Should Libertarianism be Cultural Leftism without the State?


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Should Libertarianism be Cultural Leftism without the State?
By Keith Preston

In recent years, an idea commonly described as thick libertarianism has emerged among some libertarians. This perspective holds that libertarianism requires a commitment to a broader set of values beyond that of mere individual liberty, or the “non-aggression principle,” in order to be substantive or sustainable. The “left-libertarian” writer and philosopher Charles Johnson is arguably the most prolific and articulate proponent of “thick libertarianism.” In a recently published and important article on this question, Johnson begins by asking the central questions that thick libertarians wish to address:

To what extent should libertarians concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion? Clearly, a consistent and principled libertarian cannot support efforts or beliefs that are contrary to libertarian principles–such as efforts to engineer social outcomes by means of government intervention. But if coercive laws have been taken off the table, what should libertarians say about other religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments that pursue their ends through non-coercive means, such as targeted moral agitation, mass education, artistic or literary propaganda, charity, mutual aid, public praise, ridicule, social ostracism, targeted boycotts, social investing, slow-downs and strikes in a particular shop, general strikes, or other forms of solidarity and coordinated action? Which social movements should they oppose, which should they support, and towards which should they counsel indifference? And how do we tell the difference?1

A survey of the writings of the leading proponents of thick libertarianism and those with similar or overlapping views makes it rather clear that, for most of these thinkers, “thick libertarianism” amounts to an effort to synthesize free-market, anarcho-individualism with a far-reaching leftist outlook on cultural questions. The following comments from Roderick Long are fairly representative of this perspective:

In short, I’m arguing for a combination of generic universalism with specific pluralism. That is, any anarchist society, to be viable, needs to draw its dominant economic and cultural forms from the same general set, but specific selections within that set are optional. Hence the anarchist must walk a delicate line between the Scylla of excessive pluralism and the Charybdis of excessive monism. After all, …no politico-legal framework – whether statist or anarchist – exists independently of the behaviour it constrains. And as Gustav Landauer is reported to have said: The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently. Since the presence or absence of the State is determined by the way people behave, and that in turn is heavily influenced by economic and cultural structures, the notion that anarchy can be entirely neutral among such structures seems hard to defend. (Of course, anarchy will be neutral in the sense that no one will be compelled to abandon the wrong economic and cultural forms, so long as they’re peaceful; getting rid of such compulsion is the whole point of anarchy. But unless better forms prevail, by peaceful means, the survival of anarchy is imperiled.) Of course we can make mistakes about which economic and cultural models do or don’t fit with anarchy. But then, we can make mistakes about anything. I don’t see any reason for greater epistemic caution on economic and cultural matters than on political ones. Moreover, it’s not as though the only reason to combat a particular economic or cultural form is that it reinforces or is reinforced by statism. Statism isn’t the only bad thing in the world, after all; call me sentimental, but I think patriarchy, racism, fundamentalism, and corporate power would be worth combating even if they had no connection whatever to statism.2

These comments provide an apt summary of the essence of thick libertarianism. As Charles Johnson notes, the matter of thick libertarianism “has often arisen in the context of debates over whether or not libertarianism should be integrated into a broader commitment to some of the social concerns traditionally associated with the anti-authoritarian Left, such as feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, counterculturalism, labor organizing, mutual aid, and environmentalism.”3 Presumably, for “left-libertarian” proponents of thick libertarianism such as Long and Johnson, a libertarian political and economic order is more or less a natural corollary to the values of modern cultural leftism as it has emerged in the Western countries since the 1960s.

Before I critique thick libertarian arguments of this type, I wish to begin by giving due recognition to the claims of thick libertarianism that I believe to be correct. I would concur with thick libertarians that there is more to life than politics, that there are values beyond the political, that while liberty may be the highest political value it is not the only value, and that a libertarian political order is more compatible with some intellectual systems, philosophical beliefs and cultural foundations than others.

Thick libertarians have also been important participants in the effort to challenge much conventional libertarian economic dogma. Too many modern libertarians have allowed their opposition to state-socialism and the welfare-state to cloud their thinking on economic matters and many of these libertarians have become outright apologists for the corporate plutocracy, or “Republicans who take drugs” as Bob Black referred to them.4 Libertarians would do well to study, and perhaps even incorporate into their own ideological and strategic framework, the examples provided by the classical anarchist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of anti-statist radicals who saw class-based politics as the natural complement to their libertarianism.5 Indeed, many of those who identify with thick libertarianism to some degree or another have been at the forefront of recent efforts to move libertarianism away from its conservative image on economic matters and back to its radical roots.6

On many social questions, I would share ground with thick libertarians as well. Many of the conventionally “left-wing” or left-libertarian positions held by most proponents of thick libertarianism are also my positions. I am pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia, anti-death penalty (though not for the usual reasons), pro-drug legalization, pro-gay rights and pro- sex worker rights (in the sense of opposing persecution of these groups by the state), and pro-prison abolition. I’m also pro-homeless, pro-disabled people, and pro-mentally ill, in the sense of favoring abolition of state policies impeding the self-advancement of these groups or furthering their persecution (through such measures as loitering and vagrancy laws, zoning and other laws restricting the supply of low-income housing, involuntary civil commitment, regulations restricting the activities of shelters and relief organizations and others too numerous to mention). I am also anti-drinking age, anti-compulsory schooling, anti-censorship and I would put more strident limits on the powers of the police than the ACLU would. I am also interested in anarcho-syndicalist, mutualist, distributist or “libertarian socialist” economics. These positions are well to the left of the Democratic Party, far more left than most liberals and even many hard leftists.

