Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

The Wooing of the Left


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. 

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11 responses to “The Wooing of the Left

  1. donjoe August 31, 2014 at 8:24 PM

    Only problem with that is you can’t provide a philosophical foundation for democracy without resorting to left-libertarianism. Checkmate. 🙂

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    • Brainpolice2 August 31, 2014 at 9:51 PM

      Ooo, another sound-bite sized argument that is dubious – I feel so pwned! That seems like a pretty silly claim to make, and if you’re serious, you’re kind of proving my point of about left-libertarian delusion and propaganda. Not that this post has anything to do with philosophical foundations for democracy, or that left-libertarianism is a relevant political philosophy to much of anything practical in the world. Interesting how one could think such one-liners could be a “checkmate” without addressing any of the content of the post.

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      • donjoe September 1, 2014 at 5:41 AM

        “Not that this post has anything to do with philosophical foundations for democracy”

        That’s the problem: that you don’t see how it does. That’s what makes your arguments against left-libertarianism look ignorant: that you’re glossing over the fact that there can be no foundation for democracy except individual autonomy (libertarianism) combined with egalitarianism (leftism).

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        • Brainpolice2 September 1, 2014 at 6:14 AM

          But here again, you’re reacting to my arguments as if I’m argueing against something different than what I am actually argueing against – which is the view of “left-libertarians” who are “free market” types. Even if I completely agree with you on the point you’re trying to make, you’re trying to make your own view relevant to this post in a way that it just isn’t. It makes no sense to respond to a blogpost that’s critisizing a different view than yours on the grounds that it doesn’t consider your view.

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    • Julia September 1, 2014 at 1:44 AM

      By “left libertarian” he’s referring to the ideology espoused by C4SS and the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, not any leftist less authoritarian than Lenin.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brainpolice2 September 1, 2014 at 3:52 AM

        Maybe some of my criticism is sometimes being misinterpreted by the crowd that uses the actual original meaning of libertarian – before Americans resurrected the term with a decidedly different meaning in the middle of the 20th century. What’s funny about that is that it illustrates how much of a little niche world the ALL really is relative to the existing radical left.

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        • donjoe September 1, 2014 at 5:36 AM

          See? Time to reconsider some of the things you said in the article and in your first reply to me above, since you already know not all “left-libertarianisms” are the same. But yeah, maybe I should’ve mentioned I wasn’t an American => not likely to be using distorted meanings of political labels like “liberal” or “libertarian”. 🙂

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          • Brainpolice2 September 1, 2014 at 6:25 AM

            There is nothing in the article that needs reconsidering, relative to understanding what specific views and group I am talking about. The root of the problem you’re having is terminological, in that your usage of a term is different than the usage of the people I’m criticizing. It is precisely the distorted meaning that I attack, but that has no bearing on yours. So I don’t see why you’d so staunchly be trying to argue about it, save for a strong preference for your own meaning. *shrug*

            I’m writing about something mainly relative to American politics. That does not mean that I am actually being ignorant of the non-Americanized meanings of terms such as liberalism, since I am obviously quite conscious of the different meanings. Indeed, I criticize modern American libertarianism for being a radicalization of the logic of liberalism in the classic sense of that term. That doesn’t mean I can’t simultaneously refer to liberalism in its modern Americanized meaning to refer to that particular group. This is all a matter of contextual usages of terms.

            It would be absurdly exhaustive to have to go out of my way to preface each use of a word that is multi-faceted in its usage. If it helps, re-read the post substituting the word “progressive” for each use of “liberal” and subtituting the word “capitalist” for each use of the word “libertarian”, and my points stand. I imagine most readers very well understand the general connotations I’m using, and that if you were to persist in trying to argue me on this, you may well be a troll playing a bit of a game with language.

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            • donjoe0 September 1, 2014 at 8:11 AM

              “The root of the problem you’re having is terminological, in that your usage of a term is different than the usage of the people I’m criticizing. It is precisely the distorted meaning that I attack, but that has no bearing on yours.”

              I don’t see this coming out in the text – you make no mention of any other types of left-libertarianism that are not targets of your criticism; quite the contrary, you’re explicitly lumping all left-libertarians together when you say this:
              “As I’ve said before, the one thing that unites all libertarians is the free market idea.”
              … which is patently false. Libertarianism (in general) is compatible with all economic and political systems as long as they’re what a community wants to have for itself and as long as every individual retains the right to leave a community it no longer agrees with. Libertarianism is no more inherently freemarketarian than it is anti-freemarketarian.

