Wendy McElroy: “I will leave the movement if thick libertarianism prevails…”

I apologize for my lengthy prelude to Ms. McElroy’s piece, but things are moving along in a way that merits comment. It would appear that totalitarian humanism is in the process of taking over libertarianism, which is predictable enough as libertarianism left too many gaps open that ultimately allowed totalitarian humanism to crawl in. This is the likely end of any movement that a) fails to embrace a genuinely revolutionary stance, b) fails to challenge the ideological superstructure of the ruling class, d) fails to develop an appropriate class analysis, and d) fails to embrace a hierarchy of priorities that recognizes the overlords of imperialism and their political bureaucracies as the primary targets to be attacked.

While I don’t claim to speak for anyone else on this question, I actually find this “thick vs. thin,” “humanitarian vs. brutalist,”left vs. right” controversy that has emerged in the libertarian milieu to be a double-edged sword. First, I have never personally identified with the mainstream libertarian movement. I’ve been a fellow traveler, written for some of their forums, and promoted some of their ideas, but that’s about it. I’m actually a pan-anarchist who embraces the entire spectrum of libertarian, anarchist, anti-state, decentralist, and anti-authoritarian philosophies, but applies this within the context of a wider pluralistic, pan-secessionist and anarcho-populist strategic paradigm. I’m a Nietzschean and a Stirnerite in philosophy, a Proudhonian in economics, a Bakuninist in strategy and criticisms of state socialism, a Kropotkinist in terms of historical interpretation, an advocate of Landauer’s approach to particularism, Goldman’s approach to feminism, De Cleyre’s approach to ecumenicalism, Spooner’s legal theory, Tucker’s petite bourgeois individualism, Malatesta’s insurrectionism, and many other positions I won’t continue to bore the reader with.

I appreciate the Rothbardian wing of modern American libertarianism, particularly its neo-isolationism in foreign policy, its civil libertarianism, and its opposition to corporate welfare. And I can even appreciate Milton Friedman’s outspoken opposition to the draft and the war on drugs during his lifetime. But I have always regarded the bulk of the American libertarian movement as simply another branch of conservatism, albeit one that’s more focused on economics and the state rather than social conservatism, religion, race, militarism or other aspects of the American Right.

While I share many of the views of the left-wing anarcho-communists and the “free market anti-capitalist” left-libertarians alike, the apparently irreconcilable gap between my position and both of those camps is that I reject the fundamentalist version of the standard left-wing “race/class/gender/gay/trans” paradigm that both camps subscribe to. While I consider this paradigm to be a legitimate worldview that brings worthwhile ideas to the table, I do not consider it to be the only legitimate paradigm or the only set of ideas that should ever be heard. Instead, I am an advocate of the Enlightenment/classical liberal idea of free inquiry, free speech, and an open marketplace of ideas, and the Jamesian pragmatist view that human knowledge is limited enough that a fair hearing for contending points of view and fair treatment of others ought to be balanced with what one regards as “true.”

While I have been pleased to observe the growth of mainstream libertarianism in recent years, I have also been skeptical of the actual authenticity of its radicalism. For one thing, it seems to be in the process of being co-opted, either by the corporate right-wing or the cultural left-wing. My suspicion is that years down the road, the “conservative” libertarians who are mostly concerned with bourgeois economics will mostly be just another Republican constituency, and the “left” libertarians who are mostly concerned with opposing social conservatism will be just another minor shareholder in the PC coalition, and possibly good Democratic voters to boot.

I have recently written that the left-wing anarchist movement in its present form seems to be in the process of self-destructing thanks to the dysfunctional nature of its participants. This can only be a good thing as it will help to open the door for the cultivation of a higher quality anarchist movement. Likewise, if “thick libertarianism” (which, semantics aside, is just an effort to fuse libertarianism with the most fanatical forms of cultural leftism) comes to dominate mainstream libertarianism, then mainstream libertarianism will likely begin to self-destruct and implode as well, and for the same reasons, e.g. the dysfunctional nature of its adherents, the ease with which it can be co-opted by statist liberalism, the rivalries between victimological factions, its repulsiveness to outsiders, etc.

