Liberty Camp question: What is capitalism?

26 June 2009 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in philosophy | 8 Comments »

In my first day of Liberty Camp sessions as instructor/facilitator/whatever today in Martin, Slovakia, I introduced each session by asking group members to answer the question “What does capitalism mean to you?” in less than sixty seconds each.

With a single exception, attendees responded with words evoking free markets, individualism, free association, self-determination, respect for property, the ability to create and retain wealth, no interference in peaceful trade, ideological consistency, and so on.

I then told them that they are all absolutely right. And at the same time absolutely wrong.

I said: Capitalism is an exploitative system of privileges granted to wealthy interests to the detriment of the poor.

And that definition is also right, because it lives in the minds of billions.


  1. 8 Responses to “Liberty Camp question: What is capitalism?”

  2. By Andrew on 26 June 2009

    I tend to use the “exploitative system of privileges granted to wealthy interests to the detriment of the poor.” Using it as the equivalent of “free market” seems redundant.

  3. By The New Anarchist on 27 June 2009

    The struggle of labor against the interests of profit (pun so intended).

    I also think “respect for property” is more like “unhealthy meaning attached to physical things.” It means privatizing and owning, often through manipulation and outright conquering.

  4. By James Tuttle on 27 June 2009

    What is Capitalism, the short answer, from SEK3:

    “Definition: Capitalism is state rule by and for those who own large amounts of capital. Corollary: the purpose of such rule is to restrict innovation, arbitrage and re-allocation of investment, i.e, to eliminate Enterprise (that which entrepreneurs do).


    Remember, the term Capitalist was invented as a pejorative by free-market advocate Thomas Hodgskin back in the 1830s and then picked up
    by Marx (who admired Hodgskin for inventing schools for labourers).

    Freely as ever, SEK3 (Samuel Edward Konkin III)”

  5. By Matheiu on 27 June 2009

    “I said: Capitalism is an exploitative system of privileges granted to wealthy interests to the detriment of the poor.

    And that definition is also right, because it lives in the minds of billions.”

    Yeah, sure you can say it is “right” but is that what really happens under an economic system without government interference? The short answer is no, so it’d be a matter of equivocation to state that an economic system without government interference is bad becasue it is capitalism as defined by you. I don’t really care how people define their terms so long as they are clear and open about it.

  6. By Ben on 27 June 2009

    When the state interferes to the benefit of the wealthy in a free market it is generally referred to as mercantilism. True free markets require a complete or nearly complete lack of government. With no government you have a completely voluntary system.

  7. By Arto Bendiken on 28 June 2009

    This one is a perma-annoyance. Ben, above, is of course exactly right that the present mixed economy ought to be referred to as mercantilism – or better yet, mercantilist corporatism, with tender bits of fascism and socialism thrown in – and not capitalism.

    But while I object to the abuse the term “capitalism” is subjected to on a daily basis, Mike’s point about the unwashed billions is vital.

    Face it: statists have successfully tainted and co-opted “capitalism” just as they did “liberal”. Hayek’s objections in “The Road to Serfdom” notwithstanding, no measure of education and outreach will ever wholly reclaim this contaminated ground on the battlefield of ideas.

    (Well, I should note that in the case of the term “liberal”, that problem is largely confined to the English language, and mostly to American English at that – so as the influence of English wanes in times to come, perhaps there’s hope for that word yet.)

    Advocating capitalism will continue to be generally perceived as standing for the “exploitation of workers”, for big business and monopolies, for special privileges and government-sanctioned cartels run by “robber barons”. Never mind to what extent these may be mere myths and/or problems ironically endemic to a democratic mixed economy.

    Advocating anarchism, incidentally, seems yet more hopeless given how supercharged a term this is. Thus, at the moment I mostly prefer to speak only of agorism and/or Hoppe’s natural order, since this is still unsoiled territory.

  8. By Rand on 11 April 2011

    I hold the view that capitalism is a tool with an entire range of categories. There is anarcho-capitalism which is the free-market approach. There is a brand of capitalism which focuses on service to others (organizations devoted to helping the needy or solving an issue such as pollution, prevention of cancer, etc.). There is corporatism which is capitalism that relies on the force of govt support and regulation to give a corporation a competitive advantage over other companies. Capitalism is just a tool that can be used for good or for bad, just like a gun can be used for good or evil, a car can be used to convey you to work or deliberately run over someone and kill them.

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