An Anarchist FAQ - Section F - Introduction
PDF version of Section F.
Section F - Is "anarcho"-capitalism a type of anarchism?
Anyone who has followed political discussion on the net has probably come across people calling themselves "libertarians" but arguing from a right-wing, pro-capitalist perspective. For most people outside of North America, this is weird as the term "libertarian" is almost always used in conjunction with "socialist" or "communist" (particularly in Europe and, it should be stressed, historically in America). In the US, though, the Right has partially succeeded in appropriating the term "libertarian" for itself. Even stranger is that a few of these right-wingers have started calling themselves "anarchists" in what must be one of the finest examples of an oxymoron in the English language: "Anarcho-capitalist"!!!
Arguing with fools is seldom rewarded, but to let their foolishness to go unchallenged risks allowing them to deceive those who are new to anarchism. This is what this section of the FAQ is for, to show why the claims of these "anarchist" capitalists are false. Anarchism has always been anti-capitalist and any "anarchism" that claims otherwise cannot be part of the anarchist tradition. It is important to stress that anarchist opposition to the so-called capitalist "anarchists" do not reflect some kind of debate within anarchism, as many of these types like to pretend, but a debate between anarchism and its old enemy, capitalism. In many ways this debate mirrors the one between Peter Kropotkin and Herbert Spencer (an English capitalist minimal statist) at the turn the 19th century and, as such, it is hardly new.
At that time, people like Spencer tended to call themselves "liberals" while, as Bookchin noted, "libertarian" was "a term created by nineteenth-century European anarchists, not by contemporary American right-wing proprietarians." [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 57] David Goodway concurs, stating that "libertarian" has been "frequently employed by anarchists" as an alternative name for our politics for over a century. However, the "situation has been vastly complicated in recent decades with the rise of . . . extreme right-wing laissez-faire philosophy . . . and [its advocates] adoption of the words 'libertarian' and 'libertarianism.' It has therefore now become necessary to distinguish between their right libertarianism and the left libertarianism of the anarchist tradition." [Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, p. 4] This appropriation of the term "libertarian" by the right not only has bred confusion, but also protest as anarchists have tried to point out the obvious, namely that capitalism is marked by authoritarian social relationships and so there are good reasons for anarchism being a fundamentally anti-capitalist socio-political theory and movement. That a minority of the right "libertarians" have also tried to appropriate "anarchist" to describe their authoritarian politics is something almost all anarchists reject and oppose.
That the vast majority of anarchists reject the notion of "anarcho"-capitalism as a form of anarchism is an inconvenient fact for its supporters. Rather than address this, they generally point to the fact that some academics state that "anarcho"-capitalism is a form of anarchism and include it in their accounts of our movement and ideas. That some academics do this is true, but irrelevant. What counts is what anarchists think anarchism is. To place the opinions of academics above that of anarchists implies that anarchists know nothing about anarchism, that we do not really understand the ideas we advocate but academics do! Yet this is the implication. As such the near universal rejection of "anarcho"-capitalism as a form of anarchism within anarchist circles is significant. However, it could be argued that as a few anarchists (usually individualist ones, but not always) do admit "anarcho"-capitalism into our movement that this (very small) minority shows that the majority are "sectarian." Again, this is not convincing as some individuals in any movement will hold positions which the majority reject and which are, sometimes, incompatible with the basic principles of the movement (Proudhon's sexism and racism are obvious examples). Equally, given that anarchists and "anarcho"-capitalists have fundamentally different analyses and goals it is hardly "sectarian" to point this out (being "sectarian" in politics means prioritising differences and rivalries with politically close groups).
