Monday, April 12, 2010

Free market capitalism and systemic contradictions

Gonzalo Lira notes that "Critics of free-market capitalism, especially of the Marxist persuasion, love talking about its 'systemic contradictions'."

I am not a critic of "free markets". First of all, the critical markets under capitalism — especially the "market" for capital itself — are not free; they do not even resemble free markets. The markets for goods and services are also not free, neither actually nor effectively: the "market" for goods and services is just a secondary market for the use of the capital required to produce them. The only effectively free market is the market for labor power. Only the market for labor power does what a free market is supposed to do: drive prices to their costs. Only the market for the labor component of goods and services consumed is actually free.

The crucial systemic contradictions in capitalism come from not from the concept of a "free market" but rather the private ownership of capital. To criticize capitalism on the basis of the "free market" is like criticizing Christianity because it has an ethical system, rather than criticizing Christianity because its ethical systems enormously privileges the clergy and the ruling class du jour, and they conceal this enormous privilege by blatant lies.

The free market is fundamentally a Good Idea, in much the same sense that a complex social ethical system that encourages people to "sacrifice" their individual benefit for their mutual benefit is a Good Idea. A free market simply says that, absent a compelling reason otherwise, people should individually choose what to consume or not consume, individually choose what to produce or not produce, and individually choose whether or not to make specific trades between what they produce and what they wish to consume. The opposite is absurd: people should not ordinarily be told — even by a truly democratic process — what to consume, produce or trade. But — unlike capitalism — when they do individually choose to what to produce, they must do so not for their exclusive private benefit, but also for the mutual benefit of everyone in society.

Simply calling an economic system a "free market" system does not make it one in actual reality, and capitalism is not a free market system. The market for everything is fundamentally dominated and made un-free by the private ownership of the capital required to produce everything. Even raw services are dominated by education, credentials and certifications, which require capital to obtain. The capitalist ruling class maintains the economic privilege of the professional-managerial middle class by artificially restricting free entry (and exit) to the capital necessary to obtain education and credentials, thereby securing the middle class's self-interest in maintaining the enormously larger privilege of the capitalist ruling class.

Any socialist who even mentions free-market capitalism without at least putting scare quotes around "free-market" is buying into and promoting capitalism's fundamental lie: that capitalism represents freedom and its opponents reject freedom. It is more accurate for socialists to note that since the market for capital cannot be free, it must be socialized in order to make other markets effectively free.