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Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology
The relationship between libertarianism and the general left is interesting. I’ve noticed a somewhat problematic phenomena that is two-fold.
On one hand, some libertarians try to market themselves to the left (and people in general) by appealing to simplistic soundbite-like sentiments that aren’t necessarily particular to libertarianism, such as “I abhor violence and believe in respecting people as individuals”, meant to imply that “you’re already a libertarian and don’t know it”. This is of course misleading in that a lot of people could get behind such a sentiment without libertarian ideology having anything to do with it, while drawing completely different political implications from it. This is some mix of manipulation/propaganda and libertarian delusion about their ideology being a matter of common sense. You’re not going to find too many people who are going to stand up and be like “I think violence is awesome!”. One must realize this is more rhetorical than substantive. It’s little better than Molyneux’s “gun in the room” argument.
On the other hand, I’ve noticed a certain trend among younger vaguely liberal people to stumble on to links to libertarian ideas on a specific issue or certain statements by libertarian figures that they agree with. These people aren’t actually part of the libertarian movement. They are mostly liberals outside of it who are occasionally bumping onto the edges of it, but they generally have no idea what they are getting into. They typically don’t know much about libertarianism as a political philosophy, it’s just that sometimes libertarians say things that resonate with them, particularly on issues of foreign policy and questions of government infringement into people’s choices. Indeed, in some ways this was exactly the position I was in about a decade ago when it came to some of the statements of Ron Paul, and it contributed to me being wooed into libertarianism.
Of course, there is no shortage of criticism of libertarianism from the left in general, and it tends to annoy the heck out of libertarians. Often, the libertarian response to this criticism comes in the form of overtly embracing its right-wing traits and rather strongly rejecting the left (which you’re likely to see from the Lew Rockwell crowd, for example). More generally, the libertarian response involves characterizing criticism as coming from ignorance, which right-libertarians and left-libertarians alike seem to loosely agree on: critics of libertarianism can only be arguing against unfair boogeymen and from a lack of knowledge of economics and ignorance of the esoteric ins and outs of libertarian theory. Then there is the delusional or otherwise manipulative left-libertarian tactic of acting like the leftist criticism is ignorant, but that libertarian ideology actually jibes the leftist’s motives better than the left does.
I’ve watched these arguments and sentiments play out over and over again in the libertarian echo chamber. When libertarians aren’t bashing on the left as economic illiterates and authoritarian governmentalists, they’re trying to woo the left with poor arguments. If you exclude social issues, even a lot of the dialogue you see coming from left-libertarians at C4SS, including Kevin Carson, is in general form in agreement with the right-libertarian bashing of the left: more than anything, that they don’t understand “the free market”. As I’ve said before, the one thing that unites all libertarians is the free market idea. There are even some articles by Carson that leave one with the impression that he’s in some ways virulently anti-leftist, and the site in general has increasingly become filled with defensive articles written in response to criticisms of libertarianism from the left.
The left-libertarian spin, where the wooing comes in, is in the notion that the free market can best provide the left’s desired ends and is most consistent with their motives, and that the state is the prime causal agent of everything the left opposes. The former point is patently false in the face of the reality of economic power dynamics, and the latter is a dubious sticking point of libertarian anarchist ideology. And here we come to the fact that if the free market idea is what unites libertarians generally, when it comes to “libertarian anarchism” the one thing that unites them is anti-statist reductionism. I think it’s important to make a distinction between anti-statism in the sense of non-recognition of state legitimacy and treating state power as an essential part of the problem of politics (which is part of anarchism generally), and anti-statism in the sense of such a myopic and oversimplified political analysis which treats it as an external entity spoiling social dynamics rather than an institution that is part of spoiled social dynamics. That’s part of why most self-described anarchists are not libertarians.
The left is entirely in the right to criticize libertarians for their phantasmagorical view of markets and their obsession with opposing the state. The left is being far from ignorant in perceiving libertarians to largely represent economic power and have wonky views on how the world works. These criticisms irk left-libertarians to no end, as they try as hard as they can to disassociate themselves from the reality of the libertarian movement and the practical implications of their own views. It is cliche for them to froth at the mouth with “not all libertarians” sentiment in face of the ugliness that is manifested by the bulk of their publicly visible political movement being called out, all the while holding on to the basic libertarian premises that enable what they want to disassociate themselves from. And they continue to promote the same free market mythos and story of the state as Sauron that the left rightly criticizes them for. They’re basically in a position of engaging in half-baked damage control.
The one area that left-libertarians have been able to successfully woo some parts of the left is on social justice issues, mainly by bringing in themes of anti-racism, feminism, and trans politics. That still does not mean that those social justice positions form a coherent political theory along with the rest of libertarianism or that social justice warriors should become libertarians. What is rich is to see the internal conflicts play out within the libertarian movement because of that trend, with right-libertarians opposing it mostly for the wrong reasons and pulling the “no true libertarian” card (sprinkled with some valid criticism) and left-libertarians pretentiously trying to make their social views essential to the meaning of being a libertarian or actively promote and glorify certain taboo things rather than just support a hands-off approach (which is quite clearly malarkey). While libertarianism has grown over the last decade, no, we are not having “the libertarian moment”. The movement is practically split in two on social issues, despite relatively broad agreement on the basic free market mantra.
It’s going take a lot more than vague appeals to non-violence, or even bringing in social justice issues, to convince the broad left to become libertarians. I don’t see it happening. There are dangers of slipping into libertarianism by some of the leftists on the borderline who take a liking to the most broad and watered down of libertarian sentiments – I feel tempted to warn them to be careful what they are getting into. And maybe a small contingent of the social justice side of things has been brought into a dialogue with some libertarians. But at the end of the day, no intelligent leftist who is secure in their principles and perceptive enough to read between the lines will ever buy into the free market mythos or willingly become apart of an essentially right-wing political movement, even a right-wing political movement with social justice thrown in.
