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Losers of the World Unite!

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 14 years ago, in 2010, on the World Wide Web.

Arnold Kling recently wrote that the problem with liberaltarianism is that generally speaking, and especially right now, technocratic Harvard liberals are primarily concerned with, and irrevocably committed to, expert control over the economy. Will Wilkinson writes in reply:

But the Harvard narrative is gauche. People can learn to have better taste if someone shows them how. More generally, you can't expect a way of thinking to become popular with the elite if you concede from the outset that it appeals primarily to losers. Anyway, yes, high school never ends.

Actually, I’d say that the real problem with liberaltarianism[*] is precisely the expectation that the point is to make libertarian thinking popular with the elite. Which strikes me as neither likely nor especially desirable. The elite generally aren’t in the market for significant alternatives to the political status quo; why would they be? Under the status quo, they’re already the elite. They don’t need or want another world to be possible; they’ve already got one of those.

But losers have have no real stake in maintaining the existing relations of political power. And if the existing political-economic arrangements are marked by statist exploitation, injustice, and petty tyranny, then it’s the losers who benefit most from the repeal of unjust laws and from movement towards a freer society. When that’s the case, if your ideas don’t appeal primarily to losers, you’re doing it wrong. Losers, unlike elites, have little more to lose, and plenty to gain.

(Incidentally, if you think that my speaking against elites and in praise of losers amounts to opting for Tea Partisans over Harvard liberals, then I’d like to suggest that you have an awfully constrained notion of the available alternatives. And have probably lost sight of how the American system of socioeconomic status actually works, by confusing it with the idiotic shouting match commonly dignified as American electoral politics. What I’m after is hardly belligerent Republican dudes posing as the scrappy underdogs. It’s pro-immigrant, pro-worker, libertarian Leftism, with a special emphasis on solidarity with the people who are the most criminalized, the most marginalized, the most exploited and oppressed.)

All power to the people.

* I mean, other than the problem with it being an abominable word that nobody should ever have committed to print. Or even thought of, really.

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  1. Aster

    Do you think that the most marginalised and oppressed people in the world typically hold progressive and/or libertarian values? Don’t authoritarianism and conservatism flourish most virulently among those whom oppression has denied education, leisure, freedom, and self-development? Belief in liberty and equality are very rare things historically.

  2. Scott Bieser

    No doubt this is true, Aster. But if one’s notion of political activism begins and ends with simply mobilizing those who already agree with us, then we have lost the struggle before it begins. Belief in liberty and equality are very rare everywhere.

    But the reality on the ground is that freedom can benefit the “least” among us more than the elites. Raising consciousness is hard work but it helps to have the truth on one’s side.

  3. Rad Geek


    Do you think that the most marginalised and oppressed people in the world typically hold progressive and/or libertarian values?

    No, but neither do elite people. The political views I favor are generally unpopular.

    Don’t authoritarianism and conservatism flourish most virulently among those whom oppression has denied education, leisure, freedom, and self-development?

    I don’t know what you mean by most virulently here. If you mean to ask whether authoritarianism and conservatism are most prevalent, then no, this is not true. If you look at contemporary or historical polls of what people already believe(d), this turns out to be either tremendously oversimplified or completely mythical. There are a lot of issues where rich people tend to be consistently more right-wing than poor people, and people with college degrees tend to be consistently more right-wing than people without them (for example, war and police powers); a lot where men tend to be more right-wing than women (abortion, war, culture war politics, etc.); where white people tend to be more right-wing than black people (immigration, war, police powers, etc.) and people of color broadly (death penalty, prison reform, etc.); where native-born people tend to be more right-wing than immigrants; certainly there are a lot where straight people tend to be more right-wing than queer people; etc. (It’s important to remember that rich and poor is not the only traditional hierarchy; it’s also important to remember that hierarchies tend to intersect and reinforce each other, and so most poor people are women, not men; black people are disproportionately likely to be poor; etc. If your attitudes toward poor people are based primarily on your ideas, whether accurate or inaccurate, of what poor white men are like, it’s important to remember that that’s a minority of poor people, and an unrepresentative sample.) There are also some issues where the reverse is true — e.g. more women than men tend to believe in statist gun control; poorer and less educated people tend to be more supportive of protectionist tariffs, etc. (But, of course, these things are often complicated once they get put in context; since, for example, if you zoom 6 inches out from the specific question of whether or not a tariff ought to be passed, the phony Free Trade typically favored by richer and better educated people turns out to be a different form of globalized statism, rather than actually anti-statist, etc. etc.). And in horizontal cases (where you’re looking at how victims of one form of traditional hierarchy relate to other, different forms of hierarchy), the issue is still very complicated. (E.g. in recent opinion polls black people have generally been more supportive of immigration freedom than white people; while also being more opposed to gay marriage; Latinos tend to be more anti-abortion than white people do, although some recent polls find black people to be more supportive of abortion rights than either white people or Latinos; and things look very different if you look at the attitudes of Latina women on abortion, or at the views of, say, Puerto Ricans on abortion, rather than looking at aggregate data about Latin@s as a whole, etc.) In any case, the question is complicated, as are the variables; there are a lot of common myths that tend to really obscure matters when the question veers away from empirical results on precisely-defined questions (e.g. people very consistently get it wrong on how both class and education affect attitudes towards war; when talking about one form of hierarchy — say, economic class — a lot of people also tend to forget about all the intersecting forms of hierarchy, and to make broad statements about poor people which are really based on their views, whether accurate or inaccurate, of poor straight white men; etc.).

