Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

Libertarianism As Capitalist Mythos

I stumbled across a piece from half a year ago that talks about myths about capitalism and communism. While I’m not necessarily interested in promoting communism as such (I declare no allegiance to a particular political group ideology, even if some of my criticism overlaps with Marxism), I do think the author brings up a number of valuable points about myths of capitalism which also happens to be part of what one has to deal with in discourse with American libertarians. I’ve made it pretty clear that I think contemporary American libertarian thought is drenched in capitalist ideology, even often in cases in which its proponents try to disassociate themselves from capitalism and expand their thinking leftward.

Part of the problem is that libertarians typically tend to have a universalized definition of property (to the point of defining metaphysical personhood in terms of ownership, which is really what the whole “self-ownership” problem is about), and hence frequently don’t appear to recognize some meaningful distinctions in types of property and the distinction of property vs possession. The article helps clarify: “Property implies not a good, but a title – deeds, contracts, stocks, bonds, mortgages, etc“. Since libertarians frequently confuse the difference between this and simple possessions, they frame their arguments as if to attack property is to attack the apple in their hand, quickly turning the debate toward a red herring.

To expound: property as a modern concept is very much based on legal fiction and economic institutions, not small-scale individual homesteading and exchange in a vacuum. Libertarians often like to describe the nature of modern large-scale economies in terms that apply to a non-existent social context or even what would really have to be a pre-capitalist and even primitive context. The concept of homesteading is hardly applicable to a modern urban society not filled with survivalists (unless your real goal is to be an expat of modern society and try to start anew in the South American jungle), and the description of everyday market activity as if it was nothing more than a consensual exchange between two people rubs up against our everyday experiences of the market as a powerful dynamic of institutions that individuals have to maneuver within.

The institution of property rights is mainly represented by titles and contracts for land, institutional control, profit, investment, and so on – not by the things around your house. It is about special rights to resources and power, not commonplace rights to have things. By the way many libertarians talk about property, it’s as if they want to apply the logic of small-scale commonly recognized possession to things that are detached large-scale institutions and non-concrete entities. It is very typical in debates with libertarians for the libertarian to default to a simplistic scenario about possession in defense of a not-so-simple matter dealing with institutions of property, or for them to generally frame their positive description and defense of markets in terms of informal and small-scale trade or a reference to a pre-capitalist society.

The narrative that the market as we know it simply formed as a cumulative result of a process of land cultivation by settlers and isolated small-scale exchanges – including the narrative that only/chiefly the modern state is or can be to blame for modern economic problems, as the force impinging on the market as this natural spontaneous expression of freedom – is basically capitalist mythos. The libertarian myth of economics is basically that there is this thing called “the free market” that is a natural spontaneous force of freedom, and that anything that might be considered wrong with the market in general can only or predominantly be chalked up to the state’s interventions in it – and even if we recognize a sense in which the market is flawed, the optimal solution is to do nothing because it tends to work its own problems out.

Technically, libertarians talk about “the free market” as something both presently existing and not truly existing at the same time – qua libertarian ideology it exists as a natural force within society insofar as this spontaneous economic activity goes on among humans or insofar as people choose to buy, sell, and trade things, but it doesn’t “truly exist” in its ideologically consistent form because of the state. This enables them to split hairs in discourse in ways that are convenient for preserving their ideology, because whenever anyone attacks modern capitalism they can claim that it’s not a “true free market”. At the same time, the libertarian can refer to contemporary phenomenon as evidence of the virtues of “the free market”, insofar as it superficially resembles a free choice or is thought of as part of the undercurrent of natural market activity that persists in spite of the state.

Thus I don’t think statements from the article such as this one would be misguided as part of arguments against libertarianism:

“The idea that we’re all going around making free choices all the time in an abundant market where everyone’s needs get met is patently belied by the lived experience of hundreds of millions of people. Most find ourselves constantly stuck between competing pressures and therefore stressed out, exhausted, lonely, and in search of meaning. — as though we’re not in control of our lives.”

Libertarians, even some so-called left-libertarians, want us to believe that there is this natural economic force of freedom chugging along in society that is responsible for the bulk of social good, only it’s constrained by the state – and that if only we remove the constraints of the state, the natural result will tend to be an improvement in social good. In libertarian capitalist ideology, the market as a free pursuit of economic self-interest by individuals is the prime source of social good as an emergent property. In reality, the pursuit of economic self-interest within the confines of economic power introduces a whole series of social problems. It is a mixed bag at best in terms of social good, and your freedom within the market is largely illusory precisely because of the institution of property, bad human behavior, and the psychological affects of it all.

The everyday experiences of most people should attest to the fact that consumer sovereignty is a myth and that the voluntary nature of employment is a myth. Markets represent an environmental condition that one has no choice but to engage with, no less than the state. For most people, conventional employment is just an adaptive necessity of life and entraps them into playing along with organizational dynamics and competitive pressures. Marketing teams and businessman in the hierarchy, who for most of us are faceless strangers, essentially engage in attempts to *pitch* products to you or tell you what you need, have organizational incentives to do whatever it takes to bring in profit, and significantly have a role in determining what your practical options are before you even start making decisions. The idea that the production cycle is all just a reactive mechanism to people’s authentic needs and wants is misleading.

