to market, the word capitalism has not been around long. It, in fact, has its origins in the 19th century. Interestingly enough, the word capitalist has an older origin. Both of these words share a Latin root word, of course, capitalis, which means having relation to the head. The stated head is that of cattle, or livestock, which gives us clues also to the nature of the stock exchange. Capital is a word for wealth that was traded all the way back in pastoral societies.

Some who use the word capitalism in an idealized sense use it to mean the opposite of state control, but, historically speaking, this is only half of the truth. While the shift from feudalism into capitalism certainly had its steps away from the state, capitalism as we know it today still has much state involvement in the economy. Kevin Carson, a modern mutualist, defines capitalism under such historical terms, referring to “actually existing capitalism.”[3] He suggests that “state intervention […] distinguishes capitalism from the free market.”[4] When looking at capitalism under these terms, capitalism, which includes markets to some degree, can be contrasted with, as William Gillis calls it, the “freed [my italics] market.”[5] Markets as they exist today are polluted with government subsidies, tolls, privileges, and disincentives. This is what mutualists and other anti-capitalist free marketeers oppose when we suggest we are against capitalism; not personal possession and voluntary exchange.

When capitalism is defined in historical terms, as the economic era following feudalism, we can see the evolutionary stretch toward freedom in our economy, with capitalism being a development toward such freedom, as capitalism did indeed come with an increase in market-determination. However, if we are defining our terms historically, in this fashion, capitalism should not be understood as a system which will develop from this one. Our semantics are, in this way, grounded in a historical context.

The Meaning of Capitalism Today

Today, capital includes tangible goods used for production or trade, which disincludes land and labor. There are, however, two clashing views on what determines a capitalist, and what constitutes capitalism. Is any owner of capital a capitalist? Some would argue that this is so, while others argue that capitalism is the system whereby those with capital employ those without (this second view is consistent with our working definition, wherein capitalism includes markets and excludes strong aspects of socialism). Gary Chartier, of the Center for a Stateless Society, for instance, names three senses of the word capitalism (which he adapted from Charles W. Johnson):

Captalism1: an economic system that features personal property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.

Capitalism2: an economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government.

Capitalism3: rule – of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state – by capitalists (that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of production).[6]

Gary’s first sense of capitalism is consistent with all definitions of markets. One certainly can’t have a market without property rights or voluntary exchanges. His second and third senses, which he uses to base his argument, “Advocates of Freed Markets Should Oppose Capitalism,”[7] on, are the negative senses in which capitalism is defined, and are the ways in which capitalism dispels the positive aspects of socialism.  That is, his first sense of capitalism is a conflation of capitalism with some of its positive aspects, while his second sense of capitalism is a conflation with its negative aspects. In my view, capitalism is the system whereby all three of these senses exist to some degree, while a virtuous economy would retain the positive aspects of the first sense of capitalism—markets—and dismiss its negative aspects—alienation of labor. A virtuous system would embrace the positive aspects and reject the negative of both extremes, socialism and capitalism, and would find a happy middle ground in mutualism.

Roderick T. Long, a contemporary left-libertarian, makes use of a Randian notion, the anti-concept, and, in particular, a form called the packaged deal:

Rand used to identify certain terms and ideas as “anti-concepts,” that is, terms that actually function to obscure our understanding rather than facilitating it, making it harder for us to grasp other, legitimate concepts; one important category of anti-concepts is what Rand called the “package deal,” referring to any term whose meaning conceals an implicit presupposition that certain things go together that in actuality do not.. Although Rand would not agree with the following examples, I’ve become convinced that the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” are really anti-concepts of the package-deal variety.[8]

Like Chartier, and also working off of Charles W. Johnson, Long offers three distinctions of capitalism. He says,

Libertarians sometimes debate whether the “real” or “authentic” meaning of a term like “capitalism” is (a) the free market, or (b) government favoritism toward business, or (c) the separation between labor and ownership, an arrangement neutral between the other two; Austrians tend to use the term in the first sense; individualist anarchists in the Tuckerite tradition tend to use it in the second or third. But in ordinary usage, I fear, it actually stands for an amalgamation of incompatible meanings. [9]

This is what Long means by capitalism being a “package deal.” According to many people’s view, meaning (a) is incompatible with the other two. That is, according to classical individualist anarchism and mutualism, the free market would not include in its definition “government favoritism” or “separation of labor and ownership.” The free market is seen to contradict these outcomes; this is what Long means by a “package deal.” He makes up a word in order to illustrate this:

Suppose I were to invent a new word, “zaxlebax,” and define it as “a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument.” That’s the definition a “a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument.” In short, I build my ill-chosen example into the definition. [10]

Now, we all know the Washington Monument is not a metallic sphere, but Long argues that this usage of his word, “zaxlebax,” is similar to the way capitalism is used now. He says,

what most people mean by “capitalism” is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term “capitalism” as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business. [11]

From this, we can deduce a need to semantically distinguish free markets from capitalism. Free markets are the opposite of government-given privileges, and a free market in banking would actually serve to distribute capital more widely, allowing for a society abundant with owner-operators. So long as capitalism carries with it these later definitions— Chartier’s “Capitalism2 and Capitalism3,” and Long’s (b) and (c)— it is inconsistent with their preceding correlations, which equate to the free market [Capitalism1 and (a)].