              “I don’t see why you’d so staunchly be trying to argue about it, save for a strong preference for your own meaning.”

              If you want me to dig down and find a deeper motivation for why I’m insisting on this I guess it’s because I’ve seen the same demonization-via-lumping-together happen to socialism/communism, which has been generally stamped as a failed ideology just because the soviet and maoist experiments produced some very ugly results along with their good results or because the soviet experiment was hijacked and perverted by fascists like Stalin. That generalizing negative stamp was a crippling blow for the Left, one that we still haven’t recovered from, and I’d hate to see the same thing being inflicted on (legitimate) left-libertarianism too.

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              • Brainpolice2 September 1, 2014 at 12:17 PM

                “quite the contrary, you’re explicitly lumping all left-libertarians together when you say this:
                “As I’ve said before, the one thing that unites all libertarians is the free market idea.””

                Once again, this is not the case, as I’m being specific in what I mean by “libertarian” – because the reality of what that means in America does refer to something specific as a general tendency. My comments are not meant to be relevant to either genuine libertarian socialism or the Steiner–Vallentyne meaning of the term, neither of which represent what the majority of Americans who call themselves libertarians believe. Those things aren’t being lumped in, because as I’ve emphasized to you over and over, it’s not what I’m talking about.

                “Libertarianism (in general) is compatible with all economic and political systems as long as they’re what a community wants to have for itself and as long as every indivdual retains the right to leave a community it no longer agrees with.”

                I must point out that this concept is potentially quite vague, and that the practical ability of individuals to leave a community – even one with a theoretical right to leave – is limited by circumstance and context. What’s more, different economic and political systems have different degrees of practical constraint on such an ability. This notion of leaving the community, in some contexts, dissolves into a choice between exile and subjugation – we’re back to love it or leave it. The notion of “all political systems co-existing within libertarianism” is an anti-concept with no practical bearing, it is not reflective of the competitive realities of politics or the diversity of any real community. It leads to contradictions like “libertarian fascism” and “libertarian monarchy”. It’s a cop-out of the problem of political conflict. No, everyone can’t have their cake and eat it too.

                “Libertarianism is no more inherently freemarketarian than it is anti-freemarketarian.”

                This is not true relative to the reality of the existing American libertarian movement – which is a free market ideology. You’re playing bait and switch with me on this.

                ” I’ve seen the same demonization-via-lumping-together happen to socialism/communism, which has been generally stamped as a failed ideology just because the soviet and maoist experiments produced some very ugly results along with their good results or because the soviet experiment was hijacked and perverted by fascists like Stalin.”

                I’m sorry but what I’m saying does not compare to that. I am quite familiar with American libertarianism as I’m talking about it, as someone who was in it for close to a decade. And it is not a hijacking by a small group that I am charging for the failure of a large movement. It is the essence of what is promoted as common ideology in that movement. I’m talking about what endless seas of young American libertarian fellow travelers believe, not the esoteric beliefs of an elite.

                Quite frankly, you come off as ignorant of American libertarianism. Go visit the LewRockwell.com and Mises.org and peruse them for a while, or even Reason Magazine or *The Platform of the American Libertarian Party*, which are common sources for many rank-and-file American libertarians, and then come back to me about American libertarianism not being exactly what it is commonly known to be – a particular ideology about free markets and property, and classical liberalism taken to its logical extremes. It is also not comparable to Stalism or Maoism because free market libertarianism has had no real revolution or large-scale implementation ever, unlike communism – it has no contemporary “experiments” of that scale or significance.

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                • donjoe0 September 1, 2014 at 3:10 PM

                  “you come off as ignorant of American libertarianism.”
                  Which I’m not ashamed to admit I am in large part. 🙂

                  “Go visit the LewRockwell.com and Mises.org”
                  Oh, I consider myself sufficiently familiar with the mises.org species of hogwash, I’m much more interested in what’s being misrepresented as “left-libertarianism” by groups mentioned above such as “C4SS” and “ALL” – this is the really new and surprising stuff for me.

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