- August 2014 (5)
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Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology
The relationship between libertarianism and the general left is interesting. I’ve noticed a somewhat problematic phenomena that is two-fold.
On one hand, some libertarians try to market themselves to the left (and people in general) by appealing to simplistic soundbite-like sentiments that aren’t necessarily particular to libertarianism, such as “I abhor violence and believe in respecting people as individuals”, meant to imply that “you’re already a libertarian and don’t know it”. This is of course misleading in that a lot of people could get behind such a sentiment without libertarian ideology having anything to do with it, while drawing completely different political implications from it. This is some mix of manipulation/propaganda and libertarian delusion about their ideology being a matter of common sense. You’re not going to find too many people who are going to stand up and be like “I think violence is awesome!”. One must realize this is more rhetorical than substantive. It’s little better than Molyneux’s “gun in the room” argument.
On the other hand, I’ve noticed a certain trend among younger vaguely liberal people to stumble on to links to libertarian ideas on a specific issue or certain statements by libertarian figures that they agree with. These people aren’t actually part of the libertarian movement. They are mostly liberals outside of it who are occasionally bumping onto the edges of it, but they generally have no idea what they are getting into. They typically don’t know much about libertarianism as a political philosophy, it’s just that sometimes libertarians say things that resonate with them, particularly on issues of foreign policy and questions of government infringement into people’s choices. Indeed, in some ways this was exactly the position I was in about a decade ago when it came to some of the statements of Ron Paul, and it contributed to me being wooed into libertarianism.
Of course, there is no shortage of criticism of libertarianism from the left in general, and it tends to annoy the heck out of libertarians. Often, the libertarian response to this criticism comes in the form of overtly embracing its right-wing traits and rather strongly rejecting the left (which you’re likely to see from the Lew Rockwell crowd, for example). More generally, the libertarian response involves characterizing criticism as coming from ignorance, which right-libertarians and left-libertarians alike seem to loosely agree on: critics of libertarianism can only be arguing against unfair boogeymen and from a lack of knowledge of economics and ignorance of the esoteric ins and outs of libertarian theory. Then there is the delusional or otherwise manipulative left-libertarian tactic of acting like the leftist criticism is ignorant, but that libertarian ideology actually jibes the leftist’s motives better than the left does.
I’ve watched these arguments and sentiments play out over and over again in the libertarian echo chamber. When libertarians aren’t bashing on the left as economic illiterates and authoritarian governmentalists, they’re trying to woo the left with poor arguments. If you exclude social issues, even a lot of the dialogue you see coming from left-libertarians at C4SS, including Kevin Carson, is in general form in agreement with the right-libertarian bashing of the left: more than anything, that they don’t understand “the free market”. As I’ve said before, the one thing that unites all libertarians is the free market idea. There are even some articles by Carson that leave one with the impression that he’s in some ways virulently anti-leftist, and the site in general has increasingly become filled with defensive articles written in response to criticisms of libertarianism from the left.
The left-libertarian spin, where the wooing comes in, is in the notion that the free market can best provide the left’s desired ends and is most consistent with their motives, and that the state is the prime causal agent of everything the left opposes. The former point is patently false in the face of the reality of economic power dynamics, and the latter is a dubious sticking point of libertarian anarchist ideology. And here we come to the fact that if the free market idea is what unites libertarians generally, when it comes to “libertarian anarchism” the one thing that unites them is anti-statist reductionism. I think it’s important to make a distinction between anti-statism in the sense of non-recognition of state legitimacy and treating state power as an essential part of the problem of politics (which is part of anarchism generally), and anti-statism in the sense of such a myopic and oversimplified political analysis which treats it as an external entity spoiling social dynamics rather than an institution that is part of spoiled social dynamics. That’s part of why most self-described anarchists are not libertarians.