The Nature of Isms

Ideologies, often expressed in forms of “isms,” are powerful things, to be used for better or for worse. Behind the isms of our ideologies lie sets of general tendencies; the ism’s moniker itself can often tell us their purpose. Individualism, for instance, is clearly a philosophy regarding the centrality of the individual to human affairs. Collectivism, on the other hand, is clearly oriented toward society as a unit, opting at times to ignore individual prosperity in favor of collective well-being. For this reason, individualist philosophies are usually accompanied with capitalism, conservatism, and republican forms of government, which are meant to protect the rights of the individual; while collectivist philosophies are often accompanied by a large degree of socialism, liberality, and democratic management of society on behalf of the majority. It is assumed that individuals acting in their own benefit will avoid collectivistic tendencies whereby their individuality may be overridden; and that collectivities acting on their own behalf will avoid the fruition of the virtuous individual, opting instead to endow power to the majority. Like capitalism and socialism, discussed earlier, individualism and collectivism, when used in this manner, negate one another. A move toward collectivism, then, would be a move away from individualism, and vice versa.

It is my belief that we need to look at the nature of ideologies, and to see what they are negating. All ideologies negate. By taking a word and adding an ism behind it, one is saying “my decisions are based around this idea,” and all ideas are the opposite of something else. By adopting individualism, one negates collectivism, with the opposite also being true. By adopting capitalism, one rejects socialism; and by accepting socialism, capitalism diminishes. So far we have used vices to establish polarities, but what does a virtue negate?

A virtue—defined earlier as being somewhere in the middle, and not on the extreme— negates the negative aspects of both corresponding vices. That is, to illustrate, when one eats the right amount, both anorexia and gluttony are negated. A virtue also maintains the positives of each, however. Anorexia can be seen as the lack of eating, and gluttony as the act of eating, but to the extremes of each. The act of eating should be exercised, just not to the extreme of gluttony, and the inaction of not eating may apply to the proper rate of refrain, so long as it is not taken to the extreme of anorexia.  A virtue, in the words of Ken Wilber, “transcends and includes.” That is, it negates the bad, and keeps the good. We should approach ideologies in this respect.

Isms are suggestions for social behavior or management. A hard socialist ideology, like communism, for instance, gives off the vibe that “everyone should live in communes, which should manage society.” This comes at the expense of capitalism, whereby houses can be privately owned and rented out, and where society is managed on behalf of individual capitalists. We should see both the positive and negative aspects of both of these systems, maintain the positive, and shuck the negative. The positive aspects of capitalism include the rights to property and voluntary exchange—to the degree it is allowed to exist—, and the positive aspects of socialism are having a right to influence social contracts by way of group decision-making, and the cost reduction that can come with sharing resources. The negative aspects of capitalism and socialism are both tied to domination in some form or another. On the side of socialism, this is domination on behalf of the majority of society, by way of the state. On the side of capitalism, this is domination on behalf of a minority of capitalists, by way of the state. That is, in socialism the state rules through democratic centralism, and in capitalism the state rules by chartering capitalists, similar to the way lords chartered fiefdoms to vassals in the feudal ages, upon which the serfs were forced to work.

Indeed, capitalism itself worked along a similar progression of history when it “transcended and included” feudalism. Capitalism, when seen historically, certainly came with a net increase in freedom compared to feudalism. The main distinction between the two is the freedom serfs gained when they became workers. Instead of being tied to the land, and thus their master, as they were under feudalism, workers under capitalism can choose who to apply to for access to resources—land and capital— with which to labor. In this sense, they transcended the relationship of feudalism, by gaining the ability to choose who they work for, but they also included the relationship of master and servant, which was prevalent in the medieval economic system, by having to work for someone other than themselves. This is the dialectical method by which history operates.