There sure seem to be a little trend of some young libertarians withdrawing from their formal institutional associations. Just earlier this month, I wrote a post when someone had decided to leave an organization spear-headed by celebritarian Cathy Reisenwitz. I was somewhat surprised to see today that Cathy herself wrote a blogpost announcing that she will no longer be doing professional libertarian activism because she has pursued and gotten a job in tech sales. And I think to myself “that makes a lot of sense”.
When I read the post, the one thing that is not surprising is that her choice is to go into sales, as sales/marketing is exactly the kind of mindset she has quite transparently been approaching things from all along, and she even quite plainly states in her post that her professional experiences so far have been part of a process of becoming such a person. This sales mindset has been an important part of my critical perception of Cathy.
What a lot of libertarians seem to have trouble understanding or acknowledging is the red flag this sends out, the immediate reasons there are for cynicism about sales and marketing. The mindset of marketing (and “political science”) is basically strategic human manipulation without conscience covered up with feel-good buzzwords. I find it very dangerous for one to view the social world in general through that kind of mindset, and it appears that Cathy kind of does. She also always strongly struck me as being someone who thrives on the pursuit of status.
Consider the pretension someone must have to move to Washington D.C. to pursue professional politics, particularly the media aspect of it, and then consider the entanglements that come along with being involved in media organizations, think tanks, and the like. There are a lot of libertarian bloggers out there, but most of them don’t take themselves too seriously as careerists or seek to become full-time payed politicos. To make an analogy, most young libertarians are more likely to take the hipster route of moving to New Hampshire than the yuppie route of trying to become a professional celebrity and hanging with the D.C. think tank people.
Cathy quite deliberately enmeshed herself in that latter world, surrounded herself with more established libertarian figures and organizations, took special interest in online marketing, and she managed to become something of a celebrity (surrounded by people constantly reinforcing her self-esteem and sucking up to her). She should have checked her privilege. It is an immense privilege to be a political careerist, especially a D.C. one. It is a privilege to be payed to do what thousands upon thousands of people do for free (write political opinions) and to have that be given significant publicity. Plainly, social status is mainly a matter of privilege.
This was somewhat aided by being a conventionally attractive female and shamelessly milking the “I’m a libertarian girl” thing while making sexual politics one of her main shticks. But more generally, she quite uncritically embraces the world of media and marketing. In my eyes, Cathy has functioned as a click-baiter and opportunist who flips between pandering to different political demographics (leftist women one day, conservatives the next, from sex workers to old men in bowties) and takes the notion of “spreading libertarianism” too seriously.
When you’ve made it your life goal to be an activist for a political doctrine, to “sell ideas”, you’ve basically become a political tool and threaten to lose touch with your own humble humanity. Everything about it is pretentious and delusional. When it is your job to promote an ideology, critical thinking doesn’t happen so much and your view of yourself and your importance becomes a fantasy. And when you’re motivated by marketing and demographic expansion, you’re not engaging in much authentic human interaction as much as you are using people and being used, while being functionally subsumed by organizations. And you risk “cheapening the brand”.
Of course, this move of Cathy’s does not represent a break from ideology, as she quite consciously explains it all in terms of being the logical path of continuing to pursue libertarian ideology – just in a less public medium. So while I’m tempted to say “Good Riddance”, I doubt this is the last we’ll hear from Cathy, and she hints that her new path is still possibly tied in to activism. Instead of being a paid political shill, she can now be a more general shill, with perhaps a good dose of techno-geek hipsterdom mixed in, while ideologically justifying it as part of some grass-roots “free market innovation”. Chant with me now: “My careeeya!”.
This has all just been a career path for her. I think even some good faith libertarians should have some reason for pause when Cathy so transparently makes this clear. Cathy has consistently been a status-seeking, attention-seeking careerist who covers it up in a winking ironic-yet-not-cynical veneer of self-conciousness. I’m not moved.
Given that I have put so much time and effort into criticism over advocacy, it is inevitable and familiar for some people to think something along the lines of, “all you do is criticize everyone and everything, don’t you have any real beliefs and principles? Do you stand for anything?”.
Of course, I have always retorted that some beliefs and principles are already implicit and sometimes explicit in my criticism. Indeed, one of my criticisms of Max Stirner has been precisely that his “conscious egoist”, strictly defined, is in a way a fictional impossibility because of the basic nature of human society. No one can truly be free from social construction and the power of ideas. Everyone is influenced by the historical contingency of the entirety of human history before they were born and what their immediate environment is throughout their lives. There is no such thing as one who has “built their cause on nothing”, and I have never had that pretense. Therefore I have no problem roughly outlining my beliefs and principles.
While I use an image of Cthulhu for this blog’s image, it would probably be more representative to have an image of Azathoth (as a non-believer I verily say unto you: if there were a god, it would be Azathoth). Or to use Dungeons and Dragons lingo, the universe is probably best characterized as chaotic neutral, and dogmatic modes of philosophy and politics are essentially an attempt to make it lawful. Social reality is contradictory by nature and non-dogmatic thinking requires one to embrace the encounter of multiple truths that appear to be contradictions on the surface while also overlapping, as well as have awareness of the gap between desire and necessity when it comes to values and practical maneuvering through the world.
This means it would be wise to maintain some individual distance and humbleness, and not just dive head first into a group’s dynamics or become easily seduced by elegant simplicity. And maybe be more hesistant about pulling the trigger on dedication to some guidebook to reality or grand goal. Part of the problem of modernity is that at least for much of the west we’ve killed god and the king only for other ideas to have the same function, without there necessarily being any less pernicious effects. In the name of “progress” and as a way to fill the void, we have enslaved ourselves to money, technology, nations, and popular culture. In this respect, Max Stirner’s infamous manifesto is one of the earliest known proclamations of the problem of modernity.
