Tuesday, Sep 07, 2010

When today’s believers in free markets hear someone mention “class struggle,” they may be tempted to think of Karl Marx. The rhetoric of class conflict has been largely Marxist during the past century. But students of libertarian history know that classical liberals Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer pioneered class analysis before Marx (he gave them credit for doing so). Class was a central feature of the work of such libertarian stalwarts as Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov. Class theory formed the heart of libertarian and one-time SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s neglected classic, The Yankee and Cowboy War. An article on class theory was featured in the very first issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. And class analysis has continued to be an aspect of the work of such otherwise very different libertarian scholars as Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Roderick T. Long.

A simple way of getting at the difference between Marxist and libertarian versions of class analysis is this: for orthodox Marxist class theory, the problem is private property; for libertarian class theory, the problem is aggression.

Orthodox Marxism has tended to see class stratification as rooted in the institution of private property. Random differences in circumstances and endowments will lead to disparities in property. The existence of property rights will enable the wealthy to consolidate their holdings, transmit their property inter-generationally, and create an entrenched ruling class, which dominates political and economic life. Thus, the only way—according to orthodox Marxists—to deal with problem of poverty and oppression that results from class stratification is to dispossess the wealthy of the capital goods they’ve been able to acquire because of the property system and to eliminate the institution of private property in capital goods entirely.

Libertarian class theory, by contrast, sees the institution of private property as a bulwark of freedom, as long as it protects property that has been justly acquired—acquired by what Oppenheimer famously termed the economic means: characteristically, by homesteading unowned land or physical objects or receiving property through voluntary transfer from others. However, libertarian class theory maintains, from the very beginning of organized human society, some people have preferred to use force (or fraud) to obtain property—to employ the political means of obtaining wealth. For their mutual protection, and to make extracting wealth from others easier, some of the thugs engaged in the use of the political means created governments; a combination of propaganda, memory loss, and the tendency to treat existing arrangements as beyond question covered these governments with a patina of legitimacy.

Not all the thugs occupied government positions themselves, of course. Many simply welcomed the protection the government provided for their ill-gotten gains and concentrated on making more wealth. Without directly participating in politics, they improved their economic positions by ensuring that their existing property holdings were treated as legitimate, by stealing land and other resources (in partnership with the government or with its blessing), and by extracting privileges from the government—often lubricating its machinery with their wealth—that enabled them to increase their possessions. Others joined them as beneficiaries of state privilege. Some people who might have become wealthy initially through voluntary exchange could also use their wealth to secure privileges from the state. And some people who acquired governmental power because of their skills at electioneering or bureaucratic infighting used their positions not only to do the bidding of the wealthy but also to gain wealth and enter the economic elite themselves.

Class Struggle, Conservative Style, Gary Chartier, September 8, 2010,