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The Limitations of “System Libertarianism”

These two guys, who headed the Libertarian Party ticket in 2012, are perfect illustrations of what I call “system libertarians.” By “system libertarians,” I don’t mean “right-opportunists” who are simply trying to hijack libertarianism towards other ends like Rand Paul, Bob Barr, the Kochs, etc. By all accounts, these two are sincere libertarians so far as one can be within a pro-system framework. When Johnson was governor of New Mexico, he was a fairly outspoken and maverick critic of the war on drugs. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, BUT he explicitly rejected the use of executive pardon to release drug war prisoners on grounds that doing so would be “un-democratic.” In other words, his libertarian values are subordinated to his democratist values.

Gray is a former prosecutor and judge who is also a maverick judicial critic of the war on drugs. Yet in his otherwise excellent book on the drug war, he strongly criticized the use of jury nullification to obstruct drug war prosecutions on the grounds that doing so would undermine the legal system and the “rule of law.” In other words, his legal positivist values take priority over his libertarian values.

I have nothing against these guys personally. They fill a necessary role. But they illustrate the difficulties associated with individuals who claim the mantle of “libertarian” without fully rejecting the system. This is one of the reasons why I have always preferred to call myself an “anarchist” rather than a “libertarian.” The label of “anarchist” is one that most people are uncomfortable adopting. But the importance of accepting this label is that it signifies one’s willingness to completely turn one’s back on the system, and adopt an explicitly revolutionary stance, which “system libertarians” won’t do.

By Alan Pyeatt

This past weekend, the Libertarian Party celebrated its 40th birthday by choosing its candidates for President and Vice President.   The Libertarians selected former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson for President, and retired judge James Gray of California for Vice President.   The convention was broadcast nationally on C-SPAN, and received coverage on National Public Radio.

What are these candidates like, and how do they compare to their opponents?

Gary Johnson is probably the most accomplished athlete in the 2012 contest.   He has climbed Mount Everest.   In fact, he has climbed the highest mountain on 4 continents.   He has competed in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon Championship several times, and competed in the eight-day Adidas TransAlps Challenge bike race.   He has even run a 25 mile desert race wearing combat boots and a 35 pound backpack.   And he was on his high school track team in Albuquerque.

But Johnson is most famous for trying to legalize marijuana.

As Governor of New Mexico, Johnson called the War on Drugs a failure, comparing it to alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s.   He became one of America’s highest ranking elected officials to advocate legalizing marijuana, calling for it to be handled as a health issue rather than a criminal offense.   During his debate with runner-up R. Lee Wrights at the Libertarian Party National Convention (which can be viewed here), Johnson said, “We should be able to make our own choices when it comes to drugs….   [The] Libertarian Party, 40 years ago, talks about legalizing drugs.   Well now, in this country, we’re at a tipping point.   We’re at a tipping point where 50% of Americans now want to legalize marijuana.   That has never happened before, and who deserves credit for that?   The Libertarian Party deserves credit for that.”   According to Wikipedia, Johnson used medical marijuana to control pain from 2005 to 2008 after a paragliding accident left him with a broken vertebra, knee, and rib.

Johnson also scores big on other civil liberties issues.   In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union gave him a higher score than President Obama or any of the Republican candidates in its 2012 Candidate Report Card on Civil Liberties.   Johnson supports gay marriage and wants to repeal the “Patriot” Act.   He opposes government interference with the Internet, torture of prisoners, and invasive Transportation Security Administration procedures.   By contrast, President Obama and Mitt Romney both supported extension of the “Patriot” Act, “enhanced interrogation” of prisoners, and current TSA security measures.   President Obama has been criticized for being non-committal on gay marriage, and signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement last October without submitting it to the Senate for approval.

Johnson opposed military intervention in Afghanistan and Libya.   He has promised to cut the military budget 43% in his first year, including closure of several overseas bases.

Johnson is against government bailouts of private corporations.   He is also opposed to unnecessary government spending, and has promised to submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013.   When Johnson was termed out of office in 2003, New Mexico was one of only 4 states that had a balanced budget.

Johnson’s policies, and how they compare to Obama’s and Romney’s, are covered in more detail here.

Johnson started a door-to-door handyman business to pay his way through the University of New Mexico.   His business eventually became one of the largest construction companies in the state.

Although he was only allowed to participate in two of the Republican Party presidential debates this year, Johnson came up with the best one-liner of the entire campaign season when he said, “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel ready jobs than [Obama’s] administration.”

Johnson’s running mate, James P. Gray, is a retired judge who lives in Newport Beach, California.   He earned his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and a law degree from the University of Southern California.   He spent 23 years on the bench in the Santa Ana Municipal Court and the Orange County Superior Court.   Before that, he taught in the Peace Corps, served in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and worked in private practice.

