The following two comments were written by Charles Johnson in response to questions, concerns and misreadings regarding his article Libertarian Anticapitalism.
1. For the record, in the article above, I am not in the first place “discarding” the word “capitalism” or throwing the word “into the trash bin.” I am in fact using the word capitalism, fairly extensively. For instance, in the title of this post: “Libertarian Anticapitalism.” I have often used this term elsewhere as well — for example, in the title of the anthology I co-edited, Markets Not Capitalism.
What’s going on here is not “discarding” the term; what’s going on here is making clear that while I reject one use of the term — the usage of “capitalism” that attempts to make it synonymous with free markets or, say, a “free enterprise system” — I am happy to use the term according to another usage — one which is no more novel, no less legitimate, and at least as congruent with common usage. Specifically, the use of “capitalism” to refer to the wage-labor system, or to profit-dominated society, as described above.
2. You might say that this is not the “real” definition of the term, but merely the “misunderstanding” of “socialists” and “misinformed capitalists.” But I would then ask you where exactly you got the “real” definition of the term. If you want to contest the claim that “capitalism” has ever been defined, or could ever be used, with any of the three alternative definitions I discussed above, then I can only ask you to read a bit more about this subject before you hold forth on it.
3. If you want to admit that people have used those other definitions but that they were somehow wrong to do so, and that your preferred definition is the correct one, then I can only say that in my view there is no Real Definition of the word “capitalism;” the definitions of words are not written by God in letters of fire, but rather human artifacts, which we make in the course of communicating with each other, and no word has any meaning independently of the communicative use to which it can be put. And in this case, my reasons for preferring the use I put the term to, have nothing to do with some kind of fear of using unpopular words. If I was afraid of using unpopular or controversial words, then I’d hardly be using the terms “free market” or “laissez-faire” or “private enterprise” either; outside of libertarian circles, those words aren’t any more popular than “capitalism” is.
The reasons I do have, have to do with the specific communicative purpose that I explained in the article. It’s not because people think of bad things when they hear the word “capitalism,” it’s because making a sharp terminological distinction between (1) market forms, on the one hand, and (2) capitalist patterns of ownership and control, on the other, helps me to achieve a specific communicative goalwhen I am talking with people about economics. The goal, as I describe in the article, is to highlight a particular causal claim about economic outcomes (the claim that freed markets would naturally produce the kinds of outcomes I described under the headings of “the wage-labor system” and “profit-dominated society”), and to raise some questions about what the basis for that causal claim is, and about whether or not that causal claim is actually true. If using the word “capitalism” synonymously with “free markets” or “private enterprise” tends to block that conversation or obscure that underlying Capitalist Causal Hypothesis, then that is a good reason not to use the word “capitalism” that way. If distinguishing the word “capitalism” from “free markets” or “private enterprise,” and using it instead to refer to something else that I want to question or to condemn (such as the wage-labor system, or profit-dominated society), helps to get that conversation started, and helps to bring out the underlying Capitalist Causal Hypothesis, then that is as good a reason as any to use the word “capitalism” in that way instead. …