Posts tagged Decentralism

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

It’s March 2010. It has now been two years since my essay Liberty, Equality, Solidarity appeared in Roderick and Tibor’s Anarchism/Minarchism anthology. Which means that those of you who recently ordered now have a shipment in the mail, which should arrive within the next few days. And it also means I can now do this. Enjoy!

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

Charles Johnson (2006/2008)

Reprinted with permission of the Publishers from Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism in Anarchism/Minarchism, ed. Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan (Ashgate, 2008). pp. 155-188. If you reprint this article, please retain this attribution.

The purpose of this essay is political revolution. And I don’t mean a “revolution” in libertarian political theory, or a revolutionary new political strategy, or the kind of “revolution” that consists in electing a cadre of new and better politicians to the existing seats of power. When I say a “revolution,” I mean the real thing: I hope that this essay will contribute to the overthrow of the United States government, and indeed all governments everywhere in the world. You might think that the argument of an academic essay is a pretty slender reed to lean on; but then, every revolution has to start somewhere, and in any case what I have in mind may be somewhat different from what you imagine. For now, it will be enough to say that I intend to give you some reasons to become an individualist anarchist,[1] and undermine some of the arguments for preferring minimalist government to anarchy. In the process, I will argue that the form of anarchism I defend is best understood from what Chris Sciabarra has described as a dialectical orientation in social theory,[2] as part of a larger effort to understand and to challenge interlocking, mutually reinforcing systems of oppression, of which statism is an integral part—but only one part among others. Not only is libertarianism part of a radical politics of human liberation, it is in fact the natural companion of revolutionary Leftism and radical feminism.

My argument will take a whole theory of justice—libertarian rights theory[3]—more or less for granted: that is, some version of the “non-aggression principle” and the conception of “negative” rights that it entails. Also that a particular method for moral inquiry—ethical individualism—is the correct method, and that common claims of collective obligations or collective entitlements are therefore unfounded. Although I will discuss some of the intuitive grounds for these views, I don’t intend to give a comprehensive justification for them, and those who object to the views may just as easily object to the grounds I offer for them. If you have a fundamentally different conception of rights, or of ethical relations, this essay will probably not convince you to become an anarchist. On the other hand, it may help explain how principled commitment to a libertarian theory of rights—including a robust defense of private property rights—is compatible with struggles for equality, mutual aid, and social justice. It may also help show that libertarian individualism does not depend on an atomized picture of human social life, does not require indifference to oppression or exploitation other than government coercion, and invites neither nostalgia for big business nor conservatism towards social change. Thus, while my argument may not directly convince those who are not already libertarians of some sort, it may help to remove some of the obstacles that stop well-meaning Leftists from accepting libertarian principles. In any case, it should show non-libertarians that they need another line of argument: libertarianism has no necessary connection with the “vulgar political economy” or “bourgeois liberalism” that their criticism targets.

The threefold structure of my argument draws from the three demands made by the original revolutionary Left in France: Liberty, Equality, and Solidarity.[4] I will argue that, rightly understood, these demands are more intertwined than many contemporary libertarians realize: each contributes an essential element to a radical challenge to any form of coercive authority. Taken together, they undermine the legitimacy of any form of government authority, including the “limited government” imagined by minarchists. Minarchism eventually requires abandoning your commitment to liberty; but the dilemma is obscured when minarchists fracture the revolutionary triad, and seek “liberty” abstracted from equality and solidarity, the intertwined values that give the demand for freedom its life, its meaning, and its radicalism. Liberty, understood in light of equality and solidarity, is a revolutionary doctrine demanding anarchy, with no room for authoritarian mysticism and no excuse for arbitrary dominion, no matter how “limited” or benign.

Liberty

Individual liberty is essential to political justice for both minarchist and anarchist libertarians. Both understand political liberty as freedom from organized coercion: force, under libertarian theory, can only be legitimate in defense of an individual person’s liberty, never when initiated against those who have not trespassed against any identifiable victim. Libertarians often draw boundaries between liberty and invasion through the principle of self-ownership: you are rightly your own master, and nobody else, individually or collectively, is entitled to claim you as their property.[5] That includes governments: self-ownership is held to be unconditional and “prepolitical,” in that it does not depend on the guarantees of political constitutions or legislation, but rather logically precedes them and constrains the constitutions and legislation that can legitimately be established. Thus anarchists and minarchists agree that political power should be subordinated to the principle of self-ownership, and everyone left alone to do as she pleases with her own person and property provided she respects the same freedom for others. But they disagree over what these principles entail. Minarchists argue that the rights of liberty and self-defense, delegated and institutionalized, establish the legitimacy of a “night-watchman” State,[6] limited by a written constitution and devoted to the rule of law. For anarchists, the rights of liberty and self-defense expose even the “night-watchman” State as professionalized usurpation, and reveal all government laws and written constitutions as mere paper without authority. Such a conflict demands explanation, and clarification of the terms of the dispute.

I won’t hazard a definition of either “government” or “state” here, but some essential features can be described. States have governments, and governments, as such, claim authority over a defined range of territory and citizens. Governments claim the right to issue legitimate orders to anyone subject to them, and to use force to compel obedience.[7] But governments claim more than that: after all, I have the right to order you out of my house, and to shove you out if you won’t go quietly. Governments claim supreme authority over legally enforceable claims within their territory; while I have a right to order you off my property, a government claims the right to make and enforce decisive, final, and exclusive orders on questions of legal right[8]—for example, whether it is my property, if there is a dispute, or whether you have a right to stay there. That means the right to review, and possibly to overturn or punish, my demands on you—to decisively settle the dispute, to enforce the settlement over anyone’s objections, and deny to anyone outside the government the right to supersede their final say on it. Some governments—the totalitarian ones—assert supreme authority over every aspect of life within their borders; but a “limited government” asserts authority only over a defined range of issues, often enumerated in a written constitution. Minarchists argue not only that governments should be limited in their authority, but specifically that the supreme authority of governments should be limited to the adjudication of disputes over individual rights, and the organized enforcement of those rights. But even the most minimal minarchy, at some point, must claim its citizens’ exclusive allegiance—they must love, honor and obey, forsaking all others, or else they deny the government the prerogative of sovereignty. And a “government” without sovereign legal authority is no government at all.

Authority, in the political sense, is correlative with deference. Insofar as Twain is subject to Norton’s authority, Twain is obliged to defer to Norton’s decisions, and Norton can compel him to obey. But the sort of deference must be carefully distinguished. Robert Paul Wolff notes that

An authoritative command must … be distinguished from a persuasive argument. When I am commanded to do something, I may choose to comply even though I am not being threatened, because I am brought to believe that it is something which I ought to do. If that is the case, then I am not, strictly speaking, obeying a command, but rather acknowledging the force or rightness of a prescription. … But the person himself [sic] has no authority—or, to be more precise, my complying with his command does not constitute an acknowledgment on my part of any such authority. (1970, 6)

Reason is no respecter of persons, but authority is personal: if Norton has legitimate authority over Twain, then Twain’s obligation to defer doesn’t come from the nature of what Norton decided, but from the fact that Norton decided it.[9] Wolff’s point could be sharpened by further distinguishing epistemic authority from imperative authority. There are cases where you should defer to an authority because she possesses some special expertise on the issue at hand.[10] But this is more scientific authority than political authority, and not really what Wolff seems to have in mind. The reason that lawyers bring their cases before the Supreme Court is not just that the Nine have some special expertise on the requirements of the law. Maybe they do, but the reason that others are supposed to defer to their judgment has to do with the offices they personally hold; their status is constitutive of the binding force of the judgment. However expert a mere lawyer may be, her opinion still amounts only to a brief, not a ruling, unless and until the judge personally authorizes it. It’s not that the issue lies within the court’s expertise, but that it (supposedly) lies within their prerogative.

It is not enough, then, for a minarchist just to postulate an ideal government that makes some rulings worth enforcing on their own merits. If a judgment is worth enforcing on its own merits, then it surely is perfectly legitimate to enforce it, but then the legitimacy comes from the content of the judgment, not from its source.[11] That justifies enforcing the judge’s ruling, but it does not establish that the judge’s authorization confers any special legitimacy on the enforcement, above or beyond what private citizens could confer, either individually or cooperatively in private “defense associations,” given enough wisdom, study, and application. Minarchists need a theory that legitimates exclusive government authority through the special positions that government agents occupy, and the sovereign status of the government they represent. Without one, they have no justification for the special prerogatives claimed by even the most scrupulously limited of governments.

I claim that minarchists cannot consistently offer the kind of theory that they need to offer, because no possible theory can connect sovereign authority to legitimacy, without breaking the connection between legal right and individual liberty. My case for this claim consists of three challenges, each developed in the anarchist literature, which demonstrate a conflict between individual liberty and one of the forms of special authority that minarchists have traditionally wanted governments to exercise.[12] Since the clearest expression of the first, and most basic, challenge is in Roy Childs’s “Open Letter to Ayn Rand,” we might call it the Childs challenge. Rand argues that a government must be strictly limited to the defensive use of force in order to be morally distinguishable from a robber gang.[13] She holds that even the legitimate functions of a properly limited government must be funded voluntarily by the governed, condemning taxation in any form.[14] However, she insists on the legitimacy of sovereignty and explicitly rejects individualist anarchism.[15] Childs, accepting Rand’s description of a government as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,”[16] argues that no institution can claim that authority and remain limited to the defensive use of force at the same time:

Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or a business colleague has established. Now, if he [sic] succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use or threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation—in short, free market anarchism. (Childs 1969, ¶ 8)

Rand’s theory of limited government posits an institution with sovereign authority over the use of force, but her theory of individual rights only allows for the use of force in defense against invasions of rights. As long as private defense agencies limit themselves to the defense of their clients’ rights, Rand cannot justify using force to suppress them. But if citizens are free to cut their ties to the “government” and turn to private agencies for the protection of their rights, then the so-called “government” no longer holds sovereign authority to enforce its citizens’ rights; it becomes only one defense agency among many.[17] Childs formulated his argument as an internal critique of Ayn Rand’s political theory, but his dilemma challenges any theory combining libertarian rights with government sovereignty. Any “limited government” must either be ready to forcibly suppress private defense agencies—in which case it ceases to be limited, by initiating violence against peaceful people—or else it must be ready to coexist with them—abdicating its claim to sovereignty and ceasing to be a government. Since maintaining sovereignty requires an act of aggression, any government, in order to remain a government, must be ready to trample the liberty of its citizens, in order to establish and enforce a coercive monopoly over the protection of rights.[18]

At this point, some minarchists—most famously Robert Nozickaccept that a properly limited government cannot simply suppress competition from rights-respecting defense agencies (without ceasing to be properly limited), but reply that it can rightfully constrain competing defense agencies to obey certain norms, and in particular to respect certain procedural immunities for the accused. A lynch mob has no right to demand that they be allowed to “compete” with courts; a properly limited government has the right to prohibit procedures that impose unacceptable risks of punishment on the innocent.[19] If it can prohibit unreliable procedures, then it can force defense associations either to adopt permitted procedures or disband. But then government sovereignty reasserts itself, as the government becomes “the only generally effective enforcer of a prohibition on others’ using unreliable enforcement procedures … and … oversees these procedures” (Nozick 1974, 113–114). If a properly limited government reserves the right to authorize enforcement by approved defense agencies, and prohibit enforcement by rogue defense agencies, then it remains the sovereign authorizer of enforcement, even if it becomes one of many direct providers.

Governments probably are entitled to forbid enforcement procedures that violate the procedural immunities due to the accused. But unless the minarchist introduces some further reason to reserve this prerogative for the government, the Childs challenge applies as much to the protection of procedural immunities as to the ordinary protection of rights. If the government has a right to suppress rogue agencies, then so does anyone, as a matter of individual self-defense.[20] The universality of the right draws out a second point. Nozick makes the transition from dominant protective agency to minimal State by using language that suggests deputizing private citizens: the government makes a list of who can be trusted to enforce the law, and if you’re not on the list, then the government will stop you from taking the law into your own hands. What matters is whether or not the government has given you permission to act as a law-enforcer. The picture depends on a blurring of the distinction amongst argument, authoritative testimony, and prerogative. Defense associations may have the right to stop other enforcers from using unreliable procedures, but whether a procedure is unacceptably risky or not is a matter of fact, which can be characterized and discovered independently of the say-so of the government. The government’s seal of approval plays no constitutive role in the right of an agency to use procedures that are demonstrably legitimate, and the government’s own procedures must be subject to objective criticism as much as any private enforcer’s. A right to suppress unacceptably risky efforts at enforcement establishes no right to demand direct oversight of agencies’ procedures,[21] or to suppress “unauthorized” enforcers simply for not having the official approval of the government.

The language of “permission,” “prohibition,” and “oversight” obscures the distinction; but in fact the protection of procedural immunities is not properly understood in terms of giving permission at all, but rather respecting a general right.[22] The more generally and impersonally a defense agency specifies its procedural protections, the less they will resemble anything that could intelligibly be described as “oversight,” “giving permission,” or , broadly, the exercise of political authority. The more they resemble interventionist “oversight,” “giving permission,” or political authority, the more they will tread on the freedom of innocent people to enforce their own rights using reliable but unofficial procedures. The government in Nozick’s “minimal State” must either adopt general policies allowing for free competition without requiring grants of official permission—and once again ceases to exercise sovereignty—or else it must enforce its demands of oversight and official approval, even on agencies that are following reliable procedures—and once again ceases to be limited to defensive uses of force.

There is another possible reply I find more promising—indeed, convincing. Strictly speaking, Childs’s dilemma applies to only one branch of the government: he demonstrates that governments cannot claim a monopoly on enforcing the rights of citizens, i.e., on the executive functions of government. It establishes that anyone, not just the government and its official deputies, can enforce citizens’ rightful claims to person and property. But how is it determined which claims are rightful, and which claims are baseless? Robert Bidinotto has objected that anarchism demands not only “’competition’ in the protection of rights,” but also “’competition’ in defining what ‘rights’ are” (1994, ¶ 20); without a government established as the “final arbiter on the use of force in society” (1994, ¶ 25), there is no way to fix objective rules for the assertion of rights, and no possibility of meaningful settlement of disputes over rights-claims. So even if a minimal government cannot claim a monopoly on the executive functions, perhaps a “microscopic” government could claim a monopoly on legislation.[23]

Provided that the government legislature and government courts do not try to interfere with protection of rights by private citizens or defense associations, I cannot see how the Childs challenge could undermine sovereignty over legislation. But a second challenge, vigorously expressed in the later works of Lysander Spooner, can. In the “Letter to Grover Cleveland,” Spooner argues that all legislation is either criminal, tyrannical, or idle:[24]

Let me then remind you that justice is an immutable, natural principle; and not anything that can be made, unmade, or altered by any human power. … Lawmakers, as they call themselves, can add nothing to it, nor take anything from it. Therefore all their laws, as they call them, – that is, all the laws of their own making, – have no color of authority or obligation. It is a falsehood to call them laws; for there is nothing in them that either creates men’s [sic] duties or rights, or enlightens them as to their duties or rights. … If they command men to do justice, they add nothing to men’s obligation to do it, or to any man’s right to enforce it. They are therefore mere idle wind, such as would be commands to consider the day as day, and the night as night. If they command or license any man to do injustice, they are criminal on their face. If they command any man to do anything which justice does not require him to do, they are simple, naked usurpations and tyrannies. If they forbid any man to do anything, which justice could permit him to do, they are criminal invasions of his natural and rightful liberty. In whatever light, therefore, they are viewed, they are utterly destitute of everything like authority or obligation. (1886, ¶¶ 4–7)

Minarchists usually agree that governments have no legitimate authority to command violations of individual rights, or to forbid acts permitted by individual liberty—the motive for limiting government was the idea that legitimate political authority only exists within the boundaries drawn by individual rights. But Spooner’s point about laws that command justice or forbid injustice—prohibiting murder, theft, rape, etc.—may be harder to grasp. It is, after all, true that governments and defense associations are perfectly justified in enforcing those laws. But what must be appreciated here is that the obligation to follow those laws, and the right to enforce them, derives entirely from the content of the laws and not their source. The government is justified in enforcing those laws only because anybody would be justified in enforcing justice, whether or not self-styled legislators have signed off on a document stating “Murder is a crime most foul.” The document itself is idle; it neither obliges nor authorizes anyone to do anything they were not already obliged or free to do. The government is not so much making new laws that impose obligations, but (at best!) making declarations that recognize preexisting obligations—which could be objectively specified by anyone, with or without official approval from anyone.[25] Any right to override another’s assessment would derive from objective and impersonal considerations of justice, demonstrated through argument or attested on the basis of expertise,[26] not from political prerogatives invested in the so-called legislature. Anyone, regardless of status, has the right to make correct declarations about justice, and override or ignore incorrect declarations. With no special prerogative to establish rights, and no special prerogative to enforce them (as per the Childs challenge), the claim of “sovereignty” for a “properly limited government” must involve either usurpation or idle pretense.