For this reason, it is best to look toward compatibilistic philosophies, which do not become polarized, stigmatized, but, instead, represent something universally acceptable, and which embrace the truths of varying ideologies, and encompass them into their own. While ideologies based around individuals or collectivities, around current holders of capital or communes, are naturally polarized, negating one another, ideologies based around principles of reciprocity, mutuality, and fairness—universally celebrated, and exemplified principles—, are well-balanced, well-reasoned, and grounded in human satisfaction, celebrating the positive aspects found in the variety of all of life’s splendor.

We can see that those isms which are polarized against other isms often reject the positive aspects of those isms as well. Isms which are more compatibilistic, on the other hand, celebrate those positive aspects of other ideologies, and, since few ideologies are rooted in fundamentally negative values (“murderism” is not a philosophy of which I am aware, for instance), they need not pit themselves entirely against other ideologies when rejecting their negative aspects. In this way, capitalism and socialism are pitted one against another, negating each other, while mutualism pits itself against only those negative aspects of each, reflected in no ideology which exists today. In this way, mutualism is a positive philosophy, as it pits itself entirely against no other, but only against the negative parts of existing philosophies. A double negative is a positive.

Knowing what is meant by our terms, and their orientations, we may now establish the line of demarcation between capitalism and the free market, and move along our course to understanding markets without capitalism, the goal in mind.

The Line of Demarcation

Can we simply place our point of demarcation between markets and capitalism at employment of one person by another? Again, this becomes a difficult topic, this time because of the nature of bosses. If we think about it, a boss is an inflated consumer. A boss may choose to work, but the nature of a boss is that they may purchase labor from others without themselves having to work to the same extent. Regular consumers, however, are an essential ingredient to the marketplace. Without buyers and sellers the market breaks down. Consumers, though not bosses, are certainly employers! So, we must make a distinction between consumers and bosses, while both employ others. This distinction is connected to reciprocity or a break from it.

Consumers, while employing others by way of their purchases, generally do so by the fact that they themselves have been employed in a similar manner, or have taken credit backed by future employability. This is a reciprocal exchange. Bosses, on the other hand, employ others by fact that they have access to capital and workers do not. This parasitism is not due to virtue on behalf of the boss, as some would like to maintain, but is instead due to the fact that the boss has received money backed by labor that is not their own. There we have it, the classical mutualist solution to the social problem.

When people earn money by way of their own labor, they are unable to employ others without working themselves. When they have access to federal bank notes, however, representing a portion of the GDP—everyone’s labor in the economy— which is not their own, they are able to employ people without working. The reason for this is that federal bank notes are titles of ownership to labor. In other words, dollars are IOU’s which are written on our behalf, backed by the GDP, without our permission, and we are forced to work for these bills in order to pay our taxes. If we do not work for them, we will be removed from our homes by way of force. This is similar to someone writing a title to your car, or deed to your house, and using it to trade for something, without your permission. Dollars are, in fact, deeds representing everyone’s productivity in the economy. These dollars are not issued for free to the general populace, whose efforts they represent, based on their productivity, as would be done in a mutual bank. Instead, they are issued in a manner reminiscent of feudalism, in that a select few landlords and bosses—today’s barons and dukes—are given access to command everyone’s labor.

This has very measurable effects. In fact, almost all of the interest, rent, and profit in the economy, and certainly all of the taxes, demonstrate this. That is, a free society would be entirely free of taxes, and would have very little, if any, interest, rent, or profit. The only reason these feudal returns on property or privilege granted by the state—interest, profit, and rent— are able to exist to any meaningful extent is because of aggression—assault, fraud, theft, infringement, etc.— on its behalf. Without the state’s interference, competition would reward labor alone, and property would be distributed reciprocally, according to voluntary exchange and merit of claim. The state is responsible for capitalism, and is indeed its chief executive.

Imagining a Market without Capitalism

A market without capitalism would be very different from the one we have today. A market without capitalism would be one in which everyone is entitled to use land for their personal benefit, where credit distributes capital more equitably, where state-business collaboration no longer exists, and where bosses can no longer remain inflated consumers, buying and selling labor that is not their own. Without the state’s unilateral monopoly on force, aggression would largely disintegrate, and with it the economic returns associated with capitalism.

Such a society would incorporate the positive elements of capitalism and socialism into a form of free market anti-capitalism, wherein there is complete economic equality of opportunity, and freedom of exchange. This society would be a market society filled with competing jurisdictions, each one reflecting the will of its membership. In other words, the free market would be a sea with competing islands of democracies and republics, such as cooperatives and mutual associations. Instead of providing options between bosses, as capitalism provides, a mutualist society would provide options of social contracts, sets of bylaws, regulations. Instead of choosing between bosses, one, in effect, begins to make choices regarding participation in decision-making systems and their prior outcomes. In the free market, if one doesn’t like the way a place functions, one doesn’t move on to the next arbitrary rule of the next capitalist, but instead can find a place which allows them more influence. In this manner, the competition of the free market breeds democracy and cooperation. This should come as no surprise, as markets have always accompanied freer social organization, as seen in Ancient Athens and in most maritime societies, as well as in the papal states of the Italian peninsula of the medieval ages, and in our own capitalist republic today.