The disappearance of these watered-down or easily co-opted mainstream forms of anti-state activism and philosophies will then leave the door open for those of us who hold to what might be considered more “extremist” (i.e. genuinely revolutionary) positions to step in and fill the gap. For instance, our own audience here at ATS has grown significantly in recent years, and continues to draw support from an increasingly wider number of cultural and political currents. Overlapping tendencies have experienced a similar growth.  These more radical tendencies not only embrace a more militant position, and stand in clearer defiance of the system, but are also far more immune to co-optation. Any authentically radical movement in the 21st century Western world must uncompromisingly attack the state’s plutocratic economic tentacles from the right, and the state’s totalitarian humanist ideological tentacles from the left. Right-libertarians fall down on the job on the former, and left-libertarians fall down on the job on the latter.

We must cultivate a revolutionary anarchist movement that is authentically capable of attacking the system across the board, and possesses the intellectual and ideological equipment with which to do so.

By Wendy McElroy

The Daily Bell

There is an attempt to change the ground rules of libertarianism through introducing left-leaning attitudes and concepts. Two distinct approaches are in play within this attempt. I applaud one. I will leave the movement if the other prevails.

My friend Chris Sciabarra exemplifies the first approach. He wants to analyze the movement through the intellectual lens and tool of dialectics, which is usually associated with Marxism. By the term “dialectics,” Chris means “context setting” or “context holding.” All ideas are influenced by other ideas, institutions and events. In turn, they influence everything else. For example, you should not examine an idea such as emergence of labor unions in isolation. You need to consider the dialectics from which it arose in order to grasp what happened. For example, you need to consider the impact of World War I upon labor relations in America. I think Chris is correct and he adds value, even though I am cautious about a few aspects of his approach.

The second approach is found in the absurd and manufactured debates about “thin” and “thick” libertarianism – the “humanitarians” versus the “brutalists.” It is an attempt to introduce political correctness into libertarianism so that it is not enough to advocate nonviolence; you have to advocate it for the right reason, as defined by those who provide themselves as moral filters. They call me a brutalist. This means I will never violate your rights; your children, your property are safe in my presence because I respect your right to live in peace. But I don’t protect your children for the right reasons. For this, I am to be excoriated. This is the second approach to a new definition of libertarianism: People wish to analyze society not according to whether it is voluntary but in order to ferret out signs of power and privilege which they self-righteously condemn. Consider open source software. It has been castigated as a realm of privilege because it predominantly consists of white men. Open source software is source code that is thrown into the public realm so that anyone can modify and enhance it. It is a pure expression of free speech; the product is available to everyone for free; there are no entry barriers or requirements other than caring enough to learn code. Learning code is also available and free to all.

I think it was the condemnation of open source software that made me crack. Out of the goodness of his heart, my husband has devoted substantial time to what amounts to an intellectual charity. He pursues it for the same reason he repairs and gives computers for free to underprivileged children; he believes in the power of technology to lift people out of poverty. (BTW, I strongly suggest no one criticize my husband to my face on this point; I am likely to render the most Irish of all responses.)

Open source software is condemned for no other reason than it involves few women or minorities. This reflects nothing more than the choice of those women and minorities. It costs nothing to learn coding. Tutorials are available for free to all and everywhere. Correction: It does cost time and effort. The individual has to exert him or herself. I’m not willing to make the investment but neither do I blame the first white guy I see for my own inertia. If there is something in the culture of women and of specific minorities that prevents them from rising, then blame the culture. Don’t blame a white man like my husband who is falling over himself to provide a free service. (Correction: my husband is Hispanic … but that won’t give him a free pass. I mean, after all … the genitalia. And the grand critics of society don’t really care for accuracy.)

Last night, I contemplated my exit from a movement that considers me to be a “brutalist” after years of unpaid work promoting nonviolence. I found myself engaging in an emotional release that I’ve used for many years. I wrote a letter to my father. My dad died when I was ten years old. I loved him. I would not be a writer without him. I don’t even know if I’d be a good human being if he hadn’t taught me the meaning of kindness during my formative years.

Hello, Dad. Your face is in front of me now as though your arm were around me and you were telling the truly, truly stupid jokes that you enjoyed so much. “You think your nose is running but its snot!” You haven’t really been in front of me for a very long time. You dropped dead on the pavement outside your work when I was ten. They rushed you to the hospital and my brother thinks you recognized him when you were being admitted but all that was wrap-up. I know you died alone on that cold slab of pavement and I never saw you again.

I am writing now, as I have written to you so many times since I was ten, because I need to figure something out. And you could always make me stop crying, you could always make things better. I am being called a creature of privilege because my skin is white. I am told you are a vicious “carrier” of political privilege because your skin is white. If you didn’t know you were racist, sexist and vicious, then this is allegedly proof of how ingrained your racism, sexism and viciousness was; you were in denial. That’s a neat trick to pull for anyone who doesn’t want to produce evidence and wants to win the argument by making it always circle back to their being right by definition.