Perhaps markets don’t adapt to people as much as people adapt to markets. The psychological affects of markets on employers and various businessmen often amounts to a series of incentives for them to do what is necessary for the economic institutions they are beholden to, even if it means actively working against the interests of employees and consumers and turning themselves into moral monsters. Once they are ideologically embedded in the system, they even think that their moral monstrosity is virtuous and just. It’s called drinking the corporate cool-aid. Try working under someone in management in the retail industry who’s been invested in it for some years, and you’ll likely see what I mean. They’ve built their whole lives and personal identity around this, have bought in to the buzzwords and ideology of sell sell sell, and unfortunately their roles often make them into crass, petty, penny-pinching people who internalize a conservative ethos and treat their workers as expendable resources.

The article states this point well enough:

“Even that boss (the apparent victor in the “free exchange”) isn’t free: the market places imperatives on the ownership class to relentlessly accumulate wealth and develop the forces of production or else fail. Capitalists are compelled to support oppressive regimes and wreck the planet, as a matter of business, even as they protest good personal intentions”. 

On the side of average workers and consumers, the conditions presented to them as the market are something that they have had to adapt their lives around. Their corporate cool-aid drinking bosses are just something that they have to work with. The bureaucratic norms of businesses are something that they just have to engage with to maneuver through society. And competition with others for the chance to secure the necessities of survival (plus a bunch of manufactured wants that have taken on a life of their own) is incentivized. Some people become brown-nosers and aggressive social climbers, some people internalize the values transmitted through markets against their own concrete interests, some people take to crime. All this is a matter of psychological incentives involved in markets and the consequences of basing societal needs on markets.

Since the incentives of capitalism are based around continual growth and the pursuit of profit, it has become a kind of machine that subsumes human values. The libertarian idea that the market is just *us* and our internally or autonomously determined values, manifest through trade, relies on isolating individuals as market actors devoid of real social context. The people who realistically are in control of the market have a notable affect on the setting of the framing for what is portrayed as valuable in popular culture. More broadly, the market has generated its own values that more or less tend to encourage and reward narcissism, dishonesty, and the drive to “win” at the expense of others. The market has its own culture, and it will not balk at appropriating any culture or value it comes across for the higher value of its economic self-actualization.

Much of the problem with libertarianism centers around the fact that it can’t square its lionization of markets with social and psychological reality, and that it therefore ends up disguising tyranny and social ill in an illusionary narrative about individual choice and personal freedom; whether conciously (libertarianism as snake-oil salesman for capitalism) or not (libertarianism as dupes for capitalism). It is an ideology that does not particularly recognize that economic forces as such can be a significant infringement on personal freedom, and that the nature of modern economic life determines and restricts choices. It is stuck in the trap of either crassly denying or even rationalizing the problems and nastiness involved in markets (vanilla and right libertarianism), or gaining conciousness of them only to default to denialist anti-statism anyway and continueing to promote ideological tenets that perpetuate/enable what they want to decry (left libertarianism).

Ultimately, I had to leave libertarianism because my experience of the world clashed dissonantly with its rhetoric about property and markets, and as I teased out the negative social consequences of taking those ideas to their conclusions. What started as horror at the overtly nasty underbelly of libertarian ideology (which is a big part of the impetus to left-libertarianism) eventually turned into a deconstruction of its basic tenets and common tropes (self-ownership, property rights, homesteading, the non-aggression principle, methodological individualism, and so on). When I look at it now, much of it is capitalist apologetics even when it isn’t trying to be, and much of what I wanted to separate myself from as a left-libertarian is perfectly compatible with that core ideology. The core ideology needs to be addressed at the root.

As some libertarians like to say: strike the root.

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The Liberty of Sexual Commodification

It seems that for some so-called feminists, especially the kind of feminism that some libertarians have found convenient to promote, sexualized sadism and masochism is female liberation. We now have a celebrity “Duke porn star” who is using their choice to go into porn to help pay for their attendance at a prestigious private university as a rationale to promote libertarian arguments about the cost of higher education and privatizing schooling (note the convenient plug to left-libertarian Sheldon Richman at the end), while also identifying and being held up by some as a feminist. Some libertarians are making her a heroine and a publicity token. Things get extra odd if one investigates her work to find it to include a few examples of her being verbally humiliated and treated to sadistic sexual behavior, while her humiliator harkens to add the irony and snark of saying “this is feminism 101”.

So let me get this straight. Out of one side of their mouths, many libertarian feminists want to wield rhetoric about patriarchy and misogyny, while out of the other side of their mouths they are ideologically focused on supporting hyper-sexuality even if it involves participation in and propagation of submissive female gender roles and the very culture of sexual violence that one simultaneously frequently hears feminists talk about. Much of hardcore porn is more or less characterized by a fetishization of female submission to male sadism. While it is one thing for libertarians to support the general legal status of porn, as is normal per their view, it’s an awkward and different matter when they take the next step to basically being committed to defending and enabling the culture of porn (at least implicitly) by framing it in terms of the liberty to consent to masochism or merely as a career choice on the market that those nasty state interventions get in the way of.

I think it’s pretty clear that the S&M world has ambiguities about consent that can get it into tricky territory, and that community regularly debates among itself about that, and this is the reason for ideas like safe words. I think it may be the case that in the porn industry the lines of consent can blur as well. But even if we do recognize that,in some sense those who participate in masochistic porn are consenting, it’s consensual nature becomes irrelevant as far as recognizing that it’s a symptom of a cultural problem. It may be a decision made on the market, but it seems misleading if not bizarre to characterize it in terms of female liberation when it essentially propagates sexuality as a power play while reinforcing the idea that women are sexual objects. Does objectification cease to matter when money is involved? I don’t understand how this could be a coherent form of feminism.

