Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

Left-Libertarianism Is Bunk Because It’s Still Libertarianism


The radical wing of...socially liberal capitalism.

The radical wing of…socially liberal capitalism.

I used to be a libertarian, starting about a decade ago. I took something of an ideological journey through different segments of American libertarianism and into its radical depths, and for a time settled on the segment that’s known as left-libertarianism – particularly a group of “free market anarchists” who also identify variously as “leftist”, “anti-capitalist” and sometimes even “socialist”. In the end, I had to abandon even left-libertarianism in spite of the fact that it seemed to represent the most relatively enlightened group of libertarians. My thought process lead me to reject libertarianism in general as an ideology, and in the aftermath of that I have come to see left-libertarianism as carrying the fundamental problematic aspects of libertarianism along with it for the most part: obsession with opposition to the state, the adoption of capitalist ideology of the market, reliance on overly simplistic and sociologically neutralized analysis, and so on.

I tend to think that being a left-libertarian in the mold of “The Alliance of the Libertarian Left” is kind of like being a capitalistic liberal hipster that tries to flaunt their social consciousness (by getting involved in cultural issues in terms of things like feminism and anti-racism) while simultaneously advancing the same basic narrative of free markets as the people from the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, The CATO Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and an assortment of both libertarian and more explicitly right-wing think tanks. The catch is that they try to put the spin on it that “the free market”, in a scenario after the fall of “the state”, will tend to spontaneously generate non-capitalist outcomes – hence the bogus rhetoric of “free market anti-capitalism”. They argue this by strongly identifying capitalism in terms of a system of state interventions and state fusion with business, but not particularly in terms of a system of social relations influenced by economic forces.

In other words, left-libertarians try to claim to be anti-capitalist without exactly understanding with capitalism is. They see some of the symptoms of the capitalism in the context of the state’s involvement in society, but they do not see how capitalism is a system of relations of power that simultaneously has functionality independent of the state and has an influence on culture in its own right. Their libertarian analysis leaves them stuck advancing a narrative focused on blaming the issues associated with capitalism on the state. As if, if only the state would get out of the way of the market, we could have a more egalitarian society. This shows a certain naiveté of the power dynamics and likely outcomes of the real world, the world in which markets function as a network of hierarchical systems designed around maximizing profit, growth, and social control.

Left-libertarians have engaged in some efforts to separate themselves from the explicit conservative cranks in the libertarian movement and sometimes sparked a good level of controversy in the libertarian movement over it, but it’s notable that this is often on grounds of social or cultural issues rather than economics and the basic content of American libertarian ideology of ethics and property. When it does touch on those topics, the internal debacles mostly have to do with either questions of terminology and rhetoric revolving around some of the more bizarre claims of the left-libertarians to be advancing “socialism” via emphasis on self-employment, co-op businesses, fraternal societies, and so on. The flavor of the left-libertarian’s proposed “alternatives to capitalism” is generally about models internal to markets and entry by private organizations into the roles currently handled by states, which brings it full circle back to capitalism and states.

The rhetorical way in which left-libertarians have tried to distinguish themselves as non-capitalist and “of the left” is by using terms such as “vulgar Libertarianism”, and more recently, “brutalism”, to signify other libertarians who openly embrace or legitimize some of the more ugly aspects of the system and who lack social consciousness about economic disparity. In so doing, perhaps they do show themselves as having more social consciousness than other libertarians, but the attempted distinction is nonetheless weak because of the general basic shared ideology about the market and property that the two groups have. Because the other side of the coin is that the left-libertarians are in denial about the involvement of market dynamics in the things they attack the “vulgar libertarians” for openly legitimizing. In a way, the “brutal libertarian” is more honest to the consequences of their views, while the “left-libertarian” either entertains utopian ideas about it or tries to sugar-coat it.