In terms of offering positive alternatives to the welfare state, I am very much for the development of non-state charities, relief agencies, orphanages, youth hostels, squats, shelters for battered women, the homeless or the mentally ill, self-improvement programs for drug addicts and alcoholics, assistance services for the disabled or the elderly, wildlife and environmental preserves, means of food and drug testing independent of the state bureaucracy, home schools, neighborhood schools, private schools, tenants organizations, mutual banks, credit unions, consumers unions, anarcho-syndicalist labor unions and other worker organizations, cooperatives, communes, collectives, kibbutzim and other alternative models of organizing production. I am in favor of free clinics, alternative medicine, self-diagnostic services, midwifery, the abolition of medical licensure, the repeal of prescription laws and anything else that could potentially reduce the cost of health care for the average person and diminish dependency on the medical-industrial complex and the white coat priesthood. Indeed, I would argue that the eventual success of libertarianism depends to a large degree on the ability of libertarians to develop workable alternatives to both the corporation-dominated economy and the state-dominated welfare and social service system. To the degree that libertarians fail to do so will be the degree to which we continue to be regarded as plutocratic apologists without concern for the unfortunate or downtrodden on the right end7 or as just another species of Chomskyite anarcho-social democrats on the left end.8

I mention all of this for the sake of firmly establishing that I am neither an economic conservative nor a conventional cultural conservative of the kind found in some conservative-libertarian or paleolibertarian circles.9 I suspect that at this point in the discussion thick libertarians and I would still be on the same page. However, where a potential problem arises involves the possible implications of statement such as this one from Johnson that I have previously referred to:

Recently, this question has often arisen in the context of debates over whether or not libertarianism should be integrated into a broader commitment to some of the social concerns traditionally associated with anti-authoritarian Left, such as feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, counterculturalism, labor organizing, mutual aid, and environmentalism. Chris Sciabarra has called for a dialectical libertarianism which recognizes that Just as relations of power operate through ethical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic dimensions, so too the struggle for freedom and individualism depends upon a certain constellation of moral, psychological, and cultural factors,¦and in which the struggle for liberty is integrated into a comprehensive struggle for human liberation, incorporating (among other things) a commitment to gay liberation and opposition to racism.10

Implicit in this statement is the view that libertarians should simply align themselves with the conventional Left on social and cultural matters, essentially taking the position of me-tooing the Left on most issues with the qualification of oh, and by the way, we’re also against the state, and prefer voluntary charity over government welfare. If this approach is to be followed, then libertarians will end up positioning themselves as just another branch of the radical Left right alongside Stalinists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Greens, social democrats, welfare-liberals, Marxists, anarcho-communists and the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Libertarians would do well to learn from the lessons to be drawn from past instances where libertarians have come to regard one or another faction of the Left or Right as kindred spirits only to be eventually stabbed in the back. It has been mentioned how libertarian opponents of the welfare state have frequently been co-opted by the apologists for plutocratic conservatism. Indeed, past efforts to ally libertarianism with traditionalist conservatism have proven to be a disaster. One need only take a look at the results of William F. Buckley’s New Right or Frank Meyer’s fusionism from the 1950s and 1960s.11 Within the context of so-called movement conservatism, we have the edifying spectacle of libertarians, proponents of limited government and free-market economists acting as dupes and shills for the military-industrial-complex, the right-wing of the corporate ruling class and the American empire, only to see their movement taken over eventually by the warmed-over Cold War liberals and right-wing Trotskyites that fill the ranks of the neoconservatives.12 Not exactly a model of success¦to say the least. From the other end of the political spectrum there is the experience of traditional anarchists at the hands of the Marxists since the time of the First International, including their repression by the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution and the treachery they encountered from the Communists during the Spanish Civil War.13

A similar analysis could be made regarding the relationship between libertarians and the cultural Left. Most contemporary libertarians are to some degree an outgrowth of 1960s era political and social radicalism. Libertarianism, whether in its right or left variations, really did not begin to coalesce as an organized movement until that time.14 Previous libertarian movements had either died out or stagnated to the point of severe inertia. For this and other reasons, it should not be surprising that many libertarians continue to identify strongly with the values of sixties radicalism, including anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, counterculturalism and multiculturalism. This may be fine by itself. For instance, some libertarians may believe that anti-racism, feminism or gay liberation, among other things, are important values unto themselves, irrespective of wider politico-economic questions, just as other libertarians may believe that religious devotion, maintaining the cohesiveness of the family unit, or preserving the ethno-genetic lineage of Caucasian people (or some other people) are values of immense importance, and still other libertarians may be more concerned with the advancement of medical research, the preservation of historic architecture, bird watching, stamp collecting, soccer or rap music. So be it. I have already conceded that there may be other values of importance besides political libertarianism per se, and that such values could have meaning in their own right, irrespective of their relationship to libertarianism.

But what does any of this have to do with the struggle against the state? It should go without saying that any sort of political libertarianism worthy of the name should identify the state and its emanations such as state-privileged elites, central banking, corporatism, imperialism, militarism, police powers, penal institutions and the apparatus of statist propaganda (e.g. state-licensed media and state-run or financed education) as the primary political enemy. As a natural extension of this principle, it should likewise be recognized that the primary constituencies for libertarianism at any one time would be those individuals and social groups most under attack by the presently existing state and who are consequently most likely to take action against the state, and have the least to lose and the most to gain from the demise of the state. Still wider implications can be drawn from this observation. For instance, a serious anti-state movement will have a natural bias towards the lower socioeconomic orders, given that these bear the brunt of the state’s wrath and predations under virtually any kind of political arrangements. Additionally, a serious libertarian will look very askance at war and military offensiveness given the historic role of this in strengthening and glorifying the state and inflicting still greater oppression, hardship, suffering and death on those already most under the iron heel of the state.