Judge Gray is best known for advocating drug decriminalization.   He spoke in favor of the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 and helped write the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative.   Gray’s first experience in politics came in 1998, when he lost the Republican primary for the 46th Congressional District seat in California.   In 2004 he won the Libertarian Party nomination for U.S. Senate, defeating former California Libertarian Party Chair Gail Lightfoot, but losing to Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer in the general election.

Gray has written a musical and three books, including Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed: A Judicial Indictment of War on Drugs and A Voter’s Handbook: Effective Solutions to America’s Problems.   He also writes a weekly column for the Daily Pilot, a newspaper in Newport Beach, California.

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  1. Left-sectarians are those whose ideological rigidity severely inhibits their growth potential as actual revolutionaries. Most left-anarchists and groups like C4SS are left-sectarians. There’s enough demand in the political market that they can exist and do what they do, but they’ll never be much more than what they are now. They’re like a business that has a small but solid customer base that allows the business to exist for decades, but it never grows past a certain point.

    Rand Paul is a right-opportunist because he compromises so easily that he’s effectively rendered powerless as a genuine opponent of the system (observe his brown nosing of Israel, to point out one of many examples).

    Of course, these are not absolute categories. The LP ticket in 2012 represented “system libertarianism,” i.e. two guys who sincerely wanted to reform the system in a more libertarian direction, but not at the expense of actually undermining the system. They weren’t right-opportunists, but they weren’t revolutionaries either.

    I’d actually argue that ATS is ideologically much more extreme than any of the above.

    I could make an analogy comparing the full spectrum of libertarianism to socialism. Rand Paul, the Kochs, and Bob Barr are comparable to the Democratic Party. The LP/Johnson/Gray is comparable to DSA or SPUSA. Reason is comparable to Huffington Post. LRC/Rockwell/Ron Paul are comparable to the Greens. Left-libertarians are comparable to the CPUSA. Left-anarchists are the Trotskyists. Randians are comparable to the Workers World. ATS is comparable to Maoism. However, ATS is also flexible enough that we can apply our extremism in a pragmatic, populist, manner. It’s basically the same methodology as Bolshevism, which explains why the Commies were the premiere radical movement of the 20th century. It’s also the same methodology as the Spanish anarchists, which explains why they were the most “successful” anarchist movement in history.

    • I generally agree with Rothbard’s model of the political spectrum.

      True conservatism is throne and altar traditionalism, followed by the Whig philosophy associated with thinkers like Burke. Next is classical liberalism, which includes varying degrees of extremes (from James Madison to Jean Paul Marat). Then comes socialism and communism, again with wide spectrum of extremes (form Bernstein to Pol Pot). Modern, mainstream libertarianism is an outgrowth of classical liberalism, which explains why for a century or so libertarians have mostly been aligned with conservatives as opponents of socialism and communism.

      I agree with Rothbard that anarchism is to the left of socialism and communism, and Rothbard himself IMO was closer to being an individualist anarchist a la Stirner, Tucker, Spooner rather than a classical liberal, even if he borrowed Mises’ economics.

      I also agree with Rothbard that fascism is best interpreted as a conservative-socialist hybrid. It’s a cousin to communism, in that anti-capitalism is one of its central features, but it rejects Marxist egalitarianism in favor of the emphasis on hierarchy and tradition found in conservatism.

      I’d actually consider ATS to be on the far left end of the spectrum, beyond classical anarchism, contemporary neo-Marxist left-anarchism and Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism alike. Classical anarchism is stuck in pre-WW2 proletarianism which isn’t appropriate for a 21s century post industrial, information age society. Left-anarchism is stuck in the 1960s. For them, it’s 1968 forever. They’re like a communist calling for the overthrow of the Russian czar in the 1950s: “We did that already!”
      Anarcho-capitalism is very middle class oriented, concerned mostly with bourgeois economic values involving things like taxes and business interests.

      I’d say the ATS focus on lumpenproletarianism, Third World national self-determination, a Huxleyian critique of “totalitarian humanism,” and rejection of “human rights imperialism,” and anti-nation-state outlook, among other things, puts us to the left of all these other ideologies in terms of the meta-political framework. Some of us or our friends and allies may be personally on the right in terms of believing in traditional values, traditional religion, conservative stances on individual social issues, being critical of radical egalitarianism, etc. But those are separate questions.

      • Even many of the positions that I take that enemies and critics label as “right-wing” or “reactionary” actually serve a radical purpose when taken in context.

        For instance, the statement on white nationalism in the ATS statement of purpose merely reflects a forward-looking consideration of the fact that ethnic Europeans will eventually be a minority in North America, just like all the other ethnic groups. What will be the political ramifications of that, and how should we adjust our theoretical and strategic outlook in response?