The left is entirely in the right to criticize libertarians for their phantasmagorical view of markets and their obsession with opposing the state. The left is being far from ignorant in perceiving libertarians to largely represent economic power and have wonky views on how the world works. These criticisms irk left-libertarians to no end, as they try as hard as they can to disassociate themselves from the reality of the libertarian movement and the practical implications of their own views. It is cliche for them to froth at the mouth with “not all libertarians” sentiment in face of the ugliness that is manifested by the bulk of their publicly visible political movement being called out, all the while holding on to the basic libertarian premises that enable what they want to disassociate themselves from. And they continue to promote the same free market mythos and story of the state as Sauron that the left rightly criticizes them for. They’re basically in a position of engaging in half-baked damage control.
The one area that left-libertarians have been able to successfully woo some parts of the left is on social justice issues, mainly by bringing in themes of anti-racism, feminism, and trans politics. That still does not mean that those social justice positions form a coherent political theory along with the rest of libertarianism or that social justice warriors should become libertarians. What is rich is to see the internal conflicts play out within the libertarian movement because of that trend, with right-libertarians opposing it mostly for the wrong reasons and pulling the “no true libertarian” card (sprinkled with some valid criticism) and left-libertarians pretentiously trying to make their social views essential to the meaning of being a libertarian or actively promote and glorify certain taboo things rather than just support a hands-off approach (which is quite clearly malarkey). While libertarianism has grown over the last decade, no, we are not having “the libertarian moment”. The movement is practically split in two on social issues, despite relatively broad agreement on the basic free market mantra.
It’s going take a lot more than vague appeals to non-violence, or even bringing in social justice issues, to convince the broad left to become libertarians. I don’t see it happening. There are dangers of slipping into libertarianism by some of the leftists on the borderline who take a liking to the most broad and watered down of libertarian sentiments – I feel tempted to warn them to be careful what they are getting into. And maybe a small contingent of the social justice side of things has been brought into a dialogue with some libertarians. But at the end of the day, no intelligent leftist who is secure in their principles and perceptive enough to read between the lines will ever buy into the free market mythos or willingly become apart of an essentially right-wing political movement, even a right-wing political movement with social justice thrown in.
There sure seem to be a little trend of some young libertarians withdrawing from their formal institutional associations. Just earlier this month, I wrote a post when someone had decided to leave an organization spear-headed by celebritarian Cathy Reisenwitz. I was somewhat surprised to see today that Cathy herself wrote a blogpost announcing that she will no longer be doing professional libertarian activism because she has pursued and gotten a job in tech sales. And I think to myself “that makes a lot of sense”.
When I read the post, the one thing that is not surprising is that her choice is to go into sales, as sales/marketing is exactly the kind of mindset she has quite transparently been approaching things from all along, and she even quite plainly states in her post that her professional experiences so far have been part of a process of becoming such a person. This sales mindset has been an important part of my critical perception of Cathy.
What a lot of libertarians seem to have trouble understanding or acknowledging is the red flag this sends out, the immediate reasons there are for cynicism about sales and marketing. The mindset of marketing (and “political science”) is basically strategic human manipulation without conscience covered up with feel-good buzzwords. I find it very dangerous for one to view the social world in general through that kind of mindset, and it appears that Cathy kind of does. She also always strongly struck me as being someone who thrives on the pursuit of status.
Consider the pretension someone must have to move to Washington D.C. to pursue professional politics, particularly the media aspect of it, and then consider the entanglements that come along with being involved in media organizations, think tanks, and the like. There are a lot of libertarian bloggers out there, but most of them don’t take themselves too seriously as careerists or seek to become full-time payed politicos. To make an analogy, most young libertarians are more likely to take the hipster route of moving to New Hampshire than the yuppie route of trying to become a professional celebrity and hanging with the D.C. think tank people.