Instead of forcing democracy on people, as socialism does with its democratic centralism, mutualism allows one to “opt out,” and to belong only to those associations which one feels brings them personal benefit. Mutualism—that is, markets without capitalism— in no way endorses the forcing of people into aggregate compounds, but instead supports voluntary combination from the bottom up, facilitated purely by the force of nature. A mutualist market, in every sense of the word, is free of state interference, and a market free from the state is a market free from capitalism.

[i] Some may contest that my definitions are too rigid, and that liberal forms of political economy, such as democratic socialism, or models offered by, say, The Fabian Society, are also “middle way” paths between capitalism and socialism. While this is certainly true to some extent, especially economically speaking, it breaks down at the point of the state. Statism is, in no way, a “middle way.” Statism is “my way, or else.” Like socialism and capitalism, statism and crime can be found as two vices on the ends of a spectrum, with anarchism found between them.


[1] Benjamin Tucker, edited by Clarence Lee Swartz, “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ,” Individual Liberty (1926)

[2] Brad Spangler, edited by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson, “Market Anarchism as Stigmergic Socialism,” Markets Not Capitalism (New York: Minor Compositions, NA), 85.

[3] Kevin A. Carson,  Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Booksurge, 2007), 116.

[4] Kevin A. Carson, “Preface,” Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Booksurge, 2007).

[5] William Gillis, edited by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson, “The Freed Market,” Markets Not Capitalism (New York: Minor Compositions, NA), 19.

[6] Gary Chartier, edited by Charles W. Johnson, “Advocates of Freed Markets Should Oppose Capitalism,” Markets Not Capitalism (New York: Minor Compositions, NA), 108.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Roderick T. Long, “Rothbard’s ‘Left and Right’: Forty Years Later,” Mises Daily.  Accessed April 4, 2014:

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.



Will Schnack is a Panarchist activist involved in various projects in the Fort Worth, Texas area, including the Black Cat Collective, Josiah Warren Library, DFW Alliance of the Libertarian Left, and The People’s Arcane School.

American National-Anarchism

“American national anarchism is pan anarchism.” – Craig FitzGerald, NATA-NY

 This essay is included in the recently released National-Anarchism: Methodology and Application, edited by Troy Southgate and available from Black Front Press.

by Jamie O’Hara and Craig FitzGerald

The connotations of the word “nation” have been so intertwined with the concept of a State that contemporary anarchists have generally rejected the term as something intrinsically oppressive. The globalization-era anarchist obsession with the eradication of all borders is well-intentioned but harmfully misdirected. Arbitrary State borders are meaningless symbols at best and justification for genocide at worst, but a world without any boundaries at all is unrealistic. Even for individuals who choose to live in communal tribes where everything is shared and privacy is limited, not everyone on earth is truly equally “welcome.” Only like-minded people are invited; this is the basis of all intentional communities and collectives. Any infinitely open invitational rhetoric is based on the arrogant assumption that people who don’t agree with the tribe’s beliefs will quickly learn and adopt them. People with different values and goals can peacefully co-exist and interact, but humans will always impose borders on their own lives. Rather than rid the world of borders, it makes more sense to re-think and re-apply them. Upon analysis, most individuals will find that they maintain many different associations, each perhaps with its own set of boundaries. These entities might include ethnic, family, trade, intellectual, artistic, fraternal or political groups, or geographic areas, including existing states. Freedom of association is a core anarchist principle, and it is up to individuals and local communities whether they identify with a larger federation and/or participate in a system of voluntary governance.
The United States of America was intended by many of its founders to be such a voluntary arrangement.

 In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson relies on the social contract theory of government to justify the secession of the colonies. He introduces the American list of grievances by speaking in very general terms about the periodic need for political revolution. [1] He asserts that “whenever any Form of Government becomes” oppressive, people should “alter or…abolish it” [emphasis added]. Jefferson recognized that the situation between the Americans and the British Crown was not a special case but merely one instance “in the course of human events” when it is “necessary for one people to dissolve…political bands…” The social contract theory holds that relations between the government and the people are voluntary, and if one party violates the terms of the agreement, it becomes null and void. In other words, as soon as the government fails to protect the rights of the people, it automatically abdicates its role.