But to be more relevant to the present, the problem of modernity appears to have also morphed into the problem of hipsterdom. People born into secular, technological capitalist society increasingly encounter existential crisis as they maneuver through culture. And many of them may tend to become the exact opposite of Stirner’s concious egoist – a sponge for identities or one who has been seduced by the image and come to identify it with themselves, the logical end of which is to turn the individual into a living meme in a simulacrum of a world. That helps explain the increase in people I’ve encountered with large numbers of adjectives to attach to themselves, sometimes in contradiction to each other. It also might help explain how so many people can radically flip through political ideologies in a short amount of time. On the flip side, those who are most alienated from culture can experience the most cognitive dissonance and discomfort with consciously encountering a void of meaning.
It is with this understanding in the background that I analyze the political circles of my generation and beyond. I try to be self-aware of how it plays into my own political history and challenge the self-awareness of others. Part of self-awareness is in admitting that you’re not an ubermensch, you’re not a fully realized “concious egoist” and never will be. But with that being said, it’s not just about self-awareness but also about awareness of the world without being too cluttered by ideology and image-seduction. You might not be able to be the ubermesnche, but you can use critical thinking and observation to somewhat de-culturize yourself enough to see how culture subsumes the individual, to get a sense of how ideology functions and to see how constrained people can be by their own apparent freedom. I would like to see more people throwing off the problematic baggage of culture that the market has saturated them with rather than freely playing with it. But I see too many young libertarians as taking on the role of “the last man” who thinks they’re the ubermsenche.
Embracing the chaotic nature of the world means knowing that you probably can’t change society to your liking, taking more genuine responsibility for who you are, and humbling yourself to the fact that you have little choice but to carefully craft your own laws out of an imperfect brew. Or as Zombie Gary Gygax says, “Attempting to be chaotic good in a world that you know is chaotic neutral, with a drift toward chaotic evil caused by humans attempting to make it lawful, is not easy an task.” Azathoth has no real answer for you, but may he serve as a reminder of your condition. It is on you to do your best to responsibly craft who you are while honestly facing the all-pervasive threats of cognitive dissonance and irreducible complexity. You may find that it is ultimately liberating to *not* be so much a part of political community, culture and market in your self-understanding that informs your interactions and decisions. This may require learning how to bite the bullet of alienation.
Libertarians are hardly the only group this issue applies to, as what I’m talking about is really a massive social problem, but it is my experiences with and continued observation of libertarians that most intimately informs my understanding of how this issue plays out, and in a sense libertarianism’s association with capitalism serves to reinforce the kind of problems I observe and makes it especially prone to some of the perversion of meaning and value at the mercy of a technological market-driven society. I criticize libertarianism because I believe in the authenticity and sincerity of human values, cynical realism about the world, and concretely realized social freedom to whatever extent it can be had. I believe in basic social-psychological health to the determent of culture. But I know, without fear, that everything is ultimately consumed by cosmic chaos.
Thus Spake the Apostle of Azathoth
It is interesting to observe the shifting positions and alliances of those with a history of online involvement in libertarian youth culture, as well as the general growth of libertarianism online. You look now and almost any socially awkward teenager with an internet connection can be a radical libertarian. The libertarian youth culture online has definitely grown. Looking back from a perspective of being a libertarian before facebook existed and when youtube was but a budding community of autodidact non-professional vloggers stumbling onto each other’s channels (I can already anticipate the trolling accusation that I’m being a hipster in the libertarian-before-thou sense), it’s time to whip out my cane and bemoan: “things aren’t like they used to be”.
A number of developments happened. Radical libertarianism really started to coalesce into a visible online social circle. A decade ago, a lot of the early radical libertarian sites or their earlier versions were comparatively wonky and obscure (and some still are kind of wonky). The two biggest sources of largely overlapping people and material for me were probably LewRockwell and the Ludwig Von Mises Institute website, back when it actually had a functioning forum section. There was also the earliest version of Freedomain Radio, but it was a much smaller community then, when Molyneux was a start-up. Other notable sites were Strike-The-Root and The Molinari Institute. It was like entering an underground online social atmosphere with its own roster of pundits.
For the most part, the online youth culture coalesced together around these websites and out of general ideological comradery, and proceeded to take on the role of informal/small-time debaters and propagandists through social media and youtube. And things grew from there, with more and more people joining in over time. A series of clicks formed, with a certain hierarchy of popularity. Of course, young radical libertarians did end up having things to debate about among themselves, though for the most part to my memory nothing united everyone more than debating with radical leftists and traditional anarchists.
Things got more complicated over time when the left-libertarian blogosphere or the “alliance of the libertarian left” started forming more explicitly as its own distinct sub-group. This especially became the case with the establishment of C4SS as a kind of left-lib hub rather than a much more loose “blogosphere of the libertarian left” that involved a blogroll app you could attach to your blog. The forging of the left-libertarian thing created a lot more grounds for internal debates, which also splintered the community in some ways. In a sense, it was very much healthy and necessary for debate to happen. But as far as the coherance of libertarianism as a movement, it introduced confusion and grounds for conflict that is still playing out right now and has arguably spiraled to new proportions. And I’m not convinced the left-libs are always in the right in those kind of internal debacles.
