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What puts the “Left” in “Libertarian Left”?

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 11 years ago, in 2013, on the World Wide Web.

One of the quickest and simplest ways to gloss what Left-Libertarian, or the Libertarian Left part of ALL, means, is just to say that we are for left-wing social ends through libertarian means. This inevitably involves a certain amount of oversimplification — does through libertarian means just mean by getting rid of government controls and letting social outcomes emerge spontaneously, or does it mean something more like engaging in conscious activism and social organizing to encourage particular outcomes within the context of freed market and civil society? When we say left-wing social ends, is that supposed to mean that the libertarian means are valued only as far as they seem likely get the left-wing goods, or are the non-invasive, anti-authoritarian means supposed to be side-constraints on ends that might possibly count as worthwhile, or do the libertarian means really enter directly into the conception of left-wing social ends that we’re supposed to be for? Do we ultimately have exactly the same sort of social ends that progressives or Marxists or other state-leftists do? I’m a philosopher by training, and I’ve hardly ever met a conceptual distinction or analytical complication of a question that I didn’t like, so of course I think these are all good questions, and important ones to wrestle with.[1] But at the end of the day, I think there are some pretty clear pre-analytical ideas about what left might mean, and what libertarian might mean, that make the formula a useful guide. If you’re wondering what puts the Left in Libertarian Left, when we’re not for an activist state and when we oppose the effectiveness or the worth of any governmental responses to social or economic inequality, the answer is not just going to be some opportunistic redefinition of Left to meet our pre-existing political commitments or some obsolete French seating-chart. The answer is just going to be to point to some fairly straightforward understandings of what it is to value social justice, or what it is to be a Leftist — like this really admirable summary from Cornel West:[2]

. . . Being a leftist is a calling, not a career; it's a vocation not a profession. It means you are concerned about structural violence, you are concerned about exploitation at the work place, you are concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, hatred against peoples of color, and the subordination of women. It means that you are willing to fight against, and to try to understand the sources of social misery at the structural and institutional levels, as well as at the existential and personal levels. That's what it means to be a leftist; that's why we choose to be certain kinds of human beings. . . .

–Cornell West (February 2011),
A Message from Cornel West, for left forum

Again, there’s a certain amount here that’s oversimplified and a certain amount that’s left out.[3] But it seems to me a good start. And an obvious point of contact and call to action for the Libertarian Left — for radical libertarians and radical leftists to take up, think through, express, and act on our concern about developing anti-authoritarian, counter-political, grassroots, consensual, activist alternatives against structural violence — against exploitation in the workplace — against multiple, interlocking and intersecting systems of interpersonal domination and social inequality — and to try understand the sources of social misery on multiple levels, and the intimate interplay between structural and institutional factors, diffuse cultural development, and interpersonal dynamics and existential experience. The Left is in Libertarian Left because when we work for liberation we Fight the Power. The Libertarian is in Libertarian Left because we know that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

See also.

  1. [1]In case you’re curious, my answers are: it means both of them, and the latter is quite as important as the former; it’s supposed to mean that they are both side-constraints on worthwhile ends and also — because social anti-authoritarianism is itself a left-wing commitment — itself one of the ends to be achieved; and no, at the end of the day we have a broad overlap on some goals and some distinct difference on others, but the differences that we have, we have because libertarian leftists are the more consistent and radical leftists, who don’t just drop our anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment analysis when it comes to professedly Progressive or Popular or Revolutionary authorities, establishments, parties, politicians, elites, or other monopolizations of social capital.
  2. [2]Repeated here thanks to Marja Erwin, and repeated here because its status as a commonplace usage is I think vouched for by the approximately 5,271,902 times the quotation was re-posted across Tumblr.
  3. [3]In context, West was trying to give an inspiring riff on some key themes, not to make a comprehensive statement of the definition of Leftist. (Actually, in context, he was trying to raise money and attendance for the 2011 Left Forum. But the thematic riff was, if a means to that end, not a means only…)

9 replies to What puts the “Left” in “Libertarian Left”? Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Terry Hulsey

