Libertarian Left - Free-market anti-capitalism, the unknown ideal

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Niccolo and Donkey
Libertarian Left

The American Conservative

Sheldon Richman

February 3, 2011



Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign introduced many people to the word “libertarian.” Since Paul is a Republican and Republicans, like libertarians, use the rhetoric of free markets and private enterprise, people naturally assume that libertarians are some kind of quirky offshoot of the American right wing. To be sure, some libertarian positions fit uneasily with mainstream conservatism—complete drug decriminalization, legal same-sex marriage, and the critique of the national-security state alienate many on the right from libertarianism.

But the dominant strain of libertarianism still seems at home on that side of the political spectrum. Paeans to property rights and free enterprise—the mainstream libertarian conviction that the American capitalist system, despite government intervention, fundamentally embodies those values—appear to justify that conclusion.

But then one runs across passages like this: “Capitalism, arising as a new class society directly from the old class society of the Middle Ages, was founded on an act of robbery as massive as the earlier feudal conquest of the land. It has been sustained to the present by continual state intervention to protect its system of privilege without which its survival is unimaginable.” And this: “build worker solidarity. On the one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionization—but I’m not talking about the prevailing model of ‘business unions’ … but real unions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government patronage.”

These passages—the first by independent scholar Kevin Carson, the second by Auburn University philosophy professor Roderick Long—read as though they come not from libertarians but from radical leftists, even Marxists. That conclusion would be only half wrong: these words were written by pro-free-market left-libertarians. (The preferred term for their economic ideal is “freed market,” coined by William Gillis.)

These authors—and a growing group of colleagues—see themselves as both libertarians and leftists. They are standard libertarians in that they believe in the moral legitimacy of private ownership and free exchange and oppose all government interference in personal and economic affairs—a groundless, pernicious dichotomy. Yet they are leftists in that they share traditional left-wing concerns, about exploitation and inequality for example, that are largely ignored, if not dismissed, by other libertarians. Left-libertarians favor worker solidarity vis-à-vis bosses, support poor people’s squatting on government or abandoned property, and prefer that corporate privileges be repealed before the regulatory restrictions on how those privileges may be exercised. They see Walmart as a symbol of corporate favoritism—supported by highway subsidies and eminent domain—view the fictive personhood of the limited-liability corporation with suspicion, and doubt that Third World sweatshops would be the “best alternative” in the absence of government manipulation.

Left-libertarians tend to eschew electoral politics, having little confidence in strategies that work through the government. They prefer to develop alternative institutions and methods of working around the state. The Alliance of the Libertarian Left encourages the formation of local activist and mutual-aid organizations, while its website promotes kindred groups and posts articles elaborating its philosophy. The new Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) encourages left-libertarians to bring their analysis of current events to the general public through op-eds.

These laissez-faire left-libertarians are not to be confused with other varieties of left-wing libertarians, such as Noam Chomsky or Hillel Steiner, who each in his own way objects to individualistic appropriation of unowned natural resources and the economic inequality that freed markets can produce. The left-libertarians under consideration here have been called “market-oriented left-libertarians” or “market anarchists,” though not everyone in this camp is an anarchist.

There are historical grounds for placing pro-market libertarianism on the left. In the first half of the 19th century, the laissez-faire liberal economist Frederic Bastiat sat on the left side of the French National Assembly with other radical opponents of the ancien régime , including a variety of socialists. The right side was reserved for reactionary defenders of absolute monarchy and plutocracy. For a long time “left” signified radical, even revolutionary, opposition to political authority, fired by hope and optimism, while “right” signified sympathy for a status quo of privilege or a return to an authoritarian order. These terms applied even in the United States well into the 20th century and only began to change during the New Deal, which prompted regrettable alliances of convenience that carried over into the Cold War era and beyond.