Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

The Paradox of Consent


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.

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21 responses to “The Paradox of Consent

  1. N July 3, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    I’m not sure about the sex-positive presence in left-libertarianism, because one of the biggest voices is deeply anti-sex-work and others are largely ambivalent.

    I’m also careful to act like all internet feminists are sex-positive. I don’t know of your experience but I know that people have complained about how it seems like there are ten times as many sex-negatives than sex-positives, based on who contacts them.

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  2. Brainpolice2 July 3, 2014 at 1:59 PM

    What big voice would that be? As far as my experience, the majority consensus of most left-libertarians is that a form of sex-positive feminism based on the promotion of things like poly and sex work is the proper position to be a true radical, as well as a new-found interest in trans politics. And as far as the generational politics of American feminism, everything I’m reading seems to indicate that those feminists who are critical of things like polyamory, trans politics, and sex work are controversial (and misrepresented as pearl-clutching conservative harpies) to a largely younger generation of mostly liberal “3rd wave” feminists – even to the point that those critics are exiled from the movement.

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    • nataliyapetrova July 3, 2014 at 3:44 PM

      Brainpolice2,

      Charles Johnson is a major anti-sex work or at least anti-existing sex work voice.

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    • N July 3, 2014 at 5:35 PM

      Charles yes, like Nataliya says, and perhaps other libertarian feminists who have collaborated with him.

      But as FurryGirl says, sex-positives do not really have a voice in institutions or political power and they don’t want it either:

      “Large national feminist organizations and women’s studies departments are not run on “good feminist” principles, they are run by the oppressive and anti-sexuality feminists who represent mainstream feminist values. “Good feminists” aren’t the ones being brought in as experts by governments to write new anti-sex worker and anti-porn laws.”

      “Your typical “good feminist” engages in “sex-positive activism” by assuring one another that they are bold “revolutionaries” for watching punk porn or buying buttplugs. In contrast, mainstream feminists have their shit together, complete with well-funded and powerful NGOs, huge salaries, and national respectability, and they work tirelessly to pass laws around the world that make things more dangerous for sex workers or seek to enact anti-free speech censorship policies (such as in feminist-run Iceland). Feminists who have any shred of influence invariably use it to be “bad feminists,” whether it’s criminalizing indoor prostitution in Rhode Island or holding tenured women’s studies jobs so they can terrorize impressionable young women into feeling victimized by the world around them.” (http://www.feminisnt.com/2013/frequently-addressed-accusation-you-misrepresent-true-feminism-by-focusing-on-the-bad-feminists-theyre-not-real-feminists-anyway/)

      So while I can agree that maybe these feminists get kicked out of sex-positive circles, I don’t think one can downplay the enormous political power that anti-sex work types hold.

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      • Brainpolice2 July 3, 2014 at 10:08 PM

        All of this seems a bit tangental to the general point of my piece.
        Either way, I don’t really agree with you. I don’t think that sex-positive feminism is a minority position. I think a lot of it is the default position for younger feminists, and I think that, whatever Charles Johnson wants to say aside, it is also a dominant part of the social identity politics being soaked up by left-libertarians. The discourse I see in social media among the left-libs, and with folks like Cathy Reisenwitz as visible public speakers, is totally devoted to a capitalist justification of sex work, obcession with promoting polyamory, and shamelessly selling one’s feminity as a PR move. And the biggest taboo is daring to make moral judgements about the poor choices of naive young women like Belle Knox – this kind of feminism is primarily about individual choice making free from “shaming”, where “shaming” means any kind of social criticism of the context of the choices.
        It seems to me that me and Noor have completely different reasons for making critical comments about feminism.

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  3. n8chz July 3, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    My main objection to the libertarian understanding of consent is not its definition as the absence of coercion so much as the apparent assumption that there’s a binary categorization of social arrangements as either consensual or non-consensual. In the world I live in, some activities are more voluntary than others. As with a lot of definitions in the libertarian dictionary, my own bias is with what I call plain English (or any other of the real world’s spoken languages). Most English speaking people, for example, use “volunteer work” as a synonym for “unpaid work”, although in the age of unpaid internships, we might further specify “unpaid work in the non-profit sector. Indeed, in plain English, the terms “non-profit sector” and “voluntary sector” are practically synonymous, while the (negative liberty framed) libertarian movement (and to some extent, surprise, surprise, the conservative movement) seems to be on a memetic messaging campaign of using the terms “voluntary sector” and “private sector” interchangeably. Equating voluntary and unpaid is a powerful idea, I think, because by using the V-word in this way, we’re saying that some activities are so voluntary we’d do them for free, whereas there’s some things we’d do for money and there are some things (things at the other end of the V-spectrum, which I think is more characteristic of the real world than a voluntary/involuntary dichotomy), as is very commonly said “you couldn’t get me to do for a million dollars.” This idea of degrees of volition, I think, dovetails strongly with the idea that “everyone has a price.” A legitimately freedom-loving ideology, I think, would have a “let’s shore up the bottom” attitude toward this particular price range. This is why I champion, among other things, negative utilitarianism. Negative liberty identifies the things we absolutely, positively don’t want in our lives and proposes a future which refuses to tolerate those things, but to me it looks like the real agenda is to set up an easy-to-understand set of rules set up specifically so the winners will be able to say they won playing by the rules (and therefore their claim to their winnings is morally unassailable), whereas negative utility starts by attempting the catalogue the entire range of social ills (“economic bads” as contrasted with economic goods, let’s say) and asks how we build an optimization strategy whose goal is their minimization.