When discussing the relationship between libertarianism and cultural leftism, it is necessary to make an honest attempt to establish a definition of the cultural Left in the first place. Reduced to its lowest common denominator, the cultural Left is a movement that is inclined to favor some demographic groups over others, on the grounds that these groups are somehow more oppressed, victimized or deserving of sympathy than their competitors, along with a wider set of values that tends to favor egalitarianism over elitism, universalism over the particular, internationalism over nationalism, secularism over religion, and cosmopolitanism over traditionalism. Within the context of domestic American or European politics, the cultural Left indicates a bias towards racial and ethnic minorities, feminist women (the position of non-feminist women in the eyes of the Left is more tenuous), homosexuals (and, by extension, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgendered persons), and immigrants (or at least those immigrants originating from the Third World). These are the most obvious examples. Others include atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, proponents of religious ecumenicalism, and religious minorities, or at least those with left-wing political views or comprised to a significant degree of persons of non-European ethnicity. Still others are cultural minorities that might be considered non-traditional, with a bias towards those like hippies and punk rockers (who generally hold left-wing political views) as opposed to those like bikers and skinheads who are just as likely to identify with the political Right. In a wider socioeconomic sense, there is a cultural bias among leftists towards educated urban professionals over the traditional working class and rural people (particularly white people from these classes), labor unions over business interests, environmentalists over property owners and the public, i.e., state sector over the private sector.

The core questions that emerge when examining a potential relationship between libertarianism and the cultural Left are these: How oppressed by the state or by society at large are those demographic groups favored by the Left compared to other groups? How inclined are those groups favored by the Left towards libertarian values? What is the likely standing of groups favored by the Left with regards to the state in the foreseeable future? How valuable are groups favored by the Left likely to be in a future struggle against the state?

On the matter of racism, can it really be said at the present juncture in American history that African-Americans qua African-Americans are oppressed in any special way that is not also experienced by many other groups? Black Americans are only 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, and there is obviously a lengthy history of oppression of blacks by whites in America, yet a black man has been elected President of the United States. The highest ranking diplomat and Cabinet member in the U.S. government under the ostensibly conservative Bush administration was a black woman. A black man sits on the U.S. Supreme Court and is in fact the court’s most conservative member! Blacks sit in Congress and in state legislatures, hold positions as judges, lawyers, journalists, academics, prominent entertainers and athletes, business executives, police chiefs and many other positions of prominence. Many American cities, where blacks are a numerical majority, have black mayors or black-dominated city governments. American blacks are one half of one percent of the world’s population, yet generate ten percent of the world’s income. The average standard of living of American blacks is higher than ninety percent of the world’s population. If black Americans were an independent nation, they would be the tenth wealthiest nation in the world.15

Similar arguments could be made concerning the position of women in American society.16 The gray area in these matters may be more extensive when it comes to homosexuals, but every American city of any size has a thriving gay subculture and one of the most prominent U.S. Congressmen is an open homosexual, as are many popular celebrities. No doubt some individuals remain who would not give a homosexual a fair shake no matter what, but this is hardly the cultural norm at present and will likely be even less so in the future.17

Where is the evidence that anti-racists, feminists, gay liberationists, counterculturalists, multiculturalists, environmentalists or labor unions are generally sympathetic to liberty in any way that distinguishes them from other cultural or demographic groups? Do anti-racists simply argue that the state should remain uninvolved in racial matters and that members of races should be free from persecution by the state in ways typified by the Nuremberg laws, South African apartheid and Jim Crow, or private racist violence such as that identified with the Ku Klux Klan? This is hardly the case. Anti-racists, almost to a person, are advocates of all sorts of statist intervention into society for the sake of achieving desired levels of racial integration. At a minimum, they tend to insist on statist interference with freedom of association, freedom of contract and private property rights in favor of compulsory integration. They also tend to favor the use of an overarching central government for the purpose of preventing local communities from enacting perceived racist policies, no matter how dubious, marginal, mild or moderate. Indeed, most anti-racist activists favor rather extravagant levels of intervention of many different kinds for the sake of advancing their ideals. It could be argued that racists who simply wish to be left alone to practice racial exclusionism within the context of their own separatist enclaves and private associations are (relatively speaking) more libertarian than proponents of extensive interference in local communities and non-state institutions by the central government for the sake of advancing racial liberalism.18

What are the libertarian credentials of feminists? To be sure, there are feminists who are also libertarians, such as Wendy McElroy and Sharon Presley in the present day or Voltairine De Cleyre and Emma Goldman from past times, but are such libertarian feminists normal among feminists taken as a whole? Frequently, when I have heard feminists speak of women’s issues, I have inquired as to what exactly women’s issues are. The first thing that almost always comes up is abortion rights. Abortion prohibition may well be as unworkable as alcohol and drug prohibition, but there is no evidence that re-criminalization of abortion is likely occur in the U.S. at any time in the foreseeable future. A referendum for the prohibition of abortion in all but the most exceptional cases recently failed in the highly conservative state of South Dakota. This serves as powerful evidence that the struggle for abortion rights has essentially been won, and that the pro-choice cause is not exactly an emergency issue at present. Either way, most pro-choice feminists do not simply advocate that abortion remain decriminalized. They typically advocate direct state funding of abortions, and usually by the central government. Other women’s issues typically includes such demands as equal pay for equal work. Perhaps this is a noble ideal in its own right, but even if one accepts the dubious claim that gender disparity in remuneration rates is derived mostly from a misogynistic conspiracy, it hardly follows that the setting of wages by the state is the appropriate libertarian solution, but it is the frequently proposed feminist solution. Feminists are also frequently found among the ranks of those favoring censorship of sexually explicit literature and the persecution of sex workers or their associates by the state. Laws prohibiting women from voting, engaging in professions or pursuing education were repealed decades ago, and there is no constituency for such legislation today. How then are feminists identifiable enemies of the state in any particular sense?19

