Letter to the Guardian on libertarian
As long time readers of my work know, I’ve been somewhat critical of George Monbiot in the past (awarding him Muppet of The Week, twice). His account of anarchism in his book Age of Consent must be one of the worse ever, making his “critique” completely worthless. I was going to review that book at one stage, but it is so terrible it was impossible to summarise (or even know where to start!) and so that joined the “started but not finished” pile! Suffice to say, he really should do some research before writing about anarchism.
This is not to say he does not get it right at times. He does, particularly on green issues (such as refuting climate-change deniers). He gets it right in this recent article for the Guardian: This bastardised libertarianism makes ‘freedom’ an instrument of oppression. In response to Monbiot, a letter from Dr Sean Gabb, the Director of the so-called Libertarian Alliance was published. I replied to that and amazingly the Guardian published it on 24th of December, unedited. This letter is included at the end of this blog, but first a few comments on the original article and the propertarian letter.
Monbiot’s article has this basic premise: “It’s the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%” As the article puts it:
“Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?”
Basically, because libertarian has been stolen from the left by the right. This can be seen from Monbiot’s article which, unlike the title, notes that “Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others” and so “is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.” He sums up:
‘Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.’
Basically, Monbiot is arguing that inequality produces wealth inequalities, which creates economic power which reduces the freedom of the many (to essentially picking masters). We can agree with that (it is the core of the anarchist critique of propertarianism – see, for example, An Anarchist Critique of Anarcho-Statism). As far as the state being the protector of “weaker people”, that is more problematic.
Given the unstable nature of capitalism the state has to intervene. It also defends the interest of the system as a whole and so can clash with individual capitalists and (at times) whole sections of the capitalist class (for example, the New Deal in the 1930s). This gives the impression of the state having independence (combined with the extremely wealthy moaning about how hard they are being treated by being taxed – of course none would agree to an income so low that they are not taxed!). Moreover, popular movements and pressure from outside has resulted in reforms and victories which make the state less obviously the agent of the wealthy. However, this does not change its fundamental nature as a defender of property and the power that produces (as the likes of von Hayek, von Mises, Rand, Nozick, etc. all desired). Here is Peter Kropotkin from the 1912 (revised and expanded) edition of Modern Science and Anarchism:
‘We cannot either go on saying, as superficial critics of present society often say when they require the State management of industries, that modern Capitalism has its origin in an “anarchy of production” due to the “non intervention of the State” and to the Liberal doctrine of “let things alone” (laissez faire, laissez passer). This would amount to saying, that the State has practised this doctrine, while in reality it never has practised it. We know, on the contrary, that while all Governments have given the capitalists and monopolists full liberty to enrich themselves with the underpaid labour of working men reduced to misery, they have NEVER, NOWHERE given the working men the liberty of opposing that exploitation. Never has any Government applied the “leave things alone” principle to the exploited masses. It reserved it for the exploiters only.
‘What, then, is the use of talking, with Marx, about the “primitive accumulation” — as if this “push” given to capitalists were a thing of the past? In reality, new monopolies have been granted every year till now by the Parliaments of all nations to railway, tramway, gas, water, and maritime transport companies, schools, institutions, and so on. The State’s “push” is, and has ever been, the first foundation of all great capitalist fortunes.
‘In short, nowhere has the system of “non-intervention of the State” ever existed. Everywhere the State has been, and is, the main pillar and the creator, direct and indirect, of Capitalism and its powers over the masses. Nowhere, since States have grown up, have the masses had the freedom of resisting the oppression by capitalists. The few rights they have now they have gained only by determination and endless sacrifice.
‘To speak therefore of non-intervention of the State may be all right for bourgeois economists, who try to persuade the workers that their misery is “a law of Nature.” But — how can Socialists use such language? The State has always interfered inthe economic life in favour of the capitalist exploiter. It has always granted him protection in robbery, given aid and support for further enrichment. And it could not be otherwise. To do so was one of the functions — the chief mission — of the State.
‘The State was established for the precise purpose of imposing the rule of the landowners, the employers of industry, the warrior class, and the clergy upon the peasants on the land and the artisans in the city. And the rich perfectly well know that if the machinery of the State ceased to protect them, their power over the labouring classes would be gone immediately.’
This issue of state intervention is discussed in section D.1 of An Anarchist FAQ so I will leave it there. Simply put, the propertarians want it to go back to this situation and to dump the weak social protections the state has been forced to grant to the 99%.