    “Left” and “Right,” as far as they have significance at all, are not about ends; they draw a distinction of means, specifically in the use of government power as a means to countless social ends. If you think government power can be directed to “humane” or “benevolent” ends, you’re a Leftist; if not, you’re of the Right. Someone of the Right, eschewing government power, must rely on the middle class to achieve his political goals (since the upper class maintains power through its control of government, and since the lower class is always and everywhere politically inert). It’s these two aspects of the Right (its abstinence from government force and its reliance on the middle class) that infuriate the Left. The effort of the Left is always to try to demonstrate the nobility and humanity of solutions imposed by government force, and to try to demonize the bourgeois values of the middle class. According to the Left, any abuse of government power, even that of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot is an aberration, another revolution betrayed, and never the true essence of its evil; any of the common values of the middle class, in their view, must be kept on the short leash held by Leftist intellectuals, lest they devolve into a bloodthirsty Fascism.

    • Rad Geek

      You write:

      If you think government power can be directed to humane or benevolent ends, you’re a Leftist; if not, you’re of the Right. . . .

      Well, O.K. That’s a definition of Left and Right that some people have used in the past. (Certainly, your comment is not the first place I’ve seen it.) There are many definitions of Right and Left and the spectrum in between them that are in common usage, and many of them conflict with each other. (*) If you want to insist on this one, then since I am an anarchist, and I do not think governments can or should be directed to any ends at all, that would make me, in Hulseyan terms, a man of the Right, but of course the question is what that kind of re-classification is supposed to accomplish.

      This post was not about Terry Hulsey would classify what I call left-libertarianism; it’s a post about why left libertarians call themselves left. And if I tell you that what we mean is a particular set of social ends which can be (we think should be) achieved through non-governmentalist means, then I have to just ask that you take us at our word.

      You could say that we are using the word wrongly; but I do have evidence for claiming that our use of the term left is a comprehensible use that is in common circulation — specifically, I cited an example of that usage in everyday political writing, in this case from a prominent left-wing writer, Cornel West, explaining his own understanding of what it means to be a leftist. What West says about what left means has, you will notice, nothing at all to do with governmental means or with the question of whether or not government can be directed to achieving the ends that he describes. (West is certainly a state leftist, and he often thinks that it does; but I am an anarchist, and I disagree with him about that.) If you want to insist on a different set of terms than the ones I have to offer, you can do that; but I’d need to know whether you’re doing so on the basis (1) of an arbitrarily stipulated definition, (2) of a claim about what my usage really tacitly entails, or (3) of a claim that your usage has better linguistic bona fides than mine does. If (2) or (3) then I’d need to hear your argument for why your favorite usage of the term Right is the correct usage. If (1), then I don’t know why I’m supposed to care about your stipulative definitions. In the absence of some further explanation, this sounds a lot like replying to a post explaining sub sandwiches by saying, Don’t you know they’re called grinders?

      You also write:

      Someone of the Right, eschewing government power, must rely on the middle class to achieve his political goals . . . .

      Well, this surely goes beyond the definitions of Left and Right and into some substantive, not merely definitional, political analysis. A political analysis which I happen (rightly or wrongly) to reject. I specifically reject governmentalist means, and also specifically propose views of strategy, and of political and social transformation which refuse to rely on appeals to the middle class or to bourgeois values, then what does that make me?

      Confused, or mistaken, perhaps; but if so, it’s a form of confusion, or a form of mistake, that doesn’t seem to fit very well into the classifications that you have ready at hand. But then, again, I’d have to say — I know what work my classifications are doing here (I explained it a bit above; my point is to indicate something about the range of social goals libertarians might have, and the specific sort of social goals I — rightly or wrongly — choose to pursue). But then I’d have to ask — what work is your classification scheme supposed to be doing, if it can’t capture that range of views?

      (* Rothbard, in Left and Right, uses Left to mean anti-establishment and Right to mean pro-establishment, which he further translated into anti-governmentalist and pro-governmentalist. Lenin frequently used to the terms to refer to strategic questions about immediate revolution, longer-term revolutionary party-building and parliamentary reformism — hence right-wing opportunism, Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, etc. Fans of the Nolan Chart like to use Left and Right to refer to different forms of government intervention that statists may support, with the idea that both of them are statist positions; hence they tend to reject the Left-Right spectrum, and view libertarianism as something outside of it. Etc. People use words in a lot of ways.)

