- August 2014 (5)
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- May 2014 (4)
Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology
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.