One might be inclined to think that surely proponents of gay liberation must have solid libertarian credentials. Well, not exactly. I recall an angry email I once received from a gay rights attorney and law professor associated with the ACLU in response to an article I had written endorsing the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul. What was this fellow’s beef with Ron Paul? He was incensed that Ron Paul opposes federal antidiscrimination laws for homosexuals, as if federal antidiscrimination laws were some inalienable natural or constitutional right akin to freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Whenever I have asked gay rights activists exactly what gay rights would involve, the response usually includes much, much more than the demand that homosexual relationships not be subject to criminalization through so-called sodomy laws, or that gay oriented businesses and clubs not be subject to harassment by the police or zoning and liquor licensing boards, or that individual homosexuals should be free from fag-bashing violence or less than civil treatment from other individuals, or even for the rights of homosexuals to legally marry (interestingly, the cultural left does not appear to have the same level of zeal for polygamy as same-sex marriage). Instead, at least a substantial portion of the gay rights movement advocates further erosions of freedom of association, contract, privacy and private property with antidiscrimination laws, direct subsidies to homosexual organizations, the use of gay marriage laws to require taxpayers to finance state-funded benefits for same-sex couples, granting homosexual pairs equal if not preferential consideration so far as the adoption of children is concerned, criminalizing speech that is critical of homosexuality, the use of tax-funded public schools for the dissemination of pro-gay propaganda under the guise of sex education and teaching tolerance, enacting hate crimes (thought crimes) laws granting homosexuals legal protection above and beyond that of ordinary crime victims and many other such privileges. How is this any different from, say, right-wing Christians, organized racists or advocates of family values demanding similar favoritism?20

How are environmentalists libertarians? There are few political factions around who are quite as state-friendly as these. Of course, there are exceptions such as some green decentralists and neo-Luddites.21 Environmental radicals and other similar factions, such as animal rights activists, have at times been the target of state repression, but no more so than pro-life radicals, religious fundamentalist sects or racists. As one who is sympathetic to the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism and a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) it pains me considerably to criticize or attack labor unions, but the issue has to be confronted. Do labor unions in any way take a consistently anti-statist or libertarian line? Or do unions typically prefer privilege for their own members at the expense of other workers? The current support of the auto workers unions for another bailout of the automobile industry, whereby unions hope to acquire a share of this particular corporate welfare expenditure, with the costs being shifted onto the wider working classes as a whole, is an excellent case in point.22

A similar critique could be made of virtually every other left-wing political interest group. The question also arises of to what degree the Left’s coalition of victim groups allied with cultural and intellectual elites and educated professionals is a stable one. For instance, can the modern Left’s program of feminism, gay rights, abortion rights and secularism be successfully reconciled with other aspects of the left-wing agenda, such as the importation of ever-increasing numbers of Third World immigrants into Western societies and the granting of disproportionate amounts of political power to indigenous racial minorities, who tend to embrace social conservatism to a greater degree than the white majority?23 As the constituent groups of the center-left continue to gain political power, it is highly likely that these constituencies will become even less oppositional in nature, more establishment-friendly and even more statist than they are at present. It is also likely that greater political success will result in a fracturing of the left-wing coalition along ideological, cultural, ethnic, and class lines. Examples might include not only the conflict between white cultural liberals and socially conservative minorities, but also the black bourgeoisie versus the black underclass, black racial nationalists and separatists versus liberal integrationists, affluent professional class women and homosexuals versus the lower socioeconomic orders, the urban liberal-bourgeoisie versus the urban underclass, immigrants versus indigenous racial minorities and many other potential conflicts.

In advancing the struggle against the state, it is strategically advantageous for libertarians to establish what might be called a hierarchy of priorities. This means libertarians should single out the most pernicious actions of the state at present as the focus of attack. A rather powerful argument can be made that libertarian energies should be focused on combating military aggression by the present American regime, its ever-expanding domestic police state, and the assortment of economic policies that are collectively having the effect of reducing the economic standing of American working people to eventual Third World levels. This also means developing an understanding of the nature of the particular kind of state libertarians are up against, including such matters as its internal dynamics, demographic relations and ideological superstructure. It would not have done much good for citizens of the Soviet Union or the Eastern European nations in the 1970s to rail against czarism, given that czarism bore no relation to the actually existing state of that particular time period, and that czarism was in fact viewed as an enemy ideology by existing state authorities. Likewise, in politically correct twenty-first century North America it serves no useful purpose to perpetually rail against, for example, racism, sexism and homophobia as though we were in Germany circa 1933, Mississippi circa 1957, South Africa circa 1976 or contemporary Saudi Arabia, or to focus our critique of the state on those expressions of the state, such as communism or fascism, whose ideological proponents are on the fringes of American society. Virtually all educated people in the modern world recognize the illegitimacy of traditional forms of totalitarianism, whether from the Left or Right, and of older, more archaic expressions of the state such as aristocracy, theocracy, absolute monarchy or military dictatorship. It is only so-called democracy that is considered legitimate and not just any kind of democracy, but centralized mass democracy fused with egalitarian-universalist-multiculturalist ideology, the bureaucratic apparatus of therapeutic-managerialism, and the welfare state. Therefore, it is democracy in this particular form that should be the focus of our ideological assaults.24

