Markets Not Capitalism: An Interview with Charles W. Johnson and Gary Chartier

Interview conducted by Bradley Coufal.


For the sake of gaining some background on the both of you in order to contextualize your position, can you explain, briefly, where you see yourself politically, and where you see libertarianism proper (left-lib?) on the political spectrum? Along this same line can you discuss briefly some major influential works/thinkers which have influenced you?


Sure: I identify politically as a leftist and as a libertarian. I tend to sum up what I take to be the desiderata of a leftist position as opposition to exclusion, subordination, deprivation, and non-defensive war. Not all leftists are libertarians or anarchists (obviously), and not all libertarians (whether or not anarchists) are leftists. But I think there’s a natural fit between the two positions vis-a-vis the underlying concern for freedom and conviction of moral equality.

I’m also happy to call myself a socialist in the sense in which I take it Benjamin Tucker embraced “socialism” (something like “emancipation through the elimination of privilege) and an anti-capitalist (given that “capitalism” means “business-government partnership,” “social dominance by capitalists,” “hyper-commercialized society,” or “the economic system we have now”).

People who have influenced my thinking about anarchism and libertarianism include English “anarcho-conservative” Stephen R. L. Clark, obvious folks like Rothbard and Hayek, and my C4SS colleagues–Charles, Kevin, Roderick, and Sheldon, in particular.

If this is too brief, I’m happy to elaborate.


Sure, thanks for sending this along.

I am first and foremost an Anarchist. (A left-wing individualist Anarchist, or anticapitalist market Anarchist, specifically.)

To give you a bit of autobiography, I got into this gig by way of social anarchism and the counterglobalization movement: I was getting involved in radical feminist and Green/Progressive politics around the time I was finishing up high school and starting college. The most radical part of this (the radical feminist activism) pulled me in a direction away from third party politics and comfortable Progressivism, and towards direct action, revolutionary politics and antiauthoritarian Leftism. Since I was in the class of ’99, all of this meant that it was hardly possible for me to avoid conversations about Seattle, anarchism, direct action, etc. I spent a few years doing mostly feminist and anti-war activism (helping with tech projects and with some of the organizing work on the occasional anarcha-feminist convention), with a growing interest in anarchism and the intensifying global justice movement. At the same time I was getting concerned about the degree to which anarchist voices were getting drowned out by, or even bogged down into, conventionally reformist and state-Progressive lines of thought about the struggle over globalization. (I remember too many times that protest against restructuring transnational bureaucracies like the IMF and WTO was treated as if the obvious alternative were to reinforce national bureaucratic structures — too much making excuses for, or even crusading to save, government price floors, controlling welfare bureaucracies, tariffs, toxic myths like “national sovereignty,” etc.) That dissatisfaction led me to want to find a more consistently radical Anarchism — one which brought anti-statism into the analysis in a very serious sort of way — and that was amplified by the sudden explosion of international security statism and then all-out war in the wake of the War on Terra and the War on Iraq. This got me interested — skeptically interested, but interested — in the radical fringes of market-oriented libertarian theory. I had some background familiarity with the ideas (my father and grandfather were both libertarians, and there were a lot of books around the house when I was young), and some familiarity with the people (when I was involved with the Green Party, I worked with the local LP on ballot access and shared issues). But I started to get much more seriously interested in the extent to which the anti-war radicals within the tradition might contribute something to the understanding of the warfare state and the military-industrial complex, and the extent to which the lingering right-wing and authoritarian aspects of their views (these are people who considered themselves “anarcho-capitalists”) could be driven into a left-wing, anti-authoritarian direction. Now, at the same time I was also getting much more interested in the legacy of radical unionism and the IWW in particular, largely through Utah Phillips’ songs and stories, and conversations with the friends who introduced me to them, which drew me to a tradition of bottom-up radical anti-statism, and to the idea that grassroots organization and nonviolent industrial action offered a much more promising alternative than the standard state-Leftist political fights. (It may seem ironic that the IWW played a major role in helping me become a market anarchist. But there you have it.) All of the above eventually led me to the individualist and mutualist anarchists, and to close contact with a number of contemporary anarchist and left-libertarian writers who were doing really great work on the extent to which these traditions could offer a framework for realizing the goals that I had always had as a social anarchist, through grassroots and libertarian means — which importantly included anti-capitalist markets, peaceful competition and room for experimentation, human-scale property ownership, etc.

I see libertarianism *properly understood* as a position of the extreme radical Left — as anarchistic in its conclusions and deeply antiauthoritarian in its motivations. But of course the “properly understood” is doing a lot of work there. Certainly there are many “libertarians” who are basically pushing a third-party politics within a conventional American capitalist framework, and some who are nothing more than Constitution fetishists, or pseudopopulist conservatives, or “radicals” who believe that the best thing about freedom is how much (they believe) it will elevate the socially powerful and punish the socially marginalized. In some cases I think the problem is a problem of inconsistency or lack of vision (e.g. antiwar anarchists who just don’t see any real option other than voting Ron Paul or whatever). In other cases the problem is that these are people who have only superficial similarities with libertarianism in the first place. (I think that in general I have far more in common with anarcho-syndicalists or free communists than I do with “minarchist” — that is, mini-statist — “libertarians.” As a market Anarchist, my primary alliances are with other anarchists. Not with people who think that libertarianism is compatible with a leaner, meaner government providing “only” police, prisons, borders and military “defense.”)

Works and thinkers: the obvious points to hit are, no doubt, the American individualists — Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner (esp. “No Treason” and the first Letter to Bayard), and Voltairine de Cleyre in particular — and the mutualists, especially Proudhon. I’d also point very emphatically to the radical abolitionists, especially William Lloyd Garrison (for his defense of uncompromising radicalism and his emphasis on the individual conscience as above any political or social union), and to the radical feminist work of Marilyn Frye (_The Politics of Reality_), Ellen Willis (“Women and the Myth of Consumerism”), Susan Brownmiller (_Against Our Will_, and her history, _In Our Time_), and Andrea Dworkin (esp. _Letters from a War Zone_, and esp. “I Want A Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape). Utah Phillips’ songs and stories about the IWW are very important to my conception of direct action and grassroots social change. Gabriel Kolko’s _The Triumph of Conservatism_ and Paul Buhle’s _Taking Care Of Business_ were very important to my understanding of economic history and the development of state capitalism, as was Roy Childs’s “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism” and J.R. Hummel’s _Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men_ (which also helped me get a lot clearer on how to think about war, resistance, and the connections between economic and political centralization).  I’m also immensely indebted to the work and the conversation of Kevin Carson, Roderick Long, and William Gillis, and more recently I’ve come to know, and to owe a lot intellectually to, Gary, Sheldon Richman, and the other contemporary contributors to our book.

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