Jefferson’s emphasis on the social contract philosophy of government rests on the premise of voluntary participation in the American union. The confederation was composed of local states, which originally self-defined as nations, and was established primarily for the purposes of foreign diplomacy and regional amity. The 1781 Articles of Confederation emphasizes that by freely associating, the states were strengthening without sacrificing their autonomy. The document immediately proclaims that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States.” [2] The Articles of Confederation captures the raw early spirit of an American identity that emphasized freedom and self-determination.

Although much of its philosophical background is European, the Articles of Confederation was also influenced by indigenous American models of association, in particular the Iroquois confederacy. The Iroquois League of Peace and Power was a network of completely autonomous tribes. A Grand Council united the various nations, but could not regulate them or enforce anything through coercive means. As early as 1744, the Onondaga Chief Canasatego recommended that the American colonies unite through a confederation similar to that of the Iroquois League. [3] In 1751, Benjamin Franklin compared the Iroquois system to the union he was attempting to create. [4] In 1778, John Adams refers to the indigenous American [5] practice of separating branches of power. [6] Three years later, the newly-liberated states publish the Articles of Confederation, which presented a vision for a voluntary alliance that closely resembled the Iroquois League, which has clear anarchist elements. [7]

From an anarchist perspective, the historical transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution is disappointing. The primary document of the United States shifted from a treaty among sovereign locales to an incomplete governmental blueprint whose strategic ambiguity has allowed for ridiculous abuses throughout the years. The Constitution solidified coercive measures that completely contradict the American philosophy. It establishes the powers to tax, criminalizes rebellion (the foundation of the United States), codifies slavery, and reserves the “right” to suspend habeas corpus. However, this development in the direction of concentrated statism does not represent the revolutionary views of the majority of Americans. Despite centralizing changes like the creation of an executive office and a federal court system, American libertarian ideals were still reflected in the Bill of Rights. The fledgling nation, in its attempts to confederate and cooperate, was concerned with the potential for abuses of power and intently focused on the necessity to curtail federal control. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments, intended to protect individual and local sovereignty, are most reminiscent of the earlier Articles of Confederation.

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of personal belief and free association. The five enumerated essentials—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—are all manifestations of individualism and nationhood. In other words, participation in the American nation secures one’s participation in many other associations—spiritual, political, artistic, regional, ethnic, etc. This is an assurance that has made the United States unique, and it depends on the full engagement of all Americans down to the most local level. To safeguard the rights of free expression and association, the establishment of grassroots community defense groups is a necessary endeavor. The Second Amendment is clear in its assertion that individual self-defense and local militias are requirements for the protection of liberty.

In 1791, the same year that the Bill of Rights was passed, Thomas Paine authored Rights of Man, which also captures the early American spirit of self-regulation over coercive statism. “The more perfect civilization is,” Paine writes: “the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself.” [8] In addition to the recognition that man should determine the course of his own life, Paine addresses the tendency for the State to actually harm society: “Excess of government only tends to incite…and create crimes which…had never existed.” [9] The masses’ desire for safety and security fails to justify the establishment and perpetuation of an institution that not only strips individuals of their creativity and agency, but also introduces new and unnecessary societal and international problems.

Unfortunately not all early Americans were as anarchistic as Paine, and the decision to ratify the Constitution introduced a stream of federal power abuses. However, elements of resistance persisted even within the new political framework. Despite his inconsistencies and imperfections, Jefferson continued to defend decentralism after the Constitution solidified a central State. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 illustrate this perspective. Direct responses to the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Resolutions assert the right of localities to nullify unconstitutional legislation. The documents rest heavily on the social contract theory of government — the relationship between individuals, communities, counties, states and the federal government is a voluntary one, and all parties are accountable to the mutual agreement. Jefferson attempts to clarify a common misconception about federalism to an Englishman: “With respect to our State and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole. […] The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department.” [10]

Jefferson’s nineteenth century letters advocate localism as a necessary aspect of voluntary confederation. He acknowledged the impossibility of monolithic governance for all of the states and saw the importance of regional autonomy: “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government,” he wrote in 1800. [11] Jefferson recommended the division of territory into smaller and smaller jurisdictions, each level operating under self-government. In 1816, he suggests the division of “counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person.” [12] Each ward should create its own autonomous social structures, institutions, and culture, and individuals should be inextricably connected to their local communities. “Making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution.” [13] Jefferson saw a direct correlation between the citizen’s participation in national politics and his participation in the most local of social structures. The republic as a whole was a macrocosm of the local municipalities: “Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government…” [14]

Voluntary, active participation in the self-regulation of a community is often complemented by similar financial models. Jefferson was a fervent opponent of centralized banking institutions and condemned the Hamiltonian plan for a national bank as unconstitutional. [15] He was not alone in his defense of freedom from economic oppression. Free market economic incentives have always been a central aspect of American history, and smuggling and tax evasion were common. Black markets were widespread because of the distance between the “new world” colonies and their “old world” masters, and the consequential difficulty of enforcing mercantilist economic policies. This fostered a culture of American economic liberty whose pragmatism paralleled its philosophical spirit. Traditional populist American economics cultivated a vibrant agora.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of the most important and influential anarchist thinkers, held economic theories that resembled Jeffersonian ideas and early American market styles. He suggested a system of mutualist banking and established a voluntary Bank of the People. His writings, along with those of Jefferson, Paine, and other early Americans, influenced the anarchist movement in the United States, including people like Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker.

