I was tipped off to this interview by the podcast Srsly Wrong with Thaddeus Russel a while back but didn’t manage to listen to it until today:
Around the 12:00 minute mark I’m mentioned as someone who is trying to reconcile “anti work” and “pro market” ideas. One of the hosts seems pretty skeptical and says it “seems like a giant contradiction”. I’m not sure exactly where he’s coming from but I suspect we have different ideas of what a “market” means. We may also differ on why markets could or couldn’t work with an anti-work idea.
So this post is going to try to clear this up a bit.
This topic has been long overdue to address on my part so here’s my non-exhaustive treatment of the subject.
For starters, a direct-democracy orientated society is the alternative some of my fellow anarchists would give to a market system. But I think Thaddeus gives us some good reasons why that might not be necessarily the case. And though Thaddeus doesn’t say it, I think his reasoning is part of the reason why I think markets are such an important institution in a freed society.
With markets, people don’t need to have all of those meetings, long hours working in factories or trying to organize society. They can rely on the price system and voluntary trade as a means of organizing their communities. And they can do this in collaborative ways that would maximize their self-interest and benefit the community around them. So in that way markets aid leisure and play more than some of the proposed alternatives by other anarchists.
But make no mistake, I’m not against direct democracy. By no means is that the case. I just prefer a pluralistic society that has many different ways of organizing.
So, for example, I think a community that has anti-capitalist markets plus direct democracy orientated firms, which may compete with private partnerships and independent contractors is the best way to have a free society. To have a sort of “ecosystem” of economic and social ways of organizing that freely compete and cooperate with each other as needed. To me, that’s what anarchism is all about. This ecosystem would in turn minimize the amount of “work” as I see it in a society and allow more freedom of choice in what people get to do with their lives.
But anyways, given that, my view of markets isn’t solely a cash nexus, capitalism or the Current Economic Structure. Instead, I view markets as a space where the maximum amount of social arrangements can be voluntarily tried.
As notable left-libertarian Charles Johnson explains:
…[A]nd it’s important to see, first, that markets in the first sense (the sum of all voluntary exchanges) include the cash nexus – but also much more than the cash nexus.
Family sharing is part of a free market; charity is part of a free market; gifts are part of a free market; informal exchange and barter are part of a free market. Wage labor (renting labor in return for cash), rent, corporate jobs, corporate insurance and the like can be part of a free market, but so are alternative arrangements – including many arrangements that clearly have nothing to do with capitalism3, and fit awkwardly, at best, with any conventional usage of the termcapitalism:worker co-ops and consumer co-ops are part of the market; grassroots mutual aid associations and community free clinics are part of the market; so are voluntary labor unions (based on free association and the right to protest or quit), consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and other alternatives to the prevailing corporate-capitalist status quo.
To focus on the specific act of exchange may even be a bit misleading; it might be more suggestive, and less misleading, to describe a fully free market, in this sense, as the space of maximal consensually-sustained social experimentation.
James Tuttle, the director of the Center for a Stateless Society (or C4SS) also explains this well:
As a market anarchist I foresee an economic landscape of communes, collectives, co-operatives, IWW closed-shops, Time Stores, Garage Networks, Self-employed micros, Family Mom & Pops, Gift Econs, Charity Non-Profits, Monastic Orders from Benedictines to Zen Buddhists, Strangers passing through towns nobly demanding to “earn their keep,” but let’s not forget Hermits, Homesteads and squatters. Everything in between, all of the above to include the stuff not even thought of yet.
The “market” in market anarchy, for me, is a vocational, lifestyle, life-path bazaar; the more options the better I feel that authority is curbed and monopoly buried. I see/want a world where people can browse, taste test, try on, kick the tires and hassle free return any life they fancy; or knuckle down on one thing and feel the novel sensation of fusion with or mastery of one skill or craft, pushing it into new boundaries, ripping it up and starting again whether it be post-punk music, cabinet making or Starcraft II.
I know that’s probably a lot to take in if you’re new to all of this and I apologize in advance.
In fairness, I’d agree with the criticism that this definition of markets is a bit broad. But it’s also the one I feel the most comfortable with. A social setting in which consent and exchange is considered to be paramount seems like a “market” to me. And the fact that this sort of market can take many different sizes and shapes is I think the best thing about it. If you want to call this something else (perhaps “society” or I don’t know what) then we can hash it out.
In any case I think markets are the best way to organize a given community. That doesn’t mean I thnik that they are the only way to do this but I thnik they’re the best at doing so. I can’t offer a full treatment of why that’s the case but I recommend Jason Lee Byas essay, Towards an Anarchy of Production as well as the recent C4SS mutual exchange symposium on the relationship between markets and capitalism to see why markets could facilitate a free society.
As you may have noticed there are going to be links throughout that are connected to 101 posts. I hope those can clear the air a bit more but you’re also encouraged to comment below with questions or contact me through the contact page.
