Socialism: A Perfectly Good Word Rehabilitated


In a recent article for Wired (“The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online”), Kevin Kelly suggested that P2P was the basis for a new form of socialism. The new digital socialism includes peer production efforts like Wikipedia, file-sharing, and open licenses like Creative Commons.

As Kelly says, “When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.” He quotes John Barlow’s definition of “dot-communism” as “a workforce composed entirely of free agents.”

But there has always been a market-oriented strand of libertarian socialism that emphasizes voluntary cooperation between producers. And markets, properly understood, have always been about cooperation. As a commenter at Reason magazine’s Hit&Run blog, remarking on Jesse Walker’s link to the Kelly article, put it: “every trade is a cooperative act.”

In fact, it’s a fairly common observation among market anarchists that genuinely free markets have the most legitimate claim to the label “socialism.”

For example, C4SS director Brad Spangler once suggested that Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism was “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.” As much as Rothbard himself frequently deviated from such sympathies, his stated principles at their best constitute a Rothbard that might have been. His stated principles, by providing the basis for a fundamental critique of state-enforced privilege and artificial property rights, offer much room for a common vision of social justice with the socialist Left.

Sheldon Richman, editor of The Freeman, observed: “I’ve long thought that ‘socialism’ should have been the term reserved for the completely voluntary society, including the truly free market based on self-ownership. Human affairs can play out in the social (consensual) arena or the state (coercive) arena (with some mixture being possible). Therefore, the two great contending political perspectives are socialism and statism.”

If anything, it’s the choice of “capitalism” as the conventional term for a free market that needs explaining. Why name an economic system based on free markets after one factor of production in particular, especially when even neoclassical orthodoxy regards capital as only one coequal factor among several? The choice of terms, perhaps unwittingly, suggests a system in which the interests of capital have an especially privileged status; it may also suggest something about the sympathies of those who chose the term.

The natural tendency of a genuine market is to socialize the productivity benefits of innovation and to socialize the services of land and capital. That’s why individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker described himself as both a socialist, and a consistent Manchester liberal. When banks must compete to supply credit in a totally free market without any entry barriers, and when the supply of land is not rendered artificially scarce through the enforcement of absentee claims to vacant and unimproved land, the natural forces of unfettered market competition will destroy the portion of existing interest and land-rent which results from rents on artificial scarcity. When there are no barriers to the free adoption of new technologies, the productivity gains will be socialized by competition rather than appropriated by the owners of patents and copyrights. And with all artificial scarcity rents removed, market exchange will be an exchange of effort between equals.

The emergence of P2P culture reflects the growing untenability of all the privileges and artificial property rights on which capitalism, as opposed to the free market, depends.



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