Dad, I honestly don’t know what to do. You taught me to treat every human being with civility and compassion. I never saw you raise your hand and I rarely heard you raise your voice to anyone. But the movement that I’ve tried to call home is saying I am a brutal product of privilege. You, as a white man, are accused of creating privilege and committing injustice merely by drawing breath.

I lived with you, Dad. Every morning of your life you woke up, made sure your children were fed and then you caught a bus to go to work. You did what was necessary for my brother and me to have a better life, and you did it every single day of your life without complaint. You worked yourself to death to make sure I had a better future. All the “thin” v. “thick” libertarians, all the faux “humanitarian” v. “brutulalist” libertarians pretend to understand and have compassion for the downtrodden. They are frauds and poseurs. I can explain what deprivation means. It means growing up with a photograph of your father because you will never, ever see him again. He will never swing you in his arms. You will never again hear him whistle in the morning while he is shaving. At night, you will cry yourself to sleep because no one is there for a “mummy tuck.” That’s when the blankets are tucked tightly around you and the game is to not break the tuck … lest an Egyptian curse fall upon your head.

So, Dad, privilege. Apparently for these skin-obsessed people, the fact that our skin is white means we are part of the oppressive power structure. Much of the argument is based on slavery, which existed in the United States, and in Canada … not so much. But don’t quibble about facts. It does not matter that our antecedents – close enough in proximity to be great-grandparents – came over in boats from Ireland with a 50% chance of dying in transit or thereafter; hell, those were better odds than they faced back home with the potato famine. The people who consider me a brutalist and a de facto source of injustice because of my skin color, those people ignore the fact that the Irish were used in the prebellum South to do jobs, like clearing swamps, that were considered too perilous. After all, slaves constituted a capital investment. The Irish were as cheap as dirt. It doesn’t matter that “my people” were socially lower than slaves; we are still racist oppressors because we are white. Remind me who is the racist here. Me, or the people judging everything and everyone by their skin color?

I don’t mean to reduce everything to politics. That is an empty, cold place. But, Dad, I wish I could access your common sense. I would give a year of my life to feel your arms around me, telling me it was going to be OK. Please help me. When I was five years old and probably the most serious, somber little thing anyone had ever met, you made me laugh. You made sense of the world and put everything in perspective.

I love you, Dad. Now and forever. I hope there is an afterlife. Because never seeing you again seems too cruel to be true. Rest assured that as long as I stand I will never again allow anyone to strip you of individuality and coldly categorize you as an oppressor because of your skin color. You were a good man who lived a good life and loved your children … you were the salvation of me. Anyone who wants to call you vicious will have to walk through me to get that podium.

Why do I suspect loving my father may mean leaving the movement? What does this say about the movement?

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14 replies »

  1. What’s actually going on here? McElroy has had a breakdown because shes found herself reclassified from “victim” to “oppressor”. Hence the eight paragraphs of “The luck of the Irish”. If it had been the good old song of “kill (English male) whitey” she’d have been roaring the chorus like in the good old days. “Whaaaaaat? I don’t get a pass for the Potato Famine any more, but that was just like a hundred and sixty years ago!” (“and my husband “Hispanicism has been overruled because he actually knows some shit? Oh come on!”)

    I don’t see this “thick/thin” controversy as being generated by a lurch to “totalitarian humanism” by these groups. Rather a few have seized on a routine refresh of language and application of previously universally accepted ideas to bail on the whole subculture. “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me!” Joe Strummer would have been privilege checking like his life depended on it had anyone thought of it in ’79 because nothing has changed in that tendency for decades.

    The best we can say is that it appears the doublethink required by orthodox progressivism in today’s environment seems to require such zen like mastery of ones own though processes that only an ever decreasing number of idiot savants manage to achieve it. Does this make the failures potential revolutionaries? Fuck no. They are what they always have been; self indulgent assholes who get a high off self flagellating piety. In practice these people have been auxiliaries of the establishment for decades because when it comes down it they fear people more than they do states.

    The sole service these planks can perform for the revolution is acting as a kind of filter to refine out the weaker elements of potential dissident groups like some kind of giant fly paper covered in morons.

  2. This is a rather disappointing contribution from McElroy. Obviously, we agree that left libertarians typically (much in the style of objectivists) self-righteously and reflexively monopolize the moral high ground in many debates. Yes, this is both obnoxious and off-putting, not to mention an obstacle to the project of education on privilege, class, etc.