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    • Brainpolice2 July 5, 2014 at 8:11 AM

      That’s part of my problem with it as well – that everything is black and white consent/non-consent to them, when in reality consent is such a broad thing that it overlaps with submission, and that we run into problems in a social context in which people have overlapping and competing desires. I think there is an obvious and important element of pre-existing social constraint that has to be aknowledged as a pretext to any consent we talk about, and I think it’s important to recognize that certain power dynamics between people in society enable coercion in such a way as to make consent fairly meaningless if not neutralized from being possible to begin with.

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  4. N July 3, 2014 at 10:34 PM

    All I’m pointing out is that sex-positive feminism is not the feminism that has all the power. Sure, the younger feminists are of the annoying fun sex-positive generation, but powerful feminists have held to positions more like yours for decades and have used it to influence laws, so I don’t think you can act like they’re the ones marginalized.

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  5. Brainpolice2 July 3, 2014 at 10:48 PM

    Well, whether or not one group is marginalized over another, the position of those feminists who don’t tow the lipstick feminist line actually makes a hell of a lot more sense when it comes to analyzing society and forming judgments. I may simultaneously not exactly agree with the breadth of their narrative about men, but they are entirely right to characterize the sex industry as a matter of exploitation, they are entirely right to point out that polyamory and kink culture in this day and age is a repetition of what went wrong with the hippies (youthful naivete and a convenient whore-house for radical men), and they are entirely right to think that “trans women” are not women in the sense of being born with a vagina and being socialized as women.

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    • n8chz July 3, 2014 at 10:51 PM

      And just like that, the other shoe drops.

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      • n8chz July 3, 2014 at 10:51 PM

        Scare quotes, even.

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      • Brainpolice2 July 3, 2014 at 11:32 PM

        Yes, I have committed the sin of not towing the expected leftist line of uncritically accepting trans politics and recognizing people not being called by the right identifier as a grave violation of their rights. I take the view that m->f trans identity is more or less an appropriation of the submissive female gender roles and tropes that feminists traditionally fought against. I guess that makes me a monster. From a personal standpoint, I’ve always felt the most respect for women who deviate from the expectations of femininity. When I see *men* adopting what those women deviate from and calling themselves women, I’m not impressed.

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          • N July 6, 2014 at 8:56 PM

            So much for your distaste for identity politics. Because I find the TERF position to be an extreme application of the “privilege by birth”. And so much for your rejecting the radical feminist narrative about men as all privileged oppressors, because much of TERF comes from their viewing male-to-female transgenders as oppressors-in-oppressed-clothing.

            I have a strong preference for masculinity myself, but male-to-female trans (as well as the other way around) is about something a hell of a lot deeper than simply men acting feminine. It’s about having actual gender dysphoria.

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        • N July 11, 2014 at 3:35 PM

          I’m also curious as to how you justify to yourself that MtF trans spend tens of thousands of dollars on changing their physical body, if all it takes is for a man to adopt feminine behaviors and norms to be trans. There are plenty of ‘submissive’, genderqueer, drag queen, or androgynous males who aren’t trans.

          Not to mention that there are tomboyish trans women that aren’t girlie and adopt masculine behaviors. You can respect women who realize their feeling comfortable in a female body, cis or trans, does not mean they must adopt all the behaviors of femininity.

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  6. Sir Einzige July 5, 2014 at 5:58 AM

    Gender is not a role it is a resonance. Also certain forms of exploitation are more preferable and even pleasurable then others. If you are a work abolitionist like me then sex work should be the last thing you are concerned with as far as various forms of work goes. If coordinated correctly sex work with the right spiritualistic drives could over time evolve into post exploitative play.

    The 2nd wave feminists never gave a damn about critiquing work as such, and their entire constructivism argument fails reality. Constructivism was always based on the assumption that there is a doer behind the deed, there isn’t. Essence like male and female energy streams do exist. The problem was the old Western Framework made being literal when it was always becoming only. But you become an essence and that essence is not fixed but always dynamic and moving.

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    • Brainpolice2 July 5, 2014 at 6:54 AM

      I would have to say that if one is anti-work, pretty much all of the criticism of conventional work applies to legal sex work, and that it can be considered to be extra problematic precisely because the nature of the labor is the use of the body, and thus the nature of the exploitation is directly to the body. In more conventional work, you give up a piece of your liberty in exchange for pay based on various tasks – but no one directly has rights to your body as part of the deal. In sex work, it seems more like you’re basically going in the direction of giving up your rights to your body.