Cathy quite deliberately enmeshed herself in that latter world, surrounded herself with more established libertarian figures and organizations, took special interest in online marketing, and she managed to become something of a celebrity (surrounded by people constantly reinforcing her self-esteem and sucking up to her). She should have checked her privilege. It is an immense privilege to be a political careerist, especially a D.C. one. It is a privilege to be payed to do what thousands upon thousands of people do for free (write political opinions) and to have that be given significant publicity. Plainly, social status is mainly a matter of privilege.
This was somewhat aided by being a conventionally attractive female and shamelessly milking the “I’m a libertarian girl” thing while making sexual politics one of her main shticks. But more generally, she quite uncritically embraces the world of media and marketing. In my eyes, Cathy has functioned as a click-baiter and opportunist who flips between pandering to different political demographics (leftist women one day, conservatives the next, from sex workers to old men in bowties) and takes the notion of “spreading libertarianism” too seriously.
When you’ve made it your life goal to be an activist for a political doctrine, to “sell ideas”, you’ve basically become a political tool and threaten to lose touch with your own humble humanity. Everything about it is pretentious and delusional. When it is your job to promote an ideology, critical thinking doesn’t happen so much and your view of yourself and your importance becomes a fantasy. And when you’re motivated by marketing and demographic expansion, you’re not engaging in much authentic human interaction as much as you are using people and being used, while being functionally subsumed by organizations. And you risk “cheapening the brand”.
Of course, this move of Cathy’s does not represent a break from ideology, as she quite consciously explains it all in terms of being the logical path of continuing to pursue libertarian ideology – just in a less public medium. So while I’m tempted to say “Good Riddance”, I doubt this is the last we’ll hear from Cathy, and she hints that her new path is still possibly tied in to activism. Instead of being a paid political shill, she can now be a more general shill, with perhaps a good dose of techno-geek hipsterdom mixed in, while ideologically justifying it as part of some grass-roots “free market innovation”. Chant with me now: “My careeeya!”.
This has all just been a career path for her. I think even some good faith libertarians should have some reason for pause when Cathy so transparently makes this clear. Cathy has consistently been a status-seeking, attention-seeking careerist who covers it up in a winking ironic-yet-not-cynical veneer of self-conciousness. I’m not moved.
Given that I have put so much time and effort into criticism over advocacy, it is inevitable and familiar for some people to think something along the lines of, “all you do is criticize everyone and everything, don’t you have any real beliefs and principles? Do you stand for anything?”.
Of course, I have always retorted that some beliefs and principles are already implicit and sometimes explicit in my criticism. Indeed, one of my criticisms of Max Stirner has been precisely that his “conscious egoist”, strictly defined, is in a way a fictional impossibility because of the basic nature of human society. No one can truly be free from social construction and the power of ideas. Everyone is influenced by the historical contingency of the entirety of human history before they were born and what their immediate environment is throughout their lives. There is no such thing as one who has “built their cause on nothing”, and I have never had that pretense. Therefore I have no problem roughly outlining my beliefs and principles.
While I use an image of Cthulhu for this blog’s image, it would probably be more representative to have an image of Azathoth (as a non-believer I verily say unto you: if there were a god, it would be Azathoth). Or to use Dungeons and Dragons lingo, the universe is probably best characterized as chaotic neutral, and dogmatic modes of philosophy and politics are essentially an attempt to make it lawful. Social reality is contradictory by nature and non-dogmatic thinking requires one to embrace the encounter of multiple truths that appear to be contradictions on the surface while also overlapping, as well as have awareness of the gap between desire and necessity when it comes to values and practical maneuvering through the world.
This means it would be wise to maintain some individual distance and humbleness, and not just dive head first into a group’s dynamics or become easily seduced by elegant simplicity. And maybe be more hesistant about pulling the trigger on dedication to some guidebook to reality or grand goal. Part of the problem of modernity is that at least for much of the west we’ve killed god and the king only for other ideas to have the same function, without there necessarily being any less pernicious effects. In the name of “progress” and as a way to fill the void, we have enslaved ourselves to money, technology, nations, and popular culture. In this respect, Max Stirner’s infamous manifesto is one of the earliest known proclamations of the problem of modernity.
