Libertarians, Left and Right

A Facebook reader posted a response to this critique of Libertarianism in Salon by Michael Lind. Says the reader:

To me, libertarianism represents the time in old England-portrayed by Charles Dickens, where the poor completely had to fend for themselves when they could not find work. They could go to the “work houses” or live on the streets. And, going to the “work houses” was a fate where most people would rather die than wind up there. But as Scrooge said-in response to that statement: “Well, let ’em die and decrease the surplus population” as his way of refusing to make a charitable donation (to feed the destitute at Christmas) when asked. Yeah, like relying purely on private charities will fill the gap of crucial social services being cut. This is what Libertarianism represents to me; a time that I thought we left behind in the early 20th Century. But now its creeping back and people don’t seem to notice. It may take a revolution to stop this. I hope it does not.

My reply:

Libertarianism is a pretty broad body of thought: Libertarianism

Anarchism even more so: Anarchism

Anarchist Schools of Thought

Then there’s Libertarian Socialism

Anarchist Economics

I read the Salon piece, and I generally agree with it. The U.S. in its early developmental stage practiced economic nationalism, not any kind of libertarianism, not even the vulgar kind associated with people like the Kochs or the followers of Ayn Rand. Looking to any past period of American history as some kind of libertarian model is highly problematic to say the least. The closest might be the colonial period when different religious communities were forming utopian colonies on the east coast, and the British king was far enough away to not be all that important. The American Revolution had the effect of actually increasing rather than decreasing state power in the 13 colonies. Late 18th/early 19th century England under the monarchy was arguably a more libertarian society than what existed in America at the time. England’s class system during the early industrial revolution was awful as the above commenter pointed out but England was still a lot quicker to abolish slavery than America. Also, the 19th century was the period when America’s continued westward expansion was defined in large part by outright imperial aggression to the point of genocide. The only thing that’s “libertarian” among American history is the cultural mythology derived from founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. But even the original Constitution was structured in such a way as to deliberately create a plutocratic oligarchy, and it was done that way deliberately (read the Federalist Papers).

It’s also important to remember that the U.S. courts never started taking the Bill of Rights seriously on any level at all until about the middle part of the 20th century. First Amendment

I generally prefer sincere libertarians like Ron Paul over liberals and conservatives because they tend to be the most zealous on the issues I think are most important like foreign policy, the police state, and the war on drugs. Conservatives are typically awful on these issues, and liberals are usually lukewarm at best. But what has happened is that the plutocratic-corporatists have been able to co-opt anti-state, libertarian or anti-“big government” rhetoric for themselves. That’s why we now have shills for right-wing of the ruling class like Limbaugh calling themselves “conservative libertarians.” But their ideology is just corporate and militarist apologetics, not any kind of honest libertarianism.

Even Ron Paul is as much a classical liberal/constitutionalist as he is a libertarian. His vision is basically that of an Andy Griffith America that’s being put upon by taxes, central banking, and military interventionism. That’s not a bad vision compared to normal Democrats and Republicans, but it’s not libertarianism at its edgiest either. Plus, a lot others who used the term libertarian are just bourgeois conservatives mostly concerned about economics, right-wing populist types obsessed with guns and taxes, and stereotypical “gay dope smoking Republicans.” And now that libertarianism is started to grow and work its way into the mainstream, the term is being co-opted by a lot of self-promoting celebrities from Glenn Beck to Bill Maher.

Yet another complication is that what normally passes for “the Left” or even “liberalism” in the U.S. is extremely vulnerable to right-wing “anti-big government” rhetoric. The American “left” is really just centrist-liberalism plus managerial progressivism (a legacy of the early 20th century), New Deal populism and Great Society welfare statism. All of those trends were just about enhancing the efficient management of society by educated elites in collusion with the plutocracy, or creating stability and warding off more radical currents. And they all had the effect of expanding the role of the state in society. That’s not the fault of any one ideology. It was a general trend in the 20th century worldwide. I think James Burnham and some of his influences like Max Nomad, Lawrence Dennis, and even George Orwell had the best insights into all that: The Managerial Revolution

So this leaves the ostensibly “progressive” and “liberal” forces in society as the de facto guardians of statism, which is not exactly a marketable slogan in U.S. society. There are a lot of other complications. One is U.S. racial history, where ideas like “state’s rights” and local sovereignty are generally considered to be masks for segregation, often for good reason. Another is that the historic American Left (Eugene Debs, the Wobblies, the anarchists, etc) were brutally suppressed by the ostensibly “progressive” and “liberal” Woodrow Wilson during his drive to “make the world safe for democracy.” Another is the co-optation of labor into the New Deal compact in the WW2 era. Another is COINTELPRO’s disruption of genuine radicalism in the 60s, and yet another is the New Left’s abandonment of class politics in favor of cultural politics.

What we’re left with is a situation where the supposed “left” is merely a reactive defense of the state bureaucracy, intertwined with cultural crusades against whiteness, traditional religion, and heteronormativity. The Democrats are just another neoliberal party, and that’s even true of the labor and socialists parties in Europe as well. That’s why the Le Penists are starting to pick up old guard Communist votes in France.

To successfully challenge the corporatists in the Western world, particularly the US, we’re going to have to try something totally new, most likely a libertarianism that is informed by the classical anarchist critique of capitalism, and that positions itself as a radical center populism, and that demographically draws from the ranks of lay level liberals and conservatives, the far left counterculture, and the right-wing populist undercurrent alike.

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