Left-libertarians function to implicitly legitimize the ugliness they want to attack or disassociate themselves from. For example, they can try to call out other libertarians for supporting overt racism, while the libertarian logic of the market and property simultaneously binds them to treat institutional racism as legitimate in a way, insofar as it is a private business decision. They can try to call out other libertarians for overtly supporting big corporations, but there is no reason to believe that the left-libertarian’s version of “the free market after the state falls” has any meaningful mechanism to overcome the current corporate landscape (all we get are predictions that the absence of certain state regulations will allow us more opportunity to start our own businesses, use alternative currencies, and do a variety of DIY stuff; which smacks of small-scale capitalism).

The left-libertarian ends up looking like a socially liberal capitalist, some of whom more or less try to pander to the left but are fundamentally at odds with the existing radical left. The left-libertarian is in a position of trying to “convert progressives” (who are also one of their favorite targets of criticism when they’re not going on about “vulgar libertarianism”) via convincing them of the obsessive anti-statist ideology of free market theory taken to extremes, while doing “damage control” for their own movement’s public image and trying to soften the “brutalism” of their mutual allies in libertarianism. They also sometimes get involved in dialogue with more radical left groups, but typically those end in disagreement and impasse, as the radical left has little tolerance for the free market rhetoric. Social anarchists certainly know that anarcho-capitalism is full of crap, and it’s hard for most left-libertarians to strongly distinguish themselves from anarcho-capitalism at the end of the day.

A polyamorist sex positive feminist anti-racist capitalist who is into 3D printing is still a capitalist.

 

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17 responses to “Left-Libertarianism Is Bunk Because It’s Still Libertarianism

  1. Dimitry May 20, 2014 at 9:09 PM

    Great article. Left Libertarianism in my mind is going to exist merely as a panel/internet phenomena. They do not have any real organizational base (nor do they really want one) and their existing affiliations pretty much include awkwardly trying to blend into the broader Anarchist/left scene in which they frequently get well deserved criticism or, as you said, flirting with the similar economic ideologies of the Austrian/right-libertarian crowd. The later is pretty damaging to any group of people if they are trying to appeal to the oppressed and marginalized.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brainpolice2 May 21, 2014 at 6:25 AM

    I appreciate the comment, Dimitry. I agree that a lot of it comes off as mainly an internet phenomena. But what I’ve observed is that people who used to be just fellow young followers of the movement online are now being given positions as public speakers at events, and are getting involved in bigger journalism connections. I find it alarming, in that there seems to be the fostering of a kind of celebrity culture around it.

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  3. N May 26, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    To be fair, C4SS has been doing that kind of thing – an organizational base, and has been working on translating their articles into several languages. Global outreach and all that.

    Some left-libertarians are certainly…just socially-liberal capitalists, but I do believe many have a genuine opposition to capitalism, both state corporatism and ancap. But then all I see is a pinning of everything onto the state, which is fine and dandy, but I’d like to see some more on the cultural dynamics. Perhaps even an examination of early civilizations to see how aspects of capitalism and states emerged. They also rightly recognize cultural bigotry as independent of the state, but for everything else, it’s the state.

    I’m largely left-libertarian in theory (though I haven’t given it much thought in years), but my biggest gripes with the ‘movement’ have to do with their constant sucking up to “social justice warrior” types, and pandering a little too much into the bad aspects of the social justice left.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brainpolice2 May 29, 2014 at 12:17 AM

    There is, in basic motivation and intention, a kind of anti-capitalist sentiment among that crowd, sure. But, as you point out, it’s all shoehorned into a theory pinning everything on the state (in a way that relies, in part, on economic theory that is actually pro-capitalist). I think this undermines it – their working theory is in contradiction to their anti-capitalist intuitions.

    I definitely agree that there’s a current of the LL that has taken to kind of pandering to and becoming part of the whole social justice warrior thing. While I have no sympathies with social conservatism, I’ve also come to have some major issues with identity politics on the left, just not for exactly the same reasons conservatives would tend to give.