      Part of the problem that comes up in my thought process lies in the practicality of work contracts for sex work, with the dangerous idea of the sex worker being obligated to “future labor” in such a way that strikes me as theoretically legitimizing rape. What happens when the porn actor changes their mind and wants to resist part way through the scene? What happens when they want to quit and they effectively have contractual obligations for future sex? Sex work seems to be something that the participants can potentially be *entrapped* in. And even if they get out, we all know what the negative consequences often are for those attempting to become integrated back into more conventional life and means of survival.

      It is not an especially “wise choice” for one to make. Why should it be a heresy to question the wisdom of the choice to go into sex work? Why should we, as presumably at least somewhat socially aware adults, champion and celebrate the not so wise choices of a smart-yet-lacking-in-life-experience teenage girl like Belle Knox and uncritically take at face value such a person’s attempts to represent things that are known to be socially problematic as inherently liberating? Someone’s individual choices doesn’t erase or make irrelevant the problems around fetishized sexuality at a economic-cultural level.

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      • N July 6, 2014 at 5:20 PM

        All work involves use of the body. A construction worker certainly extorts his physical body. So do dancers, the difference between a dancer and a stripper being that a stripper’s ‘job’ is to turn the audience on in a sexual way. Again, I don’t think you can add in anything ‘special’ about sex work without seeing anything sexual as particularly sacred or special.

        In a wage labor society, I would guess porn stars do back out of contracts, though with some penalties. Or they may consent anyway, though not enthusiastically, but that doesn’t make it rape. It would be rape if someone still forced them to do so, but that’s where criticism of contract absolutism comes in – the view that fundamentally liberty cannot be signed away by a contract.

        If a dancer isn’t feeling up to a performance, they still have to work at it, though you could criticize all work from a perspective such as this. Especially employment, which is why the term wage slavery has been around for a while.

        Consent in any situation is a gradient based on complex factors (though some might argue that all free will and thus consent is imaginary) and I think your approach which seems to boil down to “nothing is truly consensual because of external forces and institutions” demeans actual criticisms of non-consensual situations, the same way the approach of “anything without physical force is automatically voluntary and consensual” doesn’t help at all.

        Former escort Belle de Jour mentioned that she spends more time talking people out of sex work, and I don’t think that’s at all uncommon because sex workers realize very well that it’s not for everyone.

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        • Sir Einzige July 9, 2014 at 5:09 AM

          N made some good comments though I’ll add an addendum or two.

          “I would have to say that if one is anti-work, pretty much all of the criticism of conventional work applies to legal sex work, and that it can be considered to be extra problematic precisely because the nature of the labor is the use of the body, and thus the nature of the exploitation is directly to the body.”

          You’re only right about the first part but wrong about ‘extra problematic’ as relating to sex. Sex is an inherently more preferable because it involves an inherently body stimulating process then most other forms of work regardless of ‘exploitative’ contexts(exploitation is a funny term to me btw, for me the issue is sublimation and domination not exploitation something that is emphasized more by Judeo derived moralists). The thing you are missing about the sexual sphere of work is how time preferential it is. There’s a reason why a good amount of anarchists tend to be involved in the sex biz. It’s good for time preference and it can be an outlet for exploration. Sex work under non stressed conditions is the closest thing you get to ‘self-management’, something I don’t actually care for as an anarchist standard but is fine in a non-revolutionary context. The time preference, flexibility and overall unproductivity is why it has been historically sanctioned against.

          “Why should we, as presumably at least somewhat socially aware adults, champion and celebrate the not so wise choices of a smart-yet-lacking-in-life-experience teenage girl like Belle Knox and uncritically take at face value such a person’s attempts to represent things that are known to be socially problematic as inherently liberating?”

          I’m not championing but I will certainly not denigrate her decision and join in a historical discourse that prohibits the sexual sphere of production largely for its flexibility. Belle will be fine, she’s banking it in as we speak and is a hell of a lot more comfortable economically then you and I are. What I would advocate is that anarchists and anarchs make our own foray into the pornographic sphere and create an effective hobby class where we can transmit our own archetypes through sexual expression. To hell with any 2nd wave feminist that gets in the way.

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  7. D July 11, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    Your insistence on using really condescending rhetoric around Belle Knox, an adult woman, by calling her a “teenage girl” or a “naive young woman,” frankly strikes me as misogynist.

    Trans women are not universally feminine, and most male-bodied feminine people are not trans women. Trans women generally transition because of a distress with their biological sex.

    Capitalism sucks, and work sucks, but cam-whoring has some of the best payment, and best conditions in terms of jobs consisting of unskilled labor. Having looked into this as an economic possibility for myself, I have to say I’d take this above working in retail or fast food.

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  8. Jeffrey Liakos July 7, 2016 at 6:13 PM

    If someone does not wish to consent to something, they should not be forced to by means of state coercion. Just my thoughts.

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