​An Interview With Kevin Carson

from C4SS

Words Beyond the Market and the State, Pt. I

February 2nd, 2021

By Diego Avila and Luis Ricardo Vera

Today, as you can see from the title, we bring you the first of two parts of an interview with Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at C4SS who holds the Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. Recently there has been a translation of both his first book into Spanish, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (by the Innisfree publishing house), and also a translation of recent work, such as the one done by Confederatio Think Tank of the C4SS study entitled: “Libertarian Municipalism: Networked Cities as Resilient Platforms for Post-Capitalist Transition.” Given the arrival of this and more content to the Spanish language, we saw ourselves in the search to do an interview with Kevin Carson, to update us on the progress of his ideas such as his current vision on different topics: from the current opinion of his book Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, on common goods as topics related to his new book Exodus, on the situation in Venezuela and Latin America for the development of interstitial movements, etc.

We are really very happy to have been able to do this comprehensive and diverse interview for the Spanish-speaking audience, and we hope that it can also reach people in other languages. With nothing more to say, enjoy the interview:

1. First of all, we are glad that you have accepted an interview, it is a pleasure to interview you.

Kevin Carson: Thanks for the invitation!

2. Ten years have passed since you published Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. What do you think of the book today?

KC: It was actually published in 2004, so it’s been longer than that! Some parts of it hold up well. I’m especially proud of the first chapter and my treatment of the points in dispute between the classical political economists and the marginalists. I think the chapters on monopoly capitalism and imperialism also hold up pretty well.

3. Would you change or add anything? Could there be such thing as Studies in Mutualist Political Economy 2.0?

KC: Well there’s not going to be a new edition, that’s for damn sure. I stopped considering myself a market anarchist a long time ago, which entailed pretty much losing my interest in defending exchange value in general and labor/effort as a normative standard from the Marxists and non-market anarchists. I see the law of value much less in terms of micro-economic price formation theory or in relation to the classical political economists’ version of the LTV, as I did in 2004, and more as Marx did (at least as interpreted by Harry Cleaver) in light of primitive accumulation and the surplus-extracting imperative of capital. So responding to attacks on it in terms of microeconomic theory, or defending it in those terms — e.g. the obsession with the “transformation problem,” etc. — is beside the point.

I probably wouldn’t treat Bohm-Bawerk’s time preference theory with even the level of respect I did in Chapter Three, if I were writing it today. I briefly touched on the fact that time preference correlates strongly to poverty, and therefore is a form of positive feedback that reinforces and intensifies inequality. Coupled with the fact that it’s based on a money theory of credit (in Schumpter’s terms) rather than the reverse, I would have simply examined it for the purpose of dismissing it.

I have, however, maintained some interest in attacking the operating assumptions of marginalist economics, and other orthodoxies of right-libertarianism like Mises’ calculation argument (e.g.https://c4ss.org/content/52310; https://c4ss.org/content/52718). Someday I might organize all these commentaries into a single appendix to the value theory chapters of MPE for separate publication.

Aside from all that, I’d rework a lot of the property analysis in Chapter Four, make some major changes in my analysis of the crisis tendencies in Chapter Eight, and write a completely different Chapter Nine based on my research for Homebrew Industrial Revolution, Desktop Regulatory State, and Exodus.

4. Could you explain your subjective labor theory of value? In a way that wouldn’t scare subjectivists to death.

KC: The short and sweet version is that it’s based on the disutility of labor. The owners of other factors will distribute them according to their most profitable uses, but there’s no subjective sense of disutility in investing or allocating them in the same sense that effort is subjectively unpleasant for a worker, and leisure is subjectively good. Labor is the only factor that has to be persuaded to contribute its services.

5. Given you speak about Mutualist Political Economy, what can you say about the relationship between mutualism as an ideology and economics as a science?

KC: Probably not much that I haven’t touched on already in my two previous answers.