With this idea in mind, what kind of state will we be facing in the future of the United States and what will be its guiding ideological principles? Historical and demographic patterns indicate that the Republican coalition that emerged triumphant in 1968 and in subsequent decades has just about run out of steam. It is likely that the Democrats and, by extension, the center-left will emerge as the dominant national party in the years ahead with the support base of the Democrats rooted in expanding racial minority and immigrant populations, the soon-to-be elderly 1960s generation, the increasingly powerful feminist and gay movements, an expanded class of educated urban professionals, environmentalists, urban blue-collar Catholics and white ethnics, and enough WASPish middle class centrists and liberals to maintain an electoral majority.25 At the same time, the American political and economic system has become increasingly militarist, imperialist, corporatist and police statist in recent decades and there is no sign this will discontinue under Democratic rule. There was certainly no discontinuation of these trends under the reign of Bill Clinton and there is no evidence that a ruling party composed of the likes of Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein will be any more benevolent, competent, restrained or fair-minded that the Bush Republicans have been. In other words, what we will soon have in the United States is a multiethnic, multicultural, secular, feminized and gayized political class presiding over a crumbling imperialist empire and decaying corporatist economy. This ruling class will have at its disposal a massive police state apparatus that has been built up in recent decades under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime and terrorism. Further social and economic deterioration will likely generate increased social unrest, and the ruling class will respond by attempting to tighten the grip. We can expect that the state will continue to become increasingly pernicious, and justify its actions in the name of supposed liberal ideals, given center-left ideological dominance. Remember how Janet Reno justified the massacre at Waco in the name of combating child abuse and right-wing, religious fundamentalist, gun nuts? This synthesis of liberal ideology and fascist methodology might be properly described as totalitarian humanism.26

So the most relevant future political question for libertarians will be, How do we go about combating the totalitarian humanist state? If the center-left is likely to be politically dominant in the future, it naturally follows that a viable anti-state resistance would have a certain conservative dimension to it. Yet this conservative aspect would function only as a component part of a wider strategy that is simultaneously libertarian, populist, pluralist and class-based. Such a movement would be libertarian, in the sense of defending all groups who come under attack by the state, irrespective of their particular beliefs or cultural background. These could sometimes include groups favored by the Left to be sure, such as transvestites subject to police harassment or urban racial minorities imprisoned en masse under the guise of the war on drugs and the related prison-industrial complex. Yet it might also include groups despised by the Left, including social conservatives, religious fundamentalists, ethnic preservationists, cultural traditionalists, tax resisters, racists, odd religious sects or cults, firearms enthusiasts, motorcycle clubs, Holocaust revisionists and other politically incorrect persons who fall prey to the repressive apparatus of the state. It would no doubt include still other groups ignored or despised by both Left and Right, including drug users, prisoners, prostitutes and other sex workers, truants (school resisters), psychiatric inmates, indigenous people, the homeless, the physically disabled, the mentally ill, gang members or racial nationalists among the minority groups. It would be populist in the sense of positioning itself as a movement of the people against the elites. It would be pluralist, in the sense of recognition and inclusion of a diversity of cultural identities out of political necessity and out of recognition of the legitimacy of Otherness. It would be class-based in the sense of having a primary economic orientation towards the lumpenproletariat (the urban underclass), the petite bourgeoisie (small businessmen and the self-employed), the neo-peasantry (small farmers and rural agricultural workers), the de classe elements (persons from the middle to upper classes who reject their class values of their class of origin), and the dispossessed middle class that is rapidly sinking into the ranks of the underclass.

It is clear enough that those who are most under attack by the state and those from the socioeconomic groups that might be said to be the vanguard classes of the struggle against state-capitalism display many considerable cultural, religious, racial, ethnic and regional differences among themselves. The implication of this for the relationship of libertarianism to cultural matters is that serious libertarian opponents of the state and its institutional tentacles would necessarily be advocates of neither cultural conservatism nor cultural leftism, but would instead display a bias towards an authentic cultural pluralism, primarily by recognizing the right to sovereignty and self-determination of a variety of cultural groups, many of whom may be in conflict with regards to core cultural values. It is crucial that a distinction be made between meta-political structures, which may contain within themselves a myriad of cultural forms, and the specific cultural orientations of individuals and particular groups. A libertarianism that positioned itself as a genuine third way in opposition to both the totalitarian humanist Left and the plutocratic-corporatist Right and appealed to all those under attack by the state across the cultural spectrum would likely attract at least some level of sympathy from an unusual assortment of demographic groups. These might include elements of the populist far right, including persons with quite conservative value systems, refugees from middle America who are culturally mainstream but have been politically and economically radicalized due to their deteriorating situation, socially conservative but politically radical racial minorities, the sectors of the far left and the counterculture that exist outside of the totalitarian humanist paradigm, the lower socioeconomic sectors of the center-left constituent groups who will likely splinter from the bourgeoisie elite within their own demographic milieu at some point in the future, rebellious youth inclined towards political radicalism, or the urban lumpenproletarian class of ordinary street criminals.27Â