That said, I do think that there is one final straw for the minarchist to grasp, even after the Childs challenge and the Spooner challenge have been taken into account, relating to a lacuna in Spooner’s account of the possible relationship between a piece of legislation and the background principles of justice. Spooner discussed three possible cases: (1) the legislation may demand something that contradicts what individual rights require—making it criminal; (2) it may demand something that exceeds what individual rights require—making it tyrannical; (3) it may demand something identical to what individual rights require—making it nugatory. Spooner’s argument presumes that the “prepolitical” framework of individual rights determines every question of enforceable obligations, leaving no room for legislators to exercise legitimate prerogative. But while these options cover the bulk of both the criminal and the civil law, Spooner has overlooked one important possibility: there may be cases where the principle of self-ownership does not fully specify how to apply individual rights in the case at hand.

It may be that respect for individual rights requires that cars going opposite directions on a highway should drive on opposite sides—so that drivers will not needlessly endanger each other’s lives. But self-ownership alone surely has nothing to say about whether motorists should drive on the left or the right. It requires that some rule be adopted, and that once adopted, each motorist obey it. But which rule to adopt is a question that needs to be settled by considerations other than individual rights. Medieval legal writers described similar cases as reducing the natural law (in the sense of making it more specific); the idea is to spell out the details for cases where the principles of natural justice underdetermine the correct application of individual rights. It may seem, then, that this ekes out a place for positive law-making in spite of the Spooner challenge: since there has to be some specification of how to apply rights in these cases, but more than one specification is compatible with the requirements of individual rights, a minarchist might think that you need a government to take on the prerogative of specifying which one to adopt.[27]

If the Childs challenge undermined the executive authority of the government, and the Spooner challenge undermined its legislative authority, you might think of this move as preserving judicial authority for a sovereign government. Sovereignty here means the right to serve as the final authority on setting out auxiliary principles for applying individual rights to specific cases where the requirements of self-ownership are vague or contingent. To be sure, the limits put on the scope of its authority by the Childs challenge and the Spooner challenge would be severe. The government would have no executive and no general legislature; it would have no special privileges to enforce and the scope of its law-making would be limited to ironing out minor details within a system of obligations almost entirely predetermined by the non-aggression principle. It would be a sort of “ultramicroscopic government,” so small that its influence on the specification and protection of rights could barely be detected at all.

Although I think that the problem of reducing the natural law is one of the hardest problems for anarchist theory to resolve, I do not think that the minarchist is actually in a stronger position than the anarchist. The difficulty for the minarchist solution can be brought out with a final challenge, also from the works of Lysander Spooner. This second Spooner challenge is expressed most clearly in No Treason no. 1:

The question still remains, how comes such a thing as “a nation” to exist? How do millions of men [sic], scattered over an extensive territory – each gifted by nature with individual freedom; required by the law of nature to call no man, or body of men, his masters; authorized by that law to seek his own happiness in his own way, to do what he will with himself and his property, so long as he does not trespass upon the equal liberty of others; authorized also, by that law, to defend his own rights, and redress his own wrongs; and to go to the assistance and defence of any of his fellow men who may be suffering any kind of injustice – how do millions of such men come to be a nation, in the first place? How is it that each of them comes to be stripped of his natural, God-given rights, and to be incorporated, compressed, compacted, and consolidated into a mass with other men, whom he never saw; with whom he has no contract; and towards many of whom he has no sentiments but fear, hatred, or contempt? How does he become subjected to the control of men like himself, who, by nature, had no authority over him; but who command him to do this, and forbid him to do that, as if they were his sovereigns, and he their subject; and as if their wills and their interests were the only standards of his duties and his rights; and who compel him to submission under peril of confiscation, imprisonment, and death?

Clearly all this is the work of force, or fraud, or both.

…. We are, therefore, driven to the acknowledgment that nations and governments, if they can rightfully exist at all, can exist only by consent. (Section III, ¶¶ 1–6)

Spooner’s aim in No Treason is, famously, to demonstrate that citizens are only obliged to recognize the sovereign authority when, and only for as long as, they genuinely, individually consent to recognize its authority. What I want to draw attention to are the reasons that Spooner suggests for the requirement. Here, Spooner questions the notion of a political jurisdiction, asking what by what right some gang calling itself “the government,” however strictly limited, gains authority over otherwise unrelated people who never had anything to do with them? If there is some question of different ways in which rights could be applied, then what sort of process and what sorts of relationship justify the special claim that even an ultramicroscopic government would make to establish their judgment in preference to all the others?

Spooner suggests that genuine, individual consent can explain their authority over a jurisdiction. Suppose that Twain and Kearney have a dispute over how long land must be left unused before it can be reclaimed as abandoned property. If they both agree to turn the question over to Norton and defer to his judgment, then it’s clear how Norton got jurisdiction over the case: Twain and Kearney agreed to bind themselves to his judgment. But suppose that Twain and Kearney never agreed to turn the question over to Norton, perhaps never even had anything to do with Norton at all. If Norton should insist that they should still defer to his judgment, because he is the Emperor, then Norton has the burden of explaining what binds Twain and Kearney to him in such a way that his judgment is more authoritative than anybody’s arbitrary fiat. Even if the vague boundary between between Kearney’s and Twain’s claims needs to be made more precise, where does Norton, specifically, get the right to enforce his specification, except by consent of the disputing parties?

If consent is the standard, then the consent must be genuine. In particular, it must be possible to refuse consent, or to withdraw it later once given.[28] That means that consent cannot justify any government body claiming permanent and irrevocable sovereignty. If a court’s jurisdiction depends on the consent of those who have put themselves under it, then each of those people must be individually free to take herself out of the jurisdiction and create or align herself with another jurisdiction. But without consent, it’s hard to see what distinguishes the government’s assertion of special authority from arbitrary fiat. If a community has settled on the rule of one year rather than two for abandonment, the government has no authority to arbitrarily override the settled conventions. If folks are divided over the right rule to follow, but have agreed to submit the dispute to some third party whom they trust more than the government, the government has no authority to butt in to enforce its own decision over the agreed terms. If folks are divided over the right rule to follow, and have not made any steps toward resolving the dispute, then the government has no authority to arbitrarily force itself on them as the arbiter.[29]

Liberty cannot coexist with government sovereignty, however “limited.” The claim of sovereignty must be backed up by coercion at some point, given up or reduced to a vacuous arrangement of words, whether sovereignty is claimed over the enforcement of rights, the definition of rights, or the application of rights. Any way you slice it, government sovereignty means an invasion of individual freedom, and individual freedom means, ultimately, freedom from the State.

Equality

The standard against which I have been measuring minarchist governments in each of these three challenges is based on an intuitive notion of Liberty that I have taken more or less for granted. That might expose me to allegations that I’ve made my case by misapplying or inflating the concept of “liberty” beyond the conceptual or material context that gives it meaning. In my defense, I want to offer some remarks on the conceptual context within which I think the principles of self-ownership and individual liberty arise, and to consider two possible objections to the argument of the previous section. First, it might be held that I have demonstrated a genuine conflict between individual liberty and government authority, but that coercion is justified in the limited case of establishing government sovereignty, either because some other important value is at stake, or else because a little coercion is a necessary evil to avoid much greater or much worse coercion. Or, it might be held that I have only seemingly demonstrated a conflict between individual liberty and government authority by applying the concepts of liberty and coercion outside of the context within which they are meaningful: in this case, government authority could not be properly characterized as either “coercive” or “non-coercive,” perhaps because (for example) notions such as coercion and freedom are only meaningful within a system of rights, and a system of rights is only meaningful in the context of a functioning legal system. I think that either charge reflects a failure to appreciate the conceptual relationship between the revolutionary demands for Liberty and Equality.

Attaching my controversial understanding of liberty to the standard of equality might seem less than prudent, if my interlocutor is a minarchist libertarian. Modern libertarians make demands for individual liberty with passion and urgency; their reaction to demands for social equality is more often tepid if not openly hostile. Criticism of social inequality is much more likely to be heard from the mouths of unreconstructed statists, and “egalitarianism” is hardly a term of praise in most libertarian intellectual circles. But I shall argue that equality, rightly understood, is the best grounds for principled libertarianism. When the conception of individual liberty is uprooted from the demand for social equality, the radicalism of libertarianism withers; it also leaves the libertarian open to a family of conceptual confusions which prop up many of the common minarchist arguments against anarchism.

My task, then, is to explain what I mean by “equality, rightly understood.” I certainly do not intend to suggest that liberty is conceptually dependent on economic equality (of either opportunity or outcome), or on equality of socio-cultural status.[30] But the equality I have in mind is also much more substantive than the formal “equality before the law” or “equality of rights” suggested by some libertarians and classical liberals, and rightly criticized by Leftists as an awfully thin glove over a very heavy fist. Formal equality within a statist political system, pervaded with pillage and petty tyranny, is hardly worth fighting for; the point is to challenge the system, not to be equally shoved around by it. The conception of equality that I have in mind has a history on the Left older and no less revolutionary than the redistributionist conception of socioeconomic equality. It is the equality that the French revolutionaries had in mind when they demanded egalité, and which the American revolutionaries had in mind when they stated:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Jefferson 1776a ¶ 2)

Jefferson is making revolutionary use of concepts drawn from the English liberal tradition. Equality, for Jefferson, is the basis for independence, and the grounds from which individual rights derive.[31] Locke elucidates the concept when he characterizes a “state of Perfect freedom”—the state to which everyone is naturally entitled—as

A State also of Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection …. (1690, II. 4. ¶ 2)

The Lockean conception of equality that underwrites Jefferson’s revolutionary doctrine of individual liberty is, as Roderick Long (2001a) has argued, equality of political authority. Jefferson and Locke denied, as arbitrary, the Old Regime’s claim of a natural entitlement to lordship over their fellow creatures. Ranks of superior and inferior political authority were not established by natural differences in station or ordained by the will of God Almighty. Political coercion is the material expression of a claim of unequal authority: one person is entitled to dictate terms over another’s person and property, and the other can be forced to obey. Declaring universal equality thus means denying all such claims of lordship, and, thus, asserting that everyone has authority over herself, and over herself alone. Equality is the context within which the principle of self-ownership, and thus the demand for individual freedom, takes root. This connection can be seen most explicitly in the second Spooner challenge above. Spooner’s demand to know how free and independent people are “compacted” together into a State against their will is intimately connected with the protest against arbitrary assertions of a right to dominate the affairs of others. Long points out that neither socioeconomic equality nor formal legal equality “calls into question the authority of those who administer the legal system; such administrators are merely required to ensure equality, of the relevant sort, among those administered. … Lockean equality involves not merely equality before legislators, judges, and police, but, far more crucially, equality with legislators, judges, and police” (¶¶ 22–25). Whether or not Jefferson was right to treat the equality of authority as self-evident, a minarchist should hardly want to deny that it is true. The idea that legitimate governments must be constrained by the non-aggression principle no less than private citizens, and the individualist conception of rights, seem clearly rooted in the notion of equal authority.[32]

But whenever a minarchist brandishes equality of authority against statism, she also undermines her case for any form of State sovereignty. Considering liberty in light of equality systematically undermines both of the objections considered above, and justifies the unlimited demand for Liberty that I have employed. Insofar as the first objection depends on consequentialist calculation—holding that liberty can be sacrificed either in the name of other goods, or in the name of maximizing the total amount of liberty going around—it necessarily conflicts with a demand for equal authority. The objection presupposes someone to do the consequentialist calculations, supposedly entitled to treat all goods, no matter whom they belong to, as common booty to be distributed. By claiming the right to volunteer not only her own liberty, but also other people’s liberty for sacrificial duty, the consequentialist exempts herself from the standard of equality, pretending that she is entitled to stand over everyone and pass judgment on their liberty, taking some from Peter and rendering some to Paul in the name of the cause. Equality means that other people’s lives and livelihoods are not hers to give, no matter the results she might get from it.[33]

The second sort of objection conflicts with equality in a different way. It suggests, not that someone can legitimately violate one person’s liberty in order to secure benefits for others, but that the force involved in establishing sovereignty cannot be assessed under standards of liberty at all, because the categorization of force as either aggressive or defensive is only meaningful within the context of a functioning government legal order. Thus, Bidinotto’s argument (1994) that the demand for liberty, when applied unconditionally outside the background context of a limited sovereign government, divorces rights-claims from the “final standard” to settle them, and degrades into a programme for unrestrained tyranny and civil war.

But it is Bidinotto, not the anarchist, who strips the concept of liberty out of its proper context. The objection depends on a particular picture of the State and its laws, which is as metaphysically illusive as it is captivating. The State is imagined as a sort of titan standing over civil society, binding it to its will and acting on it from without. The constraints that a particular government imposes under the mantle of State authority may be tyrannical or just, but whether used properly or abused, the peculiar standpoint and the constraining force of the State seem necessary for any stable social order, and sufficient to decisively settle disputes just by being asserted. Since anarchy dispenses with the external constraints of the State, the minarchist feels that all rights-claims will be left, as it were, hanging in the air, with no final authority to ground them. It is this mystique of the State that Randolph Bourne set out to expose by distinguishing amongst the Nation, the State, and the Government:

The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. … Government on the other hand is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can envisage the State, but it is by no means identical with it. That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamor and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities. (Bourne 1919, § 1 ¶¶ 8-9)

Equality of authority dulls the mystical glamor of State authority. The law is a human institution, and the legitimate authority of individual rights-claims does not need to be grounded in the dominance of a sovereign, or proclaimed from a standpoint beyond the fragile social relationships among fallible, mortal human beings. A good thing, too, since there is no Olympian standpoint for the State to occupy; governments are made of people with no more special authority than you or I—even when they are speaking ex cathedra in the name of the State. Rights are grounded in the claims that each of us, as ordinary human beings, are entitled to hold each other to, and are implemented not by paper laws but by the concrete social and cultural relationships we participate in. Roderick Long (2008) shows that if the “final standard” demanded by Bidinotto is the realistic finality that comes from a broad consensus that an issue has been settled and should not be revisited, then it can be achieved through anarchist institutions no less than through a government; if the “finality” demanded is some sort of self-applying, self-grounding finality immune to even the possibility of further dispute, then that is not available even under a government, the mystique of State authority notwithstanding.[34] The choice is not between a system where disputes are never meaningfully settled and one where they are, but between one in which they are settled through a decentralized network of institutions holding each other in check, or through a centralized hierarchy forcing others to defer to it. And, as Long argues, anarchy actually provides a better hope for disputes to be settled justly than minarchy—especially when an arbitrator is herself a party to the dispute—because under anarchy the watchers are themselves watched, and are less able to force through unjust rulings simply in virtue of their dominant position.

The context of a concept is often conceived as a constraint on the concept, and context-dropping as a matter of applying the concept more widely than it should be applied. But dropping the context of a concept could make you go wrong in either of two ways: improper abstraction might inflate the application of the concept beyond its domain of significance; or it might conceal the concept’s significance in cases where it should be applied. Understood in the context of Equality, the principle of Liberty becomes more radical, not less, challenging all forms of State mysticism with the standard of individual sovereignty. Dispelling the mystical conception of the State also reveals the need for concrete attitudes, practices and relationships to sustain a free society, not just paper laws to “limit” tyranny. Which brings me to Solidarity.

Solidarity

I have chosen the word “Solidarity” to stand for a family of cultural and political commitments usually associated with the radical Left, among them labor radicalism, populism, internationalism, anti-racism, gay liberation, and radical feminism. These commitments share a common concern with the class dynamics of power and a sensitivity to expressions of non-governmental forms of oppression. They demand fundamental change in the cultural and material conditions faced by oppressed people, and propose that the oppressed organize themselves into autonomous movements to struggle for those changes. They also emphasize strikes, boycotts, mutual aid, worker cooperatives, and other forms of collective action, both as a means to social transformation and also as foundational institutions of the transformed society once achieved. These shared concerns and demands have often been summed up in the call for “social justice”—a slogan assailed by Hayek (1978) and reflexively associated, by libertarians and state Leftists alike, with expansion of the anti-discrimination and welfare bureaucracies.

