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.