6. Your book is also known for its discussion of several forms of property rights (you discuss the georgist, lockean and mutualist view) What do you think of the lockean view? (Given it is the dominant view, we are curious about your thoughts)

KC: The Lockean view is dominant mostly ideologically, albeit in its non-proviso form. But for the most part I doubt Locke himself, let alone most of the mainstream pro-property polemicists who name-drop him, take even that version at all seriously. Certainly none of the folks like Niall Ferguson or Tom Friedman who lionize “property rights” could give a damn in practice what was the source of current land titles, or would give a damn that the overwhelming majority of them can be traced to conquest, robbery, or enclosure. And certainly no property law in any Western capitalist country involves anything like Locke’s theoretical standards for initial appropriation.

And Locke’s historical theory of “homesteading” as a justification for individual, fee-simple private property — which has been taken up uncritically by the overwhelming majority of right-libertarians — his absolute nonsense from the standpoint of history and anthropology. The idea that individual private property is some kind of naturally emerging institution that’s existed throughout history is a “nursery fable” or “just-so story” of the same kind as Smith’s emergence of the cash nexus through a “natural propensity to truck and barter,” or the emergence of specie currency as a response to the problem of “double coincidence of wants.” And it’s been utterly demolished by a whole host of historians and anthropologists, most recently David Graeber.

If there’s anything that was a historical norm for property models that existed almost universally from the neolithic revolution until the rise of the state — and persisted in many places under the state until just the last century or so — it would be Ostrom’s commons-based model of natural resource governance, and communal forms of land tenure like the open-field village model in India and the Mir in Russia. And those are also the models I would favor a return to.

I don’t want to devote a lot of space to rehashing the arguments here, but they can be found in my latest study for C4SS: https://c4ss.org/content/53305

7. How do the previously stated views relate to your support for commons-based property forms?

KC: I think I got ahead of myself and mostly answered this question in my response to the previous one. Suffice it to say I think commons-based property forms were the historic norm, and that if any particular form of property has ever truly emerged peacefully and been maintained by consensus, it was them. The current model of land and resource titles derived from robbery and enclosure is at the heart of capitalism’s treatment of land and resources as artificially abundant, and its growth model of extensive addition of material inputs and treating nature as a free sink for carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. A commons based model is necessary for overcoming the structural effects of this artificial abundance. And commons-based ownership of land and commons-based living arrangements — a sort of return to Bookchin’s “irreducible minimum” of the necessities of life guaranteed to people as members of organic social units like hunter-gatherer groups and neolithic villages — will be what ensures our survival after state- and employer-based safety nets collapse.

8. We also know you’re working on this new book Exodus: General Idea of the Revolution in XXI Century that sums up several topics you have developed throughout the years. Could you tell our readers what is the basis of this book?

KC: It was inspired by the previous research I’d done in my C4SS studies on horizontalist revolutionary strategy, on post-scarcity and techno-utopianism, and on the new municipalism. The general theme is the shift from Old Left strategies for post-capitalist transition through insurrectionary rupture, or revolutionary or electoral seizure of the state, and centered on mass-based institutions like political parties or syndicalist unions, to strategies based on horizontalist organization and interstitial development of the future society. The significance of technological changes, like cheap high-tech machinery suited to small-scale production for use in the social economy, and networked communications systems, figures strongly in making Exodus more feasible relative to the seizure of existing institutions.

9. In light of analysis about “seeds under the snow” (municipal structures, counterinstitutions) How do you see that development in Latin America?

10. What guidelines, advices or ideas would you give to us people of that region, in order to implement the ideas you sketch in your work?

11. We would like to focus on the case of Venezuela, being a country that faces several difficulties (economic, institutional, etc) for planting these seeds. How could these ideas be implemented with such difficulties? How could it help fight the authoritarian Venezuelan State?