But to be more relevant to the present, the problem of modernity appears to have also morphed into the problem of hipsterdom. People born into secular, technological capitalist society increasingly encounter existential crisis as they maneuver through culture. And many of them may tend to become the exact opposite of Stirner’s concious egoist – a sponge for identities or one who has been seduced by the image and come to identify it with themselves, the logical end of which is to turn the individual into a living meme in a simulacrum of a world. That helps explain the increase in people I’ve encountered with large numbers of adjectives to attach to themselves, sometimes in contradiction to each other. It also might help explain how so many people can radically flip through political ideologies in a short amount of time. On the flip side, those who are most alienated from culture can experience the most cognitive dissonance and discomfort with consciously encountering a void of meaning.
It is with this understanding in the background that I analyze the political circles of my generation and beyond. I try to be self-aware of how it plays into my own political history and challenge the self-awareness of others. Part of self-awareness is in admitting that you’re not an ubermensch, you’re not a fully realized “concious egoist” and never will be. But with that being said, it’s not just about self-awareness but also about awareness of the world without being too cluttered by ideology and image-seduction. You might not be able to be the ubermesnche, but you can use critical thinking and observation to somewhat de-culturize yourself enough to see how culture subsumes the individual, to get a sense of how ideology functions and to see how constrained people can be by their own apparent freedom. I would like to see more people throwing off the problematic baggage of culture that the market has saturated them with rather than freely playing with it. But I see too many young libertarians as taking on the role of “the last man” who thinks they’re the ubermsenche.
Embracing the chaotic nature of the world means knowing that you probably can’t change society to your liking, taking more genuine responsibility for who you are, and humbling yourself to the fact that you have little choice but to carefully craft your own laws out of an imperfect brew. Or as Zombie Gary Gygax says, “Attempting to be chaotic good in a world that you know is chaotic neutral, with a drift toward chaotic evil caused by humans attempting to make it lawful, is not easy an task.” Azathoth has no real answer for you, but may he serve as a reminder of your condition. It is on you to do your best to responsibly craft who you are while honestly facing the all-pervasive threats of cognitive dissonance and irreducible complexity. You may find that it is ultimately liberating to *not* be so much a part of political community, culture and market in your self-understanding that informs your interactions and decisions. This may require learning how to bite the bullet of alienation.
Libertarians are hardly the only group this issue applies to, as what I’m talking about is really a massive social problem, but it is my experiences with and continued observation of libertarians that most intimately informs my understanding of how this issue plays out, and in a sense libertarianism’s association with capitalism serves to reinforce the kind of problems I observe and makes it especially prone to some of the perversion of meaning and value at the mercy of a technological market-driven society. I criticize libertarianism because I believe in the authenticity and sincerity of human values, cynical realism about the world, and concretely realized social freedom to whatever extent it can be had. I believe in basic social-psychological health to the determent of culture. But I know, without fear, that everything is ultimately consumed by cosmic chaos.
Thus Spake the Apostle of Azathoth
It is interesting to observe the shifting positions and alliances of those with a history of online involvement in libertarian youth culture, as well as the general growth of libertarianism online. You look now and almost any socially awkward teenager with an internet connection can be a radical libertarian. The libertarian youth culture online has definitely grown. Looking back from a perspective of being a libertarian before facebook existed and when youtube was but a budding community of autodidact non-professional vloggers stumbling onto each other’s channels (I can already anticipate the trolling accusation that I’m being a hipster in the libertarian-before-thou sense), it’s time to whip out my cane and bemoan: “things aren’t like they used to be”.
