Reflections on the Left/Right Libertarian Culture Wars 2
Recently, Jeffrey Tucker, formerly of the Mises Institute, published a piece in The Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education, that has generated some controversy in libertarian circles. Here’s the original piece. Tucker is basically arguing there are two kinds of libertarians: the nice, friendly, touchy-feely, lovey-dovey, humanitarian “good” kind, and the hateful, reactionary, crypto-authoritarian, bigoted “bad” kind.
Having some experience with this question, I figured I might as well offer some thought of my own.
Some right-ward leaning libertarians have lamented that Tucker’s article marks a regrettable leftward turn in libertarianism, although the article does not appear to have been particularly well-received.
There are few people around who have spent more time criticizing the left-libertarians (as well as the wider hard left anarchist milieu) than myself, and probably no one who has spent more time criticizing me than the left-libertarians. If you took a poll of left-libertarians concerning what libertarian figure they hate the most, I’d probably be near the top. But I’m skeptical that libertarianism has taken any significant leftward turn in recent times. For one thing, I’m big picture oriented, and I’d argue libertarianism was far more “left-wing” in the 60s and 70s than it is today. Just go back and read some libertarian literature from back then and you see it’s obsessed with drugs, porn, homosexuals, open marriages, group sex, and all sorts of other extravaganzas in the cultural arena. While Murray Rothbard also disdained lifestyle libertinism of this kind, it was also true that Rothbard’s Libertarian Forum openly cultivated the New Left, and supported the Black Panthers, SDS, and even the Vietcong. “Right-libertarianism” back then was basically a few leftover Old Rightists like FEE, and the Randians who said they hated libertarians. Later, Rothbard lamented that so many of his proteges in the New Left era adopted a lot of leftist trappings and baggage, but what did he expect?
Libertarianism actually started moving more rightward in the late 70s when it started getting Koch money, but even then it was billing itself as “low tax liberalism” and aligning itself with the left-socialist Institute for Policy Studies think tank. Noam Chomsky used to write for the Cato Institute’s journal, Inquiry. Read what National Review conservative Ernst van den Haag had to say about libertarians in the late 70s. He was comparing them to Communists, and noting the high number of homosexuals among them. Then read now-paleolibertarian Ralph Raico’s response to Van den Haag where he’s saying libertarians need to be the champion of minorities, women, gay people, etc.
It wasn’t until Rothbard and Rockwell’s paleo turn in the 90s that libertarianism really started to take on any rightward slant, and even then it caused a big uproar when the paleolibertarians were aligning themselves with the Buchananites. The wider body of libertarians were calling them bigots, racists, homophobes, sell outs to the fascists, etc. Read some of the criticisms of paleolibertarians from the relatively moderate Liberty magazine from the 90s, for instance. Nothing’s changed. Libertarianism does seem to have grown in numbers in recent years, but the same old arguments are still there.
It was circa 2000 when LewRockwell.Com was at its most paleo, for instance. It was the tail end of the Clinton era, which had done much to push some libertarians right-ward, particular given the growth of the religious right, paleoconservatism, right-wing populism, and the patriot militia movement during the 90s. The Rothbardians were trying to capitalize on all that, and did so with reasonable amount of success.
One right-libertarian commentator has observed: “I still think it is significant that left-libertarians felt the need to distinguish themselves in the mid 2000s when Carson and others came in and started to undermine it with Marxist revisionism.”
Rothbard’s intellectual system is actually very similar to that of Communists: atheist and materialist in philosophy, extreme political and economic radicalism with a hyper-universalist bent, but staunch cultural conservatism (“keep the fags in the closet and the feminists in the kitchen”). Plus, he advocated Leninist organizing tactics, and considered Communism to be a historically progressive force for having overthrown feudalism in much of the world. You could take much old guard Communist rhetoric and take out “capitalism” or “the bourgeois” and put in “the state” or “interventionism” and Marxist and Rothbardian rhetoric would be interchangeable.