But solidaritarian ends can be separated from authoritarian means, and the relationship between Liberty and Solidarity has not always been so chilly. 19th century libertarians, particularly the individualist anarchists associated with Benjamin Tucker’s magazine Liberty, identified with the cultural radicalism of their day – including the labor movement, abolitionism, First Wave feminism, freethought, and “free love.” Indeed, while Tucker described his position as “Absolute Free Trade; … laissez faire the universal rule” (1888, ¶ 21), he and his circle routinely identified themselves as socialists—not to set themselves against the ideal of the free market, but against actually existing big business. They argued that plutocratic control over finance and capital was the creature of, and the driving force behind, government economic regimentation and government-granted monopolies.[35] The Tuckerite individualists saw the invasive powers of the State as intimately connected and mutually reinforcing with the exploitation of labor, racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression, with governments acting to enforce social privilege, and drawing ideological and material support from existing power dynamics.[36] From their point of view, attacking statism alone, without addressing the broader social context, would be narrow and ultimately self-frustrating.

Today the leading intellectual force in the effort to connect libertarianism with a comprehensive vision of human liberation is Chris Sciabarra,[37] who has advanced the argument in a series of books and articles over the past two decades, most extensively in his “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy (1995b, 1995a, 2000). Sciabarra persuasively advocates a dialectical orientation in libertarian social thought, which attends not only to the structural dynamics of statism but also to the extragovernmental context of statism in cultural, psychological, and philosophical dimensions. But unlike the 19th century individualists, Sciabarra argues that dialectics pose a substantial challenge to libertarian anarchism. In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, he sympathetically interprets Rand’s polemical defense of minarchism as a dialectical effort to transcend a false dualism between statism and anarchism (1995a, 278-283). In Total Freedom he devotes four chapters to a charitable but systematic critique of Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism, and the underlying conception of liberty as “universally applicable, regardless of the context within which it is embedded or applied” (2000, 218). Sciabarra argues that, at crucial junctures, Rothbard idealizes the market and the State into dualistic, opposed spheres, related only through “the external, mutually antagonistic relationship between voluntarism and coercion” (2000, 355). This dualism leads Rothbard to romanticize market processes, proposing “the monistic, utopian resolution of anarcho-capitalism, in which the state’s functions were fully absorbed by the market” (360). Thus Rothbard limits libertarianism to a narrow focus on structural and political questions, and exhibits a “lack of attention to the vast context within which [libertarian principles] might exist, evolve, and thrive” (355).[38]

Whether or not Rothbard himself is actually guilty of the “unanchored utopianism” Sciabarra attributes to him (2000, 202), Sciabarra’s criticism identifies real strands of thought within the individualist anarchist tradition.[39] But in light of the discussion of Equality above, it seems that minarchists are actually far more prone to synoptic delusions and narrowly political reform than anarchists: the mystique of State authority depends on a picture of the State as an external constraint on civil society, whereas egalitarian anarchism highlights the fact that freedom is a matter of concrete relations within society. In any case, the best response to Sciabarra’s challenge is to exhibit a dialectical anarchism, which connects anarchism with a systematic understanding and critique of the dynamics of social power, both inside and outside of the State apparatus. To aid in doing so, I’d like to set out some of the different possible relationships between libertarianism and “thicker” bundles of socio-cultural commitments, which would recommend integrating the two:

  1. Entailment thickness: the commitments might just be applications of libertarian principle to some special case, following from non-aggression simply in light of non-contradiction.[40]

  2. Application thickness: it might be that you could reject commitments without formally contradicting the non-aggression principle, but not without in fact interfering with its proper application. Principles beyond libertarianism alone may be necessary for determining where my rights end and yours begin, or stripping away conceptual blinders that prevent certain violations of liberty from being recognized as such.

  3. Strategic thickness: certain ideas, practices, or projects may be causal preconditions for a flourishing free society, giving libertarians strategic reasons to endorse them. Although rejecting them would be logically compatible with libertarianism, it might make it harder for libertarian ideas to get much purchase, or might lead a free society towards poverty, statism or civil war.

  4. Grounds thickness: some commitments might be consistent with the non-aggression principle, but might undermine or contradict the deeper reasons that justify libertarian principles. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without the bundle, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the bundle means rejecting the grounds for libertarianism.

  5. Conjunction thickness: commitments might be worth adopting for their own sakes, independent of libertarian considerations. All that is asserted is that you ought to be a libertarian (for whatever reason), and, as it happens, you also ought to accept some further commitments (for independent reasons).

The two extreme cases, entailment thickness and conjunction thickness, can largely be set aside, since the “relationship” between libertarianism and the further commitment is either so tight (identity) or so loose (mere conjunction) as to make the point vacuous. But the three intermediate cases of application thickness, strategic thickness, and grounds thickness make deeper connections between libertarianism and a rich set of further commitments that naturally complement libertarianism.

Consider the conceptual and strategic reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. If libertarianism is rooted in the principle of equality of authority, then there are good reasons to think that not only political structures of coercion, but also the whole system of status and unequal authority deserves libertarian criticism. And it is important to realize that that system includes not only exercises of coercive power, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authorities. In the political realm, these patterns of deference show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive etiquette, and unquestioning obedience extended to heads of state, judges, police, and other visible representatives of government “law and order.” Although these rituals and habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced voluntarily. Similar expectations of deference show up, to greater or lesser degrees, in cultural attitudes towards bosses in the workplace, and parents in the family. Submission to traditionally constituted authorities is reinforced not only through violence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons, historiography, journalism, childrearing, etc. Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of inequality of authority, you could—in principle—have an authoritarian social order without the exercise of coercion. Even in an anarchist society, everyone might voluntarily agree to bow and scrape when speaking before the (mutually agreed-on) town Chief. So long as the expectation of deference was backed up only by means of verbal harangues, social ostracism of “unruly” dissenters, culturally glorifying the authorities, etc., it would violate no-one’s individual liberty and could not justifiably be resisted with force.

But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about envisioning these sorts of societies, it is certainly weird. If the underlying reason for committing to libertarian politics is rooted in the equality of political authority, then even strictly voluntary expressions of inequality are hard to reasonably reconcile with libertarianism. Yes, the meek could voluntarily agree to bow and scrape, and the proud could angrily but nonviolently demand obsequious forms of address and immediate obedience to their fiat. But why should they? Libertarian equality delegitimizes the notion of a natural right to rule or dominate other people’s affairs; the vision of human beings as rational, independent agents of their own destiny renders deference and unquestioning obedience ridiculous at best, and probably dangerous to liberty in the long run. While no-one should be forced to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or cultivate independent self-reliance and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for reasons of both grounds and strategic thickness.

General commitments to anti-authoritarianism, if applied to specific forms of social power, have far-reaching implications for the relationship between libertarianism and anti-racism, gay liberation, and other movements for social transformation. I have written elsewhere on the strategic and conceptual importance of radical feminist insights to libertarianism, and vice versa.[41] The causal and conceptual interconnections between patriarchal authority, the cult of violent masculinity, and the militaristic State have been discussed by radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan, as well as radical libertarians such as Herbert Spencer and, more recently, Carol Moore.[42] Moreover, the insights of feminists such as Susan Brownmiller into the pervasiveness of rape, battery, and other forms of male violence against women, present both a crisis and an opportunity for the application of libertarian principles.

Libertarianism professes to be a comprehensive theory of human freedom; what supposedly distinguishes the libertarian theory of justice is that we concern ourselves with violent coercion no matter who is practicing it. But what feminists have forced into the public eye in the last 30 years is that we live in a society where one out of every four women faces rape or battery by an intimate partner,[43] and where women are threatened or attacked by men who profess to love them, because the men coercing them believe they have a right to control “their” women. Male violence against women is nominally illegal but nevertheless systematic, motivated by the desire for control, culturally excused, and hideously ordinary. For libertarians, this should sound eerily familiar; confronting the reality of male violence means nothing less than recognizing the existence of a violent political order working alongside, and independently of, the violent political order of statism.[44] Male supremacy has its own ideological rationalizations, its own propaganda, its own expropriation, and its own violent enforcement; although often in league with the male-dominated State, male violence is older, more invasive, closer to home, and harder to escape than most forms of statism. To seriously oppose all political violence, libertarians need to fight, at least, a two-front war, against both statism and male supremacy. It is, then, important to note how the ideological dichotomy between “personal” and “political” problems, so often criticized by feminists,[45] has tended to blank out systemic male violence from libertarian analysis. And also how the writings of some libertarians on the family—especially those identified with the “paleolibertarian” political-cultural project—have amounted to little more than outright denial of male violence. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, for example, goes so far as to indulge in the conservative fantasy that the traditional “internal layers and ranks of authority” in the family are actually bulwarks of “resistance vis-a-vis the state” (Hoppe 2001 § IV). Those “ranks of authority” in the family mean the pater familias; but whether father-right is, at a given historical moment, in league with or at odds with State prerogatives, the fact that it is so widely enforced by the threat or practice of male violence makes enlisting it in the struggle against statism look much like enlisting Stalin to fight Hitler—no matter who wins, we all lose.

Considerations of grounds and strategy also suggest important connections between anarchism and the virtue of voluntary mutual aid between workers, in the form of community organizations, charitable projects, and labor unions. Once again, the underlying reasons for valuing Liberty also give good reasons for committing to voluntary solidarity with your fellow people. One could in principle believe that everyone ought to be free to pursue her own ends while also holding that nobody’s ends actually matter except her own.[46] But again, while the position is possible, it is weird; one of the best reasons for being concerned about the freedom of others to pursue their own ends is a certain generalized respect for the importance of other people’s lives and the integrity of their choices, which is intimately connected with the libertarian conception of Equality. That says nothing in favor of forcing you to participate in welfare schemes,[47] or robbing Peter to pay Paul; but it does say something for working with your neighbors in voluntary cooperative efforts to improve your own lives or the lives of others. It’s likely also that networks of voluntary aid organizations would be strategically important to individual flourishing in a free society, in which there would be no expropriative welfare bureaucracy for people living with poverty or precarity to fall back on. Projects reviving the bottom-up, solidaritarian spirit of the independent unions and mutual aid societies that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the rise of the welfare bureaucracy, may be essential for a flourishing free society, and one of the primary means by which workers could take control of their own lives, without depending on either bosses or bureaucrats.[48]

If 20th century libertarians have mostly failed to emphasize the potential for cooperative mutual aid, the failure can be traced to two related confusions, born of undialectical analysis and the failure to integrate Liberty with Solidarity. The first conflates the principles of mutual aid with government coercion in the name of “social welfare”—most dramatically in the visceral hostility most 20th century libertarians expressed towards labor unionism. Libertarian critics have often condemned unions as “bands of thugs,”[49] the government-privileged foot soldiers of a stagnant, interventionist political economy. Currently existing labor unions do use coercive means to organize—in the United States, employers are forced to enter into collective bargaining with unions that gain National Labor Relations Board recognition, and non-violent means of opposing unionization drives, such as retaliatory firing, are legally prohibited. The official, government-privileged union establishment also has for decades sought more government planning and economic intervention. But treating the existing union establishment as representative of the essential features of organized labor disregards the historical process by which unions were co-opted, captured, and domesticated by the expanding State bureaucracy during the 1920s-1950s. The process was achieved with the collaboration of one conservative faction within the labor movement, represented most visibly by the “business unionism” of the AFL, which gained leverage over its many competitors and seats in the back-rooms of power through the new system of patronage.[50] It would be hard to discover from the writings of anti-union libertarians that labor unions existed before the Wagner Act of 1935, or that around the turn of the century one of the most vibrant wings of organized labor were the radical, anarchist-led unions, most famously the I.W.W., which rejected all attempts to influence or capture State power.[51] They argued that putting economic power into the government’s hands deprived workers of control over their own fate, and wasted unions’ resources on bureaucracy and partisan maneuvering. Although they worked for incremental improvements in wages and conditions, they ultimately hoped to win not reforms of the existing capitalist system, but workers’ ownership of the “means of production”—the land, factories, and tools they labored with—not through the political means of expropriation (as the Marxists suggested), but through the economic means of free association, agitation, direct action, voluntary strikes, union solidarity, and mutual aid between workers, which would “build a new society within the shell of the old.” The emerging new society, far from the central planning boards of state socialism, would be a world of independent contractors and worker-owned co-ops, organized from the bottom up by the workers themselves.

It was only through the political collaboration of the establishmentarian union bosses and the “Progressive” business class—in the form of violent persecution of the radicals, such as the Palmer raids, and government patronage to establishment unions through the NLRB—that the centralized, statist unionism of the AFL-CIO rose to dominance within the labor movement.[52] Union methods are legally regulated and union demands effectively constrained to modest (and easily revoked) improvements in wages and conditions—with issues such as workers’ voice in the workplace, let alone control of the means of production, dropped entirely. The only real power remaining to effect more substantial changes comes through their power as organized blocs for lobbying and electioneering. If unionism is today mostly statist, then it is because unions are largely what the State has made them, through the usual carrots and sticks of government interventionism.

General Motors has benefited at least as much from government patronage as the UAW, yet libertarian criticism of the magnates of state capitalism is hardly extended to business as such in the way that criticism of existing unions is routinely extended to any form of organized labor. The difference in treatment is no doubt closely connected with the emphasis many 20th century libertarians placed on defending capitalism against the attacks of state socialists. While they were right to see that existing modes of production should not be further distorted by even greater government regimentation, this insight was often perverted into the delusion that existing modes of production would be the natural outcome of an undistorted market. The confusion has been encouraged by systematic ambiguity in the term “capitalism,” which has been used to name at least three different economic systems:

  1. The free market: any economic order that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor, free of government intervention and other forms of systemic coercion.

  2. The corporate State: government intervention favoring cartelized big business, through subsidies, tax-funded infrastructure, central banking, production boards, eminent domain seizures, government union-busting, etc.

  3. Alienation of labor: a specific form of labor market, in which the dominant economic activity is production in workplaces strictly divided by class, where most workers work for a boss, in return for a wage, surviving by renting out their labor to someone else. The shop, and the tools and facilities that make it run, are owned by the boss or by absentee owners to whom the boss reports, not by the workers themselves.

Since government intervention always ends with the barrel of a gun, free market “capitalism” and corporate state “capitalism” cannot coexist at the same time and in the same respect. “Capitalism” in the third sense—the alienation of labor—is a category independent of “capitalism” in either of the first two senses. There are many ways that a labor market might turn out; it could be organized into traditional employer-employee relationships, worker co-ops, community workers’ councils, or a diffuse network of shopkeeps and independent contractors. Unflinching free marketeers might advocate any of these, or might be indifferent as to which prevails; interventionist statists might also favor traditional employer-employee relationships (as under fascism) or any number of different arrangements (as under state communism). Once these three senses are disentangled, it is important to see how 20th century libertarian defenses of “capitalism” against interventionist critique have fallen into a second conflation, between economic defenses of (1) the free market, and (2, 3) the way that big business operates in the unfree market that actually exists today. This confused approach, aptly dubbed “vulgar libertarianism” by Kevin Carson,[53] obscures the ways in which actually existing businesses benefit from pervasive government intervention, and blinds “capitalist” libertarians to the affinity between anti-statist models of labor organizing and libertarian defenses of free markets.

Disentangling free market economics from the particular market structure of alienated labor reveals some good reasons to think that there are serious economic problems with bureaucratic, centralized corporate commerce that rose to dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries under the auspices of “Nationalist” and “Progressive” interventionism.[54] Central planners face the knowledge problems identified by Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard whether those planners are government or corporate bureaucrats.[55] If workers are often deeply unhappy with the regimented, authoritarian structure of corporate workplaces, then there is also reason to believe that many would happily dump the bosses off their backs in favor of more autonomous forms of work, as those become widespread, successful, and economically reliable. Thus there is reason to think that in a free market less hierarchical, less centralized, more worker-focused forms of production would multiply and bureaucratic big business would wither under the pressure of competition.[56] Since the cooperative, bottom-up model of labor unionism offers one of the best existing models for practically asserting workers’ self-interest, and ultimately replacing boss-centric industry with decentralized, worker-centric production, there are good reasons for libertarians to integrate wildcat unionism into their understanding of social power.

