- August 2014 (5)
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- May 2014 (4)
Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology
You can call this privileging disciplines if you want, but I would gander that if one took the best of the best of modern social science and psychology and put the field of economics to the test, much of what is talked about as free market theory is in contradiction to recognized sociological and ecological fact. And this would only be reinforced by a host of fairly common experiences of modern life. A kind of theory that often more or less brushes off much of social reality as an “externality” just isn’t going to be that descriptively useful or accurate at the end of the day, since it’s trying to make sweeping claims about society based on a highly limited and inaccurate model.
Free market economics is a simple, and some would say elegant, story. This story would generally have one believe that social good tends to be the unintended consequence of the pursuit of individual economic self-interest and accumulated private property (“the invisible hand” in a nutshell), while the intended pursuit of social good tends to lead to ruin (the scapegoating of socialism). This is supposed to be a counter-intuitive general truth about social interaction. There is the linked belief in competition as the driving engine for order and progress (and in the case of typical Randians and conservative libertarians, heroic captains of industry).
The free market idea is frequently used as support for the belief in a social order based on private property and accumulation, I.E. capitalism, that this is voluntary by definition, and then this is reinforced through the culturally ingrained ethos of “winning” and “growing”. There are certain 19th century and turn of the century notions of “progress” that go along with this, and there are overlaps with social darwinist theory, which took the competitive aspect of Darwin’s idea and ran with it even though it doesn’t entirely jibe with Darwin himself. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in the idea that there can be positive side effects of people’s apparently selfish decisions, but free market economic theory often generalizes or universalizes this in an ideological way.
The story just doesn’t square up to human experience. The freedom of enterprise is not my freedom (*insert left-wing interpretation of Max Stirner here*). The pursuit of self-interest within markets does not inherently lead to nothing but win-wins and markets are not a self-correcting machine that is intrinsically and infinitely adaptable to human needs. Structuring society around a competitive ethos has not been without consequences for social ethics and psychology. Economic power is not a harmless thing in a social vacuum. Choices within markets are not necessarily meaningfully voluntary, and social conflict is not an externality to markets. It also turns out that there are many ways in which we’ve been learning that technology is a double-edged sword and that there’s this thing called a progress trap. Realities of class, the environment, and technology, all challenge free market theory.
Historical fact is that the socialist, anarchist and communist movements came into existence in part as a reaction to this kind of liberal theory of capitalism and the early implementation of such ideas. It is important to remember that the orientation of Marxism and much of early anarchism was anti-liberal, and it is no coincidence that so much of free market libertarian ideology is mired in 19th century liberal thought. The march toward what was to become global capitalism created some serious social ruptures and introduced new difficulties into society. A century later, problems have continued to develop in ways that even Marx – who frankly does a decent job of identifying the problem during his own time – could not foresee.
For the most part, the liberals actually won and got what they wanted (relatively free reign for enterprise), only they were unprepared for the reality of growing state intervention and bureaucracy that inevitably came with the development of capitalism. They would never admit it, but there is realistically no way to develop and maintain large-scale global capitalism without the expansion of the state. They’re often left in a position of denouncing the modern state while continuing to believe in the principles and political ideas that necessitate it. The left-libertarian, Carsonian spin on this question is the idea that anti-statism is the road to non-capitalism.
My statement can be misread as supporting the “free market anti-capitalist” view, but it’s more complicated than that, since I’m emphasizing that the play and growth of market forces, of accumulation and competition, were an important causal factor for the growth of state power. In contrast, the “free market left-libertarian” view is all about emphasizing the notion that state power has aided the growth of economic power, which while true at a certain level is not definitive of the problem of capitalism and often leaves them blind to the ways in which markets generate their own problems and that the modern “welfare state” only exists in large part because of the inadequacies of markets. To admit any of this is simply ideological heresy in contemporary American libertarian circles. They are ideologically trapped by ideal-market notions.