Approximately simultaneous to the rise of left-lib (but also inflamed in reaction to it), there was also a certain segment of the young radical libertarians who established themselves as edgy right-wing reactionaries, especially in the form of racial politics. This lead to a lot of heated controversy about libertarian nationalism, libertarian racism, and just a variety of the uglier aspects that can be found in the most conservative segments of libertarianism. This included things like obsession with support for monarchy over democracy, fierce anti-immigration stances, and more or less explicit endorsement of rigid social heirarchies. Basically, the baggage of paleo-libertarianism.
In some ways (or at least for some people), this all occurred with the pretense of a shared political umbrella, even though the people involved had radically different interpretations of libertarianism on some issues. Some people expressed the sentiment that they hated the conflict and “we all support fiberty, right?”. In spite of in-fighting and controversy, the “anarchism without adjectives” sentiment and more broadly the social youth-culture element of the online community that transcends politics, managed to make libertarianism a confusing clusterfuck alliance of just about anything you want it to be as long as you pay lip service to the idea of being against the state.
But inevitably, the shared political umbrella had to break for quite a few people. Friendships and alliances shifted. People went in their own respective directions. The left-libs formed into their own distinct social circle, and some people continued to drift leftward of left-lib. A few people flirted with left-lib but got scared back into the right. The edgy right-wingers formed their own camp, and some of them likewise abandoned libertarianism altogether (only to dwell even more openly in the pastures of reactionary circles). The result is that we have a libertarian movement that is in some ways splintered between left and right (but also largely homogeneous in its basic content), and a smaller-scale group of assorted post-libertarian drifters.
Where do I stand in all this? It would be accurate to say that I was one of the people who became a post-libertarian drifter to the left. At the same time, I have formed a cynical and anti-political kind of position that has stopped me from moving on to formally associate with any particular political ideology or any kind of politically based social group. I refuse to play in to any broad expectations of conformity to group consensus, even on the left. While I have sympathies with social anarchism, I maintain the position that no one exactly has a solution to politics. But some analysis of the problem of politics are better than others. Libertarianism, while in some cases it may offer some insight, ultimately fails at this – and so do some of the theories of the radical left.
While this blog is geared toward criticism of libertarianism and maintains a ferociously anti-capitalist stance, if some libertarians are going to present us with capitalistic versions of erroneous ideas associated with the left, I think that deserves special criticism as well. I’m not even averse to occasionally acknowledging that a right-wing source might make an intelligent point or two with respect to what left-wing libertarians are saying and doing. That’s how one approaches intellectual questions without being an ideologue. Libertarians, whether of the left or right, are frequently some of the worst ideologues out there, as much as they might want to pretentiously think of themselves as above the short-comings of other political groups.
*Raises glass (of water)* May we clear our minds of the spook of freedumb.
I couldn’t help but take interest when I saw a blog post by Pamela J. Stubbart called Why I’m Leaving Young Voices being circulated and debated on social networking. Young Voices is essentially a prime example of a kind of libertarian youth-outreach program that’s geared toward grooming young people as professional pundits and giving them access to bigger media connections, which is something I take some serious issue with in principle. Conventional media and think tanks are rife with problems, especially when so many of the think tanks that associate with libertarianism are some mix of conservative and capitalist in orientation. In my view, being a young pundit for such organizations makes you a tool, not an honorable intellectual with well deserved status.
But putting that aside, Pamela expresses that she is leaving the organization because the infamous press-generating “Duke Porn Star” Miriam Weeks A.K.A. “Belle Knox” was recruited to join the organization (a blatant opportunistic publicity/marketing move), and she is of the opinion that since then the media bomb around Belle Knox has damaged its intellectual credibility and threatens to damage her own reputation by association.
To this I say, Bravo!
Pamela then goes on to politely and articulately disagree with the mantra of sex-positive-feminism-fused-with-libertarianism, a mantra which is very heavily promoted by the libertarian pundit and Young Voices associate Cathy Reisenwitz, and it is a perspective I have criticized at various points on this blog. The way that people who hold to such a perspective tend to frame the debate, it seems like one is presented with a false dichotomy between traditional conservatism and complete sexual amoralism, while being encouraged to adopt or spread so-called sex-positivity as a cultural norm. They might hate slut-shaming, but they sure are quick to project motive and ideology onto to those who disagree with them and proceed to engage in shaming on that basis.
Pamela more or less expresses a position of moderation and points out in general that a culture of sexual permissivity can perhaps have its downsides, as much as people might have benefited in some ways from the initial “sexual revolution”. It’s left pretty vague, but she signals issues with “the hook-up culture”. She emphasizes that even while one may abstain from supporting the illegalization of porn and prostitution, that doesn’t mean one should be uncritical about it from a moral or cultural perspective. Because what happens when you fetishize “voluntary choice” or “market activity” as if it overshadows or subsumes all moral perspective is an erasure of the negative and external consequences of actions, and the moral cunundrums that come up in life.
I would therefore put it this way: insofar as “sex positive feminist libertarians” continually fall back on the notion of individual choice to make their arguments, they are actually functioning as “thin libertarians”. It is easy to ignore the moral and psychological conundrums around things like porn and prostitution when you’re only focusing on “choice on the market” and “non-aggression” in reference to only the most obvious, direct or commonly recognized forms of aggression. In another sense, the “sex positive libertarians” become a (wrong-headed) kind of “thick libertarian” insofar as they push the idea of sexual permissiveness as a cultural norm.
And Ms. Weeks is quite obviously being used as a pundit to advance that kind of perspective. That doesn’t mean I necessarily question her own sincerity in that perspective. Rather, she comes off as latching onto it as a rationalization, while being snagged up by libertarian organizations for publicity. I highly doubt that a 19 year old who’s done little more than cite a Sheldon Richman article once has more intellectual clout as a libertarian than your average libertarian nerd who’s been following and participating in the online dialogue for some years and obcessively read a bunch of canonical libertarian books. The likelyhood is that she’s less qualified than those people.