I first met Carson when he first appeared on the scene around 2001. I had just started ATS at that point, and he contacted me expressing interest in what I was doing. In fact, his first online articles were hosted at ATS. But while he had the same mutualist philosophy he has now, he hadn’t bought into the hard left cultural outlook yet. In fact, he often sounded like a paleo himself at the time, and expressed admiration for the Southern Agrarians, Edmund Burke, and the Old Right. I’m (basically) an individualist-anarchist like Benjamin Tucker myself, and Carson was in the process of reformulating Tucker’s work to make it relevant to a contemporary society, so he and I had a lot in common at the time. In fact, people would sometimes say “Kevin Carson and Keith Preston” in the same breadth, like Batman and Robin. But a few years later left-libertarianism started becoming infested with a variety of hard left caricature elements, especially those who wished to convert left-libertarianism into a branch office of the “LGBT” movement. They started trying to push me out because of my orientation towards building broad-based alliances against neoliberal imperialism and centralized states, and association with the national-anarchists, right-wing patriot groups, and other non-leftist anti-state groups for the purpose of developing such alliances. I eventually threw down the gauntlet and said either we can let these usurpers and disruptive elements hijack the movement, or we can tell them to fuck off and have a serious anti-statist movement. Carson was moving towards the cultural left by then and was getting closer to Rad Geek and Roderick Long, so he ended up siding with them, and I’ve been mortal enemies with the left-libertarians ever since. This is the gist of why the the left-libertarians object to me so much: I don’t hold to any universalist conception of property rights, so I’m not really a Rothbardian, but I do think property systems and free association are necessary for liberty, privacy, prosperity, etc. On economics, I’m actually closer to the left-libertarians than to the orthodox Rothbardians, and certainly more so than mainstream libertarians. What galls them about me is that I’ve worked to build alliances between different kinds of decentralists and anti-statists over the years, including some with very un-PC views on a lot of things. My association with the national-anarchists particularly sets them off: “How dare they defile the good name of anarchism with a curse word like ‘nationalism”?”
To be fair, I’ve known plenty of people from all over the spectrum who agree with me on these questions to varying degrees: left-anarchists, left-libertarians, gay libertarians, feminist anarchists, etc. But they’re either in the minority, or at least not as loudmouthed and shrill as the PC douchebags that unfortunately dominate powerful strands of left-libertarianism and left-wing anarchism. I also know a lot of people with unconventional combinations of ideas: white nationalist anarcho-communists, transgendered national-anarchists, black paleolibertarians, etc. I think the key to fighting this stuff is basically the Cold War model. The 60s generation is now the elderly generation, so they’ll start dying off soon enough. As this hyper-leftism becomes increasingly institutionalized, it will be more and more difficult for younger people to proclaim their political radicalism while pledging fidelity to PC without being laughed out of court. Plus, I think much of PC is a backlash against past events, and the memory of all that will fade with time. PC will eventually go the same way as Soviet communism, and for the same reasons. It’s nonsense on stilts, an ideological house of cards that will blow over eventually.
The ironic thing about all this in my experience is that, as I mentioned, I was always basically a left-libertarian myself. In fact, after reading my book, I’ve had friends from the radical right say, “I didn’t know you were a leftist!” I never had any kind of background as a racialist or social conservative or anything like that. For instance, I never had any problem with the libertine libertarianism so often criticized by paleolibertarians like Hans Hermann Hoppe. I’ve even written critically of culturally conservative libertarians on multiple occasions, and my book actually has four separate chapters where I take conservatives to task.
I’m often asked how I developed my critique of “totalitarian humanism” as it’s assumed I did it by studying obscure counterrevolutionary thinkers from the past, or equally obscure paleoconservative scholars. But that had nothing to do with it. It was just through observation. The big turning point for me was when I discovered the sovereign citizen movement in the 90s and the national-anarchists in the early 2000s and came to regard these as a means of building a wider anti-state movement. The former I saw as a means of applying what were essentially anarchist ideas in way that reflected a right-wing populist image. The latter I saw as a means of accommodating all forms of anarchism, libertarianism, and overlapping philosophies, and well as reaching out to identitarian and/or self-determination movements in all ethnic and cultural groups, including some from the far right that would otherwise never have any interest in libertarianism of any kind. But what I found was that the left-libertarians and left-anarchists would react to these tendencies with shrill hysteria that resembled a child finding a spider under their bed. So I started asking the question of what do these people really want? Do they want political anarchism? Do they want to overthrow states? Do they want freedom of association, freedom of choice, and voluntary societies? Apparently not. What they want is a hyper conformist society where no one ever says bad words and acts in a reverential, deferential way to self-appointed moral arbiters. In other words, they don’t really strike me as libertines as much as a bunch of dour puritans always obsessed with other people’s alleged moral faults. The whole “privilege checking” thing is a perfect example of that. And their wider view that racial minorities, women, homosexuals, transexuals, immigrants, workers, etc are by definition “oppressed” irrespective of their personal circumstances and are by definition deserving of sympathy, virtuous, just, admirable, etc. irrespective of what they personally or collectively do strikes me as the mirror image of the crude stereotyping of entire classes of people they claim to be opposed to.