However, this is not what prompted my letter. This was written to reply to the response by a propertarian the next day. My letter reiterates the first on-line comment made to Monbiot’s article:
“Ironically, the word ‘libertarian’ was first used in 19th century France as an alternative to ‘anarchist’. It was created as an anti-capitalist idea. In a lot of the world, it still is.”
Which is precisely the point my letter makes. I should give here the full quotes and references for the two quotes I use. The first is by Murray Rothbard and is significant. It is from a book reminiscing about the origins of the so-called “libertarian” right in America and he publicly acknowledged their stealing of the word libertarian from genuine anarchists:
“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy . . . ‘Libertarians’ . . . had long been simply a polite word for left-wing [sic!] anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over . . .” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83)
Today, of course, propertarians shrilly denounce anarchists using the term libertarian in its original and correct meaning as attempting to appropriate their name and associate it with socialism! Oh, the irony…
My letter indicated that libertarian in its modern meaning was first coined by a French communist-anarchist in 1857, Joseph Déjacque. He used it first in a letter to Proudhon in 1857 and is available as an on-line supplemental text to my Proudhon anthology Property is Theft!. As I noted in my speculation on a second edition of that book, I would try and include this in an appendix (and any second edition is way off).The following year, 1858, saw Déjacque use the term Le Libertaire as the title of an anarcho-communist newspaper published in New York. This is discussed in an AFAQ blog posting (and subsequent article in Freedom, December 2008 edition): 150 years of Libertarian.
This translation of the 1857 letter was originally produced in two parts for and made available by Shawn Wilbur (Part I and Part II). I’ve urged people to visit Shawn’s webpage before, and will do so again now. His work in translating and/or putting on-line early anarchist works is a massive benefit to the movement. He has recently posted a new Déjacque article on exchange from Le Libertaire (previous translations include Down With Bosses). And he has some very good news for all people interested in anarchist history/theory:
I’ve just posted a translation of an 1858 article on “Exchange,” from “Le Libertaire.” One of my projects for 2012 will be to put together a volume of Dejacque’s work in English. It’s too bad that Dejacque’s influence was largely lost before anarchist communism really emerged as a larger movement. He incorporated a lot from the sociology of the “utopian” socialists in rather brilliant ways, and was less concerned with masking his sources than Proudhon was. Enjoy! There’s a first sample of his writings on slavery not far behind this, along with revisions of my earlier translations and my own translation of the “Letter to Proudhon.”
Ironically given the appropriation of the term “libertarian” by the American propertarian right, the term was first used in America to describe an anti-property perspective even stronger than Proudhon and his critique/analysis that “Property is Theft” and “Property is Despotism”!
So around 100 years after a communist-anarchist had coined the term, the propertarian-right started to appropriate the term. Ironically, around the same time as they “captured” libertarian “from the enemy” (us, the people who coined it!), in the late 1950s, Rothbard wrote a sadly unpublished article in which he acknowledged what anarchists have been saying since the right tried to appropriate “libertarian” – that propertarianism is not anarchism! While this is discussed in an AFAQ blog posting, the key quote is:
“We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical.” (Are Libertarians ‘Anarchists’?)
This was applicable to both the “dominant anarchist doctrine . . . of ‘anarchist communism’” (“which has also been called ‘collectivist anarchism,’ ‘anarcho-syndicalism,’ and ‘libertarian communism’) as well as individualist anarchists, considered by Rothbard “the best of them”, as both had “socialistic elements in their doctrines.” He suggested that there were thinkers “in that Golden Age of liberalism” who had ideas “similar” to his ideology but these “never referred to themselves as anarchists” while “all the anarchist groups . . . possessed socialistic economic doctrines in common.”
If only he had kept to that analysis and called his ideology something more accurate…
Still, I think the right can rest easy as the rest of the left will be helping them to appropriate libertarian from us. Monbiot does quantify “libertarianism” with rightwing in the article (“Rightwing libertarianism recognises…”), so some progress has been made. However, in a recent New Statesman magazine we have two issues of concern. The first is the main article Who’s left? The 20 most intriguing progressive voices in the United States. This article’s premise is that “With Barack Obama accused of governing as a moderate Republican, this New Statesman cover story names the left-wingers in America who matter – not just liberals, but socialists, social democrats and true progressives.” It includes two people who you may be familiar with: Noam Chomsky (theorist) and David Graeber (anthropologist, Occupy Wall Street co-ordinator). And does the article mention that they are anarchists? No. Libertarians? No. But that issue also has an interview with right-winger P. J. O’Rourke which proclaims him as being a, you’ve guessed it, a “libertarian.”