While thick libertarianism is correct in many of its core insights, such as the view that libertarianism requires a wider cultural foundation or should be connected to values beyond simple anti-statism itself, thick libertarianism also fails on certain levels to adopt the values and priorities necessary for a successful effort at combating the state in a modern liberal-democratic/state-capitalist/totalitarian humanist society. Rather, thick libertarianism in its present form would likely suffer the same fate as the New Left of the 1960s, eventually becoming incorporated into the wider framework of state-capitalism and American imperialism in exchange for ruling class recognition of its social and cultural agenda (which at present differs very little from American and other Western cultural and intellectual elites). The causes of anti-racism, feminism, gay liberation, counterculturalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism have advanced considerably over the past four decades. Yet the state has grown ever more expansive, expensive, intrusive and totalitarian. The police state in particular has experienced an explosive growth rate. The corporatist economy has tightened its grip considerably and the position of the poor and working class is on a downward spiral. Under the doctrines of global hegemony, preventative war, the war on terrorism, the global democratic revolution and military humanism, the state currently displays a more brazen commitment to militarism and aggressive warfare than ever before. Clearly, an ascendant cultural leftism has been powerless to prevent such occurrences. Members of demographic groups favored by the Left have proven to be just as corrupt, tyrannical, venal or incompetent once given political power as any of their straight white male predecessors.

What might be some thick values, while irrelevant to the coercive authority of the state per se, that might be helpful as part of a broader foundation for combating actually existing states of the kind found in the contemporary First World?

  1. A defense of the sovereignty of particular nations against imperialism, multi-national nation-states, and international quasi-governmental bodies.
  2. A defense of the sovereignty of local communities and regional cultures against the power of overarching central governments.
  3. Ethno-pluralism or the view that each unique ethnic group should have a territory where it is a demographic majority and with a political system representative of its cultural foundations. The Swiss canton system may well be the most advanced model of this type of any system currently in practice.
  4. The view that cultural differences are best dealt with according to the principles of individual liberty, voluntary association, pluralism and peaceful co-existence where possible, yet where this is not possible localism, decentralism, secessionism, separatism and mutual self-segregation are likely the most preferable alternatives.
  5. A distinction between natural or voluntary hierarchies and authorities, and coercive or artificial ones.
  6. Recognition of the iron law of oligarchy, or the view that elites are inevitable, and an emphasis on meritocracy, as opposed to simply tearing down all authorities, institutions, and organizations, thereby creating a power vacuum that allows the worst to get to the top.
  7. Recognition of the legitimacy of Otherness, and an understanding that true tolerance is not simply tolerating people one likes, but tolerating those whom one finds personally repulsive. Just as toleration of the Other is not synonymous with approval or agreement, so does tolerance of one’s self by the Other not grant the right to demand approval.
  8. Recognition of the inherent inequality of persons, groups, cultures, nations, etc. and that effort to impose artificial or unnatural equality can only result in tyranny, chaos or stagnation.
  9. Adherence to what traditionalist Catholics call the subsidiarity principle, meaning that problems are best dealt with on a decentralized basis by those closest to them, rather than on the basis of abstract solutions imposed from above.
  10. Application of the insights of modern social psychology, which indicates that most people are herd creatures, and inevitably get their sense of right and wrong not from any innate sense of conscience or a rational evaluation of available facts, but according to cues taken from leaders, peers and perceived sources of cultural authority.
  11. Recognition of the value of intermediary institutions, such as families, communities, voluntary associations, independent business and labor organizations, charities, philanthropies, private schools and universities, cultural organizations, and even private citizens’ militias as a bulwark against the all-encompassing authoritarian presence of the state, and the need to defend the sovereignty and legitimacy of such institutions.
  12. Recognition of Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

What I have outlined here is certainly not conservatism, at least not as understood in conventional American political terminology. Such an outlook would have no interest in maintaining the American empire and would regard right-wing jingoists of the kind common to afternoon talk-radio with contempt. It would give no support to upholding the interests of the state-capitalist big business elites and would dismiss the religious right as know-nothing ignoramuses operating as stooges for the right-wing of big capital and the Israel Lobby. Nor would it have the naïve cops walk on water mentality common to law and order conservatives or the hysterical puritanism concerning issues like sex and drugs common to some social conservatives. This movement would share conventional conservatism’s interest in reducing government taxing and spending, but in a radically different way from that championed by the mainstream Republican Party-oriented Right. Instead, a comprehensive libertarianism of the kind being suggested would pursue the goal of reducing or eliminating government intervention into the economy in a way that is compatible with the interests of those classes previously identified as the vanguard of the struggle.

Nor would this movement constitute leftism as conventionally understood. Instead, this new radicalism would regard government taxation, regulation and redistribution with suspicion, and apply the insights of such thinkers as Gabriel Kolko that the regulatory welfare state is a means of eliminating smaller competitors to big capital, co-opting labor and pacifying the poor. It would not share the Cultural Marxism of the Left, which regards virtually the whole history of Western civilization as one big racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, ethnocentric, colonialist conspiracy, but would instead recognize that it is indeed the heritage of liberal Western civilization, rooted in the intellectual culture of the classical Greco-Roman civilization of antiquity that found its renewal in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and its political expression in English liberalism and the American Revolution, that provides us with the very cultural foundation necessary to make libertarianism possible.28 Nor would it champion liberal or Marxist universalism, instead recognizing that libertarianism and its wider civilization foundations are uniquely Western in origin, and while other cultures and civilizations may have overlapping traditions of their own, there is no need for us to export our ways into their societies, nor theirs into ours. Consequently, the foreign policy outlook of this kind of libertarian movement would seek to neither maintain foreign nations as client states nor impose Western standards of democracy or human rights on other cultures. Let the residents of Asia, Africa and Latin America do as they wish so long as they don’t bother us (and, in return, we won’t bother them).29