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  5. Pingback: The Naivete of Market Anarchism | Anti-Libertarian Criticism

  6. David Burns June 11, 2014 at 1:45 AM

    What is the point of this article? If you had addressed libertarians as an audience, it may have mattered. It seems oriented toward leftists, but instead of providing them new information, it offers them a congratulatory slap on the back, a shared sneer toward libertarians. If libertarians misunderstand capitalism, maybe you should try to explain it to them, instead of pontificating.

    My criticism of you and many of the libertarians you criticize, is that you spend way too much time worrying about what utopia will look like, when I am pretty sure a) you will never see it and b) it would not conform to your expectations if you did. I am more interested in what we can do now and how to get it done.

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  7. paragardener June 11, 2014 at 5:59 AM

    I see the state and corporations as both fundamentally opposed to the individual, family and community/tribal levels. Those lower levels of organization are what I support (they can, at least potentially, operate without coercion and treat humans as beings). The strategic mission of my Left-libertarianism is to resist both state and corporations and stop them from wiping out everything we build down here at the local level. We can regard the state and capitalists as one unified power bloc — the same people even run them — when resisting the State Face, I’m libertarian. When resisting the Capitalist Face, I’m a lefty.

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  8. Pingback: Why I use the term “left-styled libertarian” | In defense of anagorism

  9. Pingback: Left-Libertarianism as Enlightened Anarcho-Capitalism | Anti-Libertarian Criticism

  10. g July 8, 2014 at 12:31 AM

    To somehow believe that capitalism and corporations can exist without the state is really ignorant in the defining sense of the word. The author is ignoring the fact that capital and incorporation along with coercive imposition of limited liability has never existed in history without the force of the state or a state like structure.
    Capital, defined as an widely accepted representation of past value useable in the present is a recent phenomenon, the growth of which follows the growth and expansion of the state. To expect that the world would freely accept capital in its present form if the structure of coercive monetary/financial laws and regulations were absent defies common sense.
    Incorporation means very little without limited liability being forced upon the population. Few if anyone would form corporations if the liability of their incorporated actions were accounted for. What motivation would both shareholders and firms have to bind themselves together under conditions in which the value of capital is absent or greatly diminished and limited liability is no longer an enforced legality? no motivation would exist other than what exists now when a few or a group of people pool their resources and talents to produce something that others might value, fully accepting the liability they will be exposed to.
    The state, corporations and capital cannot be seperated. The three have never existed without the support of each other and for all practical purposes could not exist. Modern history, brought current to this very day, bears this out.
    Left libertarians are acutely aware of this.

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    • Brainpolice2 July 8, 2014 at 12:48 AM

      I think you miss the argument and gloss over an important point. What I’m saying is that it is a useless abstraction for you to be talking in terms of a scenario “without the state” as a real stable phenomena, as if you’ve abolished it and it really just goes away and no power dynamics move in as new political mechanisms. As if a switch has been flipped and we now have “a stateless society” that is automatically free and forms along egalitarian lines.

      It is more accurate to be talking of a state collapse scenario (whether intentional or not), and C4SS style left-libertarians give us insufficient reason to believe that a state collapse scenario leads to a natural “free market” that supplants both the state and the powerful economic institutions that are already pre-existing, and vested interest in economic and political power just stays at bay. You have to accept a fantasy, based on the purely free market as a theoretical model and not a real thing (as if economic incentive alone is sufficient to keep social good and automatically generates nothing but mutual benefit), to think this way.

      No, *society does not automatically ideologically reform itself against capitalism and cease to have incentives to submit to economic forces much bigger than themselves because a particular modern state falls*. That has nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with political idealism. “The state collapsed” doesn’t mean that corporations and banks as organizations all dissipate into thin air, that economic organizations lose all power and have no interest in politics. What one is more likely to see is a short-lived transitional phase and then a new political system, or a few new political systems. Guess who has the most existing resources and social pull with which to secure political power? The rich and economic institutions.

