Anarchist Economics Compared and Contrasted: Anarcho-Capitalism vs Anarcho-Syndicalism/Communism

The Market for Liberty” by Morris and Linda Tannehill was published in 1969, and was one of the first books to really provide a fine-tuned description of how an anarcho-capitalist economy might work. It continues to be perhaps the most detailed of any work describing anarcho-capitalism in practice. Excerpts from the book are available online from the Mises Institute.

The book was also recently translated into Spanish by Jorge Trucco. This is a video of Trucco giving a talk about “The Market for Liberty”:

It’s interesting to compare the anarcho-capitalism of “The Market for Liberty” with the anarcho-communism/anarcho-syndicalism of Diego Abad de Santillan. “After the Revolution” by Santillan is one of the most comprehensive descriptions of anarcho-syndicalism in practice that has ever been written, and Santillan was the leading economic theorist of the Spanish Revolution in 1936. The entire text of “After the Revolution” is available online from the Anarchist Library website.

Part 1: A General Survey

The Essential Factors of Production

Work and Bread for Everybody

The Population of Spain and its Distribution

A Society of Producers and Consumers

Social and Economic Iniquity

Part 2: The New Structure

Organization of Work

Council of Foodstuffs Branch

Council of Construction Industries

Council of the Clothing Industries

Council of Agriculture

Council of Livestock Production

Council of Forestry

Council of Mining and Fishing Industries

Council of Public Utilities Industries

Council of Transport Industry

Council of Communications

Council of Chemical Industries

Council of Sanitation

Council of Metallurgical Industries

Local Council of Economy

Regional Councils of Economy

Federal Council of Economy

Council of Credit and Exchange

Council of Publishing and Cultural Activities

Part 3: The Revolution of Liberty

Economy and Liberty

The Libertarian Revolution

Spain and the Revolution

Of course, there are plenty of middle of the road approaches to anarchist economics beyond the hard-core anarcho-capitalism of thinkers like Murray Rothbard, David Friedman and the Tannehills, or the hard-core anarcho-communism or anarcho-syndicalism of the Spanish anarchists. There is mutualism, Georgism/geoism, the decentralism of Ralph Borsodi, various theories of market socialism, co-operative economics, distributism and much else as even a cursory look at the Wikipedia entries on Anarchist economics and libertarian socialism  will reveal. While I have my disagreements with fellows like Kevin Carson and Shawn Wilbur, these guys deserve a tremendous amount of credit and respect for their efforts to publicize and elaborate on alternative economic perspectives.

The big question that arises from an examination of these ideas is which set of economic values are most compatible with an anti-authoritarian society. For myself, the answer to the question more or less amounts to “I don’t know.” There are difficulties associated with many of the schools of libertarian or decentralist economics, ranging from their practical feasibility to their ability to prevent re-concentrations of power. Critics of anarcho-capitalism will argue that anarcho-capitalism in practice could just as easily become a system where company towns and agricultural plantations are owned and controlled by an oligarchy that is protected by mercenary armies in a way that amounts to an industrial serfdom. And it is not uncommon to see some “right-wing libertarians” praising fascist Singapore (where chewing gum is illegal) or the fiefdom of Dubai (where they still have debtors’ prisons). However, it is also easy to imagine the syndicalist model developed by Santillan developing into a statist bureaucracy over time (see Bryan Caplan’s critique). This is why I tend to lean towards some of the more middle of the road approaches beyond anarcho-capitalism or anarcho-communism.

Some years back I wrote an extensive essay for the Libertarian Alliance outlining a general theory of political economy which argued that modern systems of state-corporate economics are neither “free market” nor “socialist” in nature, but instead represent a kind of “new manorialism” and oligarchical plutocracy. It was my one contribution to anarchist economic theory. However, while economic questions are certainly important, often vitally important, I tend to reject the economic determinism that is implicit in some models of anarchist and libertarian thought, whether of a Marxist, Austrian, or some other model. If I am any kind of determinist, I would be a political determinist in the vein of Machiavelli or Carl Schmitt. As Schmitt pointed out, the ultimate question in politics is “Who decides?” and ultimately fundamental decisions about who has rightful control over resources, how legitimate ownership is defined, what the rules of contract or exchange will be and how they will be enforced, what kind of medium of exchange will be used, etc. are made by those who have the power to make such decisions whether they are states, corporations, market enterprises, workers councils, communes, militias, common law courts, or whatever else. In other words, the political precedes the economic rather than vice versa.

Additionally, I tend to believe that anarchists could learn a great deal from the work of Max Weber, who argued that economic power is only one strand of power in society, along with political power, charismatic power, social power, and the like (other thinkers, ranging from Bertrand Russell to C. Wright Mills, have argued this as well). Weber further argued that economic systems are to a great degree an outgrowth of pre-existing cultural systems. For example, he argued that capitalism and the industrial revolution developed more easily in historically Protestant countries because capitalist development requires a certain break with feudal and other comparable pre-modern traditions, and that Protestant culture already had the experience of breaking with Catholic tradition and was therefore more amenable to economic, technological, and cultural innovation.

The insights of elite theory indicate that any kind of organization of any size will ultimately be an oligarchy. The key to restraining the power of oligarchy is scale. The smaller the scale of an organization or institution, the shorter the reach of its oligarchy will be. See the work of Kirk Sale and the late great Tom Naylor on this. Therefore, the key to controlling excesses of power is to cultivate small-scale institutions irrespective of their particular ideological foundations or structural specifics.

3 replies »

  1. It seems to me that the principle uniting all strains of anarchist economics is that workers own/control the means of production and own/control their own destiny. So either state ownership (state capitalist) or absentee-ownership (western capitalism) of property cannot qualify as anarchist because these systems cannot be reconciled with individual and/or community self-determination. “Radical localism” implies local control of the means of production as well as local control of land ownership. Insofar as property is “owned” it should be on a stewardship basis, via consent of the community. To imply that land or MOP can be “owned” absolutely (eg, without the informed consent of one’s neighbors) is statist in itself because only violence and/or the threat of violence can keep your fences intact.

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