What to Call Ourselves? – Opting Out


Anarcho-capitalists get a lot of flack for supposedly preaching the virtues of freedom of association and arrangement, yet stick rigidly to a hierarchical framework in their applications.

We accept that a stateless society would permit any kind of voluntary arrangement, yet only see things from the “capitalist” perspective: Couching the debate in terms of “property”, “ownership”, “markets”, “business”, “capital”. We rail against the dangers of “collectivism”, and look disparagingly upon self-described “socialists”. But when pressed, we admit that in the society we would like, capitalists and socialists could, depending on the definition, co-exist peacefully.

Some say even the term anarcho-”capitalist” is a misnomer. This is because by our own principles, there is nothing wrong with individuals rejecting a market economy where businesses acquire and accumulate capital, hire employees, etc. That last part is true: We have no objection to people who don’t want to participate in the market, and would rather be hunter-gatherers, or join communes where work and produce are shared equally. That is, provided those individuals do not coerce anyone else.

I think it is a useful term so we can specify exactly what kind of “anarchism” we are talking about — because many perceive the word “anarchy” to denote rejections of all kinds of hierarchy, regardless of whether there is a state involved or not. Strictly, what the anarcho-capitalist version of “anarchy” is, is a society that is not ruled by a state, yet in which the accumulation of capital and free enterprise is permitted. A society in which people voluntarily arrange themselves into hierarchies, whether they be as an employee in a business, or in families, churches, or communities is still “anarchist” provided there is no state.

Another way around it is by understanding the word “capitalist” as a broad term describing all voluntary interactions in society. In that sense, voluntary communes are still capitalist, because the groups that collectively own the property must acquire it justly according to the same rules that capitalists and businesspeople do. If it is previously owned, they must negotiate for it, and they may have to do so. After that, the owners would have exclusive ownership to do with what they wish, just as a business owner may do with the property they own. The only difference is that the communal property isn’t used for the production of goods and services to sell on the market, but shared in the community.

Regardless, there is still a useful distinction to be made between large-scale market participation and smaller communal arrangements. This is no more evident than in the case of families. Families are in a sense “communist” because nobody is “hired”, resources are pooled and shared, and there is very little trading going on. To call families “capitalist” would be misleading.

This is why the word “voluntaryist” was taken on as an all-encompassing term to describe the kind of society in which radical libertarians advocate for. Capitalist, socialist, communist, familial, agrarian; non-coercive? Then all is permitted. Of course, then must define what qualifies as “voluntary”, as many do not agree that the employer-employee relationship is a voluntary one. All of a sudden, “anarcho-capitalist” becomes useful again.

I am actually happy with all of these designations: Anarcho-capitalist, voluntaryist, radical libertarian, market anarchist, even propertarian. Call me what you like, just don’t misrepresent me or my arguments.

As you may be able to tell, I see language as fundamentally pragmatic. Language is constantly evolving and adapting. Definitions change with the times. People of different cultures use the same words in entirely different contexts. To suggest that definitions and usages are set in stone is dooming all discussion to be a debate over semantics. We get no closer to the truth doing that.

What we must not do is be deliberately misleading with our language. We must take particular care in defining exactly what we mean by a certain word. Before the debate begins, all participants must agree on the definitions of words, even if it is simply for the sake of that one debate. It doesn’t matter if they are perfect for all times and all places. Once that has happened, we can get right to the core of our arguments.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.