Pamela therefore wisely questions the character of an organization that would shamelessly milk a controversial porn star (who is also a relative political virgin) to generate publicity for a morally/culturally blind position on social issues. She has my respect for striking out as an individual in this way.
I’ve increasingly become conscious of a problem that I’m tempted to dub hipster politics. This is a problem in modern politics generally, but it especially effects radical circles. I’ve noticed that in libertarian and anarchist circles, you can find an abundance of people in their teens and 20’s (and earlier 30’s) who constitute the defacto youth culture of those political groups. And a lot of these people have latched on to them in a way that resonates with the problem of hipsterdom, which basically comes down to young people trying to find identity and meaning in a consumerist society in which god is dead; or the lack of a non-manufactured culture or personal identity.
Radical politics can function to fill that void and be an outlet for naive youthful enthusiasm, allowing the young hipster to have an absolute answer or ultimate cause to be self-righteous about and providing them with iconography to obcess over. Hipsterdom isn’t a particular fashion style, it’s the fruits of a cultural crisis.
Young people want meaning while meaning has been significantly destroyed and market forces have perversely effected culture. They want to be unique individuals by joining a radical or marginal or specialized community that gives them the sense of being part of the cool elite. Sometimes the hipster radical becomes too attached to their political identity and it takes over their life in a way that is unhealthy. Once someone ceases to be a libertarian, the rose colored glasses come off and libertarian youth start to look a lot more like a bunch of self-righteous know-it-all kids whose politics is their religion, and often actively get off on trying to be subversive or different.
If the hipster radical has some self-awareness and is reasonably intelligent, hopefully at some point later on the fog clears and they can self-critically look back at it as a confused phase. To be sure, a lot of people can get passionate about politics, but there is a difference between a passion about politics and turning your politics into a youth cult of mutual ideologues, one that maybe even tends to expect you to be an adherent to a hip lifestyle. At the very least, it will require one to be hip to the esoteric use of language and common tropes of the group, and when push comes to shove one will tend to defend the group in general from any criticism out of ideological loyalty.
The crux of the problem is conformity to a social group under the pretense of rebellion, and consequently becoming personally invested in a subcultural dialogue, often in the form of blogs and pamphlets and interest in obscure 19th century writings. And the libertarian youth feels so special to be so immersed. Furthermore, in hipster politics, the political movement itself becomes an object of consumption with its own marketed products.
Buy this Ludwig Von Mises shirt, invest in gold, use bitcoin, move to New Hampshire, buy from this small business, pay to come to our private event for choir-preaching. Then mix it all in with be a “feminist”(TM), embrace polyamory, look into 3-D printing, check out this micro-brewery, come to our “safe space” discussion group, join our urban farm, and you have left-libertarian youth culture in a nutshell. The hipster aspect of Left-libertarianism exists because hipsterdom exists as a broader cultural phenomenon and has worked its way into libertarianism, as young people naturally take their baggage to the movement. Moderately intellectual libertarian youth can now be smug would-be revolutionaries who flirt with the contradictions between capitalism and radical leftism without seeing the contradiction, while identifying themselves with the marginalized.
Libertarian youth culture has also become very centered around the notion of online community and online celebrity. Just look at the social networking profiles of many young libertarians. What you’ll observe is a series of clicks with people seeking social approval and a sense of community, sometimes seeking to be a celebrity, people speaking as if they’re part of a select enlightened group, and a big load of cliched imagery that includes recycled pieces of earlier American culture. And, of course, the appropriation of traditional anarchist imagery, with a capitalist twist. That’s how we get the irony of someone who *looks* like an anarchist going around preaching to people about free markets. Of course, the grand irony lies in priding oneself in being a nonconformist while being mentally enslaved by a group ideology and likely making much the same arguments as everyone else.
A lot of the young libertarians have a preoccupation with shoving their politics in everyone’s faces and trying to give themselves certain appearances or associate themselves with certain imagery (insert image of someone painting an anarchy symbol on a wall). We can’t forget the obligatory posing shot for when the young libertarian met an older established libertarian at some event, and the sea of shots posing with flags or in front of a stall at some event. And then there’s the explicit marketing of libertarianism into different brands of hipsterdom. This includes the “cute nerd girl libertarian” trope, which is pretty much the nail in the coffin if you ever wanted an explicit example of hipstertarianism gone dull commercialism.
You can call this privileging disciplines if you want, but I would gander that if one took the best of the best of modern social science and psychology and put the field of economics to the test, much of what is talked about as free market theory is in contradiction to recognized sociological and ecological fact. And this would only be reinforced by a host of fairly common experiences of modern life. A kind of theory that often more or less brushes off much of social reality as an “externality” just isn’t going to be that descriptively useful or accurate at the end of the day, since it’s trying to make sweeping claims about society based on a highly limited and inaccurate model.
Free market economics is a simple, and some would say elegant, story. This story would generally have one believe that social good tends to be the unintended consequence of the pursuit of individual economic self-interest and accumulated private property (“the invisible hand” in a nutshell), while the intended pursuit of social good tends to lead to ruin (the scapegoating of socialism). This is supposed to be a counter-intuitive general truth about social interaction. There is the linked belief in competition as the driving engine for order and progress (and in the case of typical Randians and conservative libertarians, heroic captains of industry).
The free market idea is frequently used as support for the belief in a social order based on private property and accumulation, I.E. capitalism, that this is voluntary by definition, and then this is reinforced through the culturally ingrained ethos of “winning” and “growing”. There are certain 19th century and turn of the century notions of “progress” that go along with this, and there are overlaps with social darwinist theory, which took the competitive aspect of Darwin’s idea and ran with it even though it doesn’t entirely jibe with Darwin himself. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in the idea that there can be positive side effects of people’s apparently selfish decisions, but free market economic theory often generalizes or universalizes this in an ideological way.
