Over the last few days, there’s been an interesting discussion going on over at the blog of left-libertarian philosopher Charles Johnson (also known as “Rad Geek“). I’ve avoided posting there, due to the presence of an individual who has declared themself my mortal enemy (a role I’m happy to assume), but the subject matter of the discussion provides a very good illustration of why any sort of libertarian philosophy that demands a rigid universalism cannot work in practice. A poster called “Soviet Onion” remarks:
It seems that both social anarchism and market libertarianism have respectively come to adopt forms of collectivism typical of either the statist left or right. That’s a result of the perceived cultural affinity they have with those larger groups, and partly also a function of the fact that they appeal to people of different backgrounds, priorities and sentiments (and these two factors tend to reinforce each other in a cyclical way, with new recruits further entrenching the internal movement culture and how it will be perceived by the following generation of recruits).
On the “left” you have generic localists who feel that altruism entails loyalty to the people in immediate proximity (they’ll unusually use the term “organic community” to make it seem more natural and thus unquestionably legitimate). Most of them are former Marxists and social democrats, this is simply a way to recast communitarian obligations and tacitly authoritarian sentiments under the aegis of “community” rather than “state”. This comes as an obvious result of classical anarchism being eclipsed as THE radical socialist alternative by Leninism for most of the twentieth century. Now that it’s once again on the rise, it’s attracting people who would have otherwise been state-socialists, and who carry that baggage with them when they cross over.
On the “right”, it’s a little more straightforward. Libertarians have adopted the conservative “State’s Rights” kind of localism as a holdover from their alliance with conservatives against Communism, to the point that it doesn’t even matter if the quality of freedom under that state is worse than the national average, just so long as it’s not the Federal Government. And with this, any claim to moral universality, or the utilitarian case for decentralism go right out the window. Like true parochialism, it hates the foreign and big just because it is foreign and big.
That’s also one of the reasons why I think there’s a division between “social” and “market” anarchists; they each sense that they come from different political meta-groups and proceed from a different set of priorities; the established gap between right and left feels bigger than the gap between they and statists of their own variety. And the dogmatisms that say “we have to support the welfare state, workplace regulations and environmental laws until capitalism is abolished” or “we should vote Republican to keep taxes down and preserve school choice” are as much after-the-fact rationalizations of this feeling as they are honest attempts at practical assessment.
The problem with left-libertarianism (or with the 21st century rebirth and recasting of 19th century individualism, if you want to imperfectly characterize it that way), is that instead of trying to transcend harmful notions of localism, it simply switches federalism for communitarianism. It does this partially as a attempt to ingratiate itself to social anarchists, and partly because, like social anarchists, it recognize that this idea is superficially more compatible with an anti-state position. But it also neglects the social anarchists’ cultural sensibilities; hence the more lax attitude toward things like National Anarchism.
These are some very insightful comments. And what do they illustrate? That human beings, even professed “anarchists,” are in fact tribal creatures, and by extension follow the norms of either their tribe of origin or their adopted tribe, and generally express more sympathy and feel a stronger sense of identification with others who share their tribal values (racism, anti-racism, feminism, family, homosexuality, homophobia, religion, atheism, middle class values, underclass values, commerce, socialism) than they do with those with whom they share mere abstractions (“anarchy,” “liberty,” “freedom”).
Last year, a survey of world opinion indicated that it is the Chinese who hold their particular society in the highest regard, with 86 percent of Chinese expressing satisfaction with their country. Russians expressed a 54 percent satisfaction rate, and Americans only 23 percent. Observing these numbers, Pat Buchanan remarked:
“Yet, China has a regime that punishes dissent, severely restricts freedom, persecutes Christians and all faiths that call for worship of a God higher than the state, brutally represses Tibetans and Uighurs, swamps their native lands with Han Chinese to bury their cultures and threatens Taiwan.”
“Of the largest nations on earth, the two that today most satisfy the desires of their peoples are the most authoritarian.”
What are we to make of this? That human beings value security, order, sustenance, prosperity, collective identity, tribal values and national power much more frequently and on a deeper level than they value liberty. Of course, some libertarians will likely drag out hoary Marxist concepts like “false consciousness” or psycho-babble like “Stockholm syndrome” to explain this, but it would be more helpful to simply face the truth: That liberty is something most people simply don’t give a damn about.