No discussion of libertarian politics can be complete without some mention of practical strategic considerations as well as abstract, theoretical ones. If it is the state and it emanations that are to be attacked, and if it is the center-left and the corresponding system of totalitarian humanism that forms the ideological superstructure of the actually existing state, then it follows that the foundation of a viable anti-state movement in the future will be rooted in the populist right, radical middle, extreme left, and the lumpenproletariat as all of these are outside the totalitarian humanist paradigm and under attack in one way or another by the state. The next step will be to splinter and neutralize the center-left by splitting its constituent groups along cultural, economic, class and ideological lines of the kind previously mentioned. Beyond that, there is the need for a healthy balance between populism and elitism. Until recently, the mainstream Right managed to advance itself politically with appeals to nationalism, economic conservatism and cultural populism.30 If this is no longer viable, and it appears that it may not be, then the logical alternative would be economic populism (the people verses big government and big business), cultural libertarianism (a leave me alone coalition) and a Jeffersonian version of decentralist patriotism emphasis local and regional sovereignty and identities within the context of the American revolutionary tradition.Â

Libertarians should aspire to be the elite leadership corps of a larger, broad-based populist movement that encourages the development of local sovereignty and secession movements in opposition to the central government and the empire. Given that the majority of the U.S. population lives in approximately one hundred large metropolitan areas, a class-based radicalism would essentially pit the urban poor and working classes and their natural allies (the so-called red state rubes, the lower to lower middle classes from the rural areas and smaller towns) against the urban liberal-bourgeoisie elite who staff and maintain the managerial bureaucracy on behalf of the plutocracy. The political arrangements likely to emerge from the victory of such a radical movement would involve a kind of cultural separatism. Culturally conservative rural communities, small towns, red states and elsewhere would be free to separate themselves from the perceived ills of liberal society as would socially conservative urban racial minorities, Muslims and others who might also have their own separatist enclaves. Yet independent metropolitan city-states would likely remain as cosmopolitan in nature as they are now, perhaps more so, as the expulsion of the state and the overthrow of the plutocracy should bring with it greatly expanded economic opportunities with urban areas becoming even greater centers of trade and cultural exchange than they are now. Minus the overarching authority of the federal government or the influence of socially conservative or religiously fundamentalist rural counties and small towns, urban centers could begin to experiment with many of the radically anti-authoritarian ideas favored by libertarians and decentralists, such as drug decriminalization, citizen militias, common law courts, restitution-based penal systems, the abolition of compulsory education, a free-market in health care (including alternative health care and prescription medicines), expanded rights of self-defense, non-state social services, alternative media, the elimination of zoning ordinances, the repeal of the drinking age and other victimless crime laws, urban farming and so on.

From where have the greatest acts of resistance to the state emerged in the last twenty years? One of these was certainly the so-called L.A. riots of 1992, a massive rebellion that was misguided in many ways, but rooted in resistance to police brutality.31 Another was the militia movement of the 1990s, which emerged in response to the federal massacres as Waco and Ruby Ridge. Still another was the Battle of Seattle of 1999 pitting a wide assortment of lumpen elements against the police in protest against the plutocracy. More recently, there was the Ron Paul campaign with its libertarian, populist and antiwar themes. It is efforts such as these that provide the models and foundations for a revolutionary anti-state movement on which libertarians should build.