The story just doesn’t square up to human experience. The freedom of enterprise is not my freedom (*insert left-wing interpretation of Max Stirner here*). The pursuit of self-interest within markets does not inherently lead to nothing but win-wins and markets are not a self-correcting machine that is intrinsically and infinitely adaptable to human needs. Structuring society around a competitive ethos has not been without consequences for social ethics and psychology. Economic power is not a harmless thing in a social vacuum. Choices within markets are not necessarily meaningfully voluntary, and social conflict is not an externality to markets. It also turns out that there are many ways in which we’ve been learning that technology is a double-edged sword and that there’s this thing called a progress trap. Realities of class, the environment, and technology, all challenge free market theory.
Historical fact is that the socialist, anarchist and communist movements came into existence in part as a reaction to this kind of liberal theory of capitalism and the early implementation of such ideas. It is important to remember that the orientation of Marxism and much of early anarchism was anti-liberal, and it is no coincidence that so much of free market libertarian ideology is mired in 19th century liberal thought. The march toward what was to become global capitalism created some serious social ruptures and introduced new difficulties into society. A century later, problems have continued to develop in ways that even Marx – who frankly does a decent job of identifying the problem during his own time – could not foresee.
For the most part, the liberals actually won and got what they wanted (relatively free reign for enterprise), only they were unprepared for the reality of growing state intervention and bureaucracy that inevitably came with the development of capitalism. They would never admit it, but there is realistically no way to develop and maintain large-scale global capitalism without the expansion of the state. They’re often left in a position of denouncing the modern state while continuing to believe in the principles and political ideas that necessitate it. The left-libertarian, Carsonian spin on this question is the idea that anti-statism is the road to non-capitalism.
My statement can be misread as supporting the “free market anti-capitalist” view, but it’s more complicated than that, since I’m emphasizing that the play and growth of market forces, of accumulation and competition, were an important causal factor for the growth of state power. In contrast, the “free market left-libertarian” view is all about emphasizing the notion that state power has aided the growth of economic power, which while true at a certain level is not definitive of the problem of capitalism and often leaves them blind to the ways in which markets generate their own problems and that the modern “welfare state” only exists in large part because of the inadequacies of markets. To admit any of this is simply ideological heresy in contemporary American libertarian circles. They are ideologically trapped by ideal-market notions.
The key aspect of this that free market libertarians wouldn’t accept is that the principles of free markets and property necessitate the modern state. In simply removing state intervention without removing the norms of property and markets and directly challenging economic power, one does not end up with non-capitalist society. What one ends up with at best is more like a reset button to the 19th century, to earlier capitalism, in which the modern state can reformulate itself all over again. Except even that isn’t accurate, because the current social climate is such that economic power is so large and ingrained in society that one may as well say that the result wouldn’t likely be far off from the kind of dystopia associated with anarcho-capitalism – a kind of neo-fuedal order in which powerful economic entities take on the functions of the state.
Some libertarians react to this hard reality with shock and denial, reducing it to the common strawman of Hobbesian pessimism run wild. They generally tend to think of it as scare tactics. But it just comes down to realistic expectations of human behavior, plus a critical analysis of society that doesn’t just treat the state as a primary part of a binary. Libertarians would have us believe that they are solving an antagonism between economy and state in a pretty straightforward dialectic in which the economy wins and we all are free, while real-world social dynamics seem to indicate a complexity of antagonisms that aren’t at all easy to resolve. Sorry to be cliche, but it’s just not that simple. Weakening of state power does not inherently lead to non-capitalist society any more than capitalism naturally progresses to communism. Economic power has a capacity to produce political power, as well as generate social conflicts and issues without the necessity of state bureaucracy.
It is quite fascinating that a discipline about economies is so strongly founded in the denial of economic power. This has left many libertarians with little choice but to engage in questionable historical revisionism blaming everything on the state in order to keep their ideology intact. It’s the impetus behind why Austrian economists have to try to elevate their methods over the contrary findings of social science in the modern age and characterize their claims as ahistorical facts of human action. It’s why Murray Rothbard had to explicitly deny the existence of economic power, to keep the libertarian ideology safe from reality. Austrian schoolers aside, whatever school of free market economics one favors, I say a pox on all your houses.
While I think it would be cool to produce an actual map image, here’s a general breakdown of my understanding of the various sectors of the American libertarian movement. It is by no means completely comprehensive, but touches on some of the main groups. Sometimes these groups overlap and an individual can be seen as having multiple tendencies, and at other times they’ve also been known to have fights between each other.
Paleo-Libertarians – This is the socially conservative wing of the libertarian movement. Their big distinctive issues are immigration control, racial politics, opposing the U.N., fundamentalist Christian-western identity, and opposing democracy. This group also has some overlap with the anarcho-capitalists associated with Lew Rockwell and Hans Hoppe. This is where the white nationalists and assorted conservative cranks can safely overlap with libertarianism, as a political ideology designed in such a way as to potentially enable their causes.
To a certain extent, this is what the left-libertarians are fighting against within libertarianism and where I think their best and most effective internal criticism is focused. I know that when I was a left-lib, these people were my most common target of criticism. I was greatly dissapointed to find that most libertarians are sideline sitters and denialists on this controversy, and that for the most part only some left-libs were the ones willing to speak up about it.
Bleeding Heart Libertarians – While this is in reference to a particular blog, many of the most visible authors of that blog seem to represent a certain kind of libertarian that’s broader than the blog. The defining feature of these libertarians is that they are academic elitists, often with a moderate liberal bent and usually minarchist in orientation. Some try to square libertarianism with Rawls and other aspects of modern liberal political philosophy. Compared to the left-libertarians, they tend to be fairly vanilla. But they also can be found weaving nuanced philosophical tales over the top of obvious moral conundrums – bleeding heart fascists.