The key aspect of this that free market libertarians wouldn’t accept is that the principles of free markets and property necessitate the modern state. In simply removing state intervention without removing the norms of property and markets and directly challenging economic power, one does not end up with non-capitalist society. What one ends up with at best is more like a reset button to the 19th century, to earlier capitalism, in which the modern state can reformulate itself all over again. Except even that isn’t accurate, because the current social climate is such that economic power is so large and ingrained in society that one may as well say that the result wouldn’t likely be far off from the kind of dystopia associated with anarcho-capitalism – a kind of neo-fuedal order in which powerful economic entities take on the functions of the state.
Some libertarians react to this hard reality with shock and denial, reducing it to the common strawman of Hobbesian pessimism run wild. They generally tend to think of it as scare tactics. But it just comes down to realistic expectations of human behavior, plus a critical analysis of society that doesn’t just treat the state as a primary part of a binary. Libertarians would have us believe that they are solving an antagonism between economy and state in a pretty straightforward dialectic in which the economy wins and we all are free, while real-world social dynamics seem to indicate a complexity of antagonisms that aren’t at all easy to resolve. Sorry to be cliche, but it’s just not that simple. Weakening of state power does not inherently lead to non-capitalist society any more than capitalism naturally progresses to communism. Economic power has a capacity to produce political power, as well as generate social conflicts and issues without the necessity of state bureaucracy.
It is quite fascinating that a discipline about economies is so strongly founded in the denial of economic power. This has left many libertarians with little choice but to engage in questionable historical revisionism blaming everything on the state in order to keep their ideology intact. It’s the impetus behind why Austrian economists have to try to elevate their methods over the contrary findings of social science in the modern age and characterize their claims as ahistorical facts of human action. It’s why Murray Rothbard had to explicitly deny the existence of economic power, to keep the libertarian ideology safe from reality. Austrian schoolers aside, whatever school of free market economics one favors, I say a pox on all your houses.
While I think it would be cool to produce an actual map image, here’s a general breakdown of my understanding of the various sectors of the American libertarian movement. It is by no means completely comprehensive, but touches on some of the main groups. Sometimes these groups overlap and an individual can be seen as having multiple tendencies, and at other times they’ve also been known to have fights between each other.
Paleo-Libertarians – This is the socially conservative wing of the libertarian movement. Their big distinctive issues are immigration control, racial politics, opposing the U.N., fundamentalist Christian-western identity, and opposing democracy. This group also has some overlap with the anarcho-capitalists associated with Lew Rockwell and Hans Hoppe. This is where the white nationalists and assorted conservative cranks can safely overlap with libertarianism, as a political ideology designed in such a way as to potentially enable their causes.
To a certain extent, this is what the left-libertarians are fighting against within libertarianism and where I think their best and most effective internal criticism is focused. I know that when I was a left-lib, these people were my most common target of criticism. I was greatly dissapointed to find that most libertarians are sideline sitters and denialists on this controversy, and that for the most part only some left-libs were the ones willing to speak up about it.
Bleeding Heart Libertarians – While this is in reference to a particular blog, many of the most visible authors of that blog seem to represent a certain kind of libertarian that’s broader than the blog. The defining feature of these libertarians is that they are academic elitists, often with a moderate liberal bent and usually minarchist in orientation. Some try to square libertarianism with Rawls and other aspects of modern liberal political philosophy. Compared to the left-libertarians, they tend to be fairly vanilla. But they also can be found weaving nuanced philosophical tales over the top of obvious moral conundrums – bleeding heart fascists.
In a way they represent the closest you can get to mainstream libertarianism within the university. IMO, most of their work comes off as technical philosophic hair-splitting that amounts to nothing of import, and overall the premise of the site comes off as a weak PR campaign with a leftward veering eye. They will never be the kind of libertarians that can particularly appeal to people outside academia. The most radical voices are the handful of left-libertarians who are occasionally featured as writers.
Molyneuvians – These are those libertarians who are followers of Stefan Molyneux. Consider it a new spin on Randian cultism. This is about hanging one’s hat on the words of Molyneux and goes much further than standard libertarian philosophy, in that it binds one to particular ideas about psychology, metaphysics, morality, religion, and human relationships. To be a true follower of Molyneux is to accept a very rigid, all-encompassing philosophy of everything. The libertarianism of Molyneux naturally appeals most to people with childhood issues, and it overlaps with the ideas of anti-schooling and criticism of traditional parenting.