For those who are ideologically committed to “sex positivity”, one is necessarily regressive if one criticizes the culture of hyper-sexuality. It’s as for them one has a one-dimensional choice between their views and a socially conservative view – surely you must be a stuffy prude who is trying to stop others from having fun and opposes sex before marriage! But what’s really going on is that some people recognize that the commodification of sexuality is a problem. Perhaps both a culture of sexual repression and a culture of normalized sexual objectification have problems. Maybe there’s a difference between genuinely free sexuality and the adoption of hyper-sexuality as a social norm or of sexuality on the market; the sexual accessorizing of human beings as dispensable tools to use power on, and sexuality as a purchasable fantasy product.

Sexuality as an object of marketing, and as something one approaches as a competitive market for consumer goods, is responsible for superficiality in popular culture and reinforces dubious gender norms. This has probably produced an overall increase in the amount of people who have no idea how to have meaningful relationships, because their idea of relationships comes from media-generated fantasy or they are part of a dating market that thrives on short-term relationships mainly revolved around sexual gratification. This does not mean I think we should normalize the repression of sexuality, but rather that we shouldn’t blindly promote it without considering its power. I observe that the cultural move since the 60’s toward unleashing previously repressed sexuality by going to the oppose extreme, in conjunction with market forces, has created a different problem of its own.

Spoiling Social Justice

Will May, an old fellow traveler from the specter of libertarianism past, has written a post giving their perspective on my criticism of left-libertarians in which they take something of a middle ground. Will mostly agrees with me about how left-libs still promote a capitalist framework, but thinks that they have made genuine progress on the social side of things that potentially makes them a good force within the libertarian movement. He characterizes them as introducing left-wing social ideas into an essentially right-wing movement, thereby raising awareness.

There probably is some truth to this, but I’m not as optimistic about it as Will. I would have to emphasize that while left-libs may be preaching left-wing social ideas in a right-wing political movement, for the most part they are also using those left-wing social ideas as a means to promote their right-wing-influenced pro-market ideas, shoe-horning them in to that analysis. And as a result, to a certain extent they don’t actually get those ideas, or at least they only wield them in a way that is convenient for libertarianism. At the end of the day, I don’t think they can coherently promote ideas that basically come from critical theory while keeping their libertarianism intact.

For example, what use is the left-lib’s anti-racism if their market ideology still leads them to legitimize institutional racism in principle? Sure, the left-libs might be part of the people boycotting racists “on the market”, but they support the very market that enables them. Their economic policy ideas would still actually give racists more opportunities than they have now. Left-libs have not been able to convincingly show why people who want to oppose racism should support libertarianism or why libertarianism is the best suited politics to oppose it. Support for boycotting while being principally bound to respect a right to racist oppression just doesn’t cut it.

Also, what use is their feminism if it’s all sex-positive feminism meant to legitimize the porn industry and promote poly lifestylism? Feminism in that sense is oddly convenient to capitalism, while the lifestyle part of it often seems to be a personal matter that isn’t really connected with anything worthy of a social revolution. Is promoting sexual politics of this sort really necessarily a good move? Or is it a trendy thing that’s actually introducing some of the *pitfalls* of left-wing social ideas? This is an area where I tend to disagree with the conventional social left – I think modern feminism is a bit messy. I’m oddly finding myself more prone to agree with those feminists who are not so sex-positive and are very anti-capitalist. I find the idea of women “liberating themselves” from gender norms by using them on the market and promoting a culture of hyper-sexualization to be a funny contradiction.

I don’t mean to sound like an economic reductionist, but I think there are some problems with social identity politics in the way that it can excessively focus so much on marginal identities and lifestyles that the things that commonly oppress the majority of humans fall by the wayside – namely our status as outsiders of the ownership class, as average consumers and workers, and as general citizens. A raise in social conciousness may be a good thing and it certainly may be relevant to be involved with the specific concerns of the marginalized, but if that becomes an obsessive focus and one turns the most radical perspectives of a certain group into an ideology of its own then what one ends up with is a one-dimensional, divisive and perhaps sometimes selfish politics.

I think now that libertarians can be social justice warriors too, the left-libs are soaking up some of the negative baggage that comes with that – the silencing of dissenters considered to have privilege, as well as the silencing and exile of dissenters from within marginalized groups, the presence of sensationalist and overblown views that dichotomize society into a zero-sum game of competing social groups, pandering to group identities and using group members from marginal identities as tokens for political points, and sometimes the manifestation of a reverse-totalitarianism complex perpetuated by victims as a way to deal with their anguish and pain.

Tack on free market libertarianism and we have an interesting trend. At least your typical social justice warrior is also at least moderately anti-capitalist. The left-lib seems to want to combine “social justice” with capitalism, and thus misses the ways in which perhaps capitalism is linked with the social issues they want to fight about. There’s no reason to believe that the mechanisms of the market are necessarily helpful to social liberation issues. Since the market is a powerful means of social control, if anything, it may play a significant role in social oppression. Perhaps there is a sense which left-libs are right in implying that the socially marginalized can use the market to their advantage, but at the end of the day it isn’t a comprehensive solution to anything so much as it’s a way for some people to survive in a market-based society. Not revolutionizing anyone’s lives.

In a nutshell, my contention is that so long as libertarians hold to their market-based framework, any attempt they make at social theory will necessarily be spoiled. This is because of how the market theory is designed to envelope social theory. The left-libertarian is stuck in the convenient and sometimes seemingly opportunistic position of being like “I recognize that X, Y, Z are social problems, here’s why state intervention is at fault and here’s how the free market can fix it!”. The social justice ideas get absorbed into the free market advocacy. And because of this, the left-lib is left coming off like they don’t really understand how the problem they’re talking about is socially or economically ingrained, since their default mode of discourse is to talk of things in terms of state vs market.