Solidaritarian considerations may also shed some light on the standing debate amongst libertarians over secession and constitutional centralism. Liberty in the abstract demands a universal right of secession; to keep any one person or any group of people under a government that they wish to exit requires you to violate their individual liberty in at least one of the three ways challenged above. But voluntarily organized protection agencies, arbiters, etc. could still claim wide or narrow jurisdictions, and could organize their administrative and juridical functions into rigid hierarchies or take a more “horizontal,” decentralized approach. Affirming a right of secession does not answer the constitutional question of which free arrangement libertarians ought to prefer. But the same solidaritarian considerations that tell against centralization and hierarchy in making widgets should tell even more strongly against centralization and hierarchy in political power. The pretensions of the powerful threaten a free society when it is hard to defend yourself physically against abuses of the power entrusted to defense associations, or intellectually against the allure of State mysticism. And there are good prima facie reasons to suppose that people will be better able to resist both threats by devolving power from centralized seats of power down to the local level, with arbitration and enforcement handled face-to-face through diffuse networks of local associations, rather than mediated through powerful, bureaucratized hegemons.

Centralists may object that the historical record is more complex, and less favorable to decentralism, than prima facie considerations would suggest. While a centralized political power has more resources and a wider scope to enforce coercive demands, local powers are often more subject to parochial prejudices, and can often enforce them with force that is less diffuse, closer to home, and therefore more intense than anything a mighty but remote central government could muster. American history seems to illustrate this point dramatically with the case of the Confederacy, in which the opponents of federal power urged secession in order to strengthen and perpetuate the absolute tyranny of chattel slavery.[57] But what is needed here is a more radical decentralism, dissociated from the humbug of “states’ rights.” Decentralist libertarians are perfectly justified in supporting the white Southerners’ right to secede, and condemning the bayonet-point Unionism of the Civil War—provided that they also support black slaves’ rights to secede from the Southern states, and condemn the bayonet-point paternalism of the Southern slave-lords. The approach here is to condemn the federal war against secession, while also supporting the efforts of black Southerners to free themselves, through escape or open rebellion.[58] The problem with the Confederacy was not the defiance of federal authority, but the elevation of state authority over the objections of poor whites and black slaves: too much, not too little, centralized power. Nothing other than pure mysticism limits secession to states or provinces: provincial governments enjoy no more sovereign authority over their citizens than the federal government does, and the same principles that justify the withdrawal of states from the federal union also justify counties or cities withdrawing from state governments, and neighborhoods or individual citizens withdrawing from local governments, or from any government anywhere.

Liberty, understood in the context of Equality and Solidarity, calls for political revolution against all forms of government, no matter how “limited,” and overweening centralization of power even in non-coercive institutions. But “revolution” itself takes on a different character when the obscuring haze of State mysticism has been dispelled. If “revolution” means the process of dissolving the legal authority of a government, then revolution is quite easy to achieve. You have no obligation to obey any government longer than you choose to remain under it; once you have declared your intent to withdraw from the State, no government on earth has the authority to force you to recognize its authority over you—let alone to force you to pay taxes or regiment your behavior. If a government’s orders invade your rights—and all governments’ orders eventually do—then you have every right to withdraw from, ignore, defy, or resist it however seems best to you. Earlier, I stated that this essay’s purpose was political revolution; then I stated that it was merely to convince you to become an anarchist. But it should now be clear that I was not moving the goalposts. If you become an anarchist, then you have already completed the revolution: no government on earth has any legitimate authority to bind you to any obligation that you did not already have on your own. It’s a mistake to think of the State as holding you under its authority while you struggle to escape; at the most, it has power, not authority over you. As far as your former government is concerned, you have the moral standing not of a subject, but of the head of a revolutionary state of one.

Of course, that leaves the question of how best to defend your revolutionary state from counter-revolutionary invasion. Declaring yourself independent really is enough to release you from any obligation to your former government—but try telling that to the judge. Still, the first task is to recognize your situation for what it is. Minarchism, by leaving the myth of legal authority unchallenged, concedes moral dignity to the statists that they have not earned. The point is to challenge not only the abuses of government authority, but the normal uses of that authority—to see the taxmen, policemen, hangmen, and Congressmen who invade your liberties not as unruly representatives of a State with authority over you, but a sanctimonious gang of robbers, swindlers, and usurpers bringing war upon you. Once you have recognized that, you can begin to think intelligently about the best cultural and material arrangements for defending against them. I have already discussed a few of the particulars above; the rest is another discussion for another essay.[59]

Charles Johnson (2008)

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References

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  3. Bidinotto, Robert J. (1994). “The Contradiction in Anarchism.”
  4. Block, Walter (2006). “Libertarianism is unique; it belongs neither to the right nor the left: a critique of the views of Long, Holcombe, and Baden on the left, Hoppe, Feser and Paul on the right.” Mises Institute Working Paper.
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[1] For the purposes of this essay, I will mostly be using the term “anarchism” as shorthand for “individualist anarchism;” since the defense of anarchism I will offer rests on individualist principles, it will not provide a cogent basis for communist, primitivist, or other non-individualist forms of anarchism. And I will use the term “individualist anarchism” in a broad sense, to describe any position that (1) denies the legitimacy of any form of (monopoly) government authority, (2) on individualist ethical grounds. As I will use it, the term picks out a family of similar doctrines, not a particular self-description or historical tradition. Thus it includes, but is not limited to, the specific 19th and early 20th century socialist movement known as “individualist anarchism,” whose members included Benjamin Tucker, Victor Yarros, and Voltairine de Cleyre. It also includes the views of 20th and 21st century“anarcho-capitalists” such as Murray Rothbard and David Friedman; contemporary self-described “individualist anarchists” and “mutualists” such as Wendy McElroy, Joe Peacott, and Kevin Carson; and of others, such as Gustave de Molinari, Lysander Spooner, or Robert LeFevre, who rejected the State on individualist grounds but declined (for whatever reasons) to refer to themselves as “anarchists.” Many self-described “socialist” anarchists deny that “anarcho-capitalism” should be counted as a form of anarchism at all, or associated with individualist anarchism in particular; many self-described “anarcho-capitalists” deny that “socialist” anarchism should be counted as a form of genuine individualism, or genuine anarchism. With all due respect to my comrades on the Left and on the Right, I will use the term in an ecumenical sense, for reasons of style, and also because the relationship between anarchism, “capitalism,” and “socialism” is one of the substantive issues to be discussed in the course of this essay.

[3] “Libertarianism” as discussed in this essay is a theory of political justice, not a position on the Nolan Chart. “Small government” types who speak kindly of economic freedom or civil liberties may or may not qualify as “libertarians” for the purpose of my discussion. Those who treat liberty as one political good that must be balanced against other goods such as social stability, economic prosperity, democratic rule, or socioeconomic equality, and should sometimes be sacrificed for their sake, are unlikely to count. Since they are not committed to the ideal of liberty as a principled constraint on all political power, they are no more likely to be directly convinced by my arguments than progressives, traditionalists, communists, etc.

[4] Of course, the male Left of the day actually demanded fraternité, “brotherhood.” I’ll speak of “solidarity” instead of “brotherhood” for the obvious anti-sexist reasons, and also for its association with the history of the labor movement. There are few causes in America that most 20th century libertarians were less sympathetic to than organized labor, but I have chosen to speak of “the value of solidarity,” in spite of all that, for the same reasons that Ayn Rand chose to speak of “the virtue of selfishness:” in order to prove a point. The common criticisms of organized labor from the 20th century libertarian movement, and the relationship between liberty and organized labor, are one of the topics I will discuss below.

[5] Thus the libertarian emphasis on both personal freedom and private property rights. One way to treat someone as if she were your slave is to force her to serve your ends rather than her own: by forcing her to apply her own labor and property to some end that she would not have freely agreed to support, or by forcing her to withhold her own labor and property from some end that she would have freely agreed to support. Another way to treat someone as if she were your slave is to force her to labor for your profit. Even if you do not force her to work on one job rather than another, you are still effectively enslaving her by taking the fruits of her labor for your own purposes.

[6] Thus Jefferson 1776a: “… That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [sic], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (¶ 2).

[7] It should be clear that this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for counting as the government of a given State. Anybody might claim the right to issue enforceable legal orders, but only some of the claimants are part of the government. (I gather that there are still Bourbon pretenders who claim the right to rule France; but whatever their aspirations, they are not currently the government of France.) But for any institution to count as the government, it must at least make the claim, or act in a way that manifests the claim: an institution that did not even claim the right to make enforceable legal orders might very well issue political position papers; it might give advice on how to live; but it would not be making laws.

[8] This is a deliberate revision to the Weberian conception of the State as a monopoly on the use of legally accepted force. While most modern governments claim such sweeping authority over enforcement, it is sheer anachronism to try to build a claim of territorial monopoly into the definition of the State. Historically many constitutions have taken it for granted that certain forms of force (e.g. by parents against children, by husbands against wives, by masters against slaves) are simply outside of the purview of the law. It’s true that under most States throughout history, parents have been able to beat their children without legal repercussions. But it would be a serious mistake to infer from this that the government (as sole arbiter of legal enforcement in the territory within which the family lives) has authorized or deputized parents to beat their children. Rather, the enforceable authority of parents over children was thought simply to be a “private” matter, beyond the “public” realm of questions that the State claims to address. The enforceability of parental authority is quite arguably treated as a political given that the State recognizes, more akin to one State’s recognition of the sovereignty of other States than to the State’s authorization of the use of force by deputies, posses, or militias. Some implications of this idea are teased out below in the discussion of “application thickness.”

[9] By using “legitimate” as a modifier on “authority,” I’ve illustrated an important point, but also run a serious risk. If I speak of “legitimate authority,” that might seem to suggest that I’m not distinguishing authority from mere power, but rather distinguishing two different kinds of authority—the legitimate kind and the illegitimate kind. Then it would seem that the issue between minarchists and anarchists is not whether governments have the authority they claim, but rather whether the authority they have is legitimate authority or illegitimate authority. But this is a serious mistake, which I think leads to other mistakes. For now, it will be enough to note that, as I am using the terms “legitimacy” and “authority,” all genuine authority is legitimate authority. “Illegitimate authority” is not a special kind of authority which is illegitimate, any more than “counterfeit money” is a special kind of money which is counterfeit. Illegitimate authority is, rather, mere power, fraudulently portrayed as rightful authority.

[10] Suppose, for example, that Norton is an avid birder, and Twain cannot tell a jackdaw from a magpie. Then when Norton points out a bird and says, “That is a jackdaw,” Twain ought to consider it a jackdaw, because Norton said so—even if Twain has no other reason for considering it a jackdaw besides Norton’s say-so. Why? Because Norton said so, and Norton knows something about jackdaws whereas Twain knows nothing about them, so Twain ought to defer to Norton’s judgment.

[11] Similarly, it is not enough for a minarchist to show that if you organize government officials into such-and-such a constitutional order, the institution you’ve organized will systematically tend towards making correct rulings on matters of legal right. While the source of the ruling may justify a (defeasible) presumption that it can legitimately be enforced, the way that it justifies has nothing to do with government authority.

[12] Taken severally, each challenge poses a problem for one of forms of special authority that minarchists have traditionally wanted governments to exercise. I think the import of each individual challenge is actually less than anarchists have historically thought: minarchists could respond to any individual challenge by revising their theory, and promoting an even more minimalist government that abdicates the function that each challenge called into question. But taken together, the three challenges jointly whittle a “properly limited government” down to no government at all: any institution that minarchists could make consistent with liberty, in light of all three challenges, would have abandoned all claims of sovereign authority, and thus abdicated the throne.

[13] See, for example, “The Nature of Government,” in Rand 1964, 113.

[14] See “Government Financing in a Free Society,” in Rand 1964, 116-120.

[16] Ibid.<, 107; emphasis on “exclusive” added.

[17] It could go on calling itself a “government,” of course—just as Emperor Norton went on calling himself Emperor of North America even though he had no subjects except those who voluntarily played along with his game. But it would no longer be a “government” in any sense that’s incompatible with individualist anarchism. (Specifically, whatever it fancied itself, it would no longer be claiming the sovereign authority of the State; see the section on Equality below.)

[18] Classical liberals and minarchist libertarians have sometimes tried to sidestep anarchist objections by appealing to the consent of the governed. Even if government sovereignty entails limitations on private citizens’ freedom to defend themselves directly, not all limitations on liberty violate libertarian principles: free people can bind themselves to new obligations by agreeing to contracts. Liberal theorists draw up the analogy of a “social contract,” and claim that private citizens can be bound to recognize the government’s sovereignty by explicit, or tacit, or hypothetical consent to the terms of the political system. This sort of reply could be made to any of the three challenges that I pose, and so deserves a response. Unfortunately, constraints of space prevent me from giving an adequate response. Fortunately, excellent systematic critiques of the claim already exist in Spooner 1867-1870 and the first chapter of Barnett 2004. In any case minarchists should be very hesitant to draw on appeals to tacit consent: exactly the same argument could just as easily be used to justify all forms of taxation (on the theory that citizens consented to pay for government expenses when they consented to the contract), many forms of invasive laws (on the theory that citizens consented to abide by the government’s standards of conduct or hygiene), etc. Most serious defenders of minarchism in the 20th century have seen this difficulty and have tried to develop theories which provide for the legitimacy of government without the need for unanimous consent, whether tacit or explicit.

[19] Cf. Nozick 1974, 105-108.

[20] Nozick, unlike some who advance the procedural argument, takes this point in stride: his argument is not that the government enjoys a special right over and above what private citizens enjoy, but rather that a locally dominant defense association, in the course of carrying out its daily business, will be put in the special position of either permitting or forbidding any efforts at private enforcement within its sphere of influence, due to its special position as the local hegemon. Nozick argues that this gives the agency a de facto monopoly on the authorization of force, without the exercise of special prerogatives and without treading on the liberty of the defense associations and private citizens constrained by the procedural protections. If this argument worked, then Nozick would have established a legitimate path for a locally dominant defense agency to assert sovereignty, without treading on the liberty of others. He also would have made the argument in precisely the way that I suggested a minarchist would need to: his argument would have demonstrated the connection between sovereignty and the special position of the government within society—specifically the special position conferred by being the sole dominant protective agency in a given locality. But as I shall argue presently, Nozick’s transition from procedural protection to ex ante procedural “oversight” will not bear scrutiny.

[21] A defense association (A) may very well be entitled to suppress a would-be enforcer (B) who refuses to disclose the procedures that she used to determine guilt. If A cannot discover whether a procedure is reliable or completely arbitrary, then they may be entitled to treat the claim as arbitrary pending further investigation. But it is up to A to do the leg-work of finding out what B’s procedures are before they declare that they cannot discover them. A can try to find out about B’s procedures by directly asking B, or by sending someone to sit in on B’s proceedings, or by asking former participants in B’s proceedings, or by finding out whether B has informed anyone else of her procedures, or in any number of other ways. A cannot simply sit back and demand that B submit to “oversight” as defined by A, or suppress B simply for failing to fill out the right forms. If A fails to make serious efforts at discovery, then it is they, not B, who are guilty of arbitrary and unreliable enforcement procedures.

[22] Suppose I announce, “I will stop anyone who tries to stab me with a knife. But I will not stop anyone who is only using a knife to slice a loaf of bread.” Have I claimed the right to oversee the use of knives? Have I permitted you to slice bread with a knife?

[23] Although this reply would indeed preserve a form of sovereignty against the Childs challenge, it is worth noting how radical a reduction in the size and scope of the “minimal State” is required to meet the challenge. A government that maintained only a monopoly on legislating and adjudicating rights, but left enforcing them up to private efforts, would be a very limited government indeed; it might very well have no police, no executive bureaucracy, no intelligence agencies, no border guards, and no armies. The microscopic State that resulted would be far more limited than Rand’s “limited government,” even more minimal than Nozick’s “ultraminimal state.” Sovereignty would be asserted by a properly limited government only insofar as general laws and rulings on specific legal disputes would be made under the authority of a single government. The microscopic State would have no authority to override or exclude private citizens from just efforts to protect their own rights, or the rights of others; its sovereignty would rest in its authority to act as a “final standard” on the definition and application of rights. In fact the closest historical analogue would be the constitution of medieval Iceland—a society most often discussed in libertarian literature for illustrations of what a functioning anarchy might look like. The Icelandic Free State was not an anarchy: there was a sovereign legislature (the Althing), which also served as a court of final appeal; but it remains interesting to anarchists because the legal order in Iceland functioned with no central executive. (For a detailed discussion of the constitution of medieval Iceland, see Byock 2001. Long 2002a sets out the both the continuities and departures from anarchist principles in the constitution of the Free State, and explains the eventual collapse of the Free State as the growth of the microscopic germs of government into bases of power for warlordism and civil war.)