The evidence is overwhelming that most people by nature are inclined to be submissive to authority. The exceptions are when the hunger pains start catching up with them and their physical survival is threatened, or when they perceive their immediate reference groups (family, religion, culture, tribe) as being under attack by authority. We see this in the political expressions of America’s contemporary “culture wars.” During the Clinton era, many social or cultural conservatives and religious traditionalists regarded the U.S. regime as a tyranny that merited armed revolt. During the Bush era such rhetoric disappeared from the Right, even though Bush expanded rather than rolled back the police state. Meanwhile, liberals who would denounce Bush as a fascist express polar opposite sentiments towards the Obama regime, even though policies established by Bush administration have largely continued. So how do we respond to this? Soviet Onion offers some suggestions:
The proper position for us, and what could really set us apart from everyone and make us a more unique and consistent voice for individualism in the global Agora, is to recognize all cultures as nothing more than memetic prisons and always champion the unique and nonconforming against the arbitrary limitations that surround them, recognizing their destruction as barriers in the sense of being normative. And to that end there’s the instrumental insight that the free trade, competition, open movement and open communication are forces that pry open closed societies, not by force, but by giving those who chafe under them so many options to run to that they make control obsolete, and thus weaken control’s tenability as a foundation on which societies can reasonably base themselves. Think of it as “cultural Friedmanism”: the tenet that open economies dissolve social authority the same way they render political authority untenable.
THAT’s what left-libertarianism needs to be about, not some half-baked federation of autarkic Southern towns filled with organic farms and worker co-operatives. It can still favor these things, but with a deeper grounding. It doesn’t ignore patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, but opposes them with a different and more consistent understanding of what liberation means.
But how far should our always championing of the “unique and nonconforming” go? If, for instance, a group of renegades happen to show up at the workers’ cooperative one day and commandeer the place, should we simply say, “Hell, yeah, way to go, noncomformists!” As for the question of the “Big Three” among left-wing sins (“racism, sexism and homophobia”), are we to demand that every last person on earth adopt the orthodox liberal position on these issues as defined by the intellectual classes in post-1968 American and Western Europe? Why stop at “patriarchy, racism and heterosexism”? Soviet Onion points out that many “left-wing” anarchists do not stop at that point:
I used to be an anarcho-communist. Actually, I started out as someone who was vaguely sympathetic to mainstream libertarianism but could never fully embrace it due to the perceived economic implications. I eventually drifted to social anarchism thanks to someone who’s name I won’t mention, because it’s too embarrassing.
After hanging around them for a while I realized that, for all their pretenses, most of them were really just state-socialists who wanted to abolish the State by making it smaller and calling it something else. After about a year of hanging around Libcom and the livejournal anarchist community, I encountered people who, under the aegis of “community self-management”, supported
- smoking and alcohol bans
- bans on currently illicit drugs
- bans on caffeinated substances (all drugs are really just preventing you from dealing with problems, you see)
- censorship of pornography (on feminist grounds)
- sexual practices like BDSM (same grounds, no matter the gender of the participants or who was in what role)
- bans on prostitution (same grounds)
- bans on religion or public religious expression (this included atheist religions like Buddhism, which were the same thing because they were “irrational”)
- bans on advertisement (which in this context meant any free speech with a commercial twist)
- bans on eating meat
- gun control (except for members of the official community-approved militia, which is in no way the same thing as a local police department)
- mandatory work assignments (ie slavery)
- the blatant statement, in these exact words, that “Anarchism is not individualist” on no less than twelve separate occasions over the course of seven months. Not everybody in those communities actively agreed with them, but nobody got up and seriously disputed it.
- that if you don’t like any of these rules, you’re not free to just quit the community, draw a line around your house and choose not to obey while forfeiting any benefits. No, as long as you’re in what they say are the the boundaries (borders?) of “the community”, you’re bound to follow the rules, otherwise you have to move someplace else (“love it or leave it”, as the conservative mantra goes). You’d think for a moment that this conflicts with An-comm property conceptions because they’re effectively exercising power over land that they do not occupy, implying that they own it and making “the community” into One Big Landlord a la Hoppean feudalism 🙂
So I decided that we really didn’t want the same things, and that what they wanted was really some kind of Maoist concentration commune where we all sit in a circle and publicly harass the people who aren’t conforming hard enough. No thanks, comrade.
These left-wing anarchists sound an awful lot like right-wing Christian fundamentalists or Islamic theocrats. Nick Manley adds:
I have encountered an “anarchist” proponent of the draft on a directly democratic communal level.
