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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Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more. It's the ACLU, Brad Delong, Glen Greenwald left that has the most potential for libertarian "fusion".

Kevin Carson still believes in the Labor Theory of Value. He thinks the reason why there is inequality is "enclosure". Why do people still take him seriously?

And Radgeek? I'll sum him up for you in one sentence: "White males are responsible for all the suffering in the world."

John Markley said...

Yes, Carson believes in the labor theory of value. (Though in somewhat modified form, as I recall.) So did Adam Smith and Lysander Spooner, but they were still on the side of freedom. Brad DeLong is presumably a proper neoclassical marginalist, but that doesn't seem to have made him any less of a devoted statist.

I disagree fairly strongly with Radgeek on a lot of cultural stuff, including the sort of sex/gender issues you allude to, but I really think you're being unfair to him. In any case, he writes a number of things worth reading whether or not you share his leftist cultural views.

Tristan said...

Carson's case for a Labour Theory of Value is very persuasive, obviously Anonymous hasn't bothered to read his work but just saw 'Labour Theory of Value' and jerked his knee so far it dislocated.
Carson's highlighting of the effects of policies like enclosure, clearances and other state actions on the behalf of the land owners and industrialists is something all libertarians should take note of - the fact that the current situation is massively effected by past is too often ignored by libertarians.

Carson's contributions to libertarian theory are some of the most important recent developments, whether you agree with him or not.

As for the nonsense about Radgeek - Anonymous obviously doesn't read much of Radgeek's writing.

I suspect Anonymous to be the sort of 'libertarian' who cheers on war and thinks the police aren't paid enough and brown people should be kept from the country.

Anonymous said...

(Anonymous #2 here...)

It is true Radgeek focuses a lot on gender issues, and seems to talk positively about loonies like Dworkin. However, everybody has some vices. His writing on the police state and mutual aid is top-notch. Let's just hope Rothbard's Law doesn't prevail with him...

Even if the Labor Theory of Value is completely hogwash I'd rather have Kevin Carson as my neighbor than a marginalist who has "correct" economic ideas but is a statist!