    But the fact that McElroy loves her dad has nothing to do with social norms that are beyond the control of any single individual. Only the most left universalist and essentialist varieties of chauvinists would call McElroy’s dad “vicious” simply for having male and white privilege, just as some libertarians would call anybody who works for the government, even as a janitor, a thief and murderer. Just like you can find any number of libertarians and anarchists saying things McElroy would find appalling, there are plenty of insufferable ideologists on the left who make their life’s work the most ridiculous realization of leftist talking points.

    However, none of this has anything to do with the arguments for adopting an analysis of, and political approach to, privilege. It seems to me that one can object to obnoxious formulations of any position without rejecting the core position itself. The bottom line is that in attacking the most ridiculous arguments of the left she leaves the million dollar question–whether libertarianism should have anything to say about social norms–completely unanswered. And so she simply does no service at all to the reader.

    I mean, how many times exactly do left libertarians have to explain that thickness is simply a way of context-keeping, the reminder that all libertarianism implies a social normative context in which these liberties and rights exist, and that the PC variety is only one particular _kind_ of thickness among many kinds? Has nobody read Charles Johnson’s actual essay where he coined this term? It’s maddening.

    Ultimately, both brutalists and humanitarians tend to argue in a manner that demands singular loyalty to their particular variety of thickness as expressed by their ideological assumptions, sympathies and weltanschauung. We should seek the victory of neither side but instead use this as an opportunity to promote a pluralist framework for the question, where the conflicting sides can be balanced and find a way to respectfully abide each other. The bottom line is that both sides are important parts of the libertarian approach, and the tension here is the tension anybody encounters when ideology trumps lived experience.

  3. Problem is Jeremy that the “thick” mentality doesn’t generally tolerate opposition or accept any question of its accuracy and supremacy. It is remarkably intolerant and aggressive under normal conditions. You yourself would almost certainly be regarded with hostility and extreme suspicion for even having a dialog with ATS, which is absurd on several different levels.

    The progressive generally operates on the same basis as Genghis Khan, either surrender without condition or hesitation immediately or prepare for war. There can be no equivocation or negotiation, if the SPLC says you’re the enemy then you are and no defence is admissible. Wendy and the “thins” seems to have just come to understood this as a result of being made a target, shoulda been paying attention. First they came for the fascists……

    • Problem is Jeremy that the “thick” mentality doesn’t generally tolerate opposition or accept any question of its accuracy and supremacy.

      You could say that about a lot of mentalities. The left is on the ascent; of course it’s where the authoritarianism collects. But I do think that Wendy represents an orientation of libertarianism that is bleak if not brutal, and what she and others are coming up against is a totally different articulation of libertarian values that won’t simply back down in the face of Randian arguments.

      I think there’s plenty of faults to go around and that ultimately Keith’s critique–the lack of a revolutionary intent–is the important one that applies to both just about equally.

      • I don’t know Jeremy. Certainly every tendency has its fanatics but for the progressive this seems to be the rule not the exception. As has been discussed recently a fair bit on ATS it would seem that a lot of progressives are operating on a kind of religious level rather than a rational one. This seems to lend them an unbending zeal not seen commonly in philosophic or political discussion or action.

        I’m also not convinced that it is fair to suggest both “thick” and “thins” are equally useless as revolutionaries. Yeah sure “thins” are pathetic, but “thicks”? these are people who will generally side with the actual system itself in any matter of substance. Perhaps I have missed some subtlety but it appears to be that the subtext here the “thicks” would rather have “thickness” imposed by the system if the alternative is less than perfect “thickening” by any other force. I hate to apply the Bush test but if I’m right on that these aren’t merely very, very poor quality members of the anti-system alliance, they are some of the system’s most committed supporters.

        • It is not technically to say that the left is irrational, I will often myself use the expression. Within its world view the decisions it makes are quite rational. In general I do share your distaste for progressives and their politics. My contention is that the left is rational and it’s goal is to destroy.

          • The left likes to claim the mantle of “rationality” as part of its narrative of succession to the “Enlightenment”. And a lot of people, in their haste to champion the cause of the irrational and instinctual, let them. That’s a big let off for the left because its by no means easy to justify an attempt to modify society and the individual, which is almost certain to fail, in rational terms. Anyone in any doubt of that might like to try the mental exercise of doing a cost/benefit analysis of the project thus far nearly three centuries in. We’ve got gay marriage Vs comprehensive collapse of Western society…….. and I like wedding cake and all but………

        • I don’t know Jeremy. Certainly every tendency has its fanatics but for the progressive this seems to be the rule not the exception.

