by Michael Parish
Originally published at A Beautiful Mind
Left-Libertarianism is an ideology that seeks to hybridize the economic agenda of classical liberalism with the cultural agenda of the New Left, as such constituting a conscious return to the movement as it existed in the mid to late nineteen sixties. Therefore it appears paradoxically both radical, in that desires a thorough recalibration of the status quo, and reactionary, in its quest to re-establish a vanished ideology. This apparent paradox collapses rather quickly, as a thorough examination of their philosophy extinguishes its pretenses at radicalism and renders transparent its purely reactionary nature.
Left-Libertarianism is, before it is Left, libertarian. As such, it carries it with it the historical detrius of classical liberalism, instantiated in the movement’s atomist conception of human society. In the Left-libertarian mind, the atomized individual is the basis of society, and individual agency it’s base causal (and constituting) factor; the latter is therefore a chance aggregate of individuals and their actions. From this conception the the individual assumed as their one and only theoretical reference point, and all social and political issues are evaluated with it as its their basis.
On this point, they have human development inverted; while it is certainly true that everyone is an individual, no one develops autonomously as if a vacuum. Prior to his entry into society, the identity of the individual develops through and only through his relation to others. This occurs specifically through the civil institutions whose existence predates his own, first his nuclear and then extended family, his local community, his religious or otherwise ideological institution, and so forth. It is impossible to conceive of an individual without reference to such factors. The individual, therefore, is not the beginning but the end of society, and therefore of politics.
To the extent that their recognition of this fails, to the same extent they champion the abstract concept of “individual liberty.” However, liberty (here defined in the purely negative sense) is a cause, not an effect; a means, not an end. In society, it is the latter, not the former that has empirically observable effects and is therefore of significance. Within the sphere of human interaction, it is the ends sought by individuals, not the means employed to achieve them, that are our object of concern.
In their misconstruing raw materials for finished products, the Left-Libertarians deliver a wholly unsatisfactory social theory. Prior to the “liberation” of the individual it is imperative that a functioning set of civic institutions be developed through which he learns to healthily exercise his liberation. Before he is freed from formal coercion to exercise his “liberty” he must develop in such a way as to learn to channel said liberty towards productive purposes. In summation, the aim of any politics of credibility is the cultivation of a functioning societal whole, not the satisfaction of every individual’s subjective ephemera, as the Libertarian Lefties believe.
The second critical error in the Left-Libertarian approach is their implied economic determinism, another historical carryover from their liberal heritage. The assumption here, that the economy and relations therein are the basis of human society from which all other factors are derivatives, leads to the envisioning of a society built entirely around commercial interactions. This again is an inversion, and one that leads to societal disintegration. Contrary to the reductionist myopia of the LL, homo sapien is a social animal long prior to his being an economic one. The basic interpersonal relations between friend and friend, husband and wife, and parent and child developed on their own prior to existence of economies and economic ones, the latter having historically developed only as a buttress for the facilitation of the former. To repeat an observation from the preceding paragraph, the LLers are again mistaking means for ends, resulting in an anemic social outline informed by a vulgar economism. It is imperative that civic institutions, those that exist prior to and independent of state and commercial ones, be recognized as the basis of society, and the market be relegated to its proper role as but a necessary extension of them.
The second function of the LLer’s economic reductionism is their anti-cultural bias. If the economic sphere is the foundation of society, then it naturally follows that matters of ethnicity, language, and culture are ephemeral transience, their dictation by the effects of the market not only permissible but imperative. Denouncing collective identities in the name of abstract “individualism”, they display the critical flaw of all rationalism: the inability to comprehend not only that which cannot be measured mathematically, but the values of those who adhere to them. They accordingly mistake historically evolved entities for arbitrarily defined “constructs”, which are to be destroyed for the ostensible purpose of further individual liberation; the type of individuals and societies to emerge in their wake are left undefined. This line of thought results, again, in a predictably grotesque reductionism. Given the natural tendency of the state and capitol to erode such organic identities and their respective cultures, and the consequent necessity of supporting them, this attitude is hardly of use within the context of contemporary anti-statism.
Bewildering about them is one principle inherited from the Left, in contrast to their libertarian positions, is their belief in egalitarianism. As Left-Libertarianism is essentially an economic doctrine their belief in “equality” can only be discussed in economic terms. To that end, individualism of the bourgeoisie sort they champion is wholly incompatible with economic equality. In political philosophy there are two competing conceptions of the individual. The first is the concrete individual, definitively unequal by his degree of personal merit; the second is the liberal “individual”, believed to be equal only by the mental process of abstraction which has stripped him of all defining characteristics. It is obvious which view the LLers predicate their theory on. In concrete terms, the inherently unequal distribution of merit within the population will produce a correspondingly unequal distribution of wealth. The dissolution of the corporate state, and the ensuing absence of artificial privilege, will not mathematically produce a society without elites but one without false elites.