      Libertarians such as yourself ignore what capitalism is in the broad social sense. It is not simply a political system, it involves economic forces and has to do with our way of life in modern technological society. Left-libertarians are acutely unaware of how economic forces, even with the simultaneous existence of a state, naturally have ways to play themselves out, how economically ingrained ways of life can in themselves be a problem. Since you accept libertarian ideology, you have no choice but to generally reduce any economic problem to the critique of the state.

      The existence of interlocking relationships between economic powers and states does not negate the simultaneous existence of power dynamics within them. The fact of the matter is that the idea that natural dynamics of markets are of freedom and equality is simply not true by the experiences of just about everyone, and libertarians can’t get away with just defaulting to the state as a scapegoat for the cultural, psychological, and ethical conundrums of economics. You can’t back out of criticism of *real* markets by appealing to a notion of *free* markets that is an ahistorical ideal, no more than a Stalinist can back out of criticism of state-communism by appealing to a vision of post-scarcity utopia.

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  11. g July 8, 2014 at 2:19 AM

    i think you are missing the “left libertarian” point by applying concepts in a universal manner.
    systems are only applicable to everyone when great amounts of force are applied, as has been the case with capitalism. left libertarianism has no tolerance for universal systems. everyone is different and should be free to explore their differences {and their similarities}.
    most left libertarians don’t even use the term “free market”, that is the domain of the right libertarian, of which your article seems more appropriate.
    capitalism is most certainly a political system, in fact the dominate world wide political system.
    can you name one economic capitalistic transaction that occurs without the state deeply involved?
    can you dig up one explotative economic situation that doesn’t involve state involvement?
    just the use of any form of capital necessitates the involvement of the state, what form of capital are you aware of that doesn’t?

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    • Julia July 8, 2014 at 12:13 PM

      “can you name one economic capitalistic transaction that occurs without the state deeply involved?”

      None of this debunks the Marxist idea of the state; in fact, it’s very much in-line with it.

      Carson and other left-libs tend to think Marxists and social anarchists ignore the role of the State in capitalism in our criticisms of capitalism, when that’s simply not true. If you want Marxist writings on the State and its role in capitalism, look up essays like “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus” or the book Political Power and Social Class for a start.

      Market systems will ultimately need a state apparatus as an arbiter of social unity. The state provides the means in which market actors, whether big or small, can utilize resources and make them work in their favor.

      As well, the fact that the government has a role in manipulating markets doesn’t entail that it is the only way in which market actors can manipulate the market. Think of today’s society with its massive media outlets like the internet and advertising. Even mom and pop shops and the hipster with a 3D printer will want to advertise as well as possible in order to get people to buy their shit.

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      • Brainpolice2 July 9, 2014 at 12:59 AM

        I would add, to more directly challenge the question, that we have no reason to believe that the intervention of the state is a necessary condition for human beings to use commerce to exploit others. These are human problems, and both markets and states formulate around human power dynamics.

        Obviously since we live in modern society, there is a background factor of the nation state that is one force out of many, and it does affect the market in its ways. But the existence of that state is not a sufficient explanation for the social phenomena as a whole. The basic reality of how people behave in local communities already should give us some red flags that power dynamics have plenty of ways to play out negatively without large governmental organizations particularly being relevant to the problem.