This kind of brings us back around to what my original contention about left-lib was – that it may indeed be a raise in social consciousness, but not necessarily a better social theory. Left-libertarians tend to tack-on social justice related ideas to a pre-existing, widely encompassing free market framework that influences how they interpret those ideas and ultimately how they package them in their own advocacy. I think the results have mostly been incoherent, such that any raise in social consciousness among libertarians has nonetheless mostly been ineffective at changing anything. While “thick libertarianism” for left-libs is supposed to mean that things like anti-capitalism, anti-racism and feminism form a coherant self-reinforcing web with their libertarianism, in practice for many of them it would be more accurate to say that it means they are those things in addition to being libertarians – and I would claim that they haven’t really worked out how to square them, especially in the case of the question of capitalism.

Left-Libertarianism as Enlightened Anarcho-Capitalism

Over at the Anagorist Blog, my post on left-libertarianism is referenced and the author makes an insightful comment:

“Simply put, the difference between left-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists is one of style, not substance. The left-libertarian definition of capitalism is exactly equal to the anarcho-capitalist (and also, increasingly, tea party) definition of corporatism, and the left-libertarian definition of free market is exactly equal to the anarcho-capitalist definition of capitalism. They both hold the so-called non-aggression principle not only as non-negotiable, but as the central feature of their ideology; the necessary and sufficient condition from which the rest of either left-libertarian or anarcho-capitalist theory can be derived.”

I felt compelled to comment:

“This is very well stated and nails big point of what I was getting at in my piece criticizing free market “left-libertarians”. The typical ancap will distinguish capitalism and corporatism. The left-libertarian in the style of C4SS typically serves a similar function in the way they try to distinguish “the free market” from capitalism. Because for the most part what the ancap means by “capitalism” is the same thing, loaded with much the same ideological stuff, as what the left-lib means by “the freed market”. Most people of both groups will still hold steadfast to the same basic principles: self-ownership and property rights, the market as the pursuit of self-interest creating mutual benefit and social good, the state as the aggressor on the market, and so on.”

To expound, the main economic difference is that free market left-libertarians concede that corporatism is a form of capitalism and try to disassociate themselves from the word capitalism, while standard anarcho-capitalists proudly weild the word capitalism and deny that corporatism is a form of capitalism. At the same time, many if not most left-libertarians hold to much the same basic ideas and rhetoric about the market and property as anarcho-capitalists. Often, they can be seen as trying to shoehorn various radical ideas into more or less anarcho-capitalist terms. This is why I often perceive them as either confused or even engaging in a bit of appropriation.

From personal experience, some of the people who were involved with left-libertarianism some years ago who experimented with ideas ended up moving on to something else, something that just isn’t libertarianism. But your average young online left-libertarian is initially someone who comes from an anarcho-capitalist background or a background in the general American libertarian movement, who has become curious about the left and radicalism. I think it’s relevant to note how that may color perspective, when you have people approaching the left who are ingrained in the beliefs touted by pro-capitalist libertarian organizations.

Left-libertarianism often has the pretense of engaging in a kind of synthesis or reconciliation. But this typically is done in such a way that keeps the core of free market libertarianism safe, and almost never in a way that forces the libertarian to seriously re-examine and perhaps discard some of their beliefs. Or rather, they never face the issues standing in the way of a synthesis. My contention is that if one seriously rolls with critical analysis of capitalism and alternative radical views, one’s core libertarian beliefs necessarily start to dissolve. There really is no reconciliation of the sort that left-libertarians seem to want. They would have to give up on the mythos of the market to have a coherant position. But they want to have their cake and eat it too.

While left-libertarians would like to think that they are being witty and shoving a counter-intuitive truth in our faces by using rhetoric like “free market anti-capitalism”, they really are demonstrating a lack of critical engagement with their own ideas. While it is true that some left-libertarians may make a few genuine deviations, overall they tout the general free market libertarian line (perhaps tailored in such a way as to be a bit edgy) that is well deserving of the criticism it gets. Anarcho-capitalism-with-a-heart-for-the-poor deserves a special kind of criticism for its absurdity.

The Naivete of Market Anarchism

Ultimately, I have come to think of market anarchism (an umbrella term for the radical anti-state contingent of the American libertarian movement) as involving serious naiveté. Because market anarchists typically treat “abolishing the state” as an end in itself while entrusting the market to intrinsically work things out on its own after a state-collapse-scenario, they fail to grasp that a scenario of a state falling is fairly meaningless in itself if one’s goal is supposed to be an improvement in human freedom and well-being.

Since their analysis is often based on Austrian and related free market economics, they simply do not understand that the real power dynamics of the world in the present and the state of human culture is such that a state collapsing is just an opening for other organizations that weren’t the state to either get away with things they wouldn’t have been able to before or become political entities themselves.

Market anarchists are fooling themselves if they think that they are going to actively “abolish the state” rather than a state collapsing on its own accord or for other reasons, and that in the aftermath of that scenario the market will naturally provide better opportunity and well-being for more people while stopping any other formal political entities (“states”) from forming. The fact of the matter is that political revolution without social evolution (like “abolishing the state” in the name of the market) is a gamble in the dark.

It is well known that notable political changes tend to occur after a social or cultural change has already sufficiently taken hold. Markets and states alike are reflective of culture and are embedded in social power dynamics – and thus to simply try to abolish a state and entrust faith in markets is naïve.