Authentic tolerance means tolerating people and behaviors you don’t like, not just what you personally prefer or agree with. I had one left-libertarian tell me: “I am not free as long as one queer teenager has to sit through a Mormon church service.” I’m not making this up. There’s also the way they put “trigger warnings” on everything, and their fixation on “safe spaces” and “anti-oppression policies.” Such efforts by themselves may not be illegitimate. After all, freedom of association and the right of exclusion are among the things we’re supposed to be defending and upholding. But unfortunately, much of this kind of stuff has become a type of psychotherapy cult for freaks, losers, misfits, and psychologically damaged people who want an environment where they can act out in any ridiculous or malevolent manner they wish without being criticized for it: “How dare you criticize me for acting like a petulant five year old? I have my Officially Oppressed card right here! I’m formally licensed to engage in narcissistic anti-social behavior while wallowing in self-pity. And you better love me for it. Maturity? Never heard of it.”
You’d never know by observing the mainstream media or listening to the rhetoric in dissident political circles, but most Americans simply do not identify with extremes on either side in the culture wars. Check out the results of this recent Gallup poll.
What this shows is that most Americans are concerned with the issues that libertarians are supposedly concerned with: a deteriorating economy and excessive statism. To hear both the media and extremists on the Left and Right tell the story, you’d think America is about to explode into a race war, but the polling data shows most Americans think racism is actually a fairly marginal issue. And all of the LGBT stuff involves issues that only affect about 3.5% of the wider population. Of course, the small size of a population has nothing to do with our obligations as good libertarians and anarchists to uphold their authentic libertarian rights (speech, association, privacy, property, religion, due process, etc). Libertarianism means nothing if it does not mean defending the undefendable, or those who are most unpopular with the wider society. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve gone out of my way to give a fair hearing to those with unpopular political views, unconventional religious preferences, or who are members of perceived deviant subcultures. But while the organized “LGBT” rights movement may have started off as a legitimate libertarian movement resisting police repression and state persecution, it has now become a force that is favored by substantial sectors of the state and the ruling class, and has a clearly articulated state-centric agenda of its own as demonstrated by its attacks on the aforementioned libertarian rights of others. Indeed, the social status of the LGBT community has advanced to the point where a majority of Americans now believe one in four people is a sexual minority, about seven times their actual numerical size.
How did these perceptions come about?
I recently saw where Kevin Carson tweeted the rather dubious claim about that we all need to take a stand against transphobia, et. al. in order to strengthen working class solidarity (WTF?), and to claim otherwise represents an anachronistic 1930s “workerist” outlook. But a perspective like that completely ignores the past 40 years of U.S. politics. Starting in the 70s, the Democratic Party bought off the loyalty of the Left with social issues and identity politics, while moving the party away from its older union base and obscuring the McGovernite pacifist wing of the party, and moving the party towards neoliberalism in economics and liberal internationalism in foreign policy (see Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). Adolph Reed Jr, an African-American leftist-socialist has a very good piece about all this in Harper’s this month.
The Republicans responded to this by reaching out to the far right on social issues (by creating groups like the Moral Majority in the late 70s), while allowing the neoconservatives to take control of the party and move it towards Third World plutocracy in economics, and into the Twilight Zone on foreign policy. In order to keep shoring up their electoral bases, the two parties kept reaching into the outer fringes of cultural politics as a means of creating constituents for themselves. Meanwhile, a variety of factors, from the easing of broadcast licensing requirements to the advent of cable TV and the internet, allowed for the much greater diversification of the media. So different factions of the elite established media outlets of their own to appeal to their respective fringe constituencies. Hence, the advent of networks like MSNBC and FOX. On a socioeconomic level, this represents a conflict between the traditional WASP elite on the GOP side and a rising upper middle class of newly rich entrepreneurs outside the traditional plutocracy, urban professionals, the expanded public sector, elites within traditional outgroups, and a spectrum of liberal political interest groups on the Democratic side. Working class oriented politics no longer exists in the US. Instead, it’s about rival cultural factions within the affluent and wealthy classes. Basically, now elderly 60s hippies and and now late middle aged 80s yuppies on one end, and conservative suburbanities and Chamber of Commerce types on the other end. Voting patterns in U.S. elections reflect this.