12. You’ve also spoken of a “bolivarian communitarianism” that is using the structure of existing communes (that are a way of control rather than an anarchist commune) to generate authentic anarchic communes they have generated conflict within the Bolivarian movement. Could you explain to us what that Bolivarian communitarism is? What do you think of chavismo and the Bolivarian movement?

KC: If you don’t object, I’m consolidating my answers to these four questions because they’re so closely related.

In general, I see the Latin American counter-power movements confronted with the same kind of dilemma that the Syntagma movement faced in dealing with the Syriza government in Greece, and that Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson faced dealing with Mayor Lumumba’s administration. Leftist electoral or revolutionary movements may — and in most cases do — come to power sincerely motivated to implement the agendas of allied social movements and counter-institutions. But once in power, the party governments are faced with their own institutional imperatives, and confronted with problems they must address as governments, which means their focus will be almost entirely on pursuing the kinds of conventional policy options available to governments to increase revenue, develop the economy and increase output/employment, combat capital flight, etc. — even when it means weakening the social movements that put them in power, and coopting their counter-institutions. Even through the best of intentions, the governments will pursue developmentalist/extractivist economic policies; they will negotiate with neoliberal regimes in the West and neoliberal multilateral bodies based on “what’s possible” (see, for example, the way Syriza threw the Syntagma movement under the bus in negotiating with the European Central Bank, and imposed austerity because from their perspective it was the “only realistic option”); and they will coopt the counter-institutions, turn them into transmission belts for state policy, and make them dependent on state funding.

This is not to say that social movements centered on interstitial transition and the construction of counter-institutions, building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old, etc., should not engage with the state or — selectively — make common cause with electoral or revolutionary movements.

But it requires a realist approach based on a division of labor, which will persist regardless of whether the political arm achieves state power. The social movements must be firm in their understanding that their purpose is to construct the successor society within the interstices of the existing one, through the creation and development of counter-institutions, regardless of who controls the state. And they must be openly resolved not to defer to the party in power, even if it is an offshoot of their own movement, or allow it to constrain their range of alternatives.

And while the electoral or revolutionary party is still entirely an opposition party, with no immediate hope for power, it must be given to understand that the social movements will not recognize its authority to restrain their efforts in constructing the successor society. The political arm’s central purpose, whether in or out of power, is to run political interference on behalf of the social movements, and to maximize their space for independent action — whether it be through popular mobilization against domestic and international forces, or in negotiations with neoliberal actors abroad. In face both the political and social arms must operate from the explicit understanding that the latter will always maintain their entire independence, and will not be bound by any concessions made by the political arm (as was the case with Syriza in its negotiations with the European Central Bank). Rather, it is to be understood that the entire autonomy of the social movements will serve to cloak the political arm with plausible deniability, enabling it to play “good cop” in negotiating with the United States, IMF or whomever, and to say “We’d like to grant this concession, but we have no authority to enforce it on the local communes. If we make a deal they don’t like, they’ll just do something even more radical than they’re doing now.”

I hesitate, as a white man in the Global North sitting in front of my computer, to give unsolicited advice to anyone actively engaged in real-life struggle in the neo-colonial world. But to the extent that I have any, it would be the same whether for those in Venezuela or elsewhere. For social movements whose political arms have not yet taken power, my advice would be essentially what I outlined in the paragraphs above.

For those in countries where the political arm has taken power, the situation is much harder. For the Left while the Workers’ Party was in power in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia, and for the grassroots Bolivarian movement in Venezuela to the present day, it seems to be a tightrope walk between, on the one hand, fighting for freedom of action against the official parties of the Left that are in power, and resisting their conventional Old Left developmentalist/extractivist approach, and on the other, defending the regimes in power against attempts by the West to impose neoliberal coups from without (as has already been done in Brazil and Bolivia, and is being attempted through Guaido in Venezuela).