It is common for market anarchists to snipe at minarchists, those libertarians who still believe in some form of “limited government”, by using logic to outline that the “limited government” won’t stay limited and ethical. Of course, the same logic applies to market anarchism, only instead of the starting point of a minimal state, we have the starting point of a state collapse scenario. Who is to make sure the post-state scenario doesn’t escalate into non-anarchic results and yield a kind of neo-feudalism in which market-based organizations become the shell for the next states?

The big corporations, banks, and other long-time pre-established centers of economic power sure aren’t going to disappear overnight just because the state falls. The lesson here is that abolishing the state doesn’t abolish economic reality – and it is misleading to be talking of “abolition”.

The market anarchist often implicitly relies on the assumption of a majority of society or at least a sizable contingent being ideologically on board with them sufficient for a movement that overthrows a state, as well as psychologically fit to be ethical post- revolution actors. History, sociology, and common experience gives us plenty of reason for skepticism about this. States rise and fall, and people are people.

Thinking realistically, it would seem that the market anarchist’s dilemma is as follows: you must either face the responsibility of a humungous task for “changing the culture” and making people ethical, basically fostering social evolution before “revolution” (and consequently give up on any Rothbardian zeal to abolish the state at all costs), or face the negative consequences of a state collapse scenario in current socio-economic conditions (and of simply thinking that the state was the problem) as human society’s ingrained problems just re-route themselves.

There are some market anarchists who openly embrace something like that latter option (by more or less embracing market dystopia), but they are not the majority and their position still sucks. You can find some in comments at Mises.org – be sure to point and laugh. On the other hand, some market anarchists (especially the left-libertarian type) may pipe in defensively in the face of my skepticism by saying “hey, I’m a *thick libertarian*, which means that I do want to change the culture”. Ok, I grok, you’re a vegan feminist transhumanist market anarchist from outer space.

The problem here, in addition to the problem I outlined in my criticism of left-libertarianism (that being “culturally enlightened” while enabling capitalism is only a surface-level improvement), is that they must truly face how problematic the culture is and how slow, grueling and futile social change can be. Furthermore, they must face some dissonance between the ideological admonition to abolish the state at all costs and their belief in the need for an enlightened culture. Sometimes this is like Jeckyl and Hyde.

Many people who call themselves “thick libertarians” can be observed to nonetheless fall back on a reductive anti-statism and faith in the market. This both shows that they are in the grips of a kind of culture themselves (libertarian culture and capitalist culture) and that “thickness” still covers a rotten core. Sometimes it seems that “thick libertarianism” signifies more that the individual libertarian is portraying themselves as an ethical person, but not necessarily that they understand how social ethics plays out in the world. It is of course my view that if they did better understand that, they wouldn’t be “thick libertarians” because they wouldn’t be libertarians at all.

Saying that you’re a “thick libertarian” often amounts to declaring one’s group association in culture wars or adding on to a collection of identities in addition to libertarianism that one claims is also part of it. It does not necessarily reflect a comprehensive notion of social change or exempt the market anarchist from the tough realities of trying to enact such change. It’s more like saying that one hopes to win a cultural battle *within the context of the market*, and therefore subjecting it to *the culture of the market* and the general forces of economic power.

Perhaps before rushing to feed the fate of society to economic machinations, we should continue to enculturate ourselves. Perhaps one should think of the market and the state not as a reified binary opposition, but as jointly embedded in human behavior and the result of general but complex power dynamics between people and culturally ingrained beliefs and practices. That seems like a better starting point than talking of “abolishing” things one does not understand and replacing them with something that one also doesn’t understand, while ignoring realistic expectations of human behavior and the common experiences of power that don’t really come from the state.

Why The NAP Is Smoke And Mirrors (A Quick Reminder)

In American libertarian ideology, the holy grail ethical concept is the non-aggression principle, which roughly states that no one may engage in or threaten aggression against others (and their property), often quickly qualified with the idea that defensive force may be used in the face of aggression. When stated in such a simple and abstract way, it is something that is hard for very many people to particularly disagree with, and because of this it also makes it such that it can be used to deceive people into thinking they might be libertarians.

But if you don’t just take it at face value and continue to talk to a libertarian about aggression, it will become clear that they have some specific notion of where the line is between “aggression” and “defense”, as most people do. And that notion is informed by other ideas and principles, by their analysis of society, and by the personality of the given libertarian. The way a person responds to different scenarios in what they consider justified and unjustified force will depend on these kind of factors.

Whatever particular interpretation the libertarian gives is functionally one version of the non-aggression principle out of many. The reality is that virtually everyone who is not either a pacifist, psychopath, or totalitarian believes in something resembling the NAP, and therefore there isn’t necessarily anything novel about it. Liberals, conservatives, socialists and libertarians alike. Different political views just define the social context of aggression differently, draw the aggression/defense line in different places, have different analysis of society.

Libertarians themselves have gotten into many heated internal debates over how this stuff is hashed out (different interpretations of property theory, minarchism vs anarchism, and so on). And for libertarians, how aggression gets defined in practice is highly dependent on their ideas about property and markets, and the principle is used as a rhetorical tool to push one into adopting a consistent position opposing the state. On the flip side, in the eyes of many of those who disagree with libertarians, there is aggression involved with upholding their ideas about property and markets.

