Will May, an old fellow traveler from the specter of libertarianism past, has written a post giving their perspective on my criticism of left-libertarians in which they take something of a middle ground. Will mostly agrees with me about how left-libs still promote a capitalist framework, but thinks that they have made genuine progress on the social side of things that potentially makes them a good force within the libertarian movement. He characterizes them as introducing left-wing social ideas into an essentially right-wing movement, thereby raising awareness.
There probably is some truth to this, but I’m not as optimistic about it as Will. I would have to emphasize that while left-libs may be preaching left-wing social ideas in a right-wing political movement, for the most part they are also using those left-wing social ideas as a means to promote their right-wing-influenced pro-market ideas, shoe-horning them in to that analysis. And as a result, to a certain extent they don’t actually get those ideas, or at least they only wield them in a way that is convenient for libertarianism. At the end of the day, I don’t think they can coherently promote ideas that basically come from critical theory while keeping their libertarianism intact.
For example, what use is the left-lib’s anti-racism if their market ideology still leads them to legitimize institutional racism in principle? Sure, the left-libs might be part of the people boycotting racists “on the market”, but they support the very market that enables them. Their economic policy ideas would still actually give racists more opportunities than they have now. Left-libs have not been able to convincingly show why people who want to oppose racism should support libertarianism or why libertarianism is the best suited politics to oppose it. Support for boycotting while being principally bound to respect a right to racist oppression just doesn’t cut it.
Also, what use is their feminism if it’s all sex-positive feminism meant to legitimize the porn industry and promote poly lifestylism? Feminism in that sense is oddly convenient to capitalism, while the lifestyle part of it often seems to be a personal matter that isn’t really connected with anything worthy of a social revolution. Is promoting sexual politics of this sort really necessarily a good move? Or is it a trendy thing that’s actually introducing some of the *pitfalls* of left-wing social ideas? This is an area where I tend to disagree with the conventional social left – I think modern feminism is a bit messy. I’m oddly finding myself more prone to agree with those feminists who are not so sex-positive and are very anti-capitalist. I find the idea of women “liberating themselves” from gender norms by using them on the market and promoting a culture of hyper-sexualization to be a funny contradiction.
I don’t mean to sound like an economic reductionist, but I think there are some problems with social identity politics in the way that it can excessively focus so much on marginal identities and lifestyles that the things that commonly oppress the majority of humans fall by the wayside – namely our status as outsiders of the ownership class, as average consumers and workers, and as general citizens. A raise in social conciousness may be a good thing and it certainly may be relevant to be involved with the specific concerns of the marginalized, but if that becomes an obsessive focus and one turns the most radical perspectives of a certain group into an ideology of its own then what one ends up with is a one-dimensional, divisive and perhaps sometimes selfish politics.
I think now that libertarians can be social justice warriors too, the left-libs are soaking up some of the negative baggage that comes with that – the silencing of dissenters considered to have privilege, as well as the silencing and exile of dissenters from within marginalized groups, the presence of sensationalist and overblown views that dichotomize society into a zero-sum game of competing social groups, pandering to group identities and using group members from marginal identities as tokens for political points, and sometimes the manifestation of a reverse-totalitarianism complex perpetuated by victims as a way to deal with their anguish and pain.
Tack on free market libertarianism and we have an interesting trend. At least your typical social justice warrior is also at least moderately anti-capitalist. The left-lib seems to want to combine “social justice” with capitalism, and thus misses the ways in which perhaps capitalism is linked with the social issues they want to fight about. There’s no reason to believe that the mechanisms of the market are necessarily helpful to social liberation issues. Since the market is a powerful means of social control, if anything, it may play a significant role in social oppression. Perhaps there is a sense which left-libs are right in implying that the socially marginalized can use the market to their advantage, but at the end of the day it isn’t a comprehensive solution to anything so much as it’s a way for some people to survive in a market-based society. Not revolutionizing anyone’s lives.
In a nutshell, my contention is that so long as libertarians hold to their market-based framework, any attempt they make at social theory will necessarily be spoiled. This is because of how the market theory is designed to envelope social theory. The left-libertarian is stuck in the convenient and sometimes seemingly opportunistic position of being like “I recognize that X, Y, Z are social problems, here’s why state intervention is at fault and here’s how the free market can fix it!”. The social justice ideas get absorbed into the free market advocacy. And because of this, the left-lib is left coming off like they don’t really understand how the problem they’re talking about is socially or economically ingrained, since their default mode of discourse is to talk of things in terms of state vs market.
This kind of brings us back around to what my original contention about left-lib was – that it may indeed be a raise in social consciousness, but not necessarily a better social theory. Left-libertarians tend to tack-on social justice related ideas to a pre-existing, widely encompassing free market framework that influences how they interpret those ideas and ultimately how they package them in their own advocacy. I think the results have mostly been incoherent, such that any raise in social consciousness among libertarians has nonetheless mostly been ineffective at changing anything. While “thick libertarianism” for left-libs is supposed to mean that things like anti-capitalism, anti-racism and feminism form a coherant self-reinforcing web with their libertarianism, in practice for many of them it would be more accurate to say that it means they are those things in addition to being libertarians – and I would claim that they haven’t really worked out how to square them, especially in the case of the question of capitalism.