[24] See also Spooner’s “Letter to Thomas F. Bayard” (1882a) and “Natural Law; or, the Science of Justice” (1882b) for close variations on the same challenge. Childs himself also anticipates something like this line of argument, and makes arguments that Rand’s epistemological and ethical positions demand a similar conclusion. I’ve picked out Spooner’s version of the challenge in the letter to Cleveland because it provides the most systematic exposition of the point.

[25] If the government passed a resolution stating that the square of the hypotenuse in a right triangle is always equal to the square of the other two sides, then the resolution would say something true, and something that everyone is obliged to believe. But it would hardly justify the claim that we need a properly geometrical government to serve as the “final arbiter” of the properties of right triangles.

[26] Spooner 1882b argues that the principles of justice are “usually a very plain and simple matter, easily understood by common minds” (Section IV ¶ 1), and that “Men [sic] living in contact with each other, and having intercourse together, cannot avoid learning natural law, to a very great extent” (Section IV ¶ 2). If so, then the “commands” of natural justice could all be understood as conclusions of arguments, without the need to appeal to the authority of experts. While I think that this is true of most if not all cases, nothing turns on it for the purposes of the challenge to legislative authority. If there are cases where understanding or applying the principles of justice requires expertise, then all those hard cases should be turned over to some expert for judgment. But it would be fallacious to infer from that that there must be some expert to whom all hard cases are turned over. In any case, the basis for the authority of the judgment would be acknowledged wisdom and judgment, not personal political position.

[27] It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it…

[28] That does not mean that Twain can later renege and ignore Norton’s decision, if he consented to let Norton decide the case. It does mean that Twain can later decline to let Norton decide any more cases for him. See note 10 on the failure of historical liberal theories to meet the criteria for genuine consent, including those that rely on claims of “tacit consent.”

[29] Perhaps under dire enough circumstances – if, for example, the dispute is not only unresolved but careening towards a violent feud – the parties to the dispute could rightfully be forced to the bargaining table by an impartial third party. I am not confident that this is true, but I am not confident that it is false, either. What I am confident of is that, if third parties ever have the right to force arbitration, then the right is possessed by everyone, and has nothing to do with the special prerogatives of a government to arbitrate. For the government to claim an exclusive or superior authority to intervene within an arbitrarily asserted jurisdiction might not usurp the natural liberty of the disputants. But if it did not, then it would usurp the natural liberty of other potential arbiters, who would have just as much of a right to intervene as the self-styled “government.”

[30] I do, actually, think that the relationship between libertarianism and these forms of egalitarianism is more complex than many 20th century libertarians have suggested; but that’s an issue for later discussion.

[31] Jefferson makes this point even more explicitly, if less elegantly, in his original draft of the Declaration, where the same passage reads: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (1776b ¶ 2, emphasis added).

[32] The original conception of Equality from the revolutionary Left appreciates human plurality and supports an uncompromising individualism in politics—not the anonymizing mass politics of the statist Left, in both its “progressive” and “radical” incarnations. Nozick expresses the point admirably: “Side constraints express the inviolability of other persons. But why may not one violate persons for the greater social good? …. But there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him [sic] and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up. (Intentionally?) To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him—least of all a state or government” (1974, 32-33).

[33] The point here is not that deliberation about consequences is completely irrelevant to questions of justice. Like Roderick Long (2002b), I hold that, while deliberation about consequences cannot trump deliberation about rights, our understanding of the content of rights can be revised in light of consequences. (Thus, for example, consequentialist considerations can be important to determining the proper judgment in a case of reducing the natural law.) But if our judgments about the requirements of justice can be revised in light of reflection on the consequences, the revision can (indeed must) go the other way, too. What counts as a “good consequence” also partly depends on what justice demands; in particular, if bringing about a situation S involves you in initiating force against an innocent person, then S is not a good consequence: being unjust is a defeater for an end counting as something worth pursuing. It is in this sense that rights act as “side constraints” (Nozick 1974, 28-33) on moral deliberation.

[34] Government edicts have no more magical power to enforce themselves than decisions by anarchistic arbitrators. If someone is unhappy with the way a case was decided on final appeal, she can lobby Congress to change the law, or try to convince the President to appoint more congenial justices, or simply defy the ruling and try to find followers to stage a coup or a revolution…. See also Long 2006, which connects the mystical political conception behind the minarchist quest for legal finality with the mystical logical conception behind the metaphysical quest for a self-applying rule, as exposed by Wittgenstein’s writing on rule-following.

[35] See Tucker 1888 for an overview of the “four monopolies” that he believed to be at the root of both statism and the exploitation of labor: the land monopoly, the money monopoly, the tariff monopoly, and the patent monopoly. Chapter Five of Carson 2004 offers an excellent systematic overview of the views of Tucker and his fellow 19th century individualists on the four monopolies.

[37] This holistic picture of social power has been endangered and marginalized, but never completely eradicated, from libertarian theory in the 20th century. During the late 1960s and 1970s it was partially and fitfully revived by the efforts of libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and Sam Konkin to make common cause with anti-imperialist and anti-authoritarian elements in the New Left. For the locus classicus of this approach in the late 20th century libertarian movement, see Rothbard 1965.

[38] Sciabarra is at pains to make clear that his critique does not aim at a refutation of anarchism as such; his emphasis is methodological, and for his critique “The essential issue is not whether anarchism or minarchism is preferable—to some extent, the jury is still out on many of the important questions raised by either side” (341). But he suggests that dialectics call for substantial revision to existing defenses of anarchism, stating in reply to a review that “I remain profoundly suspicious of anarchism and the non-dialectical premises that seem to inspire it” (2002, 394).

[39] See Long 2001b for a detailed defense of Rothbard against Sciabarra’s criticism. But if the anti-dialectical Rothbard did not exist, Walter Block has invented him.

[40] An Aztec libertarian might urge, “Of course libertarianism has upshots for religious beliefs! It means you have to give up human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli.”

[42] Cf. Dworkin 1983/1993, 165-166; Morgan 1989; Spencer 1851, Chapter XVI § 4; Moore 2006.

[43] See Tjaden and Thoennes 2000 on the findings of the NIJ/CDC National Violence Against Women Survey in 1995-1996. Statistics on violence against women have been hotly contested, and some of these disputes have been taken up by libertarian authors such as Wendy McElroy. But most of the discussion has focused on the findings of a single study, Mary Koss’s 1985 study of sexual assault amongst college women (which found that one in four college-aged women had suffered at least one act of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime). I think the criticisms of Koss are largely unfounded, but in any case Tjaden and Thoennes surveyed a broader sample, using more detailed questions, and definitions substantially more conservative than Koss; see pp. 3-12 for a discussion of the survey methodology. Detailed explanation and defense of the NVAWS figures, and of related feminist research into the prevalence and nature of gender violence is, as they say, beyond the scope of this essay, but for an excellent discussion of Koss’s findings that raises many salient general points, see Warshaw 1994, which includes both an analysis of the findings and a concluding methodological discussion by Koss.

[44] Thus Susan Brownmiller writes that “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (1975, 15). Libertarian critics often dismiss Brownmiller’s and similar analyses on the grounds that not all men are rapists and not all women are raped, but this badly misunderstands Brownmiller’s point. Brownmiller is concerned with the systemic role of rape, considered as a social fact that affects all men and all women, whether or not the particular man commits rape or the particular woman suffers it. The fact that rape is so prevalent—even more prevalent than Brownmiller realized in 1975—and the constraints that the threat of rape imposes on all women in ordinary life systematically structures the social relationships between men and women, as Brownmiller details throughout her book. Similar remarks could be made about other pervasive forms of violence against women, such as wife beating. The systemic violence of male dominance ought to be recognizable to libertarians as a politically coercive order, even though it is usually carried out in “society,” independently of the State apparatus; as Catharine MacKinnon writes, “Unlike the ways in which men systematically enslave, violate, dehumanize, and exterminate other men, expressing political inequalities among men, men’s forms of dominance over women have been accomplished socially as well as economically, prior to the operation of the law, without express state acts, often in intimate contexts, as everyday life” (1989, 161).

[45] See Hanisch 1969/1978 for the original formulation of the idea that “the personal is political:” “So the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” It must be stressed that for Hanisch and other radical feminists, “collective action” and “political action” do not necessarily entail State action. The point is to recognize the conditions faced by individual women as expressions of an overarching system of social power, rather than sweeping it under the rug of the “private.” Cf. Johnson and Long 2005, §2.

[46] Perhaps that’s what Max Stirner believed.

[47] Quite the contrary; respect for your fellow human beings entails that you must respect each person’s perfect right to refuse or to withdraw her support, and vice versa—and that anyone who tries to force the unwilling to participate in their collective project is nothing more than a sanctimonious highwayman.

[48] During the late 19th and early 20th century, before the rise of the modern welfare State, there was in fact a vast and growing network of mutual aid societies in which low-income workers pooled their resources to gain affordable healthcare, small-scale credit, lifelong education, information about wages and conditions in workplaces, worker-run hiring halls, labor bargaining, strike relief, personal and cultural connections, old-age pensions, life insurance, and many other important services which were later co-opted and colonized by the emerging welfare bureaucracy. Sometimes the independent, government-free societies withered due to obsolescence; in other cases—particularly radical labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World—they were destroyed by violent government persecution. See Beito 2000 for an excellent discussion in the context of the rise and fall of voluntary “fraternal society” or “friendly society” lodges. Reconnecting with this history would have direct strategic benefits for libertarians, insofar as similar voluntary associations are likely to be an important part of any healthy free market. Besides those direct benefits, it may also be worth considering the likelihood that mutual aid projects based on free association and self-help could help divorce well-meaning Leftists from the mystique of the welfare State. (Even if it does not cure their souls, it may at least give them something less destructive to do with their time and resources.)

[49] Most recently by Walter Block (2006), in his working paper criticizing “thick libertarianism,” whether allied with Left-wing or Right-wing cultural politics.

[50] See Buhle 1999, especially Chapter 1 and pp. 119-136, on the consolidation of establishmentarian unionism and the “tripartite” system of managerial planning between the government, the captains of industry, and the labor bosses of the official unions.

[51] Cf. Ibid., 65-70.

[52] Under the smothering patronage of the Wagner/Taft-Hartley labor bureaucracy, official unions gained new political privileges that made them the most effective vehicles for workers’ short-term goals, allowing them to out-compete the unsubsidized unions. But the price of government privileges were government controls: the NLRB system constrained union goals to mediated settlements with management, and in 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act pulled official union tactics firmly into the regulatory grip of the managerial State. Union methods are legally restricted to collective bargaining and limited strikes. Strikes cannot legally be expanded to secondary or general strikes, and any strike can be—as many strikes have been—broken by the arbitrary fiat of the President of the United States. Obvious violations of the freedom of contract—such as the ban on union hiring halls and “closed shop” contracts—strip officially-recognized unions of effective tactics and sap their resources. The emphasis on collective bargaining and bureaucratic mediation favors centralized union bureaucracies over more decentralized, democratic forms of organization. Thus both the internal culture of the post-Wagner union establishment and the external controls of federal and state regulations have conspired to enrich a select class of professional unionists while hamstringing the labor movement as a whole and limiting progress for rank-and-file workers.

[53] “Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term ‘free market’ in an equivocal sense; they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate article in The Freeman [on sweatshop labor] arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because ‘that’s not how the free market works’—implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of ‘free market principles’” (Carson 2004, 142).

[54] For an extensive discussion of the nature of the corporate State and the role of government patronage in the formation of actually existing capitalism, see especially part two of Carson 2004 and Kolko 1963.

[55] It is important to remember that the calculation problem, as variously formulated, has to do either with the lack of market pricing or with the dispersal of idiosyncratic knowledge, not essentially with the use of coercive means. Political coercion is one of the most effective ways to stifle negotiation and shove people with idiosyncratic knowledge out of the way. But it is not the only way; voluntary structures can block the flow of knowledge no less than coercive ones. Cf. Rothbard 1962, Chapter 10, Section F on the calculation problems that would be faced by One Big Cartel, even without government intervention.

[56] See Long 2005 for an economic analysis of the trade-offs involved in increasing the size of firms and the economic factors that would tend towards greater decentralization in a free market.

[57] Whether or not Southern secessionism was closely linked with slavery is – God help us all – still a matter of considerable controversy in libertarian intellectual circles. But see Hummel 1996 for a persuasive argument that while the Federal government’s motives in pursuing the Civil War had little to do with freeing slaves, the Confederate states’ motives for seceding were dominated by the desire to perpetuate and expand race slavery.

[58] The most dramatic historical example of this line of argument can be found in the work of Lysander Spooner, who penned No Treason (1867-1870) as a defense of the moral right of the Southern states to secede from the Union, but also published a “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery” (1858) which called on slaves and non-slaveholding whites to launch a guerrilla war against Southern slaveholders, with aid and comfort provided by Northern abolitionists. Thus in No Treason, Spooner stated that “The result – and a natural one – has been that we have had governments, State and national, devoted to nearly every grade and species of crime that governments have ever practised upon their victims; and these crimes have culminated in a war that has cost a million of lives; a war carried on, upon one side, for chattel slavery, and on the other for political slavery; upon neither for liberty, justice, or truth” (No. II, § X ¶ 2). Hummel 1996 offers an excellent historical defense of a similar view of the secession crisis and the Civil War.

[59] A project like this one cannot be undertaken without accumulating debts. My own are too numerous to give an accounting of them all; but in particular I would like to thank Laura Breitenbeck and Roderick Long for patience, inspiration, collaboration, encouragement, and detailed and very helpful comments.

Wednesday Lazy Linking

Welcome Farkers: I noticed (from the massive surge in impacts on my web server) that this post — in particular, Jourdon Anderson’s letter to his former captor, which I originally found through stuff white people do (2009-04-28) — was recently featured on the front page of Fark.com. I’m flattered; and presumably this also means that for the time being I’ll be getting a lot of readers who are more or less new to the blog. By way of introduction, to who I am, where I’m coming from, and what I care about, you might check out the links at GT 2009-01-29: Welcome, Antiwarriors.

For reference, I’ve also written many other articles on the topic of slavery, and on the ways in which we talk about, or don’t talk about, the history of slavery. See particularly: GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery, GT 2008-04-18: Just shut the fuck up, GT 2006-03-21: The humane slave-driver, GT 2006-03-04: Republican virtue (or: the Man who would be King).

  • Quote for the Day: After the end of the Civil War, many former slavers tried to contact the black men and women they had once enslaved — even those who had escaped during the war and headed north — to try to convince them to return to the plantation and work the land as hands or tenant farmers. One of those freedmen, Jourdon Anderson, wrote a letter back to his former captor, explaining the terms on which would return. This may be my favorite thing that I read all week. Emphasis is added.

    Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865

    To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson
    Big Spring, Tennessee

    Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

    I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, Them colored people were slaves down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

    As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost Marshal General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly—and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.

    I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

    In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die if it comes to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

    Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

    From your old servant,

    Jourdon Anderson

    The letter was reprinted by Lydia Maria Child in her anthology, The Freedmen’s Book. Jourdon Anderson’s body now rests in the Woodland Cemetary, in Dayton, Ohio, so it seems that his old captor never accepted his offer. For reference, the back wages he demanded — $11,680 in 1865, before adding interest — would be worth about $162,452 in 2008 dollars.

    Discovered thanks to stuff white people do (2009-04-28)

  • The invasion begins tomorrow: SubRosa community space (2009-05-02): First Ever Santa Cruz Anarchist Convergence! May 7-11. The Santa Cruz Anarchist Convergence is coming to town! Yes, here, between the forest and the ocean, among the students and the yuppies, where Santa Cruz anarchists have fostered a close-knit community dedicated to destruction of this world and the creation of another. Santa Cruz is a hub of anarchist culture and resistance, with a long history of radical struggle and active anarchist projects spanning decades. Santa Cruz is proud to host the Santa Cruz Anarchist Convergence, a four-day anarchist event for building community and resistance and sharing radical ideas.

  • More one-way mirror transparency (+): Jesse Walker, Hit & Run (2009-04-23): In Bailouts End Responsibilities.

  • On crony-statism, state capitalism, and living in a bubble: Sheldon Richman, The Goal Is Freedom (2009-05-01): Of, by, and for the elite

  • Libertarianism or Barrbarism? Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-05-04): More Crap from the Libertarian Party (with a hat tip to Soviet Onion in the comments back here). In which the Libertarian Party sends out a press release urging the United States government to control the border, escalate the use of police-state checkpoints against immigrants, and consider all would-be immigrants diseased until proven healthy.