        Access to large amounts of resources and ownership of land in and of itself is a form of power. You can’t just blame the state for the exploitation of economic power. We are dealing with relations and incentives that don’t just exist because of state regulation. We’re dealing with petty human impulses, ideology, and ingrained socio-economic heirarchies.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Anonymous July 9, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    I consider myself a libertarian socialist. I like personal property and hope to see a largely non propertarian communal society. I only see markets as a tool that can and should be discarded if they are not serving people. But I still embrace the term libertarian as I know its ideological pedigree is of the left. I’ve copied this post I made on n8chz’s blog a few times, and I’ll paste it here too:

    Libertarians, once synonymous with anarchists, are (supposedly) not beholden in theory to any institution for its own sake. Yet there is a tendency even among those who endorse the ‘freed market’ to favor equilibrium first, and equality second. I’ll quote a blog post by n8chz (anagory.wordpress.com) here:

    “The market process is a process that produces equilibrium, not equality. If equilibrium is a survivable state, then agorism should be enough. I won’t commit to the idea that agorism is enough without testing the market equilibrium it creates for survivability.”

    Many current arguments for the ‘freed market’ would lead to favor the ‘equilibrium’ spoken of here, the equilibrium so beloved by most libertarians, and one that leads to market fundamentalism and backdoor neoliberalism in practice.

    As the market is a process which is not shy of creating many institutions, either through the cash nexus or otherwise, I am intrigued by the theory that n8chz refers to as ‘polymacroeconomy’; that is, let the individual choose which economy to take part in. If I understand it right this would make the free market only one economy of many.

    I like to think of social anarchists as favoring sovereignty among economies (or, put more simply, having no single economy be sovereign), an interesting alternative to market anarchists favoring of sovereignty among communities (having no single community in the economy be sovereign). What I mean by that is that I understand most market anarchists to endorse one macroeconomy, the so-called ‘freed market’, and favoring free interaction among polities and collectivities inside that macroeconomy. In other words, the market anarchists want society to be able to set up their own grid apart from the Dominant Grid enforced by the State and capitalism.

    In contrast, the social anarchists want to do away with all Grids entirely, or at least a society where Grids can be shut on and off or swapped in as fluid a way as possible. I believe such a setup strongly requires a widespread nexus of communal property and a stable occupy/use infrastructure as a regulatory check on the possible rise of private economic power dynamics.
    But still, this is only theory. This I’m afraid may lead to a fundamental disagreement among both market and social anarchists at first, but I believe it can be overcome, but only through the exploration and establishment of social anarchist economic activity as described above, sovereignty not only among economies, but between economies, and between individuals. How that comes about would on the surface resemble the agorism described by many libertarians, but I believe the answer lies within the continued spread of antiestablishment communal property and a decentralized planned economy where the ends is not simply ‘voluntarism’ for economic actors, but something akin to a ‘vanguard with peer-review’.

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    • Brainpolice2 July 9, 2014 at 8:28 PM

      I’ll go a step further: the theory of equilibrium also is not reflective of reality either.

      I understand the libertarian socialist meaning of the term, and my criticism of libertarianism is not directed there. My criticism of left-libertarianism isn’t directed there either, because by and large the kind of left-libertarians I’m thinking of aren’t really libertarian socialists – as much as they might want to point to Benjamin Tucker as their linchpin.

      Liked by 1 person

      • unperson July 9, 2014 at 8:52 PM

        I advocate for non market economic practices first and foremost, and see the market as the breeding ground for reclaiming the commons (basically, what we now call infrastructure which services capitalists as Carson describes). I see public infrastructure as returning to communal hands, ie ACTUAL public ownership, separated into local funds for their upkeep. I want mutual banks. I am an occupy/use proponent.

        I am also learning and developing my views and am no way calcified in any of them.

        But simply opting out isn’t enough, broad education and advocacy for the commons is what is needed, not simply ‘let the market decide’ or ‘let institutions compete and may the best win’. I’d like a widespread movement to transcend the market economy as a simple cash nexus. I’d see my ideal society with essentially a federation of small planned economies.

        What is your ideal society and economy?

        And… how do we get there in a revolutionary way? I get the impression the ‘opt out’ approach is frowned upon here and compared to Trotskyist reformism. But then how? Who will be the vanguard and how do we keep the vanguard from becoming the new ruling class? Vanguards need peer review too.

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