  2. David Friedman

    Before getting into what “left” means, could you explain what, in your view, “social” adds to “justice”–in what sense “social justice” is distinguished from “justice?” In practice, the term seems to be used to mean “what people on the left consider to be just,” and I’ve never managed to get a clearer definition.

    • Rad Geek


      The legitimacy or the coherency of the term social justice is not really a play I have a lot bet on, or at least a play where I haven’t bet more than I think I can afford to lose. If it turns out to be incoherent, then I’m probably going to be O.K. with restating my concerns in other terms. But if it helps, in my understanding the social on social justice is intended to distinguish social justice concerns from concerns about transactional justice. So a commitment to social justice is going to be a commitment to concerns about the structure or patterns of social relations which are, in some sense or another, matters of justice or fairness, but which aren’t reducible to a constraint on the transactions of, or a violation of the rights of, one or more specific victims. I think that a lot of the systematic forms of social prejudice or discrimination that leftists criticize under the heading of structural oppression or institutional oppression are genuinely unethical and harmful conventions to have — because, among other things, they involve treating people unfairly, in ways that are cruel or harmful to them. But they can be genuinely unethical and harmful even without necessarily violating the liberty-rights of any individual victim. If there’s some class of conventions or practices which are (1) unethical and harmful, (2) targeting people systematically on the basis of an ascribed social status, (3) involving at least some unethical treatment or some harm other than a direct violation of individual liberties, (4) implemented systematically through social practices and expectations, not just a matter of idiosyncratic individual vice, and (5) worth criticizing and undermining not just through private interactions but also through coordinated, conscious, non-coercive public social protest; then I’m happy to call the questions around the things that match (1)-(5) to be questions of social justice in some suitably broad sense of the word justice. (I don’t think that questions of social justice are properly questions for a system of law or for coercive rectification, so if justice means either of those, then I’ll be happy to call it social fairness or not being a dick socially or whatever best suits the occasion.)

      I don’t know how much this helps clarify. Certainly my views on what social justice means are different from the views of many state leftists, so whatever it may clarify about my conception of the term, it may not clarify much about theirs.

    • Justin Oliver

      I agree that the term “social justice” is often used carelessly.

      [http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/defining-social-justice-29](According to Michael Novak), an ideologically neutral definition would be those non-government practices done in association with and for the general benefit of a community, not just a particular person. That seems like a form of justice distinct from (conventional) justice.

    • David Friedman

      “(According to Michael Novak), an ideologically neutral definition would be those non-government practices done in association with and for the general benefit of a community, not just a particular person. That seems like a form of justice distinct from (conventional) justice.”

      That doesn’t sound to me like a form of justice at all.

      Suppose the community has treated me very badly but I, being a generous sort, decide to do something for the general benefit of the community anyway. My doing it isn’t justice–they don’t deserve to have me do it. But it does fit the description you give.

  3. Tim Hjersted

    Hey Charles, had a question for you. I may be one of the few people that doesn’t see government as the problem inherently. It is the hierarchical model of virtually all governments today that is the primary problem. They all use a failed representative model that results in the people not being represented. Government simply means an organized way for people to make decisions. And with that definition, a directly democratic model where all people represent themselves and strive for consensus would be considered another model of ‘government’ – just not anything we are familiar with today.

    In a freed market, I see direct democracy (similar to what the Iroquois confederacy of nations devised before they were assimilated by colonial powers) developing. As people will want to make decisions collectively about many things, including the rights of people and nature, that should be a standard for society.

    With direct democracy, everyone votes and makes decisions, and strives towards the highest level of consensus, and with this model, power is always held at the local level, while decisions made between regions are still accountable to the lowest democratic bodies.

    I don’t hear this talked about as much in market anarchist literature, even though I think it will be a significant actor in a freed market and a free society. Could you offer your thoughts on this? If the people in a city want to create rights for nature so that no business can pollute the environment (pro-active rather than reactive), I see this as fitting with the concept of a free society. Because the people of the city are making the decision. Would you agree?

— 2017 —

  1. Discussed at abolishwork.com

    A Critical Review of "Should Libertarians Support a Universal Basic Income?" - Abolish Work:

    […] ten to see folks on the left as skeptical of big institutions, hierarchy and wanting more “people […]

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