    I’d be pissed if I weren’t beyond caring about anything the LP says or does. Individual party members are often perfectly good people, and well worth talking to, and well worth inviting to something new and better; but the party, as an organization, is worth taking notice of only as an enemy, to be shoved out of the way along with the rest of the belligerent busybody Know-Nothing creeps.

  • He’s wasn’t using it, anyway: Mike Gogulski (2009-05-03): Steal this number: 595-12-5274

  • More on decentalism and localism: A couple of comments from Darian Worden following up on the recent monster thread here: DarianWorden.com (2009-04-27): Individualist International and DarianWorden.com (2009-04-30): Stick It To Your Kind. Whether or not I agree with Darian about multiculturalism depends on what the word’s being used to mean (there’s a lot of different things called multiculturalism, some of them descriptive theories about American history; some of them normative theories; some of them overtly relativistic; others universalistic; etc.). Otherwise, twinkles.

  • On the production of knowledge in a peer-to-peer society: Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation (2009-04-27): Ryan Lanham: dissolving universities?. I think that the discussion underestimates the importance of architecture and physical space in creating scholarly community; I think it also underestimates what I think would be the most noticeable effect of less businesslike, more mutualistic universities, without the distorting effects of state funding and state-imposed accreditation systems — that they would be smaller, more numerous, and less oriented towards churning out professional degrees in subjects that would be better taught completely outside of the university setting, if not for the political-economic distortions that shove them into institutional structures where they don’t belong. I also protest the notion that there’s something wrong with esoteric subject-matters or that best-selling authors, just as such, somehow have a better grip on what’s relevant than scholars working intensely on a tightly-focused subject. (Surely they have a better grip on what’s relevant to people outside the University. But that’s not necessarily the kind of relevance that a University ought to be concerned with.) But I agree that Universities are set for a radical change, in an increasingly peer-to-peer world, and that the change will involve less institutional aping of business, a more mutualistic orientation, and hopefully less credentialism. It’s an important discussion and this is a good start.

  • I’ll never finish the Internet: Dare Obasanjo, (2009-05-05): RSS readers modeled after email clients are fundamentally broken. Actually, I’m inclined to say that presently-existing e-mail clients are also fundamentally broken, although they call for a different sort of fix.

  • Shameless Self-Promotion opportunities: Jeremy Trombley is now running a regular What Are You Up To? Wednesday feature.

Hoverbikes

In a comment over at Roderick’s place, William Gillis has this to say by of encapsulating his worries about (his reading of) Kevin Carson’s emphasis on economic localism:

To clarfiy, my doubts regarding what’s often addressed (not entirely correctly, I agree) as the interrelating two-sided work of you and Kevin is really just my distaste for Localism and Rights-based ethics.

And I’m sorry you caught the backdraft of my annoyance with what is clearly primarily Kevin’s contribution re: Localism. (Note: I don’t mean local sufficiency or DIY tech, but the focus on stable regional communities, as opposed to a gleaming interconnected mass society on hoverbikes.)

— William Gillis, comments @ Austro-Athenian Empire, 27 April 2009 2:50am

That’s beautiful, and it deserves a response in kind. So here’s my attempt to put down my own view on the matter. When I have my hoverbike, I’ll use it for a lot of things, and one of the things I hope to be able to do is to fly through uncountable different neighborhoods within the gleaming metropolis. Don’t forget that even New Tokyo will have neighborhoods, or at least I hope it will, because a city with no neighborhoods isn’t worth a damn. The always-ready hyperlocal holographic social networking mapping mash-up that shimmers into existence over my hoverbike dash will help me find landmarks and fascinating holes-in-the-wall and the good old hang-outs and the hot new things, with help from the interwoven knowledge of friends, visitors, and longtime locals. Some of the neighborhoods may be glass and steel; others may be orchards and wheat fields and villages; others campus gothic spires, grassy quads and libraries; others may be permaculture cities of green roofs and hanging gardens. They will speak many different languages; some will be young and others old; some will be slow and stable over time, and others will be frenetic and constantly changing. Some may be stable in structure while constantly changing in population (think of a University campus), and others may be exactly the reverse (think of an indie rock scene). Which ones are the best to visit, or to live in, will depend on the circumstances of life for each of us. (What you want by way of stability or surroundings when you’re 50 may be different from what you want when you’re 19. What I want at 27 may be different from what you want at 27. What I want in the summer may be different from what I want in the fall.) And that’s what’s beautiful about it. It’s the neighborhoods that makes the city glorious. But without the city, and the hoverbikes to fly through it, there wouldn’t be the neighborhoods, either. There would only be warehouses, deserts, and fortresses.

Which is another way of saying that I don’t think the issue here is really, or at least ought to be, one of (stable) localism versus (dynamic) globalism, or cosmopolitanism, or what have you. There is, I think (oh Lord) a dialectical solution. It has to do with the extent to which the local and the global are allowed to evolve and flourish together, or, on the other hand, are mediated, battered, and fortified, by rigidifed political fabrications (like Nations, States, Law-and-Order, Smart Growth planning committees, Stupid Growth planning committees, Development fetishes, Tradition fetishes, bigots, bashers, macho squads, and all the other forms of structured power-over that would bulldoze and blockade and wall off ghettoes rather than letting neighborhoods grow).

See also:

Open thread on: localism, decentralism, anarchism, thick conceptions of libertarianism, and the U.S. Constitution

There have been several lengthy threads of conversation going on in the comments of some of this week’s posts. The purpose of this post is to disentangle one of those threads to make the conversation more easily found and more easily followed.

Speaking as the editor, I will mention that I’ve done a bit to prune off some diverging conversations — e.g. some interesting discussion about group rights and individual rights — that began in some of the comments I’m posting, and have excerpted (with editorial marks) accordingly; you can follow those discussions on the original thread. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that the purpose of this post is to try and extract a kind-of straightforward thread of conversation, leaving things that go off at a 45 degree angle to be discussed in spaces of their own. Also, I’ve tended to mash together comments that were made by the same person when one was made right after the other.

Anyway. Branching off from a conversation, in the comments on GT 2009-04-22: Direct action gets the goods, about Greens and Reds and cliques and tendencies within the existing Anarchist scene, and how it all relates to market anarchism, William Gillis mentioned:

… Of course the major MA influences in the Twin Cities were all pro-tech, pie-in-the-sky post-scarcity futurists and inclined to gloss over the more localist, Carson / Hess sort of interpretations.

— William Gillis (2009-04-23 9:09pm)

Soviet Onion:

I didn’t feel a strong inclination either way from Kyle or Sarah.

If that is the case, then thank Prometheus for that. As wishful as it sounds, it’s a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit’s also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun. Hence the enabling attitude toward things like National Anarchism coming from Keith Preston and Jeremy Weiland that almost makes ANTIFA-style gang beatdowns seem like a more intelligent response to the phenomenon.

. . .

Oh, and speaking of Sarah, I hear she’s going to be living on a farm in South Dakota. Not exactly futurist utopia.

—[Soviet Onion (2009-04-24, 1:39am / 2:20am)][2]

Aster:

Soviet-

All of this is well put. As wishful as it sounds, it’s a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit’s also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun. Hence the enabling attitude toward things like National Anarchism coming from Keith Preston and Jeremy Weiland that almoAst makes ANTIFA-style gang beatdowns seem like a more intelligent response to the phenomenon.

It is hard for me to express how much I appreciate your speaking out against the national anarchist Trojan horse. Thank you.

And that’s precisely it- replacing rights with decentralism completely throws out the principle of liberty. I want the implementation of a specific social system which guarantees individual rights and supports individual autonomy. I’m not interested in a politics which switches this for the goal of acceptance of existing social systems. whether individualist or not. Liberty requires a conscious and rational set of values and institutions which are incompatible with traditional organic society.

I’m a moderate on decentralisation- actually, I think the original 1789 American federal system buttressed by an extensive and enforceable Bill of Rights fully incorporated against local tyranny is a fairly good model. I’m at the moment inclined to say yes to decentralisation in economic matters, no in educational matters, and to favour a mixed system in politics. I think we do need broad regional social organisation in a form which maintains an easy flow of goods, people, and ideas- I think this aspect of the Roman, British, and American empires was a good thing (have you read Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine?).

— Aster (2009-04-24), 5:54am

William Gillis (in reply to Soviet Onion):

As wishful as it sounds, it’s a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit’s also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun.

Whaddaya expect from me aside from twinkles. We agree, of course. I’d write more on the issue but you’re particularly eloquent on this and I’ve never entirely felt it was my place to start shit in the ALL. Left-Libertarianism is someone else’s parlor. I’m a post-leftie transhumanist utilitarian who wants to slaughter the rich, turn their mansions into coops and then enact full blooded Anarcho-Capitalism as a door prop on the long road to actual Anarchism. I’ve never fully belonged to the Carson/Long project. If you want to start something, either calling shit out or strengthening the foundations of an alternative Left-Libertarianism then, by all means I urge you to.

— William (2009-04-24, 5:58am)

Me:

Soviet Onion,

As wishful as it sounds, it’s a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit’s also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun.

I agree that localism and decentralism ought not to be fetishized at the expense of other goals (either respect for rights or other cultural goals that my thick conception of libertarianism is entangled with), and that the value of localism and decentralism ought mainly to be treated as a strategic value, not as something that is desirable in itself. (When it ends up being something I’d consider desirable in itself, and not merely strategically, it’s because certain forms of centralism and antilocalism are themselves expressions of classism, racism, or other forms of elite bigotry, all of which I do consider objectionable in themselves, apart from any strategic considerations.)

For reference, when you refer to a left-libertarian tendency to fetishize localism and decentralism, do you have anyone particular in mind, other than Jeremy Weiland? (There’s also Keith Preston, presumably, but he doesn’t consistently identify as a left-libertarian, and in any case I’m not willing to grant him the description.) If so, whom?

Aster,

I’m a moderate on decentralisation- actually, I think the original 1789 American federal system buttressed by an extensive and enforceable Bill of Rights fully incorporated against local tyranny is a fairly good model.

Huh? Why?

It doesn’t seem to have worked out very well so far.

— Rad Geek (2009-04-24), 11:02am

Jeremy Weiland:

. . . And, for the record, I’m not a supporter of National Anarchism. I disagree with them (mostly in the sense that I refuse to take a positive position on what a free society looks like, nor will I work towards that vision in lieu of actually freeing humans. But I would consider working with them on a case by case basis if it served my interests). I don’t know what you mean about “enabling” them, though, so I can’t say whether or not I do that. I’m aware of the fact that many groups exist whose ideologies I disagree with, and I see no reason to elevate their existence over the existence of more concentrated, institutionalized power structures as a motivating issue for me.

— Jeremy (2009-04-24, 11:22am)

Marja Erwin:

As for decentralism …

I think it is a powerful tool, but not an end in itself.

It is harder to criminalize acts, let alone criminalize people, when people can walk across the border and out of reach of the criminalizers.

I think intentional communities can be important.

That said, there is an incredible difference between asserting the right of the individual to seek better communities, and claiming a right of a community to condemn certain individuals.

In my admittedly incomplete understanding, collectivist anarchism has historically involved either or both of two kinds of community control. The first being near-monopolistic but temporary; a transitional confederation instead of Marx’s transitional state. I think this was Bakunin’s pragmatic proposal. The second being community control of specific institutions, but neither requiring participation nor forbidding competition.

I think Parecon has sowed the seeds of Prestonism, because it imagines a permanent system which subjects individual choices to community decision, and forbids independent exchange. … And the primitivists like that!

— Marja Erwin (2009-04-24, 11:41am)

Jeremy Weiland:

My name is being mentioned far too often in this thread. Color me uncomfortable.

I don’t fetishize localism or decentralism - I simply see it as a means to an end. I may place a higher importance on those means, but so what? I don’t see anybody else demonstrating a better strategy (it is just a strategy - if you want to talk about what that more fundamental desire is, we can do that).

What is the end, the core desire? For me, it’s the standard R.A. Wilson line: achieving an honest society where people can tell the truth, or more technically, a society where individuals can maximally express themselves within the collective. For me, the end is authentic, sustainable society. Breaking up concentrations of power is just a means to this end.

Just so we’re clear about where I stand, I part ways with you all mostly on your insistence on a universal morality against which one can judge affairs (thick libertarianism as a motivating ideology). I don’t claim that there’s a right way to live, and so I don’t take, for instance, my opposition to fascist societies in some panarchist future as a directive for which I must find justification in morality or natural law or whatever. I’m quite comfortable opposing it because, well, that’s just how I feel about the matter. I have my reasons, but ultimately they are grounded in something either arbitrary (and inaccessable) or intrinsic to reality (and therefore accessible without needing codification and legalisms).

The truth or significance of that feeling is something we can talk about, but it has more to do with my own journey than some ideology. That is where I feel I diverge from thick libertarianism. I support most thick libertarian values because I support them, not because they’re right.

Prestonism is a reference, I must assume, to his core position that human beings are inherently tribal, and that therefore the most we can work towards is a cross-ideological alliance against the state rather than the everlasting victory of left libertarian ideology? Whether or not I like that view of humans, I must say it seems to map well to human history and experience. Most people don’t give a damn about liberty, in fact. That does [not] preclude a left libertarian agenda in any way, I would think.

As far as I know, his critique of thick libertarianism has never been responded to, which is unfortunate; we could all benefit from a informed debate involving Johnson, Long, et al.

— Jeremy (2009-04-24, 11:43am)

Marja Erwin:

Well, I for one have indirectly criticized his essay:

Grounds Above All

I was more interested, however, in explaining my own views than in confronting his.

— Marja Erwin (2009-04-24, 12:12pm)

Me:

Jeremy:

. . .

But I would consider working with them on a case by case basis if it served my interests).

Just out of curiosity, what do you imagine as a case in which it would serve your interests to work with National Anarchists?

Just so we’re clear about where I stand, I part ways with you all mostly on your insistence on a universal morality against which one can judge affairs (thick libertarianism as a motivating ideology).

The thick-thin debate is not a debate about moral universalism. It’s a debate about something else. Most people with a thin conception of libertarianism are moral universalists; they just have a different view of what kind of further commitments the moral virtue of justice might recommend. And it’s perfectly possible (although I wouldn’t recommend it; but that’s because I’m a moral universalist) to be an anti-universalistic thick libertarian; indeed, it’s quite possible to advance a view on which some form of anti-universalism or anti-moralism is one of the further commitments that libertarianism recommends. (That seems to be what some Stirnerite and Nietzschean anarchists believe. It also seems to be what you’ve spent the past several months arguing, while claiming that you’re critiquing thick conceptions of libertarianism. The fact that you lay a lot of stress on a very broad-ranging form of social tolerance does not mean that you’re opposing the bundling of further social commitments together with libertarianism. It means that you may disagree with those of us who have a more activist stance in the culture wars about what sort of social commitments ought to be bundled.)

As far as I know, his [Keith Preston’s] critique of thick libertarianism has never been responded to, which is unfortunate; we could all benefit from a informed debate involving Johnson, Long, et al.

There are a lot of reasons why I haven’t yet published a response to Preston’s article. If I do it is likely to be a series of responses to short points rather than an attempt at extended dialogue in a single essay. I will say here that part of the problem with Preston’s essay is that it is an extended attack on something other than what he starts off claiming to be attacking; it’s not a critique of thick conceptions of libertarianism at all, but rather a critique of left-libertarianism (or more specifically some aspects of the cultural program advanced by, e.g., Roderick and me, as part of the left component of left-libertarianism). The two are not identical; left-libertarianism, at least as Roderick and I present it, is a species of thick libertarianism, but there are many other kinds; notably, as I’ve repeatedly tried to stress Hoppean paleolibertarians, and orthodox Objectivists are each advancing their own thick conceptions of libertarianism. What I differ with them on is not thick libertarianism — the idea that libertarianism is best seen as one strand within a bundle of interrelated and reinforcing political, cultural, or philosophical commitments, which is one of the very few ideas on which the Hoppeans, the ARIans, and I all agree with each other — but rather the specific commitments that they are trying to bundle in. There are several related and entangled but importantly distinct and conceptually distinguishable issues that Preston is attempting to treat, and I don’t think that the essay does a very good job of distinguishing them carefully. (Which is why thick libertarianism ends up getting used over and over again as if it named a distinctive ideology, rather than what it is, a cluster of picky philosophical distinctions that might help categorize a number of different ideological positions. It’s also why the essay jumbles together several different arguments about several different topics, with very little in the way of anything that actually attempts to engage the work I did on distinguishing, explaining and justifying several different kinds of relationships that might connect the struggle against the state with other values in the thick bundle. This kind of jumbling makes fruitful discussion much harder to carry on, and much more work to prepare.