The NAP is smoked and mirrors for what is a matter of debate about the proper use of force and how it is organized. Radical American libertarians frequently advocate for essentially privatizing the mechanisms of force in society – they are not against aggression as much as they are against aggression in the hands of public or quasi-public institutions. Anarcho-capitalists do this in the most blatant way by advocating private police and defense. Paleo-libertarians and libertarian racialists advocate aggression at least implicitly for the restructuring of society involved in what they propose to be enforced – the thought of all the forced evictions is horrifying. All of this stuff hinges on the ideas about property and the market. Non-compliance to the libertarian’s property regime merits aggression.

While libertarians might think of the NAP as a moral shroud, the emperor has no clothes. Many libertarians support aggression, either explicitly or implicitly, whether knowingly or not. Their philosophy is primarily about property and economic power, not non-aggression. For the libertarian in their propagandizing mode in discourse, the NAP is a rhetorical tactic to moralize one’s political opponents – “See, you support putting guns to people’s heads! You should be ethically consistent and oppose the state” or “you disagree about property? you support aggression!”.

This frequently ends up being a sensationalist pile of muck in which the libertarian cries aggression in even the most ridiculous of scenarios, parading around like “don’t you tell me what to do!” at the thought of property owners and market actors being held to reasonable ethical standards. The libertarian sees aggression in every disagreement with their notions of property and their policy ideas about the market, while being blinded to the aggression implicit in them. The NAP just begs the question and conceals the violence within libertarianism.

The Economic Organism as Panopticon

As I stated in my piece on left-libertarianism, I don’t think libertarians generally grasp the essence of the problem with capitalism. The problem with capitalism is that our society has come to be shaped and structured around the concerns and conveniences of economic power. The success of humanity becomes measured not by overall well-being, but how much the market has “grown”, how well the world has been integrated into the industrial economic organism, and hinges on the volatile balance of stock markets in a kind of game of economic roulette. Our lives have become hostage to the games of economic powers outside our control.

It behooves us to recognize that the following things grant a form of power:
The ownership of land or public space – affects the right of others to existence in a given space, to have shelter, to travel, grants regulatory authority and power of exclusion to the owner(s).
The ownership of or access to large sums of money – affects the ability of individuals to obtain the needs of survival, opens avenues of political power, presents the opportunity for corruption.
The positions of authority within a business hierarchy – affects the ability of people to act as autonomous individuals and to speak freely, grants control over production and opens avenues of narcissism and bullying.

An important aspect of capitalism is that the average person, to one degree or another, must sacrifice some of their autonomy to the ownership class and business hierarchy in order to function in society and obtain the means of survival. This is a power dynamic unto itself born out of the play of economic forces – and the modern state partly developed out of the growing demands of those economic forces. The state did not intervene to force business to coalesce and become corrupt – it mainly did on its own. Rather, the state patterned itself around the reality of modern economic organizations and formed something of a symbiotic relationship with them. All the same, the economy has become such a big and complex organism that it is impossible to particularly control.

When you are born into the society, you are entering a complex social and economic framework of conditions that constrain your decision-making and even shape your psychology. You are “free to choose” and have earned the right to live – if you have the money. You are “free to get the money” and have earned the right to live in relative contentment – if you play by the rules and sign away a portion of your rights. In other words, you must rent and buy the privilege to not live as a criminal or brute, or a total dependent, from those who have monopolized resources. And your privileges come with the stipulation that you obey and play your role in the economic system, don’t complain, and maybe become a bit corrupt in the process.

You are also bombarded with media and marketing, always being “free to indulge” by handing over your money and being granted a “free press” within the confines of what is allowed by the business interests who mostly own the media. The continued development of consumable and dispensable products both helps keep contentment in society as a kind of pacifying force and allows business interests to continually make more money. The forging of personal identity and human relations becomes partly based on choices of consumption, and this especially impacts the forging of the psychology of young people in an atmosphere of media. Aside from the economic organism depending on you being a docile worker, it also encourages you to be a docile consumer.

Capitalism is also an ideological matter – it involves the crafting of “common sense” ideology that takes its necessity for granted. The narrative that the market is just the spontaneous result of free exchanges (as if it’s just a bazaar blown up to the global scale), obscures the larger structural reality and social dynamics of the situation; that your choices in the economy are largely determined and influenced by organizations and structures of power outside your control. Much like the illusion of political democracy being about public choice when it is represented by an oligarchy, “economic democracy” is not the reality of market interaction. And the narrative of the work ethic and social mobility, once internalized, traps people into supporting their own oppression. That’s capitalist ideology at play.

As long as the individual worker, consumer, and general economic agent does not particularly question the social norms that are taken for granted in capitalism, the economic system is their panopticon. A prison that they don’t even know they are in, with an extensive profile on their consumption habits and work history, a debt cloud hanging over their head, and a large bill for them to pay for the excesses and mistakes of their corporate masters. Even people in relative positions of economic power can be, in a way, imprisoned by the needs of the economic system, beholden to economic interest over anything resembling justice. They have a role to play too. Organizational ties bind us into doing what is best for the organization, whether we are casual wage workers or people in the business hierarchy.

Libertarians need a broader social theory if they really want to support human freedom and well-being. Support for “free markets” doesn’t cut it when the market is a behemoth of power of its own. Whatever extent one wishes to pin the cause of that power on the state (and of course I think the state has less of a role than libertarians claim), we have to cope with the realities of economic power as they currently are, and we can’t just call for the abolition of the state and expect economic power to automatically work out its own problems. We must realize that economic power enables social control and entraps us into participating in our own exploitation as a society. Smash the economic panopticon!