A number of developments happened. Radical libertarianism really started to coalesce into a visible online social circle. A decade ago, a lot of the early radical libertarian sites or their earlier versions were comparatively wonky and obscure (and some still are kind of wonky). The two biggest sources of largely overlapping people and material for me were probably LewRockwell and the Ludwig Von Mises Institute website, back when it actually had a functioning forum section. There was also the earliest version of Freedomain Radio, but it was a much smaller community then, when Molyneux was a start-up. Other notable sites were Strike-The-Root and The Molinari Institute. It was like entering an underground online social atmosphere with its own roster of pundits.
For the most part, the online youth culture coalesced together around these websites and out of general ideological comradery, and proceeded to take on the role of informal/small-time debaters and propagandists through social media and youtube. And things grew from there, with more and more people joining in over time. A series of clicks formed, with a certain hierarchy of popularity. Of course, young radical libertarians did end up having things to debate about among themselves, though for the most part to my memory nothing united everyone more than debating with radical leftists and traditional anarchists.
Things got more complicated over time when the left-libertarian blogosphere or the “alliance of the libertarian left” started forming more explicitly as its own distinct sub-group. This especially became the case with the establishment of C4SS as a kind of left-lib hub rather than a much more loose “blogosphere of the libertarian left” that involved a blogroll app you could attach to your blog. The forging of the left-libertarian thing created a lot more grounds for internal debates, which also splintered the community in some ways. In a sense, it was very much healthy and necessary for debate to happen. But as far as the coherance of libertarianism as a movement, it introduced confusion and grounds for conflict that is still playing out right now and has arguably spiraled to new proportions. And I’m not convinced the left-libs are always in the right in those kind of internal debacles.
Approximately simultaneous to the rise of left-lib (but also inflamed in reaction to it), there was also a certain segment of the young radical libertarians who established themselves as edgy right-wing reactionaries, especially in the form of racial politics. This lead to a lot of heated controversy about libertarian nationalism, libertarian racism, and just a variety of the uglier aspects that can be found in the most conservative segments of libertarianism. This included things like obsession with support for monarchy over democracy, fierce anti-immigration stances, and more or less explicit endorsement of rigid social heirarchies. Basically, the baggage of paleo-libertarianism.
In some ways (or at least for some people), this all occurred with the pretense of a shared political umbrella, even though the people involved had radically different interpretations of libertarianism on some issues. Some people expressed the sentiment that they hated the conflict and “we all support fiberty, right?”. In spite of in-fighting and controversy, the “anarchism without adjectives” sentiment and more broadly the social youth-culture element of the online community that transcends politics, managed to make libertarianism a confusing clusterfuck alliance of just about anything you want it to be as long as you pay lip service to the idea of being against the state.
But inevitably, the shared political umbrella had to break for quite a few people. Friendships and alliances shifted. People went in their own respective directions. The left-libs formed into their own distinct social circle, and some people continued to drift leftward of left-lib. A few people flirted with left-lib but got scared back into the right. The edgy right-wingers formed their own camp, and some of them likewise abandoned libertarianism altogether (only to dwell even more openly in the pastures of reactionary circles). The result is that we have a libertarian movement that is in some ways splintered between left and right (but also largely homogeneous in its basic content), and a smaller-scale group of assorted post-libertarian drifters.
Where do I stand in all this? It would be accurate to say that I was one of the people who became a post-libertarian drifter to the left. At the same time, I have formed a cynical and anti-political kind of position that has stopped me from moving on to formally associate with any particular political ideology or any kind of politically based social group. I refuse to play in to any broad expectations of conformity to group consensus, even on the left. While I have sympathies with social anarchism, I maintain the position that no one exactly has a solution to politics. But some analysis of the problem of politics are better than others. Libertarianism, while in some cases it may offer some insight, ultimately fails at this – and so do some of the theories of the radical left.