Their range of action is quite limited, and they face realities on the ground many of which I know little or nothing of. So my “advice,” such as it is, is entirely tentative. To the extent that Maduro depends on the mass, communal, and neighborhood organizations to stay in power, they should do their best to keep his mind constantly on that fact, and to make clear what they expect in return for their loyalty. To the extent that his remaining in power depends on their active mobilization and intervention in his defense, they should use that mobilization as much as possible to secure a permanent organizational base for leverage in the future (the position of increased leverage obtained by the Bolsheviks, as a result of the Red Guards’ role in turning back Kornilov’s assault, is what comes to mind for me). They should send out feelers to political factions within the Bolivarian regime, and to individual actors in the state bureaucracy, that are friendly to the original Bolivarian model and to the counter-institutions, and develop stronger alliances with them. They should take advantage of all material and technical resources that act as force-multipliers or facilitate community bootstrapping, in order to shift the communal counter-institutions towards a model of actual production for subsistence rather than disbursement of state revenues.

I think the Bolivarian movement that put Chavez into power was of the same general type as the EZLN in Chiapas, and the Kurdish communalists in Rojava — that is, a movement aiming at, in John Holloway’s words, changing the world without taking power. Or creating cracks in the system, and expanding the cracks and joining them together, until they become the system. Hugo Chavez was sincerely motivated to make this vision a reality through state power, but he fell victim to all the perverse institutional incentives I mentioned above facing leftist parties in power, and Maduro even more so. He was essentially taken prisoner by his own power.

Words Beyond the Market and the State, Pt. II

February 4th, 2021

Here we bring the second part of the interview with Kevin Carson, made by Diego Avila and Luis R. Vera. To access the first part click here. In this part, we finish with the questions related to the counter-economy and Venezuela as other parts of Latin America, as well as some questions about the evolution of Kevin Carson’s thought over the years and his brief opinions on the work of Bryan Caplan, like Jason Brennan on democracy. Without further ado, we leave you the following part:

13. Because of the crisis, many Venezuelans have turned to countereconomic activities, but more as means of survival. What do you think of those activities in totalitarian states? Does a Venezuelan countereconomy find insoluble problems?

KC: I don’t think there are insoluble problems. There are certainly different degrees of constraint on freedom of action. But so long as there’s even limited freedom of action, by taking the most feasible actions first, it’s possible to use the benefits from those actions as leverage for other actions. In particular, when communities avail themselves of the options that require the least immediate investment of material resources — i.e. saving seed from market produce to raise vegetables in community gardens, etc., so as to maximize food independence and resilience — the increased productivity and savings free up further resources for stocking community repair shops with used tools to keep machinery running, etc. Likewise mutual aid practices for pooling risk, which increases collective resilience against economic shocks. Communities that take the approach of mapping all the common resources already available that are not currently put to full productive use, or the tools and other resources possessed by individuals that are mostly idle, and planning to put them all to full productive use, often find that their range of possibilities is much greater than they initially thought. And identifying the bottlenecks in the local economy — especially the ones that can be built out most cheaply — and applying the productivity from the previous development to fund that build-out, can bootstrap further local development.

14. A usual characteristic of counter economies is that they’re about “simple” goods and services such as cigarettes, books, or painting houses. We don’t usually see them take on complex goods and services like housing, cars or banking. How do you think counter economies could hand these things?

KC: This brings us back to the potential of open-source micro-manufacturing technology, permaculture, and the like, and models of local economic bootstrapping based on import substitution as discussed by everyone from Jane Jacobs to Colin Ward to Karl Hess. Ward and Hess both advocated community workshops equipped with unused tools owned by individual members, which I already discussed above. And all three of those thinkers discussed a model of local manufacturing through import substitution that starts off custom-machining replacement parts for machinery and appliances, and gradually evolves into distributed manufacturing of entire appliances (the model Jacobs mentioned was Japanese bicycle factories, which evolved from individual bicycle repair shops custom-machining replacement parts and then gradually networking to produce entire bicycles). This is aided by a revolution in low-cost tabletop machine tools suitable for local production. If you take a look at the Global Village Construction Set, a complete ecology of cheap, open-source, modular-designed production machinery and farm tools developed by Factor e Farm, you get the idea.