Of course, we also have to consider all of the many other issues that anarchists and libertarians disagree about: abortion, immigration, property theory, economic arrangements, childrens’ rights, animal rights, environmentalism, just war theory, and much, much else. We also have to consider that anarchists and libertarians collectively are a very small percentage of humanity. Nick Manley says:
I spend more time around libertarians then left-anarchists — although, I briefly entered “their” world and sort of know some of them around here. I was a left-anarchist at one time, but I no longer feel comfortable with the hardcore communalism associated with the ideology. I don’t really want to go to endless neighborhood meetings where majorities impose their will on minorities. I also would agree with Adam Reed that it’s naive to imagine such communes being free places in today’s world — perhaps, this is less true of New Zealand.
The list of things supported by anarcho-communists posted by Soviet Onion confirms my fears about village fascism posturing as “anti-statism”. I frankly do just want to be left alone in my metaphorical “castle” — I say metaphorical, because I am not an atomist and don’t live as such. I will engage in social activities, but I will not allow someone to garner my support through the use of force or do so to others. Like Charles, I have a strong emotional and intellectually principled revulsion to aiding the cause of statism in any way whatsoever. I’d be much happier being at some risk of death from handguns then in enforcing laws that harm entirely well intentioned peaceful people. This is not a mere political issue for me. I know more than a few people with guns who deserve no prison time whatsoever — one of them has guns affected by the assault weapons ban.
I honestly see a lot of principled parallels between conservative lifestyle tribalism and left-liberal lifestyle tribalism. Oh yes: there are contextual inductive distinctions to be made. A gun is not the same as homosexuality. The collectivist dynamic is still the same. Gun owners become no longer human in sense of rational beings. All of contemporary politics seems to be one thinly veiled civil war between fearful tribalists.
It would appear that tribalism is all that we have. I have been through a long journey on this question. I was a child of the Christian Right, drifted to the radical Left as a young man, then towards mainstream libertarianism, then the militia movement and the populist right, along the way developing the view that the only workable kind of libertarianism would be some kind of pluralistic but anti-universalist, decentralized particularism. Rival tribes who are simply incompatible with one another should simply have their own separatist enclaves. This concept is explained very well in a video series beginning here. Unlike the other kinds of libertarianism, there is actually some precedent for what I’m describing to be found in past cultures. See here and here. As Thomas Naylor remarks:
Conservatives don’t want anyone messing with the distribution of income and wealth. They like things the way they are. Liberals want the government to decide what is fair. Liberals believe in multiculturalism, affirmative action, and minority rights. Conservatives favor states’ rights over minority rights.
What liberals and conservatives have in common is that they are both into having—owning, possessing, controlling, and manipulating money, power, people, material wealth, and things. Having is one of the ways Americans deal with the human condition—separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death. To illustrate how irrelevant the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have become, consider the case of Sweden and Switzerland, two of the most prosperous countries in the world.
Sweden is the stereotypical democratic socialist state with a strong central government, relatively high taxes, a broad social welfare net financed by the State, and a strong social conscience. Switzerland is the most free market country in the world, with the weakest central government, and the most decentralized social welfare system. Both are affluent, clean, green, healthy, well-educated, democratic, nonviolent, politically neutral, and among the most sustainable nations in all of history. By U.S. standards, they are both tiny.
Switzerland and Sweden work, not because of political ideology, but rather because the politics of human scale always trumps the politics of the left and the politics of the right. Under the politics of human scale, a politics that trumps our now-outdated and useless “liberal-versus-conservative” dualistic mindset, there would be but one fundamental question:
“Is it too big?”
It would seem that contemporary America is precisely the place to build a movement for this kind of decentalized particularism, a huge continent wide nation with many different cultures, religions, subcultures, ethnic groups and growing more diverse all the time, and where political and economic polarization is the highest it has been in over a century, and where dissatisfaction with the status quo is almost universal.
My challenge to anarchists, libertarians, communitarians, conservatives, radicals and progressives alike would be to ask yourself what kind of community you would actually want to live in, and where and how you would go about obtaining it. For instance, the geography of the culture war typically breaks down on the basis of counties, towns, precincts, municipalities and congressional districts rather than states or large regions. So why not envision forming a community for yourself and others in some particular locality that is consistent with your own cultural, economic or ideological orientation? The Free State Project, Christian Exodus, Second Vermont Republic, Green Panthers and Twin Oaks Commune are already doing this.
Political victory in the United States is achieved through the assembling of coalitions of narrow interest groups who often have little in common with one another (gun toting rednecks and country club Republicans, homosexuals and traditional working class union Democrats). Imagine if a third force emerged in U.S. politics whose only unifying principle was a common desire to remove one’s self and one’s community from the system. The only thing anyone has to give up is the desire to tell other communities what to do.