In a way they represent the closest you can get to mainstream libertarianism within the university. IMO, most of their work comes off as technical philosophic hair-splitting that amounts to nothing of import, and overall the premise of the site comes off as a weak PR campaign with a leftward veering eye. They will never be the kind of libertarians that can particularly appeal to people outside academia. The most radical voices are the handful of left-libertarians who are occasionally featured as writers.
Molyneuvians – These are those libertarians who are followers of Stefan Molyneux. Consider it a new spin on Randian cultism. This is about hanging one’s hat on the words of Molyneux and goes much further than standard libertarian philosophy, in that it binds one to particular ideas about psychology, metaphysics, morality, religion, and human relationships. To be a true follower of Molyneux is to accept a very rigid, all-encompassing philosophy of everything. The libertarianism of Molyneux naturally appeals most to people with childhood issues, and it overlaps with the ideas of anti-schooling and criticism of traditional parenting.
Those who are truly dedicated to Molyneux are essentially online cult members who have substituted Molyneux for their parents. While Molyneux has gotten into controversy and has former cult members who are detractors, he has remained a staple in the libertarian movement and is perhaps the prime example of a libertarian individual achieving a high amount of media traffic and status through the internet.
Neo-Objectivists – You can’t talk about the Molyneuvians without talking about the Neo-Objectivists. This is a group of libertarians and ancaps who either are former Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand) or otherwise people who integrate Objectivism into their libertarianism. Since there’s a lot that’s wrong with Objectivism, this introduces its own interesting problems. In some cases, it leads some libertarians to take stances very much like that of neo-conservatives when it comes to foreign policy and domestic police power.
For others, it’s more about the philosophic grounding of libertarianism in certain ethical and cultural terms – it’s centered around supporting property rights and markets in Aristotilean terms of “flourishing” and a culture of enlightened self-interested individualism, leading us into a special twist on bizarro-land. Rand’s philosophy has been prodded mercilessly and found wanting by a lot of people for good reason.
Left-Libertarians – The left libertarians are an odd bunch. The left libertarians are somewhat multi-tendency, but I think it would be accurate to say that the general two tendencies are (1) the fusing of libertarianism with “the cultural left” and (2) the attempt to either reclaim or reformulate libertarianism as to be anti-capitalist or non-capitalist. In my opinion, as has been spread about through various posts on this blog, the left-libertarians have mainly succeeded at the former (while also bringing along some of the negative baggage of the existing cultural left) but failed at the latter. It’s also true that the majority define themselves as anarchists and dominantly use individualist anarchism as their linchpin (which, while perhaps useful, is a limited cut-off point).
The problem is that contemporary American libertarian ideology *is* capitalistic, the bulk of the anarchist movement in the world is anarchist-but-not-libertarian (an important distinction), and that to really start to belong to the economic left the left-libertarians would have to basically cease to be libertarians in their views on markets.
Beltway Libertarians – These are those libertarians who are heavily involved in conventional politics or represent the official Libertarian Party themselves (as a side note: there are times I wonder if BHL should really stand for “Beltway Heart Libertarians”). The layperson of this group is the person who wants an alternative to the two parties so they vote libertarian and get involved in it at the level of conventional politics, and most likely they are light on the philosophy side of it, or at least stick to a pretty vanilla minarchism.
The big players of this group are the libertarian politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, and vanilla libertarian organizations that basically amount to Republican light. This is also where the most money is for libertarian youth outreach (read: grooming people ideologically as the next generation of libertarian talking heads and academics). Think of it as the libertarian attempt to take on the lambasted role of the Marxists in the university.
Tin Foil Hat Libertarians – This is the libertarian whose main draw is through conspiracy theory and sensationalism. They freely mix their libertarianism with conspiracies and tabloid style journalism. The reptilian Illuminati Jewish Rothschild bankers from outer space are coming! Think of it as the paleo-libertarian view on a large dose of acid, and after perhaps taking a Robert Anton Wilson book a little too seriously. It has never ceased to amaze me how many people like this actually exist out there. They always visibly existed mixed in as mutual friends of libertarians on social networking, in my experience. I didn’t realize how many nutters I had non-thinkingly accepted friend requests from until I decided to clean house.
Geolibertarians – These libertarians typically take after Henry George and their pet peeve issue is land. They are libertarians who rightly perceive that there is a distinct issue about land property, though they’re also ideologically tied to a particular solution. Aside from this one issue of land, it says very little about the given libertarian. I also always found interaction with geolibertarians to often feel odd in that they struck me as obsessed with this one issue, seemingly bringing it into discussion of everything as the one solution to politics. There are a number of geolibertarians I’ve interacted with who seemed like fairly vanilla libertarians otherwise, and sometimes even surprisingly on the more conservative side of things overall. It’s a single-issue position.
Some libertarians attempt to respond to the problems associated with capitalism by suggesting that meager individuals should become entrepreneurs themselves to compete against large corporations and governments.
I think this runs into two basic problems. One problem is that there is little reason to believe that such small-scale entrepreneurship can realistically out-compete big corporations on its own, due to issues having to do with scale and interdependency. At some point it has to rub up against the realities of large-scale infrastructure, and it will lose if it doesn’t more or less become the next large-scale infrastructure. But perhaps the more fundamental problem is that this is to basically suggest beating capitalism by becoming the capitalists; a regime change. Even if we assume that it did win the competition, it is engaging in conventional market dynamics. It is a replication of capitalism at a smaller scale that keeps intact the milking of the cash cow and the culture of consumerism.