While this blog is geared toward criticism of libertarianism and maintains a ferociously anti-capitalist stance, if some libertarians are going to present us with capitalistic versions of erroneous ideas associated with the left, I think that deserves special criticism as well. I’m not even averse to occasionally acknowledging that a right-wing source might make an intelligent point or two with respect to what left-wing libertarians are saying and doing. That’s how one approaches intellectual questions without being an ideologue. Libertarians, whether of the left or right, are frequently some of the worst ideologues out there, as much as they might want to pretentiously think of themselves as above the short-comings of other political groups.
*Raises glass (of water)* May we clear our minds of the spook of freedumb.
I couldn’t help but take interest when I saw a blog post by Pamela J. Stubbart called Why I’m Leaving Young Voices being circulated and debated on social networking. Young Voices is essentially a prime example of a kind of libertarian youth-outreach program that’s geared toward grooming young people as professional pundits and giving them access to bigger media connections, which is something I take some serious issue with in principle. Conventional media and think tanks are rife with problems, especially when so many of the think tanks that associate with libertarianism are some mix of conservative and capitalist in orientation. In my view, being a young pundit for such organizations makes you a tool, not an honorable intellectual with well deserved status.
But putting that aside, Pamela expresses that she is leaving the organization because the infamous press-generating “Duke Porn Star” Miriam Weeks A.K.A. “Belle Knox” was recruited to join the organization (a blatant opportunistic publicity/marketing move), and she is of the opinion that since then the media bomb around Belle Knox has damaged its intellectual credibility and threatens to damage her own reputation by association.
To this I say, Bravo!
Pamela then goes on to politely and articulately disagree with the mantra of sex-positive-feminism-fused-with-libertarianism, a mantra which is very heavily promoted by the libertarian pundit and Young Voices associate Cathy Reisenwitz, and it is a perspective I have criticized at various points on this blog. The way that people who hold to such a perspective tend to frame the debate, it seems like one is presented with a false dichotomy between traditional conservatism and complete sexual amoralism, while being encouraged to adopt or spread so-called sex-positivity as a cultural norm. They might hate slut-shaming, but they sure are quick to project motive and ideology onto to those who disagree with them and proceed to engage in shaming on that basis.
Pamela more or less expresses a position of moderation and points out in general that a culture of sexual permissivity can perhaps have its downsides, as much as people might have benefited in some ways from the initial “sexual revolution”. It’s left pretty vague, but she signals issues with “the hook-up culture”. She emphasizes that even while one may abstain from supporting the illegalization of porn and prostitution, that doesn’t mean one should be uncritical about it from a moral or cultural perspective. Because what happens when you fetishize “voluntary choice” or “market activity” as if it overshadows or subsumes all moral perspective is an erasure of the negative and external consequences of actions, and the moral cunundrums that come up in life.
I would therefore put it this way: insofar as “sex positive feminist libertarians” continually fall back on the notion of individual choice to make their arguments, they are actually functioning as “thin libertarians”. It is easy to ignore the moral and psychological conundrums around things like porn and prostitution when you’re only focusing on “choice on the market” and “non-aggression” in reference to only the most obvious, direct or commonly recognized forms of aggression. In another sense, the “sex positive libertarians” become a (wrong-headed) kind of “thick libertarian” insofar as they push the idea of sexual permissiveness as a cultural norm.
And Ms. Weeks is quite obviously being used as a pundit to advance that kind of perspective. That doesn’t mean I necessarily question her own sincerity in that perspective. Rather, she comes off as latching onto it as a rationalization, while being snagged up by libertarian organizations for publicity. I highly doubt that a 19 year old who’s done little more than cite a Sheldon Richman article once has more intellectual clout as a libertarian than your average libertarian nerd who’s been following and participating in the online dialogue for some years and obcessively read a bunch of canonical libertarian books. The likelyhood is that she’s less qualified than those people.
Pamela therefore wisely questions the character of an organization that would shamelessly milk a controversial porn star (who is also a relative political virgin) to generate publicity for a morally/culturally blind position on social issues. She has my respect for striking out as an individual in this way.