Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fall guys

The public uproar over the bonuses for the executives of AIG must be one of the most ridiculous cases of misdirected anger in my lifetime. I'm not going to get all weepy over the hurt feelings of millionaire recipients of government boodle, but it’s a very sad example of how sound and potentially antistatist public sentiments, like “government giveaways to big business are bad,” get redirected so that they are harmless to the rulers. The government loots the nation of billions upon billions of dollars to give to wealthy cronies in an orgy of handouts and corporate welfare, and the lion’s share of public indignation on the subject is directed towards the beneficiaries of one tiny fraction of it, who received it due to a preexisting contract with a firm that was given government money. It’s as if everyone who thinks the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea ignored the existence of George W. Bush, selected a Marine gunnery sergeant at random, and declared him single-handedly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths wrought by the war.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Seeds of libertarianism on the Left

In my post criticizing the idea of liberal-libertarian fusionism, I said that it is not mainstream liberals but people further leftward on the spectrum who offer potentially fruitful interaction, and who may be receptive to libertarian ideas. I’d like to elaborate more on that. This was originally intended to be a single post, but I ended up having more to say than I expected, so it will be split up.

I should say at the outset that my view of anti-market/private property far Left is not so positive as the assessment of left-libertarians such as Roderick Long or Kevin Carson. (Though I certainly reccomend that you read both of them on the subject.) I concluded long ago that a great many left-"anarchists" are simply state socialists or “good government” liberals in antiauthoritarian drag, the left-wing equivalent of the modern conservative who still claims to believe in "small government" while cheering for George W. Bush. Even those I would not place in that category sometimes display many of the objectionable attitudes of the statist Left, such as the reactionary aristocratic/clerical disdain for trade that pervades mainstream liberalism.

Nevertheless, I think that in an important way there is not one anti-market Left but two. There is what could be called the reactionary Left, who believe in coercion, paternalism, political hierarchy, and keeping the ignorant masses under the yoke of their betters. It is the continuation of the oppressive union of throne and altar that has ruled since the dawn of recorded history, with the idols on the altar reinvented to fit the sensibilities of a post-Enlightenment age where the old justifications of superior bloodlines and divine right no longer convince. It used to strike me as odd that the ancestors of modern American liberalism were so enamored with reactionary, aristocratic, militaristic Prussia; it no longer does.

On the other hand, there is another Left that offers more promise. They have a genuine desire for liberty for the people and an end to oppression and exploitation, but suffer from economic or philosophical confusions about the nature of property and the free market that lead them astray and into support of systems that are destructive to their own values and ideals.

These are ideal types, of course; individuals can be a mix, though my personal experience is that most people on the Left with strong political opinions sit fairly close to one of these two poles. This is not strictly a left-anarchist vs. left-statist split. There are left-wing statists who are confused but basically antiauthoritarian in spirit (some members of the Green Party strike me this way, for instance), and there are avowed left-anarchists who enthusiastically support expanding existing states, or who display a fondness for totalitarian left-wing governments and a desire to deny or soft-pedal their crimes.

This second, antiauthoritarian (or potentially so) Left has certain positive features generally lacking in ideologies like modern American liberalism which provide common ground with libertarianism. They point the way towards a liberty-friendly Left better-suited to supporting the best in its own ideals.

Perhaps the most important is an appreciation for voluntary actions, activities, and groups that arise from society rather than state action. This includes things like mutual aid societies, worker-owned firms, and labor unions. (Modern American unionism as we now know it is largely a creature of state privilege, but there is an older tradition of worker organizations that were outgrowths of voluntary society rather than government intervention. Poke around Rad Geek’s People’s Daily a bit and you’ll find some good stuff.) Now, the anti-market Left’s hostility to the single largest example of this phenomenon- for-profit private business and investment- is a serious gap in understanding. Nevertheless, their grasp of the fundamental idea that socially beneficial activities don’t need to be instigated, funded, or coordinated by the state represents is hugely important.

The more mainstream Left rejects this, and this rejection is a fundamental principle of their philosophy. The “Progressive” belief that society requires coercive technocratic management by the state is bred in their bones. Thus, they seldom seem able to imagine the possibility of anything good being accomplished without the state’s helping and guiding hand. When they talk about things “community organizing” and “social action,” that usually boils down to“begging the government for help.”

The idea that society can work and prosper without a wise sovereign directing things is one of the most important foundations of libertarianism and classical liberalism, and this principle provides a possible bridge between libertarianism and some leftists. I’ll have some more thoughts on some of the contrasts between mainstream liberalism and the antiauthoritarian Left in a future post.

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