To a certain extent, there already is somewhat of an existence of a hipster culture of small-scale self-employed capitalists, and my impression of some of those people that I’ve met in personal life is that they’re people who sell trendy bullshit and put on superficial events. They have avoided the necessity of conventional wage labor and may pride themselves on being relatively self-sufficient, but they whore themselves out to commerce in different ways. The last thing I need is more people who want me to buy their product. These people are often shameless self-promoters by necessity, and I have even detected in certain people a kind of self-conscious snark in which it’s all openly a joke and simultaneously shamelessly milked. A commercial circus act, sometimes involving a good deal of desperation, in which people test the limits of what they can do within capitalism.
This might be a way for some people to survive and it’s not the end of the world, but one has to be kidding if one wants to claim it as something revolutionary. Aside from it not likely being a practical option for too many people, it is not something that changes the nature of the game. At most, it’s something that shifts the players and the scale of the game, for a time at least and likely in a marginal way. This does not address the preconditions for social freedom or anything fundamentally systemic. The effects of complex ingrained economic powers and the institutions of the state don’t dissipate just because some people start small businesses, work for themselves, or get into stuff like 3rd printing and various self-sufficiency ideas. What this kind of thing does do is create some niche markets, while appealing most to people with the vested interest and opportunity for DIY lifestyles.
A different but related idea is Agorism, which basically amounts to much the same thing in the context of black and grey markets. Agorism is about becoming capitalists in those areas that are illegal or borderline illegal. As an attempt at a theory of revolution, it embraces a fantasy of an underground economy growing to the point of collapsing the state and becoming the new defacto economy in the shell of the old economy. By the nature of it there is more practical trouble than even the conventional idea of entrepreneurship as out-competing capitalism, because there is increased risk. Either way, the same basic thing plays out in the case of Agorism too, except what used to be the black market has now become the defacto white market. Even if we hypothesize it winning, we are left with exploitative systems of commerce based around competition as the basis for the social order.
A better start toward revolutionizing society would be to take steps toward making both markets and states unnecessary to the provision of social need. That is admittedly no easy task. It may be that capitalism plays itself out towards destructive ends for humanity before the conditions of a meaningful social revolution are possible. I hope not. But libertarians are not helping the matter when they suggest fighting capitalism on its own terms.
The rhetoric of libertarianism, as well as the rhetoric of liberalism (which libertarianism has an overlapping relationship with, particularly liberalism in the capitalist sense of the term) tends to be focused on individual choice and consent. While carving out a position against “aggression”, it’s taken as conventional wisdom in libertarianism that in the absence of aggression (generally aggression associated with the state and blatantly obvious violent threats between individuals) each individual is free to make whatever choices they please because it necessarily is consensual – and how dare you, as a social critic or a judging human being say anything about other people’s consensual choices.
This enables libertarians to take a kind of meta-level ethical high ground of neutrality in which their philosophy is presented as allowing individuality and diversity, even if it means the defense of choices that many find taboo or socially questionable. Of course, this defense is usually primarily on capitalist grounds under the pretenses of free markets. In libertarian ideological discourse, it is not uncommon for non-libertarians in general to be categorized as busybodies who want to control other people’s choices, even when non-libertarians are motivated toward the benefit of the individuals in question (“the humanitarian with the guillotine“). This is a big part of the criticism of the left by libertarians (including the left-libertarians).
To give libertarians a bone, there may indeed be various areas in which it makes a lot of sense to be defending people’s consensual choices if there really is the threat of an imposition and it really is a meaningfully consensual choice. I fully recognize that there are contexts in which it does make sense to advance individuality against the very real repression of choices. But for the purpose of social analysis and critique the libertarian’s notion of consent is both too broad in concept (in that it often creeps into areas where consent is either submission or in a clash with the consent of others) and narrow in practice (in that since its supposed to be the foundation of a moral code, that moral code ends up being shallow). It can’t account for the reality of people’s choice-making, as much as it’d like to be all about it.
The problem is that American libertarianism largely appears to be embedded in a liberal capitalist narrative of individualism. This functions to rationalize aspects of social life that depend on a flimsy sense of consent and ignore cultural-psychological critique. Libertarians can be found doing this to the point of rationalizing terrible things – whether it’s vulgar/brutal libertarianism (with folks like Walter Block and Robert Nozick defending slave contracts) or left-libertarian utopian naivete (such as rationalizing hardcore porn as empowering). It ends up looking to me like sometimes in order for libertarians to “defend the undefendable” they have to whitewash social reality with individualist and free market narratives of society, and that consent and choice itself is insufficient as a moral standard.
When you fetishize individual choice (especially “on the market”), the consequence is that submission is rationalized as freedom, that there can be the internalization of dubious or harmful social norms that become reinforced through choice, that people think they can circumvent socially ingrained problems by choosing to participate in them, and that one’s personal antisocial psychological tendencies are entirely justified (such as is the case with some libertarians I’ve known who held to especially crass individualist views that lack basic concern for the well-being of others, who would let people die or suffer greatly for the sake of an individual’s choice).
With the liberal narrative of consent, voluntary slavery is the social norm because it does not really recognize or care about the social-psychological reality of our choices – we are characterized as free even when we are submitting to power and following social conditioning. When internalized, it is also the ideology of slaves to rationalize their own enslavement. Just start criticizing capitalism in your workplace (and how it affects your workplace) and see how most of your co-workers are likely to react – it’s as if it’s an attack on them. Much of society rationalizes its own enslavement under the illusion that it’s relatively free. Yet much of what you choose is highly influenced by social-psychological factors outside your control.
Oddly, a philosophy that names itself after liberty is trapped in a paradox in which actualized liberty clashes with its notion of consent.