Capitalism and violence

Posted: 27 June 2013 in Uncategorized
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Corey Robin, in a second reply to his critics (of his essay “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children,” on which I commented here), further explores the connection between Friedrich von Hayek and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

In that context, Robin shows how free-market libertarianism stumbles on the relationship between capitalism and violence:

Whether we call it primitive accumulation or the great transformation, we know that the creation of markets often require or are accompanied by a high degree of coercion. This is especially true of markets in labor. Men and women are not born wage laborers ready to contract with capital. Nor do they simply evolve into these positions over time. Wage laborers are often made—and remade—through violence, coercion, and force. Like the labor wars of the Gilded Age or the enclosure riots, Pinochet’s Chile was about the forcible creation, at lightning speed, of new markets in land and labor.

Hayek’s failure to fully come to terms with this reality—his idea of a good “liberal dictator” shows that he was more than aware of it; the fact that so little in his work on rule formation gives warrant to such an idea demonstrates the theoretical impasse in which he found himself—is why his engagement with Pinochet is so important. Not because it shows him to be a bad person but because it reveals the “steel frame,” as Schumpeter called it, of the market order, the unacknowledged relationship between operatic violence and doux commerce.

The argument, I think, is even more general. Yes, we need to remember the labor wars of the Gilded Age, the enclosure riots, and the Chilean dictatorship’s forcible creation of markets. But we also need to recognize the violence involved in forcing people to have the freedom to sell their ability to work every day, around the world, within the “normally functioning” market order.

It’s that dimension of the relationship between capitalism and violence mainstream economists of all stripes refuse to acknowledge.

  1. Corey Robin says:

    Hi David. Love your stuff. Couldn’t agree more with your point here. In case you missed it, two colleagues and I tried to address precisely this issue by way of a critique of libertarian theories of workplace freedom. Here’s the link:

  2. dwight billings says:

    Another great post as always. Sadly, Hiyak is celebrated by and reincarnated in the so-called “libertarianism” of one of “my” Kentucky senators, Rand Paul, a presumptive near-future candidate for U. S. president. As your commentary in Postmodern Moments on Hayak shows (and as Naomi Klein demonstrates in The Shock Doctrine in regard to Milton Friedman and the “Chicago School”), violence and free market libertarianism go hand in hand at home and beyond. As a reader from Appalachia, I can attest to the violence of everyday life forced on workers and residents in the Appalachian coal fields and affirm, as you importantly point out, that these forms of violence are not restricted to the robber baron days of old. Countless forms of violence are contemporary and ongoing in Appalachia–from the violence inflicted by the Massey Coal Company to cripple the once-powerful UMWA and to inflict many deaths in its non-union mines (most notoriously, but not only, in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia); the court-sanctioned bankruptcy of Patriot Coal that, if allowed to stand, will cost many thousands of miners and their families hard-fought for pensions and benefits; and the ongoing violence of mountaintop removal coal mining. This particularly violent form of coal mining wrecks the environment, causes devastating floods that has destroyed homes and costs millions of dollars in damage, and inflicts life-threatening health damages on coalfield residents living nearby. Your commentary about the everyday violence of forcing people to have the “freedom” to sell their abilities to work within the “normally functioning” market order rings so true throughout the American economy but especially in Appalachia where miners are forced to blast away the mountains they genuinely love and endanger their families and neighbors because of coal’s strangle-hold there on the few opportunities to make a viable income—if it can be called that.

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