That said, the insistent restatement of “equality” betrays a fundamental naivete on their part. Contrary to the negative connotations attributed to them by liberal philosophy, terms such as “elites” and “inequality” are not pejoratives but accurate descriptions of ontological reality. An “elite” is merely a person who excels in his given area of expertise that he is distinguished from the general population; “inequality” within the structure of institutions is therefore a natural sign of societal health so much as it reflects actual disparities between their constituent members. The pursuit of its opposite, an unattainable ideal, is the pursuit of a chimera, the realization of which is possible only artificially, requiring the introduction of massive and damaging bureaucracy.
As a byproduct of modern liberalism, particularly its rationalist component, Left-Libertarianism is unable to distinguish qualitative differences between individuals, cultures, and groupings thereof. In the place of such factors they trumpet, rather loudly, abstract universalism. This reveals another crucial ontological miscalculation: the ignorance of relevant particulars and their potentiality as determinate factors in politics, and exaggerated primacy granted to (imagined)universals. Liberalism, including the kind that informs Left-Libertarianism, is one of these particulars, instantiated only at a specific interval of space (Western Civilization, specifically its Anglo Saxon branch) and time (mid-modernity, specifically post-1700’s.) Their foundational principles, including the autonomy of the individual and rights belonging there-in, have never existed outside this spatio-temporal milieu and it is highly unlikely they ever will. It remains dubious as to whether or not all of “humanity” will agree to join hands with them as “citizens of the world”, much less abandon their historically ingrained norms in favor of Western leftism.
Most troublesome about the ideology is its woefully incomplete societal analysis. The modern state is intimately connected to the philosophical premises of modern liberalism; an effective critique of the former necessitates one of the latter. On this note, the LLers fall pitifully short. For with all the enthusiasm with which they jab the state they posit but a partially qualified variant of the same Lockean social theory that informs it. This cripples not only their analysis but their potential for future success; sharing first principles with the regime you only recently displaced facilitates its immediate reconstitution.
They attack Social Contract theory as a hollow ploy for ruling class self-legitimation, but retain the same assumptions about human nature and activity. According to the contractualists, rational individuals consciously decide to establish written guidelines for overcoming the “state of nature”; according to the Libertarian Left, these same individuals consciously decide to cooperate on a stateless market. Implicit in this view is the invisible line drawn between civil society and the state, regarding the latter as an artificial imposition upon the former. Missing here is the conception of human society as a living organism, one which developed historically, not out of rational decisions but irrational circumstances, and of which the state is unfortunately an organic component. Only when such premises are accepted will the receptivity of the population to voluntaryst forms of social organization reach critical mass.
Troubling still is the LLers over-reliance on abstract principles to justify their anti-statism. Supposed axioms, such as “taxation is theft” are incomplete propositions; they are premises without conclusions. Even with the addition of a conclusion, such as “therefore taxation is wrong” they are still useless even if theoretically valid. For this statement to be of any importance it must be demonstrated that first that this “taxation” correlates directly to a concrete phenomena occurring in the concrete world, second that it has an actual negative effect on said world, and third that society would actually improve in its absence. Otherwise, this is merely a walled off cognitive sequence that leads to inaction and ineffectiveness, as the population will not rally behind abstract theories.
The fetishization of “natural rights” evinced by many in this milieu serves a similar non-purpose, and betrays a fundamental ignorance of the nature of politics. “Natural rights” is part and parcel of a project seeking to instill human political affairs with a moral basis. Such a feat is impossible, as politics is based not on morality but on the self-interest of its participants. “Rights” and the ethical schemata underlying them are abstract entities reflecting only the self interest of the person or group invoking them. Metaphysically, they are causally inert; your “right to life” will not save you from a gun blast, as the former exists only within your consciousness but the latter is a physical object in the concrete world of phenomena. In political affairs, the “rights” the populace enjoys derive not from metaphysical-ethical schemes but from actually existing power relations. Therefore, it is the latter, not the former, that deserves radical attention. Or, to quote Proudhon “I don’t want rules but I’ll bargain.”
Ultimately, the motives of the LLers remain nebulous at best.While claiming opposition to the state in theory, their social values nonetheless reflect the current condition the institution and its economic corollary have inflicted on Western society. The deterioration of organic and pre-rational structures, and the consequent homogenization and materialist reductionism of human values, are a conscious aspect of the state’s function in the contemporary world, as the institution’s main role in this era is to serve as the vehicle for the further implementation of late modernity. As such, it remains unclear their rationale for anti-state sentiment when their core concepts are far better suited to the administered individualism of the centre-Left.
Within a historical context, their own implicitly linear and determinist conception notwithstanding, placing them within a critical dialectic is impossible. They represent, not a rebuttal to established ideology and its derivative forms, but a restatement of same taken to an even further level. As such they can be seen as the product of two factors, the first being the psychological alienation experienced by those who do not identify with society in its current condition but whose existence is also unthreatened by it and secondly, the impossibility for members of a society to think along lines not predetermined by the epistime of their society in that particular era. If, as Hegel remarked, “philosophy is its own time raised to thought” then Left-Libertarianism is its own time raised halfway there.