Some scholars do note the difference. For example, Jeremy Jennings, in his excellent overview of anarchist theory and history, argues that it is "hard not to conclude that these ideas ["anarcho"-capitalism] -- with roots deep in classical liberalism -- are described as anarchist only on the basis of a misunderstanding of what anarchism is." ["Anarchism", Contemporary Political Ideologies, Roger Eatwell and Anthony Wright (eds.), p. 142] Barbara Goodwin reaches a similar conclusion, noting that the "anarcho"-capitalists' "true place is in the group of right-wing libertarians" not in anarchism for "[w]hile condemning absolutely state coercion, they tacitly condone the economic and interpersonal coercion which would prevail in a totally laissez-faire society. Most anarchists share the egalitarian ideal with socialists: anarcho-capitalists abhor equality and socialism equally." [Using Political Ideas, p. 138]
Sadly, these seem to be the minority in academic circles as most are happy to discuss right-"libertarian" ideology as a subclass of anarchism in spite of there being so little in common between the two. Their inclusion does really seem to derive from the fact that "anarcho"-capitalists call themselves anarchists and the academics take this at face value. Yet, as one anarchist notes, having a "completely fluid definition of anarchism, allows for anyone and anything to be described as such, no matter how authoritarian and anti-social." [Benjamin Franks, "Mortal Combat", pp. 4-6, A Touch of Class, no. 1, p. 5] Also, given that many academics approach anarchism from what could be termed the "dictionary definition" methodology rather than as a political movement approach there is a tendency for "anarcho"-capitalist claims to be taken at face value. As such, it is useful to stress that anarchism is a social movement with a long history and while its adherents have held divergent views, it has never been limited to simply opposition to the state (i.e. the dictionary definition).
The "anarcho"-capitalist argument that it is a form of anarchism hinges on using the dictionary definition of "anarchism" and/or "anarchy." They try to define anarchism as being "opposition to government," and nothing else. Of course, many (if not most) dictionaries "define" anarchy as "chaos" or "disorder" but we never see "anarcho"-capitalists use those particular definitions! Moreover, and this should go without saying, dictionaries are hardly politically sophisticated and their definitions rarely reflect the wide range of ideas associated with political theories and their history. Thus the dictionary "definition" of anarchism will tend to ignore its consistent views on authority, exploitation, property and capitalism (ideas easily discovered if actual anarchist texts are read). And for this strategy to work, a lot of "inconvenient" history and ideas from all branches of anarchism must be ignored. From individualists like Tucker to communists like Kropotkin and considered anarchism as part of the wider socialist movement. Therefore "anarcho"-capitalists are not anarchists in the same sense that rain is not dry.
Significantly, the inventor of the term "anarcho"-capitalism, Murray Rothbard had no impact on the anarchist movement even in North America. His influence, unsurprisingly, was limited to the right, particularly in so-called "libertarian" circles. The same can be said of "anarcho"-capitalism in general. This can be seen from the way Rothbard is mentioned in Paul Nursey-Bray's bibliography on anarchist thinkers. This is an academic book, a reference for libraries. Rothbard is featured, but the context is very suggestive. The book includes Rothbard in a section titled "On the Margins of Anarchist Theory." His introduction to the Rothbard section is worth quoting:
"Either the inclusion or the omission of Rothbard as an anarchist is likely, in one quarter or another, to be viewed as contentious. Here, his Anarcho-Capitalism is treated as marginal, since, while there are linkages with the tradition of individualist anarchism, there is a dislocation between the mutualism and communitarianism of that tradition and the free market theory, deriving from Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, that underpins Rothbard's political philosophy, and places him in the modern Libertarian tradition." [Anarchist Thinkers and Thought, p. 133]
This is important, for while Rothbard (like other "anarcho"-capitalists) appropriates some aspects of individualist anarchism he does so in a highly selective manner and places what he does take into an utterly different social environment and political tradition. So while there are similarities between both systems, there are important differences as we will discuss in detail in section G along with the anti-capitalist nature of individualist anarchism (i.e. those essential bits which Rothbard and his followers ignore or dismiss). Needless to say, Nursey-Bray does not include "anarcho"-capitalism in his discussion of anarchist schools of thought in the bibliography's introduction.
Of course, we cannot stop the "anarcho"-capitalists using the words "anarcho", "anarchism" and "anarchy" to describe their ideas. The democracies of the west could not stop the Chinese Stalinist state calling itself the People's Republic of China. Nor could the social democrats stop the fascists in Germany calling themselves "National Socialists". Nor could the Italian anarcho-syndicalists stop the fascists using the expression "National Syndicalism". This does not mean their names reflected their content -- China is a dictatorship, not a democracy; the Nazi's were not socialists (capitalists made fortunes in Nazi Germany because it crushed the labour movement); and the Italian fascist state had nothing in common with anarcho-syndicalist ideas of decentralised, "from the bottom up" unions and the abolition of the state and capitalism.