Here’s the relevance of all this to anarchists and libertarians: Most political radicals tend to originate from or orient themselves towards the cultural fringes. That makes sense. Someone who is not alienated from the mainstream culture is probably going to be less inclined to reject mainstream political norms as well. Consequently, most anarchists and libertarians tend to identify with the cultural far left. That’s obviously true of the leftist-anarchists and it’s generally true of libertarians as well as I previously pointed out. Those who don’t identify with the cultural far left tend to go to the other extreme and identify with conservative Christianity, white nationalism, neo-monarchism, et. al. As for the culturally leftist libertarians, Rothbard identified the core problem with this: While their values may put them at odds with Middle America, they’re not necessarily at odds with the values of the cosmopolitan, secular, progressive cultural and intellectual elite. And they’re not necessarily at odds with the business elite who, for instance, want cheap Third World labor and are pro-immigration, and who want to cultivate an ever greater array of populations as customers. Historically, capitalism has had the effect of advancing cultural liberalism rather than hindering it. Even Noam Chomsky has pointed this out. Nor are they at odds with the state, which seeks an ever greater variety of clients for state services and voting constituencies for the funding of those services. Rothbard was politically shrewd enough to recognize that in a secular, multi-ethnic, plutocratic state-capitalist, welfare state and mass democracy, it is ultimately going to be those who reject cosmopolitan values who come into the greatest amount of conflict with the state. The exception would be the lumpenproletariat, i.e. the class that rejects middle class values altogether like drug addicts, the homeless, criminals, the chronically unemployed, the perpetually poor, etc. As a champion of anti-statism but as a defender of middle class values and property rights, Rothbard recognized his best bet was to align himself with right-wing reactionary elements. Hence, the beginning of the paleo movement, which laid the groundwork for the Paul campaigns 15-20 years later, which in turn spurred the growth of libertarianism we’ve seen since. In other words, Rothbard was right, and the paleo strategy worked. In fact, I even think the newsletter scandal helped. As they say in show biz, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Where the current left/right controversy among libertarians comes in has to do with something Rothbard himself identified 20 years ago: While there are certainly people who are drawn to free market libertarianism because they prefer middle class values or economic conservatism, most people with such values remain ordinary conservatives and do not cross the line into libertarianism. A much larger group that is drawn to libertarianism are those who oppose the state because they oppose authority of any kind. They hate politicians for the same reasons they hate their parents. They join the libertarian milieu not to uphold middle class values but to reject them in favor of the drug culture, sexual deviance, alternative lifestyles, cultural uber-cosmopolitanism, etc. So they end up siding with the far left on cultural issues, which are the only ones they really care about in the first place.
That’s where a guy like me enters the controversy. For 15 years, I’ve pushed the idea that the only way the state will ever be effectively subverted is through a cross-cultural, cross-ideological alliance by all those under attack by the state. This includes lumpen elements on the far left, anti-cosmopolitan elements on the far right, and the radical middle of people who are culturally “normal” but just don’t want to get shit on economically by the alliance of big government and crony capitalism, don’t want to get killed in imperialist wars, don’t want the cops kicking in their door, don’t want their kids shipped off to a federal pen for decades for petty drug offenses, etc. And the only way to work around these differences is through decentralized associational liberty resulting in independent enclaves for factions with contending values, as advocated by such concepts as anarcho-pluralism, national-anarchism, anarcho-ecumenicalism, pan-anarchism, anarchism without hyphens, etc. This should be a matter of common sense, but it’s so controversial among some anarchists and libertarians because they ultimately hate their cultural opponents more than they hate the state or the establishment. The real enemy of liberty in their view is not the empire, military industrial complex, corporate plutocracy, police state, prison-industrial complex, or the regulatory bureaucracy. No, the enemies of liberty are rednecks who think gay marriage is icky or stuffy suburbanites with their manicured lawns.
I should probably once again point out that I’m not really a Rothbardian, because I don’t think anarcho-capitalism or Lockean property theory needs to be universalized. And as I mentioned, I’m actually more in the left-libertarian camp on economics than I am a conventional libertarian, and much more sympathetic to the socialist-anarchist camps than right-libertarians normally are. If Rothbard were here today, he’d probably be attacking me for my left-wing deviations the same way he attacked Karl Hess and Murray Bookchin for the same. In fact, my views are probably closer to Hess or 19th century individualists like Tucker and Stirner, or to Proudhon himself, than they are to Rothbard, Rand, Mises, Hayek, Friendman, and other libertarians gods of the 20th century. But I don’t think there’s any “true” economic system just as there is no “true” cultural system.
I regard the historic anarchist struggle against states, ruling classes, and empires to be over and above the specifics of particular economic systems and the cultural norms of particular communities and societies.
Anarcho-capitalism for Rothbardland. Workers councils for Chomskyland. Primitivism for Zerzanland. Stuffy Home Owners Associations for the bourgeoisie. Orania for the ethno-statists. Mondragon for the syndicalists. Black Panthers for the ‘hood. Swaziland and Botswana for the black separatists. Georgism for the Georgists. Monasteries for the monks. Liechtenstein for the anarcho-monarchists. Lakotah Republic for the Native Americans. Vermont and Cascadia for the Green decentalists. Colorado for the stoners. Amsterdam for the hookers, druggies, and trannies. South Central for the Bloods and Crips. Sweden for the social democrats. Switzerland for the militiamen.