One of libertarianism’s key insights is the emphasis on the role of institutions in shaping society. That’s why you don’t find many libertarians complaining that, “Bush is the problem,” or “Obama needs to go!” It’s not that we don’t think Bush and Obama are horrible (we do!), it’s that we recognize the real problem is structural. The system is ultimately what’s to blame, not whoever happens to be in power.
Politically focused change is overrated. After all, the sentiment that “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them” is a depressingly accurate description of the political system.
While libertarian-sounding, the originator of the above quote is actually Karl Marx. Much like social activists who start out in grassroots movements, but later succumb to the scrumptious appeal of party politics, Marx seemed to, at one point, understand the problem of trying to change the system from within.
While on to something, Marx later ignored the role of institutions in his class analysis.
Marx identified the proletariat class, or people who have nothing to offer but their labor power since they don’t control any of the means of production (capital), and the bourgeois class (the capitalists), those who control the means of production, buy the labor of the proletariat, thereby exploiting them.
What Marx gets right is that there is a class conflict between those who have access to capital and those who don’t, making the latter rely on the former for subsistence.
What Marx gets wrong is the cause of this unequal distribution of access to capital. His analysis stops short because he thinks this is just somehow the natural outcome of the market process. But Marx, ironically, earlier pointed out that the origination of the unequal distribution lies in state power,
“The bourgeoisie, at its rise, wants and uses the power of the state to regulate wages, i.e., to force them within the limits suitable for surplus value making, to lengthen the working day and to keep the laborer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation.”
This “primitive accumulation,” enabled by the state, then, is ultimately what divorced labor from the means of production, leading to the “wage system” where laborers must sell their labor to capitalists to survive.
Kevin Carson explains legislation, such as the Poor Laws and the Combination Laws, contributed to the primitive accumulation by stealing massive amounts of land from the peasantry who homesteaded it, and granting it to the propertied classes, thereby continuing the old-age Feudal system under the name of “capitalism.”
This systematic exploitation didn’t end there. Benjamin Tucker pointed out the ways in which state intervention created and sustained monopoly capitalism through the 19th century. His “four monopolies” (money, land, tariff, patent) further entrenched the capitalists and laborers in their respective social ranks. Charles Johnson elaborated on Tucker’s “Big Four” with other monopolies that have their origin later on (agribusiness, infrastructure, utility, regulatory structure, and health care), but are no less oppressive and distorting.
Marx, then, is completely wrong when he argues class conflict arises out of the free market itself. Voluntary exchange doesn’t lead to a system of exploitation and unequal distribution of access to the means of production: the state does that.
Despite seemingly acknowledging that social change is unlikely to come from within the system, and the “capitalist mode of production” that Marx loathed so much was a result of statist intervention, he nonetheless advocated for state socialism to pave the way for his communistic utopia. A few of his steps to achieve communism include,
Marx’s plan fatally ignores the role of institutions. Thinking that the laborers could overtake the government and implement beneficial measures assumes the problem is merely the people in charge. The issue isn’t that people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have so much power; the issue is that the system allows for people to gain that much power. Real change means getting to the root of the problem. It means addressing the system itself. If “radical” is understood as “getting to the root of things,” Marx’s Manifesto is the least radical plan you could imagine.
A proper conception of class analysis, a libertarian conception, is one where the determining factor isn’t your relationship to the means of production, but instead your relationship to political power. Those in the political class, ones with either direct (politicians) or indirect (corporations, wealthy donors) access to the state’s monopoly on force are in a position to exploit the lower class, those without access to political power.
This class analysis not only has more explanatory power than Marx’s because it actually shows how some people come to gain monopoly access to the means of production, the historical record vindicates it.
While, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!” was Marx’s call to action, in light of our class analysis, libertarians can proudly and confidently exclaim,
Let the ruling classes tremble at a free market revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, visit our guest submissions page. Like what you read here? You can sign up for a weekly digest of the SFL blog and subscribe for a weekly update on SFL’s events, leadership programs, and resources.