  1. Charles Johnson, Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin, The Freeman, July/August, 2008. An extended version of this essay can be found at http://radgeek.com/gt/2008/10/03/libertarianism_through/ []
  2. Roderick Long, Anarchy Plus, Austro-Athenian Empire, November 17, 2004. Archived at http://praxeology.net/unblog11-04.htm#20. Accessed on November 24, 2008. []
  3. Johnson, Libertarianism, The Freeman. []
  4. Bob Black, The Libertarian As Conservative, Address to the Eris Society, Aspen, Colorado, August, 1984. Archived at http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/5065/libcon.htm Accessed on November 24, 2008. []
  5. Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, (Princeton University Press, 1996). []
  6. Charles Johnson, Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty, The Freeman, December, 2007; Roderick Long, Corporations Versus The Market; Or, Whip Conflation Now, CATO Unbound, November 10, 2008. []
  7. Keith Preston, Free Enterprise: The Antidote to Corporate Plutocracy, (Libertarian Alliance, 2008). []
  8. Keith Preston, Anarchism or Anarcho-Social Democracy, (American Revolutionary Vanguard, 2001). Archived at http://attackthesystem.com/anarchism-or-anarcho-social-democracy/ []
  9. Keith Preston, Conservatism Is Not Enough: Reclaiming the Legacy of the Anti-State Left, (American Revolutionary Vanguard, 2001). Archived at http://attackthesystem.com/conservatism-is-not-enough-reclaiming-the-legacy-of-the-anti-state-left/; Why I Am Not a Cultural Conservative, (American Revolutionary Vanguard, 2002). Archived at http://attackthesystem.com/why-i-am-not-a-cultural-conservative/; Beyond Conservatism: Reclaiming the Radical Roots of Libertarianism, (American Revolutionary Vanguard, 2005). Archived at http://attackthesystem.com/beyond-conservatism-reclaiming-the-radical-roots-of-libertarianism/ []
  10. Johnson, Libertarianism, The Freeman; Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Total Freedom: Towards a Dialectical Libertarianism, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000). []
  11. Murray N. Rothbard, Buckley Revealed, The Commonweal, January 25, 1952; Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manque, Modern Age, 1981. []
  12. Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, Second Edition (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2008). []
  13. Alexander Berkman, The Kronstadt Rebellion. Archived at http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/bright/berkman/kronstadt/berkkron.html; Mikhail Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State. Archived at http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/bakunin/marxnfree.html; Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years1868-1936,(AK Press, 2001); Murray Bookchin, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936,After Fifty Years: The Spanish Civil War. Archived at http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/bookchin/sp001642/fifty.html []
  14. Jerome Tuccille, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, (Fox and Wilkes, 1997). []
  15. Dennis Kimbro, Creating the Millionaire Mind, The Black Collegian. Archived at http://www.black-collegian.com/issues/Gradissue07/millionaire_0607.htm []
  16. Linda Chavez, Glass Ceiling is a Myth: Reality is Women Make Different Choices, Milwaukee Sentinel, March 25, 1995. []
  17. Justin Raimondo, Civil Rights for Gays? Free Market, Vol. 14 No. 1, Mises Institute, January 1996. []
  18. James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy,(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001 []
  19. Bob Black, Feminism as Fascism, 1983. Archived at http://www.inspiracy.com/black/abolition/feminism.html []
  20. Justin Raimondo, Gay Victimology and the Gay Kulturkampf, Anti-State.Com, May 19, 2001. Archived at http://www.anti-state.com/raimondo/raimondo1.html []
  21. Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale, (Perigee, 1982). []
  22. Elana Schor, Big Three U.S. Car Firms Unlikely to Get Bailout, The Guardian, November 17, 2008. []
  23. Bruce Bawer, Anatomy of Surrender, City Journal, Vol. 18 No. 2, Spring 2008. []
  24. Hans Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed, (Transaction Publishers, 2001). []
  25. John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, (Scribner, 2004). []
  26. Keith Preston, The New Totalitarianism, LewRockwell.Com, January 22, 2007. Archived at http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig8/preston1.html []
  27. Keith Preston, Liberty and Populism: Building An Effective Resistance Movement for North America, (American Revolutionary Vanguard, 2006). Archived at http://attackthesystem.com/liberty-and-populism-building-an-effective-resistance-movement-for-north-america/ []
  28. William S. Lind, The Origins of Political Correctness, Accuracy in Academia. Archived at http://www.academia.org/lectures/lind1.html []
  29. Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, (Common Courage Press, 2002). []
  30. Donald T. Critchlow, The Conservative Ascendency: How the GOP Right Made Political History, (Harvard University Press, 2007). []
  31. Anonymous, The Rebellion in Los Angeles: The Context of a Proletarian Uprising, 1992. Archived at http://attackthesystem.com/the-rebellion-in-los-angeles-the-context-of-a-proletarian-uprising/ []

9 responses to “Should Libertarianism be Cultural Leftism without the State?

  1. A brilliant article. Truly brilliant.

  2. Yes it is, it’s a very good article indeed.

  3. Sounds like another attempt by the leftists to hijack Libertarianism.

    Class war, lumpen elements, blah blah blah……

    And statements like ‘Let the residents of Asia, Africa and Latin America do as they wish so long as they don’t bother us (and, in return, we won’t bother them)’ are shocking in their utter stupidity and naivety.

  4. Pingback: Attack the System » Blog Archive » Keith Preston Denounced as Leftist Hijacker of Libertarianism

  5. Only three responses but counter shows four so it seems your system is accepting some comments, counting but not showing them, and probably telling whoever sent todays post that, when they try to repost, it won’t accept duplicate postings. That is what it did with one of my posts yesterday.

    Please check your system. I comment on lots of blogs and the LA Blog is the only one that gives trouble.

    Thanks again.

  6. Their system is counting the “Pingback” as a response, that’s where the extra one’s coming from

  7. Halfway through the article, I feel my view of libertarianism shifting already. No wonder nobody has yet made a substantive comment – there’s so damn much here. I’ve been calling my own, developing world view post-libertarian. Drawing from the first R. Long quote, I’m entertaining the idea that for most visions of the ultimate good, or the perfect society, there are five evils preventing its attainment: Statism, Racism (or tribalism), Patriarchy, Fundamentalism, and Corporatism. This is true whether your goal is equality, liberty, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the expansion of human knowledge, etc. Libertarians view liberty as either the ultimate good, or the means of achieving it. They realize that in the modern world,Statism underpins all of these evils (even if they do not consider some of them inherently evil) and therefore focus on reduction of government. At this level, leftists may agree that the state is not simply a tool that can help construct their ideal world, and libertarians may see that it is not the only source of repression. (Consider 15th Century Europe when the repressive power of religion was yielding to state repression.) But, for fascists and most modern conservatives, the ideal society would be something akin to an ant colony. Liberty is neither the goal, nor a means to that goal. I have always sensed that a fully-realized libertarianism has much more in common with the modern political left than the right. I’m going to digest the second half of the article slowly, then head down to the Ron Paul state HQ and make a few more of those database calls.

  8. CH, I think you’ve misunderstood the article, perhaps misled by the use of terminology associated with Marxism, such as “lumpen[proletariat]”. It’s important to remember that Marx and Marxists didn’t invent these terms. Lumpen is just another term for those generally called in Victorain England the “residuum” and currently the “underclass”, the same as bourgeois is just another term for what we call “middle class”.

    This isn’t a Carsonite apolgetic for the Left. It’s quite the opposite, in my opinion anyway.

  9. Ian B, the obsession with class warfare, the false divisions of humanity into mutually opposing class groups and the statements that he is a ‘left libertarian’ and supports ‘hard left’ policies all act as pretty big hints that he is a leftist…..