Suffice to say, as long as we can expect the mainstream media to repeat that Ron Paul is a “libertarian” we will have an upward struggle to keep libertarian true to its meaning. If the rest of the left don’t use propertarian then the struggle automatically gets harder…
The second quote is from Kropotkin (and as used in section F.2.1 of An Anarchist FAQ):
“The modern Individualism initiated by Herbert Spencer is, like the critical theory of Proudhon, a powerful indictment against the dangers and wrongs of government, but its practical solution of the social problem is miserable — so miserable as to lead us to inquire if the talk of ‘No force’ be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination.” (Act For Yourselves, p. 98)
How very true – and as my letter notes essentially summarises Monbiot’s article!
And talking of Kropotkin, my anthology is getting into shape. I’ve not had time to hit the archives yet, but I have tracked down a few articles I wanted (thanks to Robert Graham’s excellent Anarchism blog). Some can be found in French at this site – it anyone wants to help and translate these please contact me (cllv13[at]yahoo.com). And if anyone knows of any on-line copies of Le Révolté, La Révolte and Les Temps Nouveaux the let me know! Also, I’m looking for some articles in Russian (his 1907 preface to Gogeliia’s Kak i iz chego razvilsiia revoliutsionnyi sindikalizm and the introduction to the 1907 pamphlet Russkaia revoliutsiia i anarkhizm). Suffice to say, I’ve tracked down some interesting material – some of which has not been collected into book form before.
But I’ve got away from the point, namely the letter. Another person making comments on Monbiot’s article made a valid point:
“The ease with which right wing libertarianism can be co-opted by the authoritarian Republican Party demonstrates forcefully how little there is that is truly libertarian about right wing libertarianism.”
This was noted by Bob Black in the early 1980s, when a “wing of the Reaganist Right . . . obviously appropriated, with suspect selectivity, such libertarian themes as deregulation and voluntarism. Ideologues indignate that Reagan has travestied their principles. Tough shit! I notice that it’s their principles, not mine, that he found suitable to travesty.” [“The Libertarian As Conservative”, pp. 141-8, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays, pp. 141-2] This was echoed by Noam Chomsky two decades later when he stated that “nobody takes [right-wing libertarianism] seriously” (as “everybody knows that a society that worked by . . . [its] principles would self-destruct in three seconds”). The “only reason” why some people in the ruling elite “pretend to take it seriously is because you can use it as a weapon” in the class struggle [Understanding Power, p. 200]
And talking of which, and this feeds into the importance of acknowledging the impact of economic inequality, Jon Stewart hits the nail on the head by means of the current GOP nomination race:
The strangest comment has to be the one which proclaimed that “All Anarchists are right wing.” When the obvious falseness of this claim was noted, its maker repeated it (and even proclaimed Chomsky a right-winger!). There seems to be some people who live in an alternative world – most of them in America! I did start a blog posting on some of the surreal statements made by the American right with regards to what is left-wing and right-wing a year ago, but abandoned it. It was too surreal.
Still, when the real-world and the wing-nut world clashes it is always a source of amusement… sad to say, this used to be expressed mostly in usenet groups on anarchism two decades ago but it seems to have went more mainstream now (thanks to internet access rising and comments facilities on newspapers).
Sean Gabb of the Propertarian Alliance (to give it an accurate name!) got a letter published in reply which complained that Monbiot’s article was “the usual mix of unwillingness and inability to understand anything outside the intellectual ghettoes of the left.” Except, of course, that right-wing “libertarians” do act in the ways Monbiot highlights.
Are the Koch brothers, for example, funding all these think-tanks because they want people to view their property as unjustly acquired by Lockean standards, so unowned and as a result subject to expropriation by first-users? I doubt it (the Koch brothers are the heirs of a fortune made by their father in Stalinist Russia!). Do they want help in ensuring they can keep all of the profits they squeeze from their wage-slaves, have more power over their property and those they exploit? That seems more likely?