And housing is something that, in fact, people have done amazing things to produce from very limited materials, through sheer ingenuity, in favelas throughout Latin America as well as in the kinds of worker-built homes Colin Ward wrote about.

As for cars, most of the capital-intensive forms of production machinery required to make them are a result of design choices, not inherent. The enormous engine blocks of an American automobile, from the 30s on, were chosen to enable the rapid acceleration during highway driving; that engine capacity was needed only a small minority of the time. An automobile designed primarily for supplementary needs in a community centered on foot, bicycle, bus, streetcar, etc., transportation, or for bringing light loads to and from people on the outskirts of a community, could function perfectly well with an electric motor. The two-story stamping presses in Detroit are required only because of the aesthetic choice for molded body panels; it would be perfectly feasible to cut body panels out of flat sheet metal on a cutting table, on the pattern of old-style US Post Office trucks. And so on….

And banking only requires preexisting capital if you are bound by laws that restrict the supply of credit to those with stocks of such capital. But as I argued in one of the essays linked above, credit is functionally just a system of producers advancing their current production to each other and requires no savings from past production. Rightfully speaking, it should be organized entirely as a system of horizontal flows, and this could be done through something like Thomas Greco’s mutual credit model.

15. For this question, we ought to introduce a thinker:

Abraham Guillén was a Spanish anarchist who is of real interest to anarchists around here. A friend called him Spain’s Kevin Carson, and your ideas are indeed similar. He defended a free market socialism in the manner of Tucker, but asserted that such a thing would eventually lead to a post-scarcity anarchocommunism. [Info: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Guill%C3%A9n]

What do you make of all this? Did you know Guillén? Regardless, what do you think of his ideas? Does free market libertarian socialism lead to anarchist communism? It is interesting to see a sketch of such self managed market theories in the twentieth century.

KC: I am vaguely familiar with him but not with with his economic ideas. In recent years I have shifted from identifying as a market anarchist or individualist anarchist to an anarchist without adjectives. That is, I reject hyphenated anarchisms that envision a post-state society organized around any particular economic template like markets, syndicates, etc. I believe the successor society will be an emergent phenomenon growing out of all the different counter-institutions people are building now out of practical necessity, rather than being organized in accordance with any monolithic ideological model. So it will be an eclectic mixture of expedients that varies from one area to the next.

As such, I suspect there will be a mix of markets and communism, with the lines between them being very blurry. Just my own personal guess, but I expect that most consumption goods like food, clothing, furniture, etc., and most household appliances that are amenable to production in small-scale shops, will most likely be produced in the workshops and gardens of micro-villages and other multi-family co-living arrangements, in which a guaranteed “irreducible minimum” of subsistence (in Bookchin’s terms) is every member’s by birthright. Markets will exist (probably coexisting with federal or syndical arrangements, with one or the other predominating from area to area) primarily in things like heavy producer goods and the surpluses produced by local communities. But it’s just my guess. The main thing I’m pretty sure of, like Graeber, is that almost nowhere will people be willing to recognize absentee titles to unused land, or to work for wages for absentee owners when they can just tear down the fence and work for themselves.

16. Mr. Carson it is known that in the past you were on board with paleoconservatives ideas. In recent years some paleolibertarians have approached the ideas of left wing market anarchism. What do you make of this? How have your cultural views evolved?

KC: I think what you’re referring to is in the Nineties, before I became an anarchist. For a period of several years I flirted with traditionalist Catholicism, and with classical conservative ideas — especially those like agrarianism and distributism that were amenable to economic decentralism or populism. Along with these ideas I also embraced the social conservatism of trad Catholicism, I’m embarrassed to say in retrospect.

