Home > political-economy > A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part One)

A critical examination of Kevin Carson’s Mutualism (Part One)

Punishment in a forced labor camp II, 1930s, Georgia (www.slaverybyanothername.com)

Capital, or Slavery by Another Name

Kevin Carson’s Austrian & Marxist Theories of Monopoly Capital: A Mutualist Synthesis” states his Mutualist position in opposition to both the anarcho-capitalist Libertarian and Marxist theories of monopoly capitalism. The theories of the Anarcho-Capitalist camp and the Marxist camp are, in turn, set in opposition to mainstream liberal and conservative arguments.

According to Carson, mainstream liberals and conservatives argue the Fascist State acts as a constraint on Capital. Though differing on whether this constraint operates in favor of society or against, both wings of the dominant consensus hold to this view:

Both mainline “conservatives” and “liberals” share the same mirror-imaged view of the world (but with “good guys” and “bad guys” reversed), in which the growth of the welfare and regulatory state reflected a desire to restrain the power of big business. According to this commonly accepted version of history, the Progressive and New Deal programs were forced on corporate interests from outside, and against their will. In this picture of the world, big government is a populist “countervailing power” against the “economic royalists.” This picture of the world is shared by Randroids and Chicago boys on the right, who fulminate against “looting” by “anti-capitalist” collectivists; and by NPR liberals who confuse the New Deal with the Second Advent. It is the official ideology of the publick skool establishment, whose history texts recount heroic legends of “trust buster” TR combating the “malefactors of great wealth,” and Upton Sinclair’s crusade against the meat packers. It is expressed in almost identical terms in right-wing home school texts by Clarence Carson and the like, who bemoan the defeat of business at the hands of the collectivist state.

The conventional understanding of government regulation was succinctly stated by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the foremost spokesman for corporate liberalism: “Liberalism in America has ordinarily been the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community.” Mainstream liberals and conservatives may disagree on who the “bad guy” is in this scenario, but they are largely in agreement on the anti-business motivation. For example, Theodore Levitt of the Harvard Business Review lamented in 1968: “Business has not really won or had its way in connection with even a single piece of proposed regulatory or social legislation in the last three-quarters of a century.”

Carson has this to say of the critical communist theories of Anarcho-Capitalism and Marxism:

Stromberg’s argument is based on Murray Rothbard’s Austrian theory of regulatory cartelization. Economists of the Austrian school, especially Ludwig von Mises and his disciple Rothbard, have taken a view of state capitalism in many respects resembling that of the New Left. That is, both groups portray it as a movement of large-scale, organized capital to obtain its profits through state intervention into the economy, although the regulations entailed in this project are usually sold to the public as “progressive” restraints on big business. This parallelism between the analyses of the New Left and the libertarian Right was capitalized upon by Rothbard in his own overtures to the Left. In such projects as his journal Left and Right, and in the anthology A New History of Leviathan (coedited with New Leftist Ronald Radosh), he sought an alliance of the libertarian Left and Right against the corporate state.

Rothbard treated the “war collectivism” of World War I as a prototype for twentieth century state capitalism. He described it as

a new order marked by strong government, and extensive and pervasive government intervention and planning, for the purpose of providing a network of subsidies and monopolistic privileges to business, and especially to large business, interests. In particular, the economy could be cartelized under the aegis of government, with prices raised and production fixed and restricted, in the classic pattern of monopoly; and military and other government contracts could be channeled into the hands of favored corporate producers. Labor, which had been becoming increasingly rambunctious, could be tamed and bridled into the service of this new, state monopoly-capitalist order, through the device of promoting a suitably cooperative trade unionism, and by bringing the willing union leaders into the planning system as junior partners.

In this article, which is a review of the literature, Kevin Carson attempts to synthesize the view of the two critical communism theories. Carson takes on both the opportunism of Anarcho-Capitalism and Marxism, with regards to capitalist property and the State, respectively. He attempts to demonstrate what these critical communist theories have in common, but also how their differences leads them into errors.

He argues, rather persuasively, that capitalist social relations are impossible without the State. His argument refers not just to present day Capital — during this period of over-accumulation — but also to the very beginning. So, he is making the argument that Capital itself arose on the basis of violence and state-sponsored primitive accumulation. He is, therefore, not making a hypothetical argument, but a historical one – which argument can be actually confirmed by historical records.