For the American anarchists, there was complete consistency between Jeffersonian federal republicanism and the Proudhonian concept of federalism. Proudhon’s federalism was a voluntary association of equal parties, just like the original relationship among the several American states. Proudhon writes: “a confederation is not exactly a state; it is a group of sovereign and independent states, associated by a pact of mutual guarantees.” [16] This echoes the concept of governance by consent which was so important to people like Jefferson. Both philosophers eschewed centralization and emphasized the importance of local autonomy, which is the only way to ensure that the federation remains voluntary.

The American tradition of decentralization produced a “republic of republics,” or a nation of nations, with a libertarian and individualist spirit. This voluntary mode of organizing laid the groundwork for Anarchist theory and practice to develop in the United States. Pragmatic aspects of American history also overlap with anarchist tendencies. The historic assertion of squatters’ rights by early American pioneers is one such example. Frontier settlers relied on what they identified as the “ancient cultivation law” to defend their claims of adverse possession [17]. This idea is identical to Proudhon’s argument about occupancy being ownership, and it is engrained in American history, which consists of a series of groups settling in a new place and hoping to live the way they choose. American history tells countless stories of Puritans, Quakers, Hutterites, Amish, Shakers, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and others seeking religious freedom and establishing intentional communities. These smaller, independent societies (spiritual or otherwise) represent the core of America’s original values.

Josiah Warren was intimately familiar with the process of establishing intentional communities based on values. Warren was involved with several different intentional communities, including New Harmony, Indiana; Utopia, Ohio; and Modern Times, New York. Some were more successful than others. New Harmony was actually started by Robert Owen, whose vision was much more collectivist than anarchist. As a direct result of his experience in New Harmony, Warren began to champion individual sovereignty [18]. In Utopia, Warren established a free market economy that relied on voluntary cooperation [19]. He wanted to live in a place where people could cohabit in a way that was unified but not coercive. While Utopia was still active, Warren decided to leave Ohio and purchase land in Long Island, New York. Starting from scratch (as opposed to reviving a disintegrating village as he did in Utopia), Warren sought to alleviate social problems like poverty and homelessness by facilitating efficient communal building projects [20]. In all of his tangible community enterprises, Warren conveyed a do-it-yourself anarchist initiative. He was concerned with practical tasks like working the land effectively, building homes for new residents, printing newspapers, and other concrete actions [21]. His approach is a crucial counterpart to the theoretical element of anarchism.

Warren’s practical American anarchism was not unique. Lysander Spooner, Warren’s contemporary, focused on direct action by challenging the federal government’s monopoly on postal services with an independent competitor, the American Letter Mail Company. [22] But Spooner was also an extremely intellectual anarchist. Rather than completely reject everything about the United States, Spooner used the Constitution and other founding documents to prove legal arguments about the despotic, hypocritical crimes of the U.S. government.

The historical context of the Civil War contributed greatly to Spooner’s anarchist perspective. Spooner was highly critical of the United States government for having betrayed the original Jeffersonian principles of the Declaration of Independence. Despite his strong disagreement with and activism against slavery, he fully supported the Confederate states’ right to secede. He criticizes the Civil War in No Treason: “Notwithstanding all the proclamations we have made to mankind…that our government rests on consent, and that [consent] was the rightful basis on which any government could rest, the late war has practically demonstrated that our government rests upon force — as much so as any government that ever existed.” [23] Spooner’s discussion of consent as the essence of republican confederation conveys the same idea as Jefferson’s earlier emphasis on the social contract in the Declaration of Independence.