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The Indoctrination of a Young Libertarian

There is a certain trend among some young people in America to become entranced by libertarianism as they encounter it on the internet, and libertarians quite consciously have been using the internet as a means of promotion for a while. In an age in which the newer generations are born into a culture that struggles more and more to find meaning and identity, in which it is clear that the two familiar political parties are corrupt, some young people are tempted by the rhetoric and promises of libertarianism. Libertarianism may allow them to purposefully revel in a sense of being rebellious or politically incorrect, of having a kind of elite understanding in a world (a fundamentalist system of principles and various absolute claims) where everyone else has been indoctrinated.

But who has really been indoctrinated?

When I look back at my experience with libertarianism, I have little doubt that certain aspects of it share the traits of a cult or that it resembles a secular manifestation of a religious-like impulse, of a kind of fundamentalist drive. Except instead of it being about God and Satan, it’s about the fetishizing of the market and the demonization of the government. The writings of hardcore libertarians such as Murray Rothbard provide the believer with a firm set of radical claims and absolute principles, with simple and repetitious phrases and slogans, while there are figures such as Stephan Molyneux who explicitly form psychological cults online. Deviating from the basic group consensus in any significant way marks one as a fake libertarian, which regularly plays out as drama in libertarian circles.

Back when I was first getting into libertarianism, I was a vaguely liberal teenager fresh out of high school with some anti-authoritarian intuitions. This was just at the beginning of the post 9/11 era. I hated Bush and the Republicans because I hated violence and found the military scary, I disliked police power and abuse, and I couldn’t relate to social conservatism as an Atheist raised by a hippy and a social worker. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but tend to see the Democrats as establishmentarians who were weak when it came to actually supporting civil liberties. I watched the news and CSPAN a lot and came to dislike the general media political discourse that involved both groups and started to view the whole system as inept and full of idiocy. And I felt powerless.

Then I encountered Ron Paul, who referred me to the Ludwig Von Mises Institute and Murray Rothbard’s work. And the rest is history. I got heavily involved in online libertarianism from that point. This really isn’t all that uncommon of a path into libertarianism for young people, because durating that era, Ron Paul was starting to get more press and his stances on foreign policy and the depth and ferocity with which he seemed to criticize his own party ended up appealing to some disgruntled liberals. It’s just that some of us got sucked into buying into a good deal more than that, leading us into libertarianism. Libertarianism appeals to the disillusioned youth who doesn’t know any better by seducing them with the rhetoric of “liberty”, a term libertarians like to think they have a monopoly on.

Traveling in to the radical depths of libertarianism, one is lead to take the logic of free market economics and property rights (presented in an ideological way) to its extremes. Indeed, a misguided form of obsession with logic and internal consistency marks much of libertarianism: Austrian economics is built on a foundation of pure deduction and claims a priori knowledge, while the kind of “libertarian ethics” that is often talked about in those circles is designed as an absolutist set of principles that is a logical outgrowth of fundamental metaphysical facts of human nature. And the consequentialist side of libertarianism tends to fall back on the economics, bringing us full circle to a logically consistent theory that does not accurately explain the world. In either case, the radical libertarian tends to advance a certain faith in the mechanisms of the market while blaming the state as the root of all problems.

This belief is constantly reinforced via propaganda in the radical libertarian blogosphere and media. Anarcho-capitalism is all about keeping it absolute. Article after article, an ideological edifice is created in which the libertarian can shoehorn their agenda into the discussion of just about any issue, with an explanation in their back pocket for why the government is responsible for the problem and why “market alternatives” are the best of all possible worlds, whether one is talking about healthcare or the police department. Terms are defined in such a way as to explain phenomena without reference to important social contexts, by sticking to “methodological individualism” and generally having an analysis rife with prepackaged explanations based on simple and dubious dichotomies.

Now that I have been able to look at it from an outside perspective again, the libertarian diehard is someone that is convinced that they have the moral high ground in every political discussion, that everyone who disagrees with them is a “statist” (the ultimate libertarian insult) who supports violence, and that the market can do no harm, it can only spontaneously produce an order of optimal utility and correct itself along the way. And it’s all quite silly. Once one really peeks outside that echo chamber, does some serious introspection and teases out the consequences of ideas and deals with dissonance, and perhaps reads a decent sampling of philosophy and social theory that isn’t designed to propagate libertarianism, the world starts to look a lot more complicated.

But what generally happens is that the young radical libertarian gets sucked into an online and campus subculture that includes networking with other young libertarians, as well as older libertarians who have status and may function as intellectual icons and authorities (who are often economists, philosophy professors, and lawyers). Some interesting social dynamics play out with young libertarians online, and sometimes it’s very clear that the people involved are searching for identity and trying to make libertarianism into a kind of lifestyle. Furthermore, in some cases some of the young radicals are groomed as the next generation of talking heads. There are some notable libertarians who are in academia. Libertarians have consciously tried to get into academia and generally have the pretense of being on an education campaign – especially about their holy free market economics.

The way that many libertarians non-chalantly use the term “convert” is telling and bothersome.

Otherwise intelligent people with little experience in the world trying to discover themselves are vulnerable to misinformation and group-think. Libertarianism can powerfully fulfill this role insofar as it provides a simplistic explanation of a confusing world, as well as a victimology of a sort. In libertarian victimology, the individual (especially as a market actor) is a victim of the state. And all the young victims of the state move to Keene, New Hampshire, try to start their own currencies or use bitcoin, wield their guns, attend festivals where the choir is preached to, and plant pot with a shovel in front of city hall in broad daylight just to provoke their own arrest. Or they attend traditional anarchist events trying to “convert” people only to mostly meet confusion and resistance. This is what libertarian youth activism has stooped to. For these people libertarianism has become a product and a lifestyle.