        The statement on social conservatism recognizes that traditional “Third World” societies that are in resistance to Western imperialism are often more socially conservative that the mother country of the empire and its junior partners. Compare the status of feminism and gay rights in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to Western Europe or North America, for example. Plus, social conservatives in the West are rapidly becoming an outgroup that is subject to persecution by the state, necessitating their defense on anarchist grounds.

  2. Sectarianism and opportunism are useful as general political concepts, and that seems to be how Rothbard understood them. This did not save the Libertarian party from becoming a textbook example of sectarianism, or the Cato institute from becoming a textbook example of opportunism, unfortunately.

    Despite the widespread victory of at least some Libertarian ideas, the party remains completely hopeless as a political vehicle, and the idea of it ever coming into real power is absurd. In the popular mind it is synonymous with half-baked cranks, racist idiots, UFO believers, and conspiracy theorists. Not even Libertarians take it seriously.

    Cato has more prestige and influence, but only so long as it focuses on Republican-friendly issues (mainly lower taxes for the ruling class, of course). At best it is a reformist organization that has safely nested itself within the ecosystem of think-tanks and special interest groups that lobby the state. Expecting anything revolutionary from it is just as absurd.

    (Let us not forget how many Cato and Reason type “libertarians” supported the Bush administration and the war with Iraq, until it became unfashionable.)

    Beyond general concepts, the terms sectarianism and opportunism are also very specific terms of art in the most sophisticated and effective revolutionary theory ever developed, and you are correct that this theory was central to Communism becoming the most dangerous revolutionary movement in human history.

    The Bolsheviks had a once proud weapon that has become encrusted with the barnacles of a century of reaction after it was submerged in a river of blood. Do not mistake the cargo cults and academics for the old wolf. He soaked two thirds of the world in blood.

    I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine how this theory might be modified for anarchist purposes, but this presents a whole series of extremely difficult problems in both theory and practice. Pan-anarchism is in want of a theory of political conflict. An examination of Bolshevism is a good place to start, as an example of how the fundamental problems that face any revolutionary movement were successfully solved.

    (This is not an argument for or against Leninism. I am a card carrying member of the Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Dead Horses, and I have no interest at all in such an argument. That is not to say that I have no position.)

    Sectarianism and opportunism are words that come with a thick crust of slander that has accumulated during the last 100 years of their use as two of the Communist’s favorite slurs. In the common use today among the surviving cargo cults, the meaning is thus:

    Everyone to the left of me is a sectarian; everyone to the right of me is an opportunist.

    This obscures a strategic lesson of the first order that is one of Lenin’s most important contributions to revolutionary theory.

    Sectarianism and opportunism are not moral qualities or psychological tendencies; they are not types of politics or species of ideologies. They are not even fixed political positions.

    They are strategic traps on the political battlefield that will destroy a revolutionary movement that falls into them.

    You can fall into these traps, as one can be outflanked or encircled on a battlefield, against your own intentions and due to circumstances beyond your control. As on the battlefield, there is no set-piece solution that will protect against them.

    Sectarianism and opportunism are the opposite polarities of revolutionary conflict. A revolutionary movement must find ways to navigate between them because it must approach both without falling into either.

    In order to continue to live, a revolutionary movement at minimum must have:

    A revolutionary direction

    Independence of action

    Access to the mass

    Power

    When a movement loses its independence or its direction, it will die as a revolutionary movement. When this happens, as it usually does, in search of power or access, this is Opportunism.

    The position of the AFL-CIO today is an example. It has power and access, but it has been so hollowed out and infested with DNC apparatchiks that it has zero independence and whatever revolutionary direction the American labor movement ever had is, of course, ancient history. The corpse has been kept around as a tool of the DNC, but as we saw with NAFTA and Obama care, it can no longer even protect its own interests. Its position is so desperate that the only hope it has of survival is that it can steal enough money from its workers so as to be valuable enough to the democrats that they don’t finally just sell it out to the corporations completely and ban government unions. (Except for the pig unions, of course.)

    Power without the independence to use it is worse than nothing.

    When a movement is cut off from all access to the mass or from any hope of power, it will die as a revolutionary movement. When this happens, as it usually does, in search of independence or revolutionary direction, this is Sectarianism.

    The position of the Portland IWW is an example. They still have all of their empty revolutionary rhetoric, and are independent enough to chart their own course, but they have zero power of any significance and their ability to even communicate with, much less organize, any large number of workers is also zero. The corpse lives on as a vegan coffee shop for anarchist hipsters, but the revolutionary potential is as dead as big bill. (We have whole town full of dangerous hobos, too.)

    Revolutionary words without the power to act are nothing more than stupid primate noises.