Those who are truly dedicated to Molyneux are essentially online cult members who have substituted Molyneux for their parents. While Molyneux has gotten into controversy and has former cult members who are detractors, he has remained a staple in the libertarian movement and is perhaps the prime example of a libertarian individual achieving a high amount of media traffic and status through the internet.
Neo-Objectivists – You can’t talk about the Molyneuvians without talking about the Neo-Objectivists. This is a group of libertarians and ancaps who either are former Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand) or otherwise people who integrate Objectivism into their libertarianism. Since there’s a lot that’s wrong with Objectivism, this introduces its own interesting problems. In some cases, it leads some libertarians to take stances very much like that of neo-conservatives when it comes to foreign policy and domestic police power.
For others, it’s more about the philosophic grounding of libertarianism in certain ethical and cultural terms – it’s centered around supporting property rights and markets in Aristotilean terms of “flourishing” and a culture of enlightened self-interested individualism, leading us into a special twist on bizarro-land. Rand’s philosophy has been prodded mercilessly and found wanting by a lot of people for good reason.
Left-Libertarians – The left libertarians are an odd bunch. The left libertarians are somewhat multi-tendency, but I think it would be accurate to say that the general two tendencies are (1) the fusing of libertarianism with “the cultural left” and (2) the attempt to either reclaim or reformulate libertarianism as to be anti-capitalist or non-capitalist. In my opinion, as has been spread about through various posts on this blog, the left-libertarians have mainly succeeded at the former (while also bringing along some of the negative baggage of the existing cultural left) but failed at the latter. It’s also true that the majority define themselves as anarchists and dominantly use individualist anarchism as their linchpin (which, while perhaps useful, is a limited cut-off point).
The problem is that contemporary American libertarian ideology *is* capitalistic, the bulk of the anarchist movement in the world is anarchist-but-not-libertarian (an important distinction), and that to really start to belong to the economic left the left-libertarians would have to basically cease to be libertarians in their views on markets.
Beltway Libertarians – These are those libertarians who are heavily involved in conventional politics or represent the official Libertarian Party themselves (as a side note: there are times I wonder if BHL should really stand for “Beltway Heart Libertarians”). The layperson of this group is the person who wants an alternative to the two parties so they vote libertarian and get involved in it at the level of conventional politics, and most likely they are light on the philosophy side of it, or at least stick to a pretty vanilla minarchism.
The big players of this group are the libertarian politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, and vanilla libertarian organizations that basically amount to Republican light. This is also where the most money is for libertarian youth outreach (read: grooming people ideologically as the next generation of libertarian talking heads and academics). Think of it as the libertarian attempt to take on the lambasted role of the Marxists in the university.
Tin Foil Hat Libertarians – This is the libertarian whose main draw is through conspiracy theory and sensationalism. They freely mix their libertarianism with conspiracies and tabloid style journalism. The reptilian Illuminati Jewish Rothschild bankers from outer space are coming! Think of it as the paleo-libertarian view on a large dose of acid, and after perhaps taking a Robert Anton Wilson book a little too seriously. It has never ceased to amaze me how many people like this actually exist out there. They always visibly existed mixed in as mutual friends of libertarians on social networking, in my experience. I didn’t realize how many nutters I had non-thinkingly accepted friend requests from until I decided to clean house.
Geolibertarians – These libertarians typically take after Henry George and their pet peeve issue is land. They are libertarians who rightly perceive that there is a distinct issue about land property, though they’re also ideologically tied to a particular solution. Aside from this one issue of land, it says very little about the given libertarian. I also always found interaction with geolibertarians to often feel odd in that they struck me as obsessed with this one issue, seemingly bringing it into discussion of everything as the one solution to politics. There are a number of geolibertarians I’ve interacted with who seemed like fairly vanilla libertarians otherwise, and sometimes even surprisingly on the more conservative side of things overall. It’s a single-issue position.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.