          I understand why it seems that way to you, I really do. But one of the reasons I want to have dialogue with folks from other political persuasions is to gain the benefit of their careful insider knowledge. Ideologies always paint their rivals as black and white cartoons. That doesn’t mean I agree with the Right on much; it just means that insiders necessarily have access to nuances and non-obvious insights outsiders don’t–and that can be useful to understanding the full context of the movements.

          Take my testimony as a long-time leftist for what it’s worth: for every nut job there’s a thoughtful leftist willing to listen and find balance.

          Yeah sure “thins” are pathetic, but “thicks”? these are people who will generally side with the actual system itself in any matter of substance.

          First: if you have an example of this you can provide, I’d greatly appreciate it. I’m the first to argue that totalitarian humanist universalism tends to run interference for the intrusive state, but I do not believe my fellow left libertarians actually endorse the state at all. I’ve found even the most obnoxious to be pretty uniformly anti-statist, pretty much without a single exception.

          Second: forgive me for beating the dead horse here, but I think you mean left libertarians instead of thick libertarians perhaps. The whole point of Johnson’s essay is that all libertarianism is thick, because every variety implies values behind the scenes that justify, proceed from, or are bundled up with libertarian ends. The problem with so-called “thin libertarians” is their conceit of thinness, implying that the snuck-in norms, assumptions, and attitudes exemplified in their ideological approaches are simply neutral features of the environment and not chosen.

          Arguably if there is such a thing as thin libertarianism, it is anarcho-pluralism. Thin libertarianism strikes me as particularly useful in the formation of the “meta-politics” required for the kind of hyper-decentralized world ATS envisions. It is, in other words, a libertarian foreign policy, but it is not close to sufficient in tackling the world’s problems.

          Thanks for the push back! Hope I’m making sense here.

          • ” The whole point of Johnson’s essay is that all libertarianism is thick, because every variety implies values behind the scenes that justify, proceed from, or are bundled up with libertarian ends. The problem with so-called “thin libertarians” is their conceit of thinness, implying that the snuck-in norms, assumptions, and attitudes exemplified in their ideological approaches are simply neutral features of the environment and not chosen.”

            I saw that implication in the Tom Woods show with Gary Chartier. I thought Gary brought up valid points.

          • “First: if you have an example of this you can provide, I’d greatly appreciate it. I’m the first to argue that totalitarian humanist universalism tends to run interference for the intrusive state, but I do not believe my fellow left libertarians actually endorse the state at all. I’ve found even the most obnoxious to be pretty uniformly anti-statist, pretty much without a single exception.”

            Maybe I’ve missed the subtleties of the categorizations but when I hear “Left-libertarian” I think Chompsky, at best. At worst I think whatever that thing was with the students shouting down that guy for suggesting marriage wasn’t formalized rape (or something similar). I was my impression that these people were generally in favor of, to give an extreme example, the Iraq war . Here in the UK you could bet your bottom dollar that these guys would be backing any fashionable progressive cause, even if it directly contravened their own supposed values; protesting government “cuts” being my favorite absurdity.

            But maybe you’re right, from where I’ve been standing all that can be seen is a mob of fanatics ready to go all in over anything they perceive to be “right wing”. In that kind of situation I guess its easy to focus on those screaming the loudest, note that no-one seems to be telling them to shut up and conclude that it’s one unified force. However, on reflection, I can think of quite a few “old left” types who are at least civil as long as the stazi aren’t in the room.

            And perhaps that’s the problem, people are genuinely scared of these kind of PC denunciations and that gives tremendous power to the most fundamental. I once saw a whole room full of local politicians berated and threatened directly by a lone progressive zealot over what any sane person would have regarded as a perfectly reasonable and just proposal; they shit their pants, it never even went to a vote because that vote would have been public.

            But if that’s right, and the left is being bitch whipped by a minority of fanatics, then it doesn’t actually very much matter from the perspective of their target because the effect is as if they were all the most fanatical.

            Actually that sounds like a pretty fair assessment of a similar dynamic which operates on the radical right now I come to think of it. lol.

    • Maybe we need some kind of “test”? Call it the ATS Standard Revolutionary Index or something. How about “how many female gay black disabled satanists are you prepared to see get lynched before you concede the right of individual and communal self determination in favor of the system?”

      I think that kinda gets to the heart of the matter.

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