    Lenin crystallized this lesson in the context of the left and right of his era. When universalizing this lesson I find it more useful to think in terms of the center and the fringe. Revolutions must come from the fringe or they wouldn’t be revolutions. They must storm the center without becoming of it or they are nothing more than coups. During the long conflict to organize the mass that will be the main vehicle of the revolution they must navigate a course between the center (opportunism) and the fringe (sectarianism) that leads to access to the mass and to power without losing their independence of action or there revolutionary direction.

    This does not mean taking “moderate” positions. It is extremely difficult in actual practice and requires the kind of radical creativity, operational excellence, and political acumen that the left today can only observe in its enemies or read about in old books.

    The revolutionary direction is what Maoists call the line of march. It is not just the ultimate goal but also the path to that goal and the act of walking that path. It is a deeply shared vision that binds the revolutionaries together and the burning torch of revolutionary hatred that drives them forth to attempt and sometimes achieve the impossible. It is the source of all solidarity and discipline, all energy and courage, all sacrifice and valor.

    Independence of action means at minimum the freedom to operate in pursuit of the revolutionary direction under your own command. It also includes the capacity to operate. A movement that sets up a printing press or gains the ability to organize in a factory has added to its independence by developing new abilities it did not have before. Conversely, a movement that has had its press confiscated or its organizers blacklisted has lost part of its independence. At the same time possession of a printing press or a cadre of talented organizers will benefit you nothing if you lose the freedom to use them.

    This was Lenin’s crown jewel. He was willing to do anything to obtain it. He was willing to do anything to keep it. Losing it means liquidation and the end of the movement.

    Access to the mass means at minimum to have contact with the mass and the ability to communicate with and organize it. Its most crucial aspect is the relationship of the movement to the mass. The fate of the entire project hangs on this balance. A movement that has so alienated the mass that it has become hated, or untrusted, or ignored, has lost its access just as surely as if it had been physically barred from it.

    This is why legitimacy is such a critical issue for a revolutionary movement, and why losing it means certain death.

    The definition of the mass is crucial, and it will change over time. In the beginning a movement must focus on recruiting a core of cadre, and the social group they are being drawn from is the mass. Once the cadre has been formed it then turns its eyes on the most radical part of the community it seeks to organize and this becomes the mass. As the targeted mass changes, so do the nature of the dangers of Sectarianism and Opportunism.

    The communist understanding of power was one of the Bolsheviks’ most radical innovations. Power is anything that can be of use to the revolutionary conflict. Anything. It can range from participation in a small reading circle to control of a powerful union, from the ability to influence an election with articles in a press to the possession of a tank army.

    Without power you have no way to fight. Power isn’t just the end; it is the means to the end.

    With all of these concepts, context is absolutely critical as the dynamic correlation of forces in the struggle is constantly changing, as is the targeted mass. Today the mass is a small group of radical intellectuals, tomorrow it is the workers at temporary agency in Ferguson. In five years it is all the prisoners in the Illinois prison system. Today your only form of power is a baseball bat you are going to take to the car of the racist rat manager of the temp agency as an act of provocation to destabilize his relationship with the workers, in a year it will be a wildcat union that shuts the temp agency down, in five years it will be a general strike in the prison system. What was opportunism today may be sectarianism tomorrow. These are strategic dangers relative to the entire conflict, not fixed points or specific positions. The line you use to organize the radical intellectuals will not be the same one you use to organize the temps. The line you use to organize the local churches against the prison system will not be the same line you use to organize the people within it. This is an art, not a science, and it is hard.

    All of these concepts are deeply interconnected when specifically applied: A printing press gives you the independence to publish what you want without censure and is also a line of communication with the mass. Once you have enough legitimacy it can become a form of power. The temporary worker wildcat union is a target mass, a form of power and a critical line of communication to the larger mass within the prison system. The general strike within the prison system is direct blow to the enemy, an exercise of power and an act of communication with every prisoner in the country, as well as an act of communication with potential cadre.

    • This is the kind of theoretical conversation we need to have more of. It’s too dense to respond with anything at this time other than gratitude.

      Actually, one thing about the Bolsheviks: I’m not sure they actually “won”. There’s a lot of evidence that Lenin and many in the party were deeply concerned with the way things were going after the civil war ended, and Stalin in some ways served to unwind many of the lynchpins of the Bolshevik cause (his transformation of the Red Army back into a western style force with ranks, his rolling back of family planning rights, and the general conservative morality he attempted to foment). The problem with the Bolsheviks’ emphasis on power above all else is their failure to recognize the deeply corrosive nature of power to the identity of the movement itself. If the LP endeavors to win elections but becomes status-quo-Republicans in the process, in what sense did the LP actually “win”?

      This is why I think ATS’s slow and steady consensus building amongst a variety of interests is in many ways the best move. Keep the identity of the movement simple and flexible. Concentrate on strategy, leaving tactics to those on the ground. Build trust over ideological cohesion. Wait for an opportunity instead of forcing a confrontation. Use the system against itself instead of trying to take command of it.

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