While we can make hypothetical arguments against his position, the real question is: “Does his argument hold water as history?” The answer to this can only be, “Yes.” So, that being the case, my own review begins with acknowledging this historical fact. So far as I can see, Marx and Carson agree on this point. Even though Carson asserts Marx disagrees with him in the German Ideology. Marx does not. He writes of the bloody violence unleashed on the floating population of England under Henry VIII, and, moreover, the history of plunder and colonization, and intensified inter-state conflict that accompanied the rise of Capital:

With guild-free manufacture, property relations also quickly changed. The first advance beyond naturally derived estate capital was provided by the rise of merchants whose capital was from the beginning movable, capital in the modern sense as far as one can speak of it, given the circumstances of those times. The second advance came with manufacture, which again made mobile a mass of natural capital, and altogether increased the mass of movable capital as against that of natural capital.

At the same time, manufacture became a refuge of the peasants from the guilds which excluded them or paid them badly, just as earlier the guild-towns had [served] as a refuge for the peasants from [the oppressive landed nobility].

Simultaneously with the beginning of manufactures there was a period of vagabondage caused by the abolition of the feudal bodies of retainers, the disbanding of the swollen armies which had flocked to serve the kings against their vassals, the improvement of agriculture, and the transformation of great strips of tillage into pasture land. From this alone it is clear how this vagabondage is strictly connected with the disintegration of the feudal system. As early as the thirteenth century we find isolated epochs of this kind, but only at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth does this vagabondage make a general and permanent appearance. These vagabonds, who were so numerous that, for instance, Henry VIII of England had 72,000 of them hanged, were only prevailed upon to work with the greatest difficulty and through the most extreme necessity, and then only after long resistance. The rapid rise of manufactures, particularly in England, absorbed them gradually.

With the advent of manufactures, the various nations entered into a competitive relationship, the struggle for trade, which was fought out in wars, protective duties and prohibitions, whereas earlier the nations, insofar as they were connected at all, had carried on an inoffensive exchange with each other. Trade had from now on a political significance.

With the advent of manufacture the relationship between worker and employer changed. In the guilds the patriarchal relationship between journeyman and master continued to exist; in manufacture its place was taken by the monetary relation between worker and capitalist — a relationship which in the countryside and in small towns retained a patriarchal tinge, but in the larger, the real manufacturing towns, quite early lost almost all patriarchal complexion.

Manufacture and the movement of production in general received an enormous impetus through the extension of commerce which came with the discovery of America and the sea-route to the East Indies. The new products imported thence, particularly the masses of gold and silver which came into circulation and totally changed the position of the classes towards one another, dealing a hard blow to feudal landed property and to the workers; the expeditions of adventurers, colonisation; and above all the extension of markets into a world market, which had now become possible and was daily becoming more and more a fact, called forth a new phase of historical development, into which in general we cannot here enter further. Through the colonisation of the newly discovered countries the commercial struggle of the nations amongst one another was given new fuel and accordingly greater extension and animosity.

Beyond Marx himself, further support for Carson’s position is found on the website, Spartacus Educational, regarding the bloody history of the emergence of wage slavery:

Poverty in Tudor Times

In Tudor England about a third of the population lived in poverty. Their suffering always increased after bad harvests. A shortage of food resulted in higher prices. This meant that poorer families could not afford to buy enough food for their needs.

Wealthy people were expected to give help (alms) to local people suffering from poverty because they were old, blind, crippled or sick. Some wealthy people were generous while others were mean. This meant that poor people in some villages were fairly well cared for while others died of starvation.

Unemployment was a major cause of poverty. When large landowners changed from arable to sheep farming, unemployment increased rapidly. The closing down of the monasteries in the 1530s created even more unemployment. As monasteries had also helped provide food for the poor, this created further problems.

Unemployed people were sometimes tempted to leave their villages to look for work. This was illegal and people who did this were classified as vagabonds.

A law passed in 1536 stated that people caught outside their parish without work were to be punished by being whipped through the streets. For a second offence the vagabond was to lose part of an ear. If a vagabond was caught a third time he or she was executed.

In 1550 Parliament passed a law stating that every parish had to build a workhouse for the poor. Edward VI set an example by giving permission for Bridewell Palace in London to be used as a workhouse. In exchange for food and shelter, the people who lived in the workhouse worked without wages. If people without work refused to go to the workhouse they were to be treated as vagabonds.

To pay for these workhouses, vicars were given permission to ask everyone in the parish to give money. If people refused, the vicar had to report them to his bishop. Workhouses did not solve the problem. It has been estimated that in 1570 about 10% of the population were still wandering around the country looking for work.

In 1576 a new Poor Law was introduced. Each parish had to keep a store of “wool, hemp, flax, iron or other stuff that was to be handed out to the unemployed. In exchange for the goods that they produced, the parish gave them money. In this way, the poor could continue living in their own homes. This new law also introduced fines for those who refused to pay money to help the poor.

This was followed in 1601 by another Poor Law. Workhouses now had to be provided for people who were too old or ill to work. People who refused to contribute money to help the poor could now be sent to prison.

The website offers the following documentation of its assertions:

Thomas More, Utopia (1516): “The landowners enclose all land into pastures (for sheep)… the peasants must depart away…. And when they have wandered… what else can they do but steal or go about begging.”

In 1566 Thomas Harman wrote a book about vagabonds: “They are punished by whippings. Yet they like this life so much that their punishment is soon forgotten. They never think of changing until they climb the gallows.”

In 1594 William Lambarde made a speech about poverty in England: “There were always poor lepers, aged poor, sick poor, poor widows, poor orphans, and such like, but poor soldiers were either rarely or never heard of till now… They lead their lives in begging and end them by hanging… They fight our wars… enduring cold and hunger when we live at ease, lying in the open field when we are in our beds.”

Letter sent by the citizens of London to Edward VI (1553): “It was obvious to all men that beggars and thieves were everywhere. And we found the cause was that they were idle; and the cure must be to make them work… by providing work ourselves, so that the strong and sturdy vagabond may be made to earn his living. For this we need a house of work… And so, we ask for the king’s house of Bridewell.”

Law passed by Parliament in 1576: “So that youth may be accustomed and brought up in labour and work, and so they do not grow to be idle rogues… it is ordered… that in every city and town within this realm a large stock of wool, hemp, flax, iron… shall be provided.”

Report on a survey carried out in Norwich in 1571: “Many of the citizens were annoyed that the city was so full with poor people, both men women and children, to the number of 2,300 persons, who went from door to door begging, pretending they wanted work, but did very little.”

Law passed by Parliament in 1597: “Every vagabond or beggar… shall be stripped naked from the middle upwards and publicly whipped until his or her body be bloody, and forth with sent to the parish where he was born… If any vagabond or beggar return again, he shall suffer death by hanging.”

Wage slavery was born of violence, and violence has accompanied it during its entire reign. Capital is the mother, the State is its father. The wage slave is the bastard offspring of both. And, this antihuman union has been quite fertile. The connection between the state and compulsory labor is so seamless that even the Workers’ Paradise had laws against “flitters, loafers, absentees, and grabbers”:

In the Soviet Union, the workers work not for capitalists, but for themselves, for their socialist state, for the good of all humanity. The overwhelming majority of laborers and office workers honorably and conscientiously work in enterprises, transport, and establishments, take a professional attitude toward work, offering models of Stakhanovite valor, strengthening the might and defense capabilities of the motherland..

But side-by-side with honest and conscientious workers, there are still scattered unmotivated, backward, or dishonorable people — flitters, loafers, absentees, and grabbers.

With their second-rate work, absenteeism, lateness to work, aimless wandering about the factory during work-time, and other violations of the rules of internal work organization, and likewise with individual capricious migrations from one establishment to another, these people disrupt labor discipline, and bring great losses to industry, transport, and all of the national economy.

They try to give as little work as possible to the state, and grab as much money as possible for themselves. They abuse Soviet labor laws and reles, using them for their selfish interests. They do not work fully even druing the established hours of the working day; often they work only 4 or 5 hours in all, wasting the remaining 2-3 hours of working time. With this, the people and the state lose every year millions of work days and billions of rubles.

When flitters and loafers are fired, they start filing lawsuits, and, not working, win payments for supposedly involuntary unemployment. Dismissal from an establishment for violating labor discipline, as a rule, is no sort of punishment at all for truants, since in the majority of cases they quickly find work in other establishments.

Using current regulations about granting vacations, according to which the right to vacation is granted after 5 1/2 months of work in a factory or institution, flitters and loafers, running from one establishment to another, contrive to get two vacations in one year, ending up in a preferred position over conscientious laborers and office-workers.

In housing projects, built by factories for their laborers and office workers, apartments are often occupied by persons who either voluntarily quit work in these establishments or were fired for violating labor discipline; because of this laborers and office workers, who have worked long and honorably in one establishment, are entirely deprived of necessary living-space.

In distribution of trips to rest homes and sanatoriums, flitters and truants enjoy the same rights as honestly working laborers and office-workers. In the same way, both in payment of insurance awards for temporary infirmity, and in the awarding of pensions, the necessary sharp distinction is not made between conscientious workers with long uninterrupted terms of service in a given factory or institution, and violators of labor discipline — flitters, running from some factories and institutions to others.

Some trade-union, managerial, and even judicial organs show an inadmissible, antisocial, complaisance toward violators of labor discipline and even connive with them — against the interests of the people and the state, — often deciding questions about reinstatement at work, about payment of insurance for temporary inability to work, about eviction from factory apartments, etc. in favor of flitters and truants.

All this leads to a situation, where dishonorable workers, laboring little, can live at the expense of the state, at the expense of the people. This evokes just protests from the majority of laborers and office workers. It demands the introduction of various changes in current rules of internal labor administration and in the norms of social insurance, so that in the future there will no longer be the same treatment for conscientious workers as for loafers and flitters; so that encouragement will be offered only to honestly working laborers and office workers, and not to those who subvert labor discipline and skip easily from one establishment to another.

Major abuses are found also in the practice of using leave for pregnancy and birth. It often happens that some women, seeking by deceitful means to live at the expense of the state, go to work in factories or institutions soon before giving birth only in order to receive the 4-month paid leave, and never return to work. The interests of the state demand an immediate end to this abuse..

Moreover, laws against vagabonds are still on the books in the United States today. According to one writer, it was not unusual for these laws to be used against Black men even into the 1950s in Birmingham. Police would sweep up all men who appeared to be without jobs. Once convicted, they would be hired out the mining companies. Carl V. Harris writes of this practice in his 1972 book, “Reforms in Government Control of Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama, 1890-1990”

“When the newspapers announce that the ever alert Sheriff and his trusted deputies rounded up some twenty or thirty negroes in the woods, wounded two or three and landed the balance in the county jail for crap shooting, does anybody believe that the peace of the county is being conserved, or does every man know that the syndicate is trying to reimburse itself for its campaign expenditures?” Thus did Walker Perry, chief attorney for the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, denounce in 1912 the oppressive fee system, under which the Sheriff’s “syndicate” in Birmingham and Jefferson County, Alabama, allegedly earned $50,000 per year in fees by energetically arresting Negroes on petty gambling charges. Perry, as chairman of a reform crusade to abolish the fee system in Jefferson County, was one of many reform movement leaders who between 1890 and 1920 sought to remedy defects in the local government’s methods of controlling Negroes.

Most Birmingham whites believed that their local government should exercise vigilant control over the Negroes who composed approximately 40 percent of the population of their city. In 1889 the editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald declared: ‘The negro is a good laborer when his labor can be controlled and directed, but he is a very undesirable citizen.” In 1906 the editor of the Birmingham News said: ‘Anyone visiting a Southern city or town must be impressed at witnessing the large number of loafing negroes… They can all get work, but they don’t want to work. The result is that they sooner or later get into mischief or commit crimes.” The editor believed that such Negroes were “not only a menace to the public safety” but also “to some extent a financial burden upon the taxpayers.”

The Constitution actually allows this practice in the very amendment that outlawed slavery:

Thirteenth Amendment – Slavery And Involuntary Servitude

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

For decades this amendment was used to justify state action that in essence, reproduced all the vilest practices of slavery. How soon will it be before these laws are applied to the 99er population?

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