It was further research into the implications of economic decentralism that led me leftward and to embracing anarchism. And it was anarchism, combined — in roughly the same time frame — with going online and encountering marginalized people outside my insulated bubble, that caused me to shift leftward on social issues fairly rapidly and abandon that regrettable baggage.

I’ve never embraced paleoconservatism as such, although at one point — in the early 2000s — I was more open to tactical alliances with them. But over the years I’ve become increasingly hostile. Rothbard, in my opinion, abandoned anything of value in his past thought and embraced evil in his later paleolibertarian days, and Lew Rockwell was his partner in an evil project. And Hoppeanism has been a pipeline to outright fascism.

I’m glad that the time I adhered to socially conservative ideas was before I accessed the online world or had any work published, so that I had no opportunity to influence anyone with those harmful ideas. Even so, I feel a special obligation to openly embrace anti-racism, feminism and LGBT rights now, and to fight privilege, because of those past beliefs. And I’m thankful I left them behind.

17. Recently we have seen authors like Jason Brennan and Michael Huemer attack the state on a common sense morality basis. Brennan has had a rough relationship with left libertarians and they have controversially defended academia. What do you make of their ideas and arguments? Do you agree with their thoughts on academia?

KC: I’m not familiar with Huemer’s position, but I’m pretty adamantly opposed to Brennan’s positions on academia — particular the struggle of adjunct workers for fair pay and working conditions. For me the primary evil in academia is all the structural irrationalities and moral hazards inherent in their responsibility to the absentee state and business interests represented on boards of trustees, and the bureaucratic hierarchies that govern them. Exploding administrative overhead, skyrocketing tuition, construction boondoggles, the obsessive focus on athletics as a cash cow, and the precaritization of faculty, are all inevitable results of this. I would favor a model of reform centered on stakeholder cooperative governance (possibly based on a revival of the medieval Bologna model Paul Goodman discussed in Community of Scholars), and the kinds of ad hoc, low-overhead expedients Goodman discussed in People or Personnel.

18. Notably, Bryan Caplan has attacked modern electoral systems, saying voters tend to be irrational and make bad, biased choices. On the other hand, you support the new municipalism as a prefigurative policy, such would participate in voting to transform institutions into a “municipal partner state” to pass to “the administration of things”; Do Caplan’s work clash with or complement what you’ve written? What do you think of his work?

KC: Caplan’s views on democracy clash with mine — as do Jason Brennan’s which are quite similar. The problem, in both cases, is that they treat immaculate “expertise” as something that exists independent of class or institutional interest, and ignore the ways in which the orthodoxies of (say) professional economists implicitly reflect such interests. So it’s very well to say “economists all agree that free trade is good, which those ignorant yokels who vote for Trump or Bernie are too stupid to understand.” But the institutional assumptions behind neoliberal economics are betrayed by the fact that orthodox economists use the term “free trade” in reference to an international system of intellectual property protectionism that enforces global corporations’ monopoly over outsourced goods, combined with multilateral gunboat diplomacy to enforce capitalists’ titles to looted and enclosed farmland, mineral resources, and the like, and the use of debt blackmail to compel crony capitalist privatizations of the commons.

Creating a collection of philosopher kings based on “expertise” will absolutely guarantee the making of policy designed to enable economic rent extraction by the economic classes whose interests the “expertise” of orthodox economists reflects.

I agree with Chris Dillow, an anti-managerialist British Marxist who maintains the Stumbling and Mumbling blog, that everyone is prone to cognitive biases, and that large, centralized, and hierarchical systems are beyond rational management by anybody. The solution is to scale down institutions as much as possible to the point that day to day decisions made at the lowest level — in commons-based local institutions, worker-managed enterprises, and the like — based on the distributed knowledge of those in direct contact with the situation.

Thanks again!

There is 1 Comment

Great interview. I didn't know a lot about Kevin's writings, but this made me curious.

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