It could be argued (and it has) that the previous use of a word does not preclude new uses. Language changes and, as such, it is possible for a new kind of "anarchism" to develop which has little, or no, similarities with what was previously known as anarchism. Equally, it could be said that new developments of anarchism have occurred in the past which were significantly different from old versions (for example, the rise of communist forms of anarchism in opposition to Proudhon's anti-communist mutualism). Both arguments are unconvincing. The first just makes a mockery of the concept of language and breeds confusion. If people start calling black white, it does not make it so. Equally, to call an ideology with little in common with a known and long established socio-political theory and movement the same name simply results in confusion. No one takes, say, fascists seriously when they call their parties "democratic" nor would we take Trotskyists seriously if they started to call themselves "libertarians" (as some have started to do). The second argument fails to note that developments within anarchism built upon what came before and did not change its fundamental (socialistic) basis. Thus communist and collectivist anarchism are valid forms of anarchism because they built upon the key insights of mutualism rather than denying them.
A related defence of "anarcho"-capitalism as a form of anarchism is the suggestion that the problem is one of terminology. This argument is based on noting that "anarcho"-capitalists are against "actually existing" capitalism and so "we must distinguish between 'free-market capitalism' . . . and 'state capitalism' . . . The two are as different as day and night." [Rothbard, The Logic of Action II, p. 185] It would be churlish indeed to point out that the real difference is that one exists while the other has existed only in Rothbard's head. Yet point it out we must, for the simple fact is that not only do "anarcho"-capitalists use the word anarchism in an unusual way (i.e. in opposition to what has always been meant by the term), they also use the word capitalism in a like manner (i.e., to refer to something that has never existed). It should go without saying that using words like "capitalism" and "anarchism" in ways radically different to traditional uses cannot help but provoke confusion. Yet is it a case that "anarcho"-capitalists have simply picked a bad name for their ideology? Hardly, as its advocates will quickly rush to defend exploitation (non-labour income) and capitalist property rights as well as the authoritarian social structures produced with them. Moreover, as good capitalist economists the notion of an economy without interest, rent and profit is considered highly inefficient and so unlikely to develop. As such, their ideology is rooted in a perspective and an economy marked by wage labour, landlords, banking and stock markets and so hierarchy, oppression and exploitation, i.e. a capitalist one.
So they have chosen their name well as it shows in clear light how far they are from the anarchist tradition. As such, almost all anarchists would agree with long-time anarchist activist Donald Rooum's comment that "self-styled 'anarcho-capitalists' (not to be confused with anarchists of any persuasion) [simply] want the state abolished as a regulator of capitalism, and government handed over to capitalists." They are "wrongly self-styled 'anarchists'" because they "do not oppose capitalist oppression" while genuine anarchists are "extreme libertarian socialists." [What Is Anarchism?, p. 7, pp. 12-13 and p. 10] As we stress in section F.1, "anarcho"-capitalists do not oppose the hierarchies and exploitation associated with capitalism (wage labour and landlordism) and, consequently, have no claim to the term "anarchist." Just because someone uses a label it does not mean that they support the ideas associated with that label and this is the case with "anarcho"-capitalism -- its ideas are at odds with the key ideas associated with all forms of traditional anarchism (even individualist anarchism which is often claimed, usually by "anarcho"-capitalists, as being a forefather of the ideology).
We are covering this topic in an anarchist FAQ for three reasons. Firstly, the number of "libertarian" and "anarcho"-capitalists on the net means that those seeking to find out about anarchism may conclude that they are "anarchists" as well. Secondly, unfortunately, some academics and writers have taken their claims of being anarchists at face value and have included their ideology in general accounts of anarchism (the better academic accounts do note that anarchists generally reject the claim). These two reasons are obviously related and hence the need to show the facts of the matter. The last reason is to provide other anarchists with arguments and evidence to use against "anarcho"-capitalism and its claims of being a new form of "anarchism."
So this section of the FAQ does not, as we noted above, represent some kind of "debate" within anarchism. It reflects the attempt by anarchists to reclaim the history and meaning of anarchism from those who are attempting to steal its name. However, our discussion also serves two other purposes. Firstly, critiquing right "libertarian" theories allows us to explain anarchist ones at the same time and indicate why they are better. Secondly, and more importantly, it shares many of the same assumptions and aims of neo-liberalism. This was noted by Bob Black in the early 1980s, when a "wing of the Reaganist Right . . . obviously appropriated, with suspect selectivity, such libertarian themes as deregulation and voluntarism. Ideologues indignate that Reagan has travestied their principles. Tough shit! I notice that it's their principles, not mine, that he found suitable to travesty." ["The Libertarian As Conservative", pp. 141-8, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays, pp. 141-2] This was echoed by Noam Chomsky two decades later when he stated that "nobody takes [right-wing libertarianism] seriously" (as "everybody knows that a society that worked by . . . [its] principles would self-destruct in three seconds"). The "only reason" why some people in the ruling elite "pretend to take it seriously is because you can use it as a weapon" in the class struggle [Understanding Power, p. 200] As neo-liberalism is being used as the ideological basis of the current attack on the working class, critiquing "anarcho"-capitalism also allows us to build theoretical weapons to use to resist this attack and aid our side in the class war.
The results of the onslaught of free(r) market capitalism along with anarchist criticism of "anarcho"-capitalism has resulted in some "anarcho"-capitalists trying to re-brand their ideology as "market anarchism." This, from their perspective, has two advantages. Firstly, it allows them to co-opt the likes of Tucker and Spooner (and, sometimes, even Proudhon!) into their family tree as all these supported markets (while systematically attacking capitalism). Secondly, it allows them to distance their ideology from the grim reality of neo-liberalism and the results of making capitalism more "free market." Simply put, going on about the benefits of "free market" capitalism while freer market capitalism is enriching the already wealthy and oppressing and impoverishing the many is hard going. Using the term "market anarchism" to avoid both the reality of anarchism's anti-capitalist core and the reality of the freer market capitalism they have helped produce makes sense in the marketplace of ideas (the term "blackwashing" seems appropriate here). The fact is that however laudable its stated aims, "anarcho"-capitalism is deeply flawed due to its simplistic nature and is easy to abuse on behalf of the economic oligarchy that lurks behind the rhetoric of economic textbooks in that "special case" so ignored by economists, namely reality.
Anarchism has always been aware of the existence of "free market" capitalism, particularly its extreme (minimal state) wing, and has always rejected it. As we discuss in section F.7, anarchists from Proudhon onwards have rejected it (and, significantly, vice versa). As academic Alan Carter notes, anarchist concern for equality as a necessary precondition for genuine freedom "is one very good reason for not confusing anarchists with liberals or economic 'libertarians' -- in other words, for not lumping together everyone who is in some way or another critical of the state. It is why calling the likes of Nozick 'anarchists' is highly misleading." ["Some notes on 'Anarchism'", pp. 141-5, Anarchist Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 143] So anarchists have evaluated "free market" capitalism and rejected it as non-anarchist since the birth of anarchism and so attempts by "anarcho"-capitalism to say that their system is "anarchist" flies in the face of this long history of anarchist analysis. That some academics fall for their attempts to appropriate the anarchist label for their ideology is down to a false premise: it "is judged to be anarchism largely because some anarcho-capitalists say they are 'anarchists' and because they criticise the State." [Peter Sabatini, Social Anarchism, no. 23, p. 100]
More generally, we must stress that most (if not all) anarchists do not want to live in a society just like this one but without state coercion and (the initiation of) force. Anarchists do not confuse "freedom" with the "right" to govern and exploit others nor with being able to change masters. It is not enough to say we can start our own (co-operative) business in such a society. We want the abolition of the capitalist system of authoritarian relationships, not just a change of bosses or the possibility of little islands of liberty within a sea of capitalism (islands which are always in danger of being flooded and our freedom destroyed). Thus, in this section of the FAQ, we analysis many "anarcho"-capitalist claims on their own terms (for example, the importance of equality in the market or why replacing the state with private defence firms is simply changing the name of the state rather than abolishing it) but that does not mean we desire a society nearly identical to the current one. Far from it, we want to transform this society into one more suited for developing and enriching individuality and freedom.
Finally, we dedicate this section of the FAQ to those who have seen the real face of "free market" capitalism at work: the working men and women (anarchist or not) murdered in the jails and concentration camps or on the streets by the hired assassins of capitalism.
For more discussion on this issue, see the appendix "Anarchism and 'Anarcho'-capitalism"