Reflecting the earlier spirit of the American Revolution, Spooner devotes an entire chapter to the Declaration in his book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. [24] He argues that the document is the legal foundation of American constitutionalism, and that it ensures the inherent freedom of all individuals (including slaves) by establishing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the core tenets of the nation. He emphasized the importance of the Second Amendment right to bear arms and connected it directly to a human being’s freedom. This was an essential element of his argument in defense of slaves owning or using weapons for their emancipation. Spooner wrote from the angle of a radical abolitionist, but he used the American political tradition to support his position.
Benjamin Tucker, under influence from Warren and Spooner (as well as Proudhon and Bakunin), represented American anarchism into the twentieth century. Like his predecessors, Tucker used American philosophical traditions to bolster his arguments for autonomy and independence. In an edition of his publication Liberty, he speculates that if Jefferson would be an anarchist if he were alive, [25] and in his book State Socialism and Anarchism he refers to anarchists as “unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats.” [26] Like Spooner, he bases his analysis on the social contract premise of American constitutionalism. The Declaration of Independence “declares that ‘governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ it therefore follows that, when any individual is governed by a government without his or her consent, that government is exercising unjust powers, and is a usurpation.” [27]

Similarly to Jefferson, Tucker was a vehement opponent of centralized banking. He saw the financial monopoly of currency and banking by the state and large corporations as a form of usury. [28] He advocated the creation of Proudhonian peoples banks as a commonsense solution to the “money monopoly,” putting an end to exploitative practices without the use of force or state legislation. He also railed against the monopoly on land, arguing that occupancy and use constitute the only rightful titles to earth. [29] This echos the Proudhonian sentiment of occupancy as ownership as well as the early American “ancient cultivation law.”

Tucker understood the importance of voluntary defense organizations for the preservation of “self-liberty.” [30] He explains that such groups are the most successful method of providing actual protection for the people while dismantling the State’s monopoly on violence. [31] The best anarchist action is one that injures the State and simultaneously provides the people with an alternative. Tucker’s vision of private defense organizations differs slightly from the communitarian militia model of the second amendment. However, the two systems are compatible because of the decentralized and voluntary nature of both. The right of constitutional militias to abstain from national conflicts places them outside of the state’s monopoly on violence, just like Tucker’s private self defense associations.
Tucker, Spooner, and Warren understood that the American libertarian tradition was a source of both inspiration and potential support from the public. They did not become zealous reactionaries who vilified everything American, as some anarchists do today. Rather, they were more open in their perspectives and more fluid in their analyses. Nineteenth century American anarchists recognized that the true meaning of American nationalism was congruous with their anti-statist views.

This essay is in no way intended to suggest that any amount of government is necessary. However, voluntary systems of governance are instances of free association, and therefore not antithetical to anarchism. Voluntary free association can never be antithetical to anarchism, no matter how regulated or hierarchical the association may be. Local anarchist communities can sign treaties and participate in larger confederations without compromising the values of freedom and autonomy.
However, not everyone shares the values of freedom, autonomy, and the accompanying responsibility, and anarchists need to accept this. It is preposterous that anarchists would perceive the internal affairs of divergent tribes as any of their business. In a truly decentralized society, communities will not be identical, and some may be based on values that anarchists abhor. But harmony in this arrangement can be attained with the essential components of voluntarism, the non-aggression principle, and the right of non-participation. Just as individuals and tribes are entitled to associate with whomever they choose, individuals and tribes who do not wish to confederate have an equal right to abstain from such intercommunity relations.

That being said, a wide range of decentralists, including various anarchists, minarchists, secessionists, and others, could benefit far more from working with each other than they could from completely isolating or only associating with those who are exactly like them. Conflicts among the diverse proponents of local autonomy and individual autarchy (especially arguments that involve denouncing one another as “statist”) are a ridiculous way to waste time and accomplish nothing. The anarchism vs. minarchism debate is merely a question of degree. If minarchists are “statists,” then at what point do autonomous, voluntary community organization projects become “the state”? The state is not just any kind of organized social structure; it is a coercive monopoly on power.

Rather than focusing on disagreements, people with similar beliefs could be cooperating on projects that reflect their agreements. This is the nature of coalition building. It’s not about finding carbon copies of one’s group; it’s about collaborating with groups that are noticeably different but share some kind of common ground, no matter how small. By focusing on specific issues and endeavors rather than idealistic wishes for the entire world, diverse activist organizations can accomplish tangible goals even if society as a whole remains tainted. Anarchists should be pragmatic; a slow chipping away at the State is sometimes necessary and can often be more effective than drastic or violent revolutionary upheaval.
Action oriented contemporary anarchists, if they choose to look outside their dogmatic boxes, will find natural allies in the modern American patriot movement, which is quite averse to government encroachment on individual, family, and community rights. American patriots’ proclivity towards rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, and community self-defense, [32] combined with a populist anti-banking sentiment, are all very anarchistic elements as well. Local sovereignty and self-determination are crucial to both movements; it is only blatantly obvious that they should collaborate.