As an aside, the Koch family made its money in a regime without independent unions — workers had no right to strike. The same can be said of the “libertarian” regime the likes of the Koch brothers and think tanks like the Cato Institute (which the Koch’s provided the funds to launch back in 1977 — and Murray Rothbard was a core member of its founding group and coined its name) wish. Yes, the likes of Rothbard stated that unions were “theoretically compatible with the existence of a purely free market” he doubted that it would be possible as unions relied on the state to be “neutral” (i.e., not enforce property-rights!) and tolerate their activities as they “acquire almost all their power through the wielding of force, specifically force against strike-beakers and against the property of employers.” (The Logic of Action II, p. 41). He argued that his system of absolute property rights would simply make it nearly impossible for unions to organise or for any form of collective action to succeed. Even basic picketing would be impossible for, as Rothbard noted many a time, the pavement outside the workplace would be owned by the boss who would be as unlikely to allow picketing as he would allow a union. Unions would need permission to organise in a workplace from the boss, would could obviously be free to fire at will any union member. If workers did strike, the boss could hire private defence forces to break the strike and unions (see section F.6 of AFAQ). Thus we would have private property and economic power making collective struggle de facto illegal rather than the de jure illegality which the state has so enacted on behalf of the capitalists. Pretty much like Stalinist Russia (although, of course, the violence with be “defensive” and without the full-might of a state-capitalist party-dictatorship – just the full-might of large corporate power instead).
Gabb proclaims that the “difference” between propertarians and Monbiot “isn’t that we are against courts and the other modes of dispute resolution. What we deny is that social peace requires an enlarged and omnicompetent state run by his friends.” Except, of course, Murray Rothbard argued that “it would not be a very difficult task for Libertarian lawyers and jurists to arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures . . . This code would then be followed and applied to specific cases by privately-competitive and free-market courts and judges, all of whom would be pledged to abide by the code.” (“The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View”, pp. 5-15, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, p. 7)
So social peace requires that Sean Gabb and his friends: “Libertarian lawyers and jurists” (a jurist being a professional who studies, develops, applies, or otherwise deals with the law and is a term is widely used in American English). Gabb then goes on to state:
“We do believe that the state is the foremost violator of our right to life, liberty and property. But we also observe that banks are licensed and regulated creatures of the state, and that big business in general is only big because of state-granted privileges like limited liability, infrastructure subsidies, and tax and regulatory systems that cartellise costs and flatten competition from outside the magic circle.”
All very true – but most propertarians have no problem with pro-capitalist intervention (indeed, most don’t even consider it intervention!). For example, defending capitalist property rights is considered by genuine libertarians as an example of a “state-granted privileges” yet this is the very foundation of propertarian ideology. Suffice to say, Rothbard was very keen to distance his ideas from the individualist anarchists on many issues, particularly land-use (see section G.3 of AFAQ, for instance). And anyone reading such notable propertarian influences as von Hayek, von Mises, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand will all discover their arguments for the (minimum) state as a defender of “our right to life, liberty and property.”
Gabb states that the Guardian “could have published an attack on libertarianism that didn’t border on misrepresentation. Or perhaps not. That would have meant exposing your readers to genuine libertarian positions. And that might, in a few cases, have opened the gates of their intellectual ghetto.” Which, given the actual origins of libertarian, could not go unanswered! Hence my letter. Yes, “genuine libertarian positions” should be published and exposed to a wider audience. If Gabb was genuine about this desire then the first thing he would do would be to rename his organisation! I doubt that will happen, but if they actually believed their own arguments they should.
Gabb, I must note, has written in support of the monarchy and House of Lords. He has even written an article entitled Why Libertarians Should Sing “God Save the Queen” (Free Life Commentary, 1997) – and we are NOT talking about the Sex Pistols 1977 classic. This seems to be a popular position in propertarian circles, for example we have A Libertarian Case for Monarchy by Leland B. Yeager published on the Mises Daily. This reflects the likes of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and his calls for competing monarchies and “voluntarily acknowledged ‘natural’ elite — a nobilitas naturalis.” This is discussed in section F.1 of AFAQ, but I should quote Hoppe here on his vision of a “libertarian” society:
“In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance towards democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They – the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism – will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” (Democracy: the God that Failed, p. 218)
That hardly sounds libertarian… authoritarian would be a better description. And remember, he is presenting this vision as the good things which propertarianism will achieve. That it repeats the standard (genuine) libertarian critique of propertarianism is just an added bonus (but then Rothbard also did this, as discussed in An Anarchist Critique of Anarcho-Statism).
During my many discussions with propertarians over the years, I have pondered why they are so keen to defend dictatorship. This can be actual dictatorship (as in the fans of Pinochet) but usually the top-down authoritarian rule implied by wage-labour (as identified back in 1840 by Proudhon). They seemed to prefer workplace dictatorship to workplace democracy – how can dictatorship be more libertarian than democracy?