— Rad Geek (2009-04-24, 2:18pm)

Aster:

Aster: I’m a moderate on decentralisation- actually, I think the original 1789 American federal system buttressed by an extensive and enforceable Bill of Rights fully incorporated against local tyranny is a fairly good model.

Charles: Huh? Why? It doesn’t seem to have worked out very well so far.

Me again:

It depends what you compare it to. If you compare it to the best system I think human beings are possible of creating, undoubtably it’s inferior. But if you consider it in the context of that vast slaughterbench of individuals known as human history, it looks more like a miraculously achievement. Certainly, the system is on the edge of failing now. But the very partial, irregular, and inconsistent virtues which the system has shown in the last two centuries is still an unspeakable achievement in a world in which the norm is the closed society. I’m alive today. I can’t ever forget that in any previous age, given my ideas and gender transition, I would never have made it this far.

I think part of the difference in our outlooks is that I look at freedom as a positive construction. I don’t see a natural state of freedom which government, elites, or capital has stolen from us. I see a natural baseline of tribal dictatorship- animal society knows nothing of the individual- which humans have with slow and tortured cumulative effort managed to partially replace with a form of society which allows for some degree of human freedom. We should certainly work and demand more than what we have, but we should also remain aware that the creation of conditions in which the individual personality is even partially free to be herself requires a set of social and material conditions in tension with a state of nature.

I used to consider myself a borderline anarchist, but I don’t any longer. (let me stress that unlike orthodox Objectivists I am not hostile to anarchism). The reason has to do primarily with an experience in the anarchist scene.

Some months before I arrived in Wellington, a female anarchist accused a male anarchist of rape. Prior to this, everything I’ve seen suggests that relations within the community were entirely peaceful- zero aggression beyond the level of dishonestly leaving dishes for the next person to clean up. So when this happened, it was a social shock. People picked sides. People got accused of covering up for a rapist and/or damning someone as a rapist without evidence (I have a strong opiniong about who was telling the truth, but I won’t discuss it here). The result ruined friendships, hurt a community involving hundreds of people, and hovered like a ghost over every subsequent practical or ideological disagreement, long after the victim herself clearly expressed an authentic desire to move on.

The reason the problem kept reverberating is because there was no way to finally and publicly resolve the dispute. Any standing body which was recognised as making a judgement which counted would be… authority, heirarchy, a government. There was clearly a view that things should work themselves out, that things like this shouldn’t happen in a nonheirarchical community… and, indeed, this was a singular and exceptional occurrance within a very honest and safe group of people. But this one aggression had catastrophic results. There was no way to deal with it. And as far as I could see, it was all very tied to the idea that harmony was natural, that interference in that harmony felt wrong. The result of an informality of structure was that everyone ended up supporting their friends and allies and communal trust never entirely recovered. Ironically, the political result of all of this was the creation of a ‘safer spaces’ policy which worked as de facto law but without objective and accountable methods. And the de facto law caused more problems for human freedom than would a written law which explicity set up an authoritative institution.

The conclusion I came out of this was: law is valuable. I don’t mean enforcement, police, prisons, that sort of stuff. I mean that it is better to have publicly written institutions that set up standards rather than trusting society to work itself out. You need formal principles which don’t spring out of the ground, which have to be set up, written down, and applied in a regular manner within a community- for in the absence of formal rules, you get not no rules but tribal rules.

After this, and for other reasons, I started becoming very conscious of the fact that the social relations we take for granted depend on a prior structure of civilisation which makes public dealings possible. A civil society may, from a certain angle, be self-organising. But for that social organisation to work (especially if you want it to work in a dircection of individualism and freedom*) one needs a background set of institutions and values which have to be constructively built. And in that light, partially liberal societies start looking much more half-full than half-empty. Freedom isn’t a birthright that dark forces have stolen from us; freedom is a positive accomplishment made possible by the invention of better social structures. And if we wish- as we should- to seek more freedom, we should look at this not as tearing down but as building higher. Those who do think we will find our freedom primarily by breaking and tearing down are mistaken- and are easy prey for people who don’t like a free society and can abuse the naivete of radicals to make them dig their own graves.

It goes deeper. If you look at an anarchist community, one quickly becomes aware that one is dealing with unusually good people. Nice people. Considerate people. Idealistic people. People who don’t often think of stealing and lying as available options. And they’re often quite privileged people- people who haven’t known as much pain and others and for that very reasons are capable of being more kind and idealistic. That such people exist is a very good thing- the world desperately needs such people and would be very wise not to despise idealists and creators.

But precisely because most bohemians are nice, they create social systems based upon the assumption that their kind of psychology is a given. They take for granted a great deal of civilisation which is unconscious to them. But that social psychology is as a rule a product of favourable circumstances- such as an enriching, leisurely childhood. If one wants to be rude, it’s also sustained by flat out privilege- the characteristic ethical blindspot of bohemians is the assumption that the world owes us a living.

But most importantly, the anarchist way of life is built upon an immense complex of civilisation structure carried around inside the human mind. The better world for which anarchism advocates is built upon all the (to my mind, correct) assumptions of this one. When we fault the injustices of the states that came out of the liberal institutions, we’re right, but our capacity to be right is itself the product of the startling success of those revolutions- Thoreau says something like this in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Even our capacity to think and value more finely and treat others with more human dignity is a product of more humane conditions. Those who criticise the illiberalism of the best existing systems today are themselves the continuing success of those systems. We can criticise them because they won (and, if they fall, we will lose the right to criticise).

Yes, Americs and all the other liberal democracies were set up by rich dead white men who forgot to include anybody but themselves. But the fact that they included anyone is, by historical standards, an unspeakable improvement and a breathtaking experiment. Throughout human history poverty, superstition, fear, hatred, collectivism, atrocity, and war have been the order of the day. I find it horrible to think about what life for the average person- averaged over our entire history- has really been like. Everyone reading this is privileged beyond sane possibility by any previous standard. And that includes politics- we’re able to posit the possibility of stateless societies because previous social architects managed the feat of creating working liberal societies.

The success of anarchism would mean that we’ve completely humanised the human condition. The anarchist possibility is a hypercivilisation. Anarchism is not a negation of bourgeois tyranny- it’s an avante-garde continuation of the principles of the older bourgeois liberal revolutions. The revolution (at least one we want) will not break the structures of oppreesion. It will build the structures of freedom another level higher. Anti-racism, feminism, LGBT rights are some of the most recent, the most fragile, and the most difficult of these accomplishments. They are not reversals of the betrayals of 1776 and 1789; they are their most wild successes. And the fact that life after 1776 and 1789 was still a tytannical Hell for most people isn’t something I’ve forgetting- again, I could never have survived if I has been born even one generation ago.

And in that context, I’m grateful to those dead white men and their state- even if to get my freedom, it is them I have to fight with extensions of their own principles.

America’s dying today- but it’s dying precisely because it is guided by people who have abandoned the spiritual infrastructure of liberal civilisation- by a ruling class whose level of thinking is an illiterate mess of delusion and pragmatism incapable of sustaining a free society. Any system would fail in the direction of tyranny under the same circumstances.

#

One technical point- what I was broadly praising wasn’t the actual American system (past or present), but an ahistorical conjunction of the best parts from different periods- an 18th century ‘conservative’ limited government with 20th century ‘liberal’ provisions for rights enforcement. If I was going to write a model political blueprint I’d change any number of things (a longer bill of rights, proportional representation, a parliamentary system, nix the stupid electoral college).

But I still think what we need is a consciously selected society based upon specific and rationally validated values. A society in which individuals may do what they wish requires an insistence that societies operate by individualist principles, with an establishment of appropriate civil and formal institutions. You can have a society whee individuals are left alone or you can leave societies alone to dispose as they please with individuals- you can’t have both.

— Aster (2009-04-25, 7:02am)

Me:

. . .

Aster:

It depends what you compare it to. If you compare it to the best system I think human beings are possible of creating, undoubtably it’s inferior. But if you consider it in the context of that vast slaughterbench of individuals known as human history, it looks more like a miraculously achievement.

  1. I don’t think that it worked out better than other competing proposals which were made at the time would have worked out. For example, if we’re comparing different proposed governments, then it ought to be noted one of the chief accomplishments of the United States Constitution, as compared with the earlier Articles of Confederation was that the U.S. Constitution was deliberately designed to substantially increase centralization, in particular to grant the general government wide powers to impose national taxes and to pass and enforce Fugitive Slave Acts. The first was a substantial reason for its political success at the North; the second was a substantial reason for its political success at the South. I don’t consider either of these an advance over what came before.

  2. How much of an achievement it looks like depends on where you’re looking at it from. There isn’t much of a miracle there for the Shawnee, or the Lakota, or for Africans, or for African-Americans, or for the Filipinos (1,000,000+ dead thanks to a war that could not have happened but for the war machine that a centralized U.S. made possible), or for the Vietnamese (4,000,000 dead from the same cause a few decades later), not just because it failed to improve things but because it made things actively worse than they were before under the status quo ante. It’s not enough to say, Yes, that’s terrible, but the alternatives were just as bad or worse. They weren’t, not for the people who have gotten the heel of the boot under the U.S. government. It’s one thing to say that the ideals that motivated some aspects of the founding events of the U.S. could, if radicalized and universalized, bring liberation for everyone (I agree with that, and often say so); but it’s important not to miss the fact that not only weren’t they, but in fact the selective versions were often used to enable the elite to inflict much more violence, sometimes genocidal violence, on those who were cast outside of the magic circle.

If you want to go looking for less-lethal states, they exist, but I don’t think that anything like the U.S.A. could possibly qualify. San Marino, maybe; Switzerland, maybe. I have problems with these states, as I do with any other, but I can see citing them as examples of societies which manage to rise above the general bloodbath of recorded history. But certainly not anything that has ever been done under the United States Constitution.

America’s dying today

Q: When was it ever alive?

I think part of the difference in our outlooks is that I look at freedom as a positive construction. I don’t see a natural state of freedom which government, elites, or capital has stolen from us.

But that’s not my view either.

I’m not trying to recover a primordial state. I view freedom as an achievement for the future; the question is by what means it can be achieved. My complaint is not that you’re proposing a structure; it’s that you’re proposing a structure which has been tried and found wanting, and which there are good reasons to consider structurually predisposed to the slaughter, enslavement, war, and torture that has been committed under its name since the day that it was signed. The reason that I want the State to get out of the way is not because I expect everything to fix itself automatically once people are left alone. It would do a handy job of automatically fixing some things — nobody but states builds atomic bombs; nobody but states starves people to death in the name of de-kulakization/industrial modernization/intellectual property rights in DNA/opium prohibition/etc. But there are many things that need to be worked out through conscious effort and activism and the building of social structures and institutions.

So when you say:

The conclusion I came out of this was: [explicit] law is valuable.

I agree with you, but I don’t know why that’s an argument against anarchism, or in favor of the United States Constitution. Anarchism doesn’t mean dispensing with all written precepts for social conduct or with any possible sort of juridical institution. It means dispensing with the State. There are plenty of ways of getting explicit law, and institutions which write down laws based on rational deliberation and criticism, and juridical institutions which apply law or judgment to concrete cases, based on consensual association and without any kind of state. That’s been precisely the point of market anarchist theory since the get-go. The idea is not to get rid of orderly dispute resolution, but rather to stop the State from violently suppressing alternative forms of it.

Without the State, you can’t have finally unaccountable juridical institutions, and you can’t have written laws which are passed off as binding solely because of the political position of those who wrote them down. But I consider that a virtue, not a defect, because the need for institutions which allow for holding aggressors accountable, and for settling disputes through deliberation about right, rather than by means of brute force, doesn’t just apply when it comes to encounters between one citizen and another. It also applies when it comes to encounters between the citizen and the State; but there’s no way to get that as long as the State remains a state. The state as such is lawless in its encounters with the people it claims the right to rule; so if you think that law is valuable, that’s a reason to oppose the state, not a reason to support it.

As for the particular case you mention, that’s awful, and all too familiar. I’ve encountered plenty of similar situations in anarchist scenes around the U.S. in the past. I think existing anarchist scenes do a very bad job of supporting women and a very bad job of responding to rape in particular. But (1) so does the State, as we both know; (2) partly because of male supremacy, which is everywhere at the moment, but partly also for reasons that have specifically to do with the legal and juridical structure of the state (because state-centric criminal law handle crimes of violence as a matter of the State’s interest in preserving public order, not as a matter of vindicating the rights of individual victims; no surprise that D.A.s and cops are typically incredibly unresponsive to the needs of women, especially when it comes to a crime typically committed within the private sphere); and (3) the problems with the existing anarchist scene only suggest a problem with anarchism as such, or a reason to favor the state, if there are no realistically available ways to deal with a situation like this using anarchistic methods. But there are ways to deal with it. I’m all for people involved in organizing anarchist spaces getting together and writing down, and taking seriously, policies about how to deal with sexual violence or other issues that are likely to come up in a social space. (I’ve personally written plenty of policies, back when I was involved with planning an anarchist convention some years back.) Those people in the scene who think that any such attempt to do so amounts to government (for ill or for good) are, well, wrong — not just wrong about how to deal with the problems of interpersonal violence, but also wrong about what government is and what it is anarchism is opposed to.

But I still think what we need is a consciously selected society based upon specific and rationally validated values.

O.K. But isn’t that a reason to favor a form of social organization in which peaceful people are free to select their political institutions, rather than one in which a predetermined set of political institutions are violently imposed on them regardless of their consciously selected preferences?

A society in which individuals may do what they wish requires an insistence that societies operate by individualist principles, with an establishment of appropriate civil and formal institutions.

Anarchism does not preclude civil or formal institutions.

The success of anarchism would mean that we’ve completely humanised the human condition. The anarchist possibility is a hypercivilisation.

O.K., sure; but the question is how we get there from here. If what you mean as the process of civilization is something like, getting from a condition of chaotic or semistructured violence, to a condition of social peace, then I agree that building social structure is part of the process. But there are different kinds of social structures, and the state is only one among many. It’s only one among many possible structures; it’s also only one among many of structures that have actually operated in history. (Here are some others, which did not derive from a centralized state: the norms and institutions of academe, friendly societies, labor unions, churches, synagogues, the Law Merchant, the English common law of torts and contracts, etc. Some of these are beneficent, others baleful, and most are a mixture of the two.) The question is whether the level of social peace that some people are privileged to enjoy today was brought about by the state, or by other structures without the help of the state, or by other structures in spite of the state; I think the answer is mostly the last. And further, it’s a question of whether, going forward, centralized state methods are likely to advance or to hold back the cause of greater civilization and social peace. I think, looking at what the state actually does do most of the time it is doing something, and looking at what states are always going to be most likely to do, given the way that they are structured, that the question is not a hard one to answer.

One technical point- what I was broadly praising wasn’t the actual American system (past or present), but an ahistorical conjunction of the best parts from different periods- an 18th century ‘conservative’ limited government with 20th century ‘liberal’ provisions for rights enforcement.

I hope that you’d also include some other innovations besides the Incorporation Doctrine that also weren’t part of the Founding elite’s interpretation of the Constitution ca. 1790 — for example, the Thirteenth Amendment.

That said, if we’re now going to be looking at political systems which have never existed at any point in history, and which to be sustainable would also (as you argue) require a different culture and civil society, which does not now exist and never has existed and would involve a really radical transformation of what does now exist — then it seems like I can help myself to the same sort of hope and activism for the sort of radical transformation in culture and civil society which would make anarchy practical, sustainable, and desirable.

— Rad Geek (2009-04-25, 2:11pm)

Nick Manley:

Aster,

Yeah, I was going to point out what Charles did for himself. You were attacking a strawman. The federated organizations imagined by anarcho-communists are fantastically consciously constructed. The minarchist-market anarchist debate is over whether competitive defense services can achieve a individualist liberal rule of law — not over the desirability of orderly proceedings per se. There are also a lot of relatively minor disputes in life where the state doesn’t intervene without chaos resulting. A serious rape accusation is arguably something for an objective court of law, but a verbal scuffle with my mom isn’t.

Charles,

How would you answer a person pointing out Lawrence vs Texas, Brown vs Board of Education, and civil rights legislation passed on the national level?

Incidentally, the Brown vs Board of Education decision occurred in the context of compulsory schooling. You were compelled via taxes to support a racist school structure — no doubt said taxes fell on black and white alike.

