by Neil Lock
I rather like this article. David D’Amato’s heart is certainly in the right place – as, indeed, is Kevin Carson’s, and those of the other C4SS people. But I find myself, as so often with leftist economic ideas, having some fundamental (or, at least, what appear to me fundamental) disagreements with David’s argument. I will try to put these forward in some detail, in the hope that we can have a polite meeting of minds on these matters.
Let me first say where I fully agree with David. He is spot on when he says that the idea that today’s economies are free markets is a myth (I’d use a stronger word, myself). And when he says that the present system depends on the politicians and the corporatists, and they depend on it.
However, I do have three issues with what he says in this article. The first is that he denigrates something he calls “capitalism,” without actually saying what he means by this “capitalism.”
Now, I’m aware of several definitions of capitalism. There’s a narrow definition, as private ownership of the means of production. I don’t think that can be what David means here, since the alternatives (state, communal or perhaps corporate ownership of these means) would be far worse from a libertarian point of view. And there’s a definition that equates capitalism with competition in a free market. I don’t think he can mean this either, as he correctly points out that what we suffer today isn’t a free market.
Being the radical individualist I am, these days I usually use my own definition of capitalism: “the condition in which no-one is prevented from justly acquiring or justly using wealth.” And I think that capitalism, so defined, is a good thing. I’d invite David’s thoughts on this.
To my second issue. This is something I’ve noticed, which seems to go all through leftist thinking today. It’s that they fail to make the – to me, absolutely fundamental – distinction between equality and justice. In his article, David rails against economic inequality. But to me, the real problem is not inequality, but injustice.
To see this, consider a case where one person – A – fairly earns, in a free market or an approximation of it, twice as much as another, B. In my view, economic justice is done when A gets paid twice as much as B. And yet, many of those who scream against “inequality” want to take away at least half of what A earns, and to bring him forcibly down to B’s level. There is of course a spectrum in between, and I don’t know where David stands on the issue; it would be good to know his views.
That said, we see many cases today where what individuals are paid bears no relation to their economic value to others. Bankers who fairly deserve maybe twice or three times what an average person gets, for example, are often paid tens or hundreds of times more. This is both an inequality and an injustice, and I’m totally with David in condemning it. Even worse, many of those getting rich today are those (such as most politicians) whose economic value to others is actually negative.
My third issue arises out of the quote David uses from Ezra Heywood, where he contrasts capitalism with labo(u)r. (I do hate words that are spelt differently in Yinglish from Yanklish!) I’ve already addressed the issue I have with “capitalism,” but I’m also not comfortable with the use of “labour” for the other side of the see-saw.
Part of the reason for my discomfort is that, on this side of the pond at least, the word “labour” is often used by leftists to mean physical labour only. With the implication, that brain-workers or other honest business people aren’t really workers, and should be counted in with the capitalist “enemy.” In my view, this leads towards a class division which is both unnecessary and counter-productive.
Myself, I prefer to distinguish the economic good guys (and gals) from the bad, using the distinction which Franz Oppenheimer makes in his book The State. He contrasts the “economic means” for the satisfaction of human needs – “one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others” – with the “political means” – “the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others.” He also reduces each idea to a single word: work versus robbery.
I think Oppenheimer nails it here. And, being what I am, I like to make my own, more or less catchy versions of his distinction: Jobbers versus Robbers, Workers versus Shirkers, Traders versus Raiders.
But the version I like best is Makers versus Takers. Not because it was once used by US vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan – I’m no lover of conservative politicians. But because, using it, I can identify also a third category, the Rakers. Rakers look like business people, but they enrich themselves (rake in money), without actually creating any wealth. Commodity speculators, asset strippers and crony corporate bosses are examples of Rakers. It looks, to me at least, as though this label “Rakers” may well encapsulate a significant group that leftists would do well to subject to harsh criticism for their economic activities.
I see that I have gone on more than a little. I look forward to any thoughts that David or any of the regular denizens here may have.