Libertarianism has been sold to them…on the market. Through media. These are the dupes of rich old men in bowties, biased economics professors, and conspiracy theory activism. As for myself…well…

Left-Libertarianism Is Bunk Because It’s Still Libertarianism

The radical wing of...socially liberal capitalism.

The radical wing of…socially liberal capitalism.

I used to be a libertarian, starting about a decade ago. I took something of an ideological journey through different segments of American libertarianism and into its radical depths, and for a time settled on the segment that’s known as left-libertarianism – particularly a group of “free market anarchists” who also identify variously as “leftist”, “anti-capitalist” and sometimes even “socialist”. In the end, I had to abandon even left-libertarianism in spite of the fact that it seemed to represent the most relatively enlightened group of libertarians. My thought process lead me to reject libertarianism in general as an ideology, and in the aftermath of that I have come to see left-libertarianism as carrying the fundamental problematic aspects of libertarianism along with it for the most part: obsession with opposition to the state, the adoption of capitalist ideology of the market, reliance on overly simplistic and sociologically neutralized analysis, and so on.

I tend to think that being a left-libertarian in the mold of “The Alliance of the Libertarian Left” is kind of like being a capitalistic liberal hipster that tries to flaunt their social consciousness (by getting involved in cultural issues in terms of things like feminism and anti-racism) while simultaneously advancing the same basic narrative of free markets as the people from the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, The CATO Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and an assortment of both libertarian and more explicitly right-wing think tanks. The catch is that they try to put the spin on it that “the free market”, in a scenario after the fall of “the state”, will tend to spontaneously generate non-capitalist outcomes – hence the bogus rhetoric of “free market anti-capitalism”. They argue this by strongly identifying capitalism in terms of a system of state interventions and state fusion with business, but not particularly in terms of a system of social relations influenced by economic forces.

In other words, left-libertarians try to claim to be anti-capitalist without exactly understanding with capitalism is. They see some of the symptoms of the capitalism in the context of the state’s involvement in society, but they do not see how capitalism is a system of relations of power that simultaneously has functionality independent of the state and has an influence on culture in its own right. Their libertarian analysis leaves them stuck advancing a narrative focused on blaming the issues associated with capitalism on the state. As if, if only the state would get out of the way of the market, we could have a more egalitarian society. This shows a certain naiveté of the power dynamics and likely outcomes of the real world, the world in which markets function as a network of hierarchical systems designed around maximizing profit, growth, and social control.

Left-libertarians have engaged in some efforts to separate themselves from the explicit conservative cranks in the libertarian movement and sometimes sparked a good level of controversy in the libertarian movement over it, but it’s notable that this is often on grounds of social or cultural issues rather than economics and the basic content of American libertarian ideology of ethics and property. When it does touch on those topics, the internal debacles mostly have to do with either questions of terminology and rhetoric revolving around some of the more bizarre claims of the left-libertarians to be advancing “socialism” via emphasis on self-employment, co-op businesses, fraternal societies, and so on. The flavor of the left-libertarian’s proposed “alternatives to capitalism” is generally about models internal to markets and entry by private organizations into the roles currently handled by states, which brings it full circle back to capitalism and states.

The rhetorical way in which left-libertarians have tried to distinguish themselves as non-capitalist and “of the left” is by using terms such as “vulgar Libertarianism”, and more recently, “brutalism”, to signify other libertarians who openly embrace or legitimize some of the more ugly aspects of the system and who lack social consciousness about economic disparity. In so doing, perhaps they do show themselves as having more social consciousness than other libertarians, but the attempted distinction is nonetheless weak because of the general basic shared ideology about the market and property that the two groups have. Because the other side of the coin is that the left-libertarians are in denial about the involvement of market dynamics in the things they attack the “vulgar libertarians” for openly legitimizing. In a way, the “brutal libertarian” is more honest to the consequences of their views, while the “left-libertarian” either entertains utopian ideas about it or tries to sugar-coat it.

Left-libertarians function to implicitly legitimize the ugliness they want to attack or disassociate themselves from. For example, they can try to call out other libertarians for supporting overt racism, while the libertarian logic of the market and property simultaneously binds them to treat institutional racism as legitimate in a way, insofar as it is a private business decision. They can try to call out other libertarians for overtly supporting big corporations, but there is no reason to believe that the left-libertarian’s version of “the free market after the state falls” has any meaningful mechanism to overcome the current corporate landscape (all we get are predictions that the absence of certain state regulations will allow us more opportunity to start our own businesses, use alternative currencies, and do a variety of DIY stuff; which smacks of small-scale capitalism).

The left-libertarian ends up looking like a socially liberal capitalist, some of whom more or less try to pander to the left but are fundamentally at odds with the existing radical left. The left-libertarian is in a position of trying to “convert progressives” (who are also one of their favorite targets of criticism when they’re not going on about “vulgar libertarianism”) via convincing them of the obsessive anti-statist ideology of free market theory taken to extremes, while doing “damage control” for their own movement’s public image and trying to soften the “brutalism” of their mutual allies in libertarianism. They also sometimes get involved in dialogue with more radical left groups, but typically those end in disagreement and impasse, as the radical left has little tolerance for the free market rhetoric. Social anarchists certainly know that anarcho-capitalism is full of crap, and it’s hard for most left-libertarians to strongly distinguish themselves from anarcho-capitalism at the end of the day.

A polyamorist sex positive feminist anti-racist capitalist who is into 3D printing is still a capitalist.