— Nick Manley (2009-04-25, 4:24pm)

Aster:

Charles-

Bill of Rights, Amendment XIII, Aster’s edition.

Section I:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the County of Bohemia, or any place subject to her jurisdiction. Actually, involuntary servitude even as punishment for real crime just makess people nastier and isn’t exactly productive. Forced labour as restitution for aggression is a maybe, but it sounds way open to abuse.

Section II:

One more thing. It’s still involuntary servitude if you force someone to carry a gun and murder foreigners- actually, that’s even worse. And mandatory volunteerism- you guessed it, ‘involuntary servitude’!

Section III:

Oh, and that includes your wife. And your children. Don’t give that look- no, your wife and children aren’t your personal beasts of burden or fuck-toys. I don’t care if ‘your culture’ says otherwise. Tough.

Section IV:

It’s still involuntary servitude if you make the kid go to a big ugly building and bore them to death and call it ‘education’.

Section V:

It probably doesn’t count if it’s your dog or your cow, but we can discuss that issue. Maybe. Torturing millions of veal calves in factory farms does have a really bad slaveryish feel to it. Cats go under ‘implied non-applicability’- you can’t tell them what to do anyway. Actually, this amendment has an exception regarding you in relation to your cat. Obey her or else, not like you can resist.

Section VI.

The principle applies to places not subject to the jurisdiction of the County of Bohemia too, but this isn’t an excuse to bomb foreigners and take their stuff. Or to get other foreigners to ruin their livelihoods so they have to work in your sweatshops for virtually nothing. It even applies to BROWN people, believe it or not- and the fact that it took you this long to figure that out means you suck.

Section VII. Aster shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Actually, anyone who wants to stop a slavery situation should feel empowered to do it. Figuring out the enforcement and incentive structures will be a bitch, though- but that’s not an excuse for giving up and just letting slavery happen, Keith.

Section VIII: And the clever loophole in these rules you figured out is NOT OK. Slavery=BAD, if you were missing the point here.

Section IX: And if you were thinking that of course this principle applied to everyone but you- well, then you were wrong.

Charles, is that better?

— Aster (2009-04-25, 5:07pm)

Soviet Onion:

Aster,

Charles said most of what I would have. I’m very much in favor of polycentric law, specifically because I think it’s a kind of decentralization (not be confused with mutually-exclusive “localisms” a la Hoppestan/anarcho-communism, ‘cause that shit’s wack) that manages to incorporate the entire cosmopolis in a competitive and collaborative project(+). It’s the kind of decentralization that incorporates multiple overlapping world-strands instead segregating into little chunks where oppressive conditions can entrench themselves. It’s decentralized only in the sense that the same globalized process is taking place everywhere. The center is everywhere. Perhaps a better term for this is “system redundancy”, or even just competition.

The standard market anarchist talking point posits a competitive system of law and security in which no one is compelled to pay for enforcement they don’t want or seek the services of a specific mediator. This would tend to simultaneously whittle away anything that wasn’t strictly directly related to the defense of person or property, while strengthening those remaining parts (since competition is more efficient than monopoly), resulting in something that would unconsciously grope toward an approximation of a market liberal order, even in the absence of conscious endeavor (and the Lawyers in the crowd would see that as an almost mystical proof of Natural Law, but that’s also wack).

But the same thing would tend to happen culturally. By subsuming more and more people from larger cultural and geographic groups into the process, and forcing them to reason and persuade in an open environment wherein individuals are presented with a realistic possibility to run to the highest ground, you dissolve taboos and meme-traps to wind up with a code that should tend toward something more respectful of rational individualism, irrespective of whatever local aberrations may have been there initially. That ties into what I meant earlier about competition giving people so many options to run to that it forces all options to become better, because it becomes harder to put the cultural clampdown on anyone.

You see, this is why I’m not a good writer. I just ramble. To answer your point, I can see reasoned, macro-level cosmopolitan sentiments manifesting themselves best through this kind of anarchist decentralization. You don’t need to choose between an (unstable) monopoly state or an (undesirable) organic tribe.

(+) It’s no surprise that most of humanity’s early philosophical development took place in violently antagonistic environments like ancient Greece, China, India, Renaissance Italy etc. Competition is just a way of reconstituting this dynamic without violence, anarchist peace being the perfection of what we now call war, as Proudhon would say. Marxism tries to wish this discord away rather than harness it as an engine of progress (and even they recognize that it an engine of progress, but only to envision an end state that transcends it).

Note: I’m the last person to say that cultural change doesn’t matter, but this system is likely to be the most stable and compatible form in which to help preserve and extend it. Certainly more than your description of decentralization would indicate.

In a loosely related note, I attended the Finding Our Roots anarchist convergence today and something in one of the workshops caught my ear, a word I hadn’t heard in a long time: Globalization. It was in the context of someone describing anarchism as advancing an alternative vision of globalization to the neoliberal one, and this person spoke in kind of a tongue-in-cheek fashion, because he knew that this had already become a cliche.

Now, left-libertarians do try to present themselves as real advocates of “free-trade”, “free-markets”, “privatization” and sometimes even “property rights”, all in an attempt to redeem these (more or less) valuable concepts from their hypocritical usurpers, and present them as an Unknown Ideal toward which we can aspire with all the genuine radicalism that it deserves.

But I’ve never seen left-libertarians do the same with globalization.

Isn’t it odd that a group of people who advocate mostly local, self-contained, territorial forms self-government and economic relations still felt that the word globalization was worth redeeming, and left-libertarians haven’t?

— Soviet Onion (2009-04-25, 8:03pm/8:53pm/9:28pm)

William Gillis:

Aster,

I think giving up on the anarchist project because of one specific instance in one specific scene where some folks failed to have a good response to an instance/charge of rape is a little, well disappointing.

No one ever pretended that the present-day movement has already found all the habits and organizational tendencies necessary to resolve every dilemma before a functioning society. Our only claim is that such models exist to be found.

I think these problems of justice can be solved theoretically but because of the emotional immediacy and the relative perpetuity of sexual assault in our culture the movement has opted for a trial and error approach with various cities trying various solutions and engaging in an — albeit limited — dialogue. There are collectives and mediating bodies in dozens of cities across the united states with experience dealing with precisely these kinds of situations, often to impressive ends. Your example is a classic one, but it’s one that’s recognized as such. For all of Social Anarchism’s annoying self-limitations they HAVE demonstrated over the last few decades a serious and proactive commitment to developing organic solutions. And as Market Anarchists we should be able to recognize that if even a free market can take a few iterations to generate and test solutions, a small cliquish group of people LARPing on weekends as though they were already in a free society might take a while longer.

The problem is not that there aren’t solutions, the problem is that these models and groups fall into disuse and their nuances aren’t conveyed to the next 3-year batch of radicals. Long distance (in time AND space) communication has never been Social Anarchism’s strong suit. But this is not a fundamental impediment but a reality of the movement’s size, culture and technological aptitude.

.

As to the rest.

I take seriously umbrage at your portrayal of the Social Anarchist movement as rife with naive kindness and idealism because of their largely pampered privileged bourgeois upbringings.

Practically everyone I work with or run into on a regular basis come from backgrounds of seriously fucked up shit. I may think I have the slightly worse extreme stories of childhood homelessness, starvation and abuse, and there may be an annoying rash of privileged upper working-class kids scattered around the scene for good measure, but I am really fucking sick of folks who briefly slum it with the cliques most immediately accessible to them and use such unrepresentative anecdotes to write off the entire movement.

It’s not about naivety. It’s precisely because we’re intimately aware of the sheer depth of horrors in the sociological/psychological composition of our society and how they function that we endeavor to prove another world is possible.

Yes America is a pretty damn amazing accomplishment and a great improvement. We can measure things against Anarchy, Full-blown consciousness-outlawed Fascism, or how things were previously in history. America obviously fails against the first but triumphs amazingly against the latters. As far as world empires we could have at this state of technological development America is practically a divine miracle.

But as you well know it’s a strawman to argue against Anarchists as though we want to immediately whisk away the state and its various forms of control. We’re not, nor have we ever, argued for some police-strike. The civilizing process will take some damn time. Probably millennia were we destined to remain at roughly this level of technological capacity.

That being true it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and become a social democrat for the duration. (And we CAN argue for reformism and certain improved models of statism without being hypocrites.) But the reality is that the statist or liberal paradigm is one of fetishizing immediate advances or ameliorations in ignorance or apathy of their long term consequences. Simply put, the game of statist reform threatens to paint us into a corner from which we cannot emerge. Being an Anarchist is differentiated from Liberalism or Minarchism because while some of us may give to the EFF / ACLU, vote for lesser evils or get involved in political campaigns we navigate these contexts constantly mindful of our pursuit of an end far beyond them. We can’t choose means that cripple our ultimate ends.

— william, 2009-04-25, 11:44pm

Now, setting aside my editor hat and putting my contributor hat back on, a few notes on the discussion.

  1. I’d still be interested in hearing from Soviet Onion whether he has anyone else in mind when he talks about a left-libertarian tendency to inappropriately fetishize localism and decentralism, and if so, who.

  2. In reply to Aster, I oppose debt slavery, including debt slavery to pay off restitution. Otherwise, sounds fine, and, speaking as head of state and a supermajority of the provincial councils, I’m happy to incorporate it into the Bill of Rights of this secessionist republic of one. Probably was already hidden under a penumbra somewhere, but a little repetition never hurt anybody.

  3. In reply to Soviet Onion, I agree with you, and you are unjust to your own writing. Except there’s no such thing as a meme-trap because there’s no such thing as memes. I agree that the non-territoriality of anarchist justice and defense associations, institutions for deliberating about right, and so on, is important to stress; decentralism means the lack of a fixed center, not a proliferation of millions of fixed centers with a small stretch of turf.

    As for globalization, well, I dunno; but for what it’s worth, Southern Nevada ALL does distribute Free Trade Is Fair Trade and one of the main issues we focus on locally is immigration freedom. I agree that the discussion of counter-globalization or alternative globalization doesn’t get as much talk as it ought to, but I don’t think that tendencies among left-libertarians are really the problem here; I think the problem is one that exists throughout the anarchist movement, and that we’d be talking about it more if more of our interlocutors were bringing it up in their own conversations, and I agree with Shawn’s point in What ever happened to (the discourse on) Neoliberalism? that the critical narrative seems to have bumped into some obstacle in the collective memory of radicals. (Speaking only for myself, I suspect that the reasons why have a lot to do with the political events of the last 8 years, and with some bad decisions that we made, or that were made for us by our conversation partners, going into the anti-war movement.)

What do y’all think? Fire when ready in the comments.

Metropolitan secession

(Via Serf City 2008-01-31.)

Here’s something I mentioned some time back during a conversation about secession, decentralism, and decoupling the revolutionary doctrine of secession from the noxious notion of states’ rights:

I mean, one kind of decentralist politics that you might endorse would be to advocate the secession of urban centers from the surrounding states and a decentralist order that’s partly based on people forming a network of poleis around these urban centers. Certainly there are a number of cities (New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Austin, Atlanta …) where enough people are disgusted enough with their state governments that this kind of idea might have some real traction. After all, the power of suburban and exurban and rural counties to lord it over cities through majoritarian control of the state government is, or at least ought to be, just as much a concern for decentralists as the reverse.

So it’s interesting to read that Peter Vallone, a City Council rep from Queens, was proposing something like that earlier this year—stressing, in particular, the way that Albany’s tax-eaters parasitically exploit the wealth that the City produces, and the futility of trying to make your voice heard in a majoritarian regime where you’re outnumbered and have no right of exit:

Emboldened by Mayor Bloomberg’s testimony in Albany this week that the city’s taxpayers pay the state $11 billion a year more than they get back, a City Council member is offering legislation that would begin the process of having New York City secede from New York State.

Peter Vallone Jr., a Democrat who represents Queens, is pushing the idea, and the Council plans to hold a hearing on the possibility of making New York City the 51st state.

I think secession’s time has definitely come again, Mr. Vallone, who spearheaded a similar push in 2003, told The New York Sun yesterday. If not secession, somebody please tell me what other options we have if the state is going to continue to take billions from us and give us back pennies. Should we raise taxes some more? Should we cut services some more? Or should we consider seriously going out on our own?

During a visit to Albany this week, Mr. Bloomberg called on lawmakers to give the city its fair share of tax revenue and said that the state took in $11 billion more from New York City than was returned in the state budget. Mr. Vallone says that the state’s demands on the city in worsening economic times now make it necessary to dissolve the political bands, which have connected them.

Not only is it about self-determination and self-rule, but it’s about fairness, Mr. Vallone said. It’s something we see every year in the budget. They take $11 billion from us and give us back a mere pittance and they make it seem like they’re doing us a favor to give that pittance back. Somehow they missed the point that that is New York City’s own tax money and we deserve it.

— Benjamin Sarlin, The New York Sun (2008-01-30): A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City

Of course, Vallone is an elected Democrat, and like any politician, he takes a perfectly good radical idea and waters it down with stupid concessions to power: immediately after decrying the way majoritarian state government swindles people in New York City and denies them control over the fruits of their own labor, he goes on to propose that New York City ought to fix it by seceding from New York State, and then subordinating itself directly to the majoritarian rule of the United States federal government as the 51st state. I suppose there’s something to be said for cutting out the middle-man, but if you think that’s going to stop you from having billions taken from you and getting a pittance back, well, I have a fine bridge in the autonomous city-state of Brooklyn that you might be interested in buying.

And, like a politician, he proposes a stupid means to his stated ends:

Mr. Vallone’s legislation would create a commission to study the issue and then recommend whether to put it to a referendum. Since secession would have to be approved by the Albany legislators, its passage would be unlikely.

— Benjamin Sarlin, The New York Sun (2008-01-30): A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City

The idea of holding a direct referendum is fine; but making that referendum contingent on a politically-appointed council of Experts is a waste of time and energy. If you want New York City to be free, begging Albany to let your people go isn’t about to work. You’ve got to just start talking with your people about getting up and leaving, whether Albany likes it or not. I mean, Christ. Supposing that you talked it up and got it organized and actually had enough people in New York City behind you, what are they going to do about it? Boycott Manhattan? Invade the South Bronx? Why wait on their permission?

The answer, of course, is that this is most likely half-sincere at best, and in large part an act of pointless political grandstanding by Vallone, which he would not be attempting but for the fact hat he can be sure it won’t go anywhere. But even if his plan won’t, it’s very interesting, and worth the attention of genuine secessionists and real revolutionaries, that a party hack from Queens figures there’s enough of that kind of sentiment in his neighborhood that he can exploit it for an applause line. And that other dissident city council members would be willing to endorse the same logic in the course of public political debate:

Another to council member, Simcha Felder, who chairs the Governmental Operations committee, said the bill will be considered this year.

It certainly has merit, Mr. Felder said of the proposal. Why in the world should New York City be held hostage to the state? It just doesn’t make sense.

Mr. Felder acknowledged that the bill would face many hurdles, but said it deserved a debate.

I think the people in New York City are very interested for the most part in it. The question is the people outside New York City in New York State who have been eating the fruits of our labor for all this time. They aren’t going to be ready to just say forget about it.

— Benjamin Sarlin, The New York Sun (2008-01-30): A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City

So don’t give them the opportunity. Why choose a strategy that requires you to wait on them to get ready for your freedom? If the people in New York City really are very interested, then do what every successful independence movement in history has done: stop worrying about what the people who oppress and exploit you will say about it. Get talking, get organized, declare independence and then, if the state keeps trying to issue you orders, act like you mean it — by ignoring those orders and treating the people who issue them the same way you’d treat any other lunatic who thinks he’s Napoleon. Of course, a strategy like that is hard. Of course, it’s likely to fail. (Lots of independence movements have.) Of course, it will take years to organize and win even if it doesn’t fail. But it is a strategy that might possibly succeed, which puts it ahead of plans for having the city government petition the state legislature. And it’s also a strategy we can start talking about now. And talking about that may start a lot of other conversations that are worth having, about taxes, war, empire, and the rest.

New York City ALLies: how many people do you know who are very interested in the idea of an independent New York City, which is no longer held hostage to the state? Remember that interest and sympathy and idle wishes are enough to start with: conviction and solidarity and organization are things that you can build by getting people to take the idea seriously, by educating them about it, by dispelling their ars, and by showing them that another City is possible. So, are there possibilities in doing anti-imperialist education, outreach, and, ultimately, organizing to free Occupied New York from the Empire State?

If so, let’s talk about how to do it. Maybe we can start in the comments here. Free the New York 8,274,527, and all political prisoners!

See also: