As we previously announced, libertarian economist Per Bylund and Andrew Kliman of Marxist-Humanist Initiative debated the nature of freedom and what is needed to create a free society in a two-hour debate that took place in Stockholm, Sweden on September 14. Two hundred people attended the meeting, which was also broadcast via Livestream. The event was co-sponsored by Cor.ax / bubb.la (projects of a Swedish libertarian group), and Marxist-Humanist Initiative.
We are eagerly awaiting the release of the video of this debate, and will include it here once it is released. In the meantime, here is the audio of the debate audio of the debate. It also includes, at the end (beginning at 1:35:39 into the audio), a follow-up discussion between Bylund and Kliman that took place the next day.
And here is the text of Kliman’s opening remarks in the debate.
Below are Ravi Bali’s in-person report and commentary on the debate, followed by a reply by Kliman to blog posts on the debate written by Bylund and Jared Howe, an anarcho-libertarian in the U.S.
Libertarian and Marxist-Humanist Debate Freedom:
An In-Person Report/Commentary
by Ravi Bali
In his opening statement, Kliman put forward the proposition that capitalism is founded on the unfreedom of working people. They don’t own and control their means of making a living—means of production—and must therefore choose between starving and working under the domination of one or another capitalist.
Kliman argued that this situation developed in England about 500 years ago. At the time, the largest class of people were independent yeoman farmers who—in practice, if not formally–owned and controlled their own land, but then the landlords began driving them off the land. This process of dispossession, followed by violent laws against former farming families who turned to begging and thievery, turned them into a class of people whose only choices are to starve or work under the domination of capital. Kliman characterized this as an injustice of historic magnitude and, echoing Marx, called for the re-establishment of the direct producers’ individual property in means of production by expropriating the expropriators.
Bylund addressed the issue of social freedom in terms of state versus market. He suggested that the market is a sort of preference optimisation mechanism, and that state interference with this mechanism only distorts the necessary signals by which producers can effectively meet society’s needs. He did not respond directly to the proposition that capitalism was the existence of a class of wage-labourers that was created through acts of coercion and dispossession. He seemed to acknowledge that acts of violence occurred. Yet he muddied the waters by attributing the unfreedom inherent in existing property relations to state intervention and vestiges of feudalism, rather than landlords’ expropriation of free peasants.
In response to Kliman’s claim that the economic laws of capitalism operate like an “invisible fist,” Bylund said that there are no laws of capitalism, only economic laws as such. He also argued that there is no real difference between the market and society; these are just two sides of the same coin. This suggests that he is unable or unwilling to see capitalism as a specific form of social organisation that arises at a particular point in history. As a result, he also fails to appreciate that capitalism is predicated upon a primitive (primary) accumulation of capital that is little more than theft, and that all subsequent capitalist development springs from this. Despite accusing Kliman of not starting at the beginning (because he did not address where the means of production come from), it was Bylund who took no account of actual history but posed the development of capitalism in entirely abstract ways.
Bylund did not directly challenge Kliman’s argument that, in order to live freely instead of succumbing to the domination by others, people need to own and control their own means of production. However, he suggested that not all accumulation of capital today is based on unjust claims; some capital has arisen through work that has created new means of production and has enhanced their value. He also justified his refusal to endorse a return to direct producers’ individual property in means of production by claiming that restitution is impossible; the peasants expropriated 500 years ago are dead and their descendants cannot be identified. Thus, Bylund’s libertarian call to eliminate the state, so that the market can operate without fetters, is in effect an apology for existing capitalism and an acceptance of “wage-slavery” on which capitalism is founded.
The libertarian conception of how capitalism functions is too superficial, abstract and ahistorical to explain the real basis for unfreedom up till now or, going forward, the possibility of freedom. Unlike Marx’s conception, libertarianism does not go to the roots of the issue.
Reply to Per Bylund and Jared Howe
by Andrew Kliman
In a Mises Institute blog post written two days after my debate with him, Per Bylund offered a couple of follow-up comments. Jared Howe is an anarcho-libertarian in the U.S. who wrote a commentary about the debate. I’ll begin with two points made by Bylund during the debate that Howe repeats.
Returning Individual Property to the Direct Producers
In my opening remarks at the debate, and throughout, I stressed that capitalist production is founded on the forcible and violent expropriation of the independent yeoman farmers’ land by the landlords, starting in England about 500 years ago. Prior to that point, the independent farmers, who were the largest social class in England, owned and controlled the land–in practice, if not in the written law. This expropriation, and violence suppression of begging and thievery, deprived them of the means they needed to make a living and compelled them to either starve or work under the domination of one or another capitalist.
The subsequent development of capitalism has perpetuated, reinforced, and widened this situation; today, the vast majority of the working population must either starve or work under the domination of capital because it lacks ownership and control of the means of production it needs to make a living. What Marx envisioned, and what I advocated during the debate, was reversing this world-historical injustice—returning individual property (means of production) to the folks who do the work, by expropriating the expropriators.
Bylund failed to address this issue directly. He instead attributed today’s property relations, which he considers unjust, “largely” to violence by the state, and to vestiges of feudalism. He never mentioned the landlords’ expropriation of the independent yeoman peasantry. However, he did reject expropriation of the expropriators on the grounds that what’s done is done and it supposedly cannot be undone. One can’t give back property to people who are long dead, and their ancestors can’t easily be identified.
I didn’t bother to respond to this argument, because I didn’t think anyone would buy it. But then I read Howe’s repetition of it:
in order for there to be a redress of damages, the victims and perpetrators would need to be alive. Since they aren’t, and since none of the other people currently living knew them, use of capital that was previously stolen from them couldn’t possibly constitute complicity in the expropriation itself. Even if they were still living and could be located, what is to be done if the stolen capital has already changed hands? What if the current possessor has no knowledge of the expropriation?
It is hard to respond to the idea that “redress of damages” is no longer possible, because it is so obviously false. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent advocated reparations for living African-Americans because of “[p]ast injustices and crimes against African Americans”:
There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement, colonization and colonialism were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.
The Working Group is not concerned with the difficulty of scrutinizing every African-American to determine which ones have ancestors who were slaves and which ones do not, just as I am not concerned with the difficulty of scrutinizing every worker to see which ones had ancestors who were yeoman farmers in England and which ones do not. There is no need to concern ourselves with such things, because the Working Group is talking about reparations to the African-American community, just as I am talking about returning individual property to classes of dispossessed people. The point is that past violence is the cause of ongoing harm to members of the African-American community and the working classes today.
What Bylund and Howe probably mean isn’t that redress of damages is impossible, but that any redress that can take place now is incompatible with their individualistic, private-property-based “principles.” Of course it isn’t compatible. But we live in a society that’s free to some extent, and one of our most precious freedoms is the freedom not to adhere to libertarian principles. The great majority of us exercise that freedom—many, many more would do so if not for propaganda produced with the Koch brothers’ billions—and Bylund and Howe can do so as well. Just walk away from these principles!
They’re not handed down by God, after all. You folks preoccupy yourselves with carefully constructing them and tweaking them to get the outcomes you want. (Rig the principles to get the outcomes you prefer. Then appeal to the principles to “justify” the outcomes you prefer. A fine case of begging the question!) You are free to choose different principles that lead to different outcomes. So any rejection of expropriation of the expropriators based on libertarian principles is really rejection based on the fact that it isn’t what you happen to choose—not only choose for yourselves, but choose to impose on everyone else as well.
Means of Production and Consumer Goods
Bylund (in his blog post) and Howe (in his commentary on the debate) take issue with the distinction between means of production and consumer goods, arguing that the distinction “is confusing and unintuitive in practice,” as Bylund put it. He tries to fuzz up the distinction by noting that “[y]ou can use your house as both dwelling and office, your car for both personal transportation and business, and so on. … a physical resource may be used interchangeably as production and consumption goods — or both at the same time.” Howe basically just repeats this argument. Their apparent motivation is to force people who favor private ownership of consumer goods but not private ownership of means of production into abandoning the distinction and accepting private ownership of everything.
I have little interest in this issue. It is much less important than the issue of whether we return to a situation in which the means of production (and consumer goods) belong to the people who do the work, or whether they must either starve or submit to being dominated by one or another capitalist because they lack their own means of production. For instance, I think we really would be getting somewhere if Bylund and Howe were to embrace private property in the following way–call for the expropriation of the expropriators that will restore the direct producers’ ownership and control of their means of production, but continue to insist that the direct producers should hold their property as private property instead of common property. If they don’t go that far, I think they are opponents of freedom for the vast majority of people. Indeed, they tacitly support the propertylessness of the vast majority.
But for what it’s worth, the distinction between means of production and consumer goods is more robust than Bylund and Howe make it seem. That’s because, contrary to what Bylund wrote (quoted above), the distinction doesn’t pertain to how a good “may be used.” It isn’t a distinction between “means which Mr. Kliman deems to be capable of production and means which he doesn’t deem to be capable of production,” as Howe put it. The distinction pertains to how the good is actually used. A car being driven for personal transportation is not actually being used “at the same time” as a means of production in the production of taxicab services. A room of a house being used as living quarters is not actually being used “at the same time” as a business office.
So if the freely associated individuals in a socialist community decide to hold means of production in common, while giving individuals exclusive rights over consumer goods, there is no problem. If an individual wants to use her car for personal transportation, she alone will decide how to use it (subject to community standards such as not running red lights). If she wants to use it as a means of production to provide taxicab services, everyone will have a say. If an individual wants to use a room in his house as living quarters, he alone will decide how to use it. If he wants to use it as a “business” office (i.e., an office used in social production rather than private production), everyone will have a say. And so on.
Of course, there are borderline cases. There are always borderline cases. Someone might be transporting a passenger in her taxicab and driving home at the same time. Someone might be doing business in bed. But I don’t see that these borderline cases are of any interest or importance.
There are many misunderstandings of what I said in Bylund’s blog post and, especially, in Howe’s commentary. It would be too tedious to correct them all. I’ll just briefly flag the most important ones.
1. Bylund contends that “Kliman proposed ‘individual property,’ or ownership only of what one uses for personal needs but with communal ownership of the means of production.” No, I (following Marx) think that communal ownership of the means of production will return individual property to the folks who do the work.
2. Howe writes that I believe that “libertarianism and Marxism aren’t mutually incompatible.” I don’t believe that at all. I did point out that some things I said were consistent with libertarian ideology, but that’s a different matter.
3. He also “paraphrases” me as follows: “All means of production have been built with capital that was at one point expropriated, therefore it is morally justified to ‘expropriate from the expropriators” to collect restitution.’ This is a straw man. What I said was that the capitalist system is founded on, and that it reinforces and perpetuates, the original expropriation of the independent yeoman peasantry.
4. According to Howe, “Kliman … did honestly admit that he is unconcerned with the means by which his goals of egalitarianism are achieved. … the ends he’d like to see [are] a more equal distribution of wealth than what occurs under ‘state capitalism.’” But I “admitted” nothing of the sort. I don’t believe anything of the sort. The means used to achieve goals are important, and indeed they are inseparable from the ends—tyranny is not the road to freedom, etc. What may have confused Howe is that I think that both means and ends are important, while libertarians are typically obsessed only with means—legalisms and procedures—but not consequences.
Furthermore, Howe’s characterizations of my goal as “egalitarianism” and “a more equal distribution of wealth” are just putting words in my mouth. These are not my goals. My goal is a society is which everyone is free and, as a means to achieving that goal, I say that we need to return the means of production to the people who do the work. Howe’s version cuts out the heart of what I was arguing, and turns me into some garden-variety social democrat or Stalinist or something, someone who wants to level incomes and wealth while keeping the vast majority of the population under the domination of their bosses. No thanks.
5. Howe claims that I said that “those who don’t like the rules of a Marxist social order would be free to leave. This is a bit of a Machiavellian dilemma. On the one hand, you can have your property expropriated and be excluded from the use of it. On the other, you can abandon your property and be excluded from the use of it.” No. Turning means of production into communally-held individual property does not exclude anyone from using these means of production. It is an act of inclusion, not exclusion. Furthermore, it is a serious abuse of language to say that someone who voluntarily abandons their property is “excluded from the use of it.”
6. Howe writes that, “[a]ccording to Mr. Kliman and his comrades, a laborer’s decision to enter into a mutually consensual exchange agreement with the owner of a means of production constitutes expropriation of the laborer’s work. … What the libertarian sees as a mutually beneficial exchange (win-win) is always seen by the Marxist as subjugation (win-lose).”
This is utter nonsense. It simply reveals a complete lack of familiarity with what Marx and others have written about the issue. Marx spent pretty much his whole life combatting the Proudhonist notion that the exploitation of workers rests on unfair or unequal exchange. Furthermore, I repeatedly said during the debate that a worker who “voluntarily” chooses to exchange her labor-power for a wage, instead of starving to death, is a bit better off after the exchange than she was beforehand (in her own estimation). That’s a simple tautology. The market transaction between capitalist and workers is not the source of the workers’ subjugation to capital. The source of their subjugation is the fact that they no longer own and control the means of production they need to make a living.
Hayek and Mises
During the debate, I showed that Friedrich Hayek, one of the libertarians’ idols, favored a “free” labor market and a “free” reservoir of people who can be hired and fired at will, because these things allow capitalists to maintain “discipline” over workers. (Liberty indeed!) I also showed that, although Ludwig Mises—another of the libertarians’ idols—pretended to argue that workers aren’t at the mercy of employers, he did no such thing. He just changed the subject.
Neither Bylund nor Howe have responded to these points. I hope that they and other libertarians will do so.