To wrap up this for now, I just want to say that I could probably have some sort of response to a lot of the questions or criticisms that I may get, but I have neither the time nor the know-how to anticipate them all.
So here are just a few broad remarks on being pro-market and anti-work:
- Capitalist markets are the sorts of markets we have today. Insofar as you define markets as capitalist, this is going to skew your perception of how coherent anti-work can fit within a market system. Obviously under the current system, slackers and those who desire more play and leisure are culturally and economically harmed in many ways. So that’s not the kind of market system I’m interested in. A market system that is organized by governments to benefit the ones with the largest amounts of material and social capital. i.e. usually themselves and their cronies is something I’m radically opposed to.
- Anti-Capitalist markets are the sort of markets where I see free experimentation taking place. These are spaces where worker-owned firms can stand side by side with private partnerships and loose networks of artisans. Meanwhile there’s a common market area (much like a bazaar) a few blocks down the street which is next to a producers cooperative that may network with a few other cooperatives in the next town over. And they all might do this in some sort of spontaneous and unplanned way to feed the general area. Moreover I think these sorts of meta-competitive societies help not only the price system but also give people many different options about how and where they want to “work”. Except the sort of work I want to abolish isn’t having a job or doing stuff it’s a bit more complicated than that. More on this later.
- There’s a big history of libertarian or libertarian-related thinkers who viewed work critically. For example, Henry David Thoreau, who is usually lauded by libertarians, was critical of work in Walden. John Stuart Mill had some criticisms of work. We can also look at the individualist flavor of anarchism to see how anti-work sentiments can work within an individualist philosophy. Besides that we can also look at related figures to libertarianism folks like Voltarine de Cleyre, Thaddeus Russell himself and hell, even Rothbard had some critical things to say about work. Contemporary libertarian thinkers (mainly at C4SS but also elsewhere) like Sheldon Richman, Kevin Carson, Nathan Goodman, Ryan Calhoun and myself have also written critically about work.
Now, obviously being critical of work isn’t the same thing as wanting to abolish it and perhaps even most folks I just listed wouldn’t go that far. But my point isn’t that there’s universal agreement about abolishing work but that libertarianism can be (and has been) critical of work. So my themes and points here aren’t alone or coming from nothing, historically speaking.
On another topic, something that bothered me about the podcast was that Thaddeus and company never really defined work. They just took it for granted that “work” just meant doing something or that it meant employment of some sort. But I reject both definitions. I think both definitions are far too vague and cast too large of a net to be really engaging in anything meaningful. And even if they did really engage in something meaningful I’d argue they go too far. I don’t necessarily want to end employment or physical labor and I think it’s a mistake to think either are going away when we abolish work in the important sense.
Instead, the sort of work I’m interested in could be best described as “a constrained performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for substituting your own ends with an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward”.
I got this definition, in part, thanks to John Danaher’s Should we Abolish Work? which is an excellent post I suggest checking out. From there, I synthesized his definition with some of my own ideas and feelings about work and presented it, alongside many other thoughts on work, at the Boston Anarchist Book Fair, last year. That presentation is also a good 101 post more generally, if you want to see where I’m coming from in my anti-work thought more broadly.
Ideally, abolishing the government and capitalism will allow for freed markets to flourish. It’ll lead to a society where folks can work freely. Work not in the sense of constrained labor, but in the sense of autonomous activity. They’ll be able to work how they want and when they want. A society where they can choose to work by themselves, with others, in a group, in a collective, with a partner or with no one and nothing and all.
And to that last bit: Perhaps some will choose to not do any of this and I think that’s perfectly fine as well. If y’all don’t want to be in a meeting then that’s fine by me. If y’all don’t want to be employed in any sense and would rather paint, draw, debate and play music all day then I think that’s fine. But I think there’ll still be what Danaher calls “psychological needs’ to provide value and create things that’ll help others (intentionally or not) in a freed society.
Also, when I say “employment” I don’t necessarily mean boss-worker relations. I am generally skeptical and critical of hierarchy and think worker controlled firms are usually the way to go. I just mean “employment” in a more general sense of being employed in a given job.
This isn’t everything I have to say on markets and anti-work ideology. And to that end I’ve contacted Srsly Wrong to interview me, if they’re interested.
And if they are then perhaps I’ll have more to say sooner rather than later.
I also want to say I appreciate the shout-out and enjoyed the interview with Thaddeus, so thanks y’all!
Did you enjoy this article? Maybe you’d like to make a small monthly contribution to my Patreon then!
Do you like cool interviews? Then if I get to my first goal of $50 a month, I’ll start working on an Abolish Work podcast!
Lastly, if you’re an anarchist like me or anarcho-curious, perhaps come and check us out at the Boston (A) Book Fair this weekend!