But, then again, the old form of dictatorship (monarchy) seems to have its adherents in propertarian circles. So we have Robert Nozick stating “if one starts a private town, on land whose acquisition did not and does not violate the Lockean proviso [of non-aggression], persons who chose to move there or later remain there would have no right to a say in how the town was run, unless it was granted to them by the decision procedures for the town which the owner had established.” (Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 270) In short, a dictatorship by the owning elite. But then he was also one of the few “libertarians” who defended “voluntary” slavery (see section F.2.2 of AFAQ).
So, all in all, if you look at the works of propertarians you discover them repeating the libertarian critique, but what we genuine libertarians argue is a bad thing they embrace as good. As I noted in my letter.
Before ending, I’ll link to a couple of articles by Karl Widerquist (who seems to be a philosophy professor). I may have linked to these before. The first is his encyclopedia entry on Libertarianism (pdf) from The International Encyclopedia of Public Policy. He discusses the basis and policies of the people who use the word libertarian. He makes the important point that there “are not factions of a common movement, but distinct ideologies using the same label.” He makes the point I made in my letter:
‘Property rights advocates have popularized the association of the term with their ideology in the United States and to a lesser extent in other English speaking countries. But they only began using the term in 1955. Before that, and in most of the rest of the world today, the term has been associated almost exclusively with leftists groups advocating egalitarian property rights or even the abolition of private property, such as anarchist socialists who began using the term nearly a century early, in 1858.’
‘Right-libertarians seldom call themselves right-libertarians, preferring to call themselves simply “libertarians,” often denying any other groups have claim to the name. It is perhaps poetically appropriate that property rights advocates have appropriated a term that was already being used by people who subscribe to the idea that property is theft, and that these property rights now accuse anarchists of trying to steal it from them.’
The second article is A Dilemma for Libertarianism, in which he shows that propertarian principles of acquisition and transfer without regard for the pattern of inequality can lead to a monarchy with full the full power of taxation without violation of self-ownership. This is acknowledged by Rothbard in a few places. For example:
“If the State may be said to properly own its territory, then it is proper for it to make rules for everyone who presumes to live in that area. It can legitimately seize or control private property because there is no private property in its area, because it really owns the entire land surface. So long as the State permits its subjects to leave its territory, then, it can be said to act as does any other owner who sets down rules for people living on his property.” (Ethics of Liberty, 170)
Obviously Rothbard argues that the state does not “justly” own its territory. and so the problem with the state is that it “claims and exercises a compulsory monopoly of defence and ultimate decision-making over an area larger than an individual’s justly-acquired property.” (173) So Rothbard thundered against the evil of the state, arguing that it “arrogates to itself a monopoly of force, of ultimate decision-making power, over a given territorial area” before quietly admitting that “[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc.” (170, 173). Opps!
The logical contradiction in this position should be obvious, but not to propertarians. It shows the power of ideology, the ability of mere words (“private property”) to turn the bad (“ultimate decision-making power over a given area”) into the good (“ultimate decision-making power over a given area”). Hence the ability to be a “libertarian” monarchist and advocate dictatorship and slavery – all in the name of liberty!
Still, never liked the word “libertarianism” – sounds odd. Libertarian is wonderful, “libertarianism” is a word I don’t like to use nor have seen used much outside of propertarian circles…
Anyways, here is the letter. Short and to the point – but a lot more will be required to stop libertarian going the same way in Britain as it has in America…
Until I blog again, be seeing yous!
It was amusing to read Sean Gabb of the so-called Libertarian Alliance proclaim (letters, Wednesday 21st December) the need for “exposing your readers to genuine libertarian positions.”
If that were done, they would discover that libertarian was originally coined by a French communist-anarchist in 1857, over one hundred years before the propertarian-right in America appropriated it for their hierarchical ideology. To quote leading propertarian Murray Rothbard: “we. . .had captured a crucial word from the enemy. . . ‘Libertarians’. . . had long been simply a polite word for. . . anti-private property anarchists. . . But now we had taken it over.”
Lefties, as a rule, only read other lefties,” Gabb proclaims. As a “leftie” who has had the misfortunate to read many propertarian writers, I can confirm that George Monbiot is right. Yet Monbiot is simply repeating libertarian Peter Kropotkin on proto-propertarian Herbert Spencer’s ideas: “its practical solution of the social problem is miserable – so miserable as to lead us to inquire if the talk of ‘No force’ be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination.”
Genuine libertarians argue that the state exists to defend property and the inequalities in wealth and power it creates. Most propertarian writers, notwithstanding Gabb’s assertions otherwise, do likewise but we do not agree this is a good thing. Unsurprisingly, libertarians have opposed both state and capitalism from the start.