The nation is not the State; the people are the nation. Ward Churchill precisely conveys the misconceptions anarchists have about nationalism: “a…lot of anarchists…[think] they’re anti-nationalist, that…nationalism in all forms is…some sort of an evil to be combated… You may have nations that are also states, but you’ve got most nations rejecting statism. So…the assertion of sovereignty…is an explicitly anti-statist ideal, and the basis of commonality with…anarchists.” [33] From Churchill’s indigenous perspective, nationalism is in direct opposition to statism.

Consistent with Churchill’s view, the meaning of true American nationalism includes grassroots independence, libertarianism, individualism, populism, autarchy, agorism, and anti-imperialism. It allows for personal and collective freedom, and holds sacred the founding of intentional communities. It is Jefferson’s idea of a “republic of republics,” a decentralized nation of nations down to the most local levels. This is the very essence of American National-Anarchism. The United States was once a diverse confederation of regions with distinct identities—regional, ethnic, religious, etc. The states participated in the confederation voluntarily, and the broader umbrella of “American” did not negate their sentiments of local nationhood. Rather, choosing to call oneself an American added a rich ideological dimension to one’s existing identity.

The American identity is not based on war and dominance; it is not globalization, whose pervasive monoculture has been falsely termed “Americanization.” The global anti-culture propagates materialism, consumerism, and detachment from the earth. This is not the foundation of America. True American culture means complete decentralization, which results in rich heterogeneity and diversity. Towns and states in this country used to have unique character. Americans are just as negatively impacted by McDonaldization as the rest of the world. Despite this context, America’s philosophical and practical traditions can continue to provide the people with inspiration to resist the empire. Anarchists and patriots share this goal, even if they differ in opinion or lifestyle. Because of similar principles and aims, anarchist-patriot cooperation makes sense. The creation of an American National-Anarchist alliance would be a living example of a decentralized, independent grassroots society.

[1] Jefferson wrote to William Stephens Smith in 1787: “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without…a rebellion. […] What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. […] The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.”

[2] Articles of Confederation, Article II.

[3] Quoted in Van Doren, Carl. Indian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin 1736-1762. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1938.
[4] Franklin, Benjamin. Letter to James Parker, 1751.
[5] He does not specify whether he means Iroquois.
[6] Adams, John. Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Philadelphia: Budd and Bartram, 1797.
[7] Arthur, Stephen. “’Where License Reigns With All Impunity:’ An Anarchist Study of the Rotinonshón:ni Polity.”
[8] Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. 1792.
[9] Quoted in Van der Weyde, William M. “Thomas Paine’s Anarchism.” Mother Earth, 1910.
[10] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John Cartwright, 1824.
[11] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Gideon Granger, 1800.
[12] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816.
[13] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816.
[14] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John Cartwright, 1824.
[15] Simons, Algie Martin. Social Forces in American History. New York: Macmillan Co., 1911.
[16] Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. The Principle of Federation. 1863.
[17] Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 1992.
[18] Josiah Warren, “From the March of Mind,” New Harmony Gazette 2, No. 46, September 10, 1828.
[19] Sartwell, Crispin, ed. The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Spooner, Lysander. The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress, Prohibiting Private Mails. New York: Tribune Printing Establishment, 1844.
[23] Spooner, Lysander. No Treason #1. 1867.
[24] Spooner, Lysander. The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1880.
[25] Tucker, Benjamin. Liberty Vol. II—No. 5. Boston, MA. December 9, 1882. Whole No. 31. Interestingly, Mexican revolutionary Enrique Flores Magon also said that Jefferson was an “anarchist of his time” (Wehling, Jason. Anarchist Influences on the Mexican Revolution.
[26] Tucker, Benjamin. State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ. 1888.
[27] Tucker, Benjamin. Liberty Vol. II—No. 5. Boston, MA. December 9, 1882. Whole No. 31.
[28] Tucker said “Liberty, therefore, must defend the right of individuals to make contracts involving usury…and many other things which it believes to be wrong in principle and opposed to human well-being. […] In defending the right to take usury, we do not defend the right of usury” (Liberty Vol. I, No. 12 January 7, 1882.)
[29] Tucker, Benjamin. “Economic Rent.” Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker. Vanguard Press: New York, 1926.
[30] Tucker, Benjamin. Liberty Vol. XI—No. 13. New York, NY. November 2, 1895. Whole No. 325.
[31] Tucker, Benjamin. Liberty Vol. IV—No. 26. Boston, Mass. July 30, 1887. Whole No. 104.
[32] Defense associations and community militias have been organized by anarchists in other countries, from the volunteer militias of the Spanish revolution to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which is one of the best examples of a movement that combines anarchism and decentralized nationalism.
[33] Interview with Ward Churchill. Upping the Anti.