    If you mean something else, other than numerical prevalence (e.g. whether the authoritarian or conservative beliefs already held by people on the elite side of traditional hierarchies tend to be less severely authoritarian or less resolutely authoritarian or what have you, then the question is even more complicated, and again, I’d need to know something more specific about how you’re measuring the severity or whatever of the authoritarianism, which hierarchies you are looking at, what intersections you are or aren’t considering; etc.

    In any case, what I’d need here is a more precise question, and some reference to actual examples or data. The impressionistic takeaway view that a lot of people operate on in these matters tends to be not only occasionally false, but in fact to systematically misrepresent the truth.

    But in any case, beyond the question of what people already happen to believe, people’s current beliefs on a set of governmental policy proposals are not a metaphysical given. Thank goodness; because, again, the kind of ideas about the world that I think need to be advanced are extremely unpopular with everyone. My view of politics is not just teaming up with already-existing political factions of more-or-less fixed political views, but also of changing views, fracturing existing coalitions, forging previously unrecognized connections, and changing the terms of the debate.

    So a lot of the question here is not just who already agrees but also who is willing to entertain the notion, who is likely to act or hold fast to the belief once convinced, who is willing to break ties with existing statist coalitions and authoritarian social formations, etc. (=) These are all complicated issues, and relative not only to the audience and the circumstances, but also to the speaker. But I would like to suggest that there is a lot to be said for the self-interest of those who would benefit the most from freedom. Further that advanced schooling, in particular, is not necessarily a reliable sign of being more willing to entertain true positions or rational arguments. (That depends a lot on the kind of schooling you got and what you, as a person, chose to make of it. In the statistical aggregate, an undergraduate education tends to make people more prone, not less, to accept a number of conventional delusions about, for example, war and government law-n-order; a graduate education tends to reverse the damage on those, but to make people much more likely to buy into all kinds of nasty managerialist prejudices; etc.) And also that, more generally, a lot of people tend to rather dramatically overestimate both how feasible and how important it is for freedom and justice movements to somehow convince those who already have a lot of power and material comfort under present arrangements.

    (=) As a matter of fact, I should point out that I think this is exactly where one of the major strands of Keith Preston’s intellectual arguments against left-libertarianism — as opposed to the bigoted swipes and general vileness — as well Todd Seavey’s arguments against libertarian feminism, and a lot of other arguments against left-libertarianism and libertarian feminism in particular typically go wrong. They take a look at aggregate data about already-existing political blocs (or, more typically, an impressionistic survey of the most mainstream political blocs participating in electoral politics), note that, say, major currently-existing feminist groups (or, again, those most prominent in the media and most closely involved in malestream government politics) tend to advocate a lot of statist policy proposals, and then conclude that, therefore libertarian feminism is a waste of time. As if the point of libertarian feminism were just to get all the existing libertarian and feminist groups together for a big march, or get all the libertarians to start donating to NOW, or something like that — when in fact the point is to change and break up existing political blocs, and for left-libertarians not to find some ready-made anti-statist Left to join up with, but rather to help create it — not by roping people together just as they actually are, but by encouraging libertarians to radicalize their individualism and anti-authoritarianism, and encourage feminists to radicalize their opposition to all forms of patriarchal power. Be the change, we are the ones we have been waiting for, etc. etc. etc.

  4. TGGP

    a special emphasis on solidarity with the people who are the most criminalized, the most marginalized, the most exploited and oppressed That’s Keith Preston’s avowed strategy (only he uses the term “lumpenproletariat”). I don’t know what all goes into it beyond operating an email-list.

    Raising consciousness is hard work but it helps to have the truth on one’s side. Is there empirical evidence for that?

  5. Rad Geek


    Yeah, I know that that’s how Keith Preston identifies his strategy. I don’t particularly want to re-open an issue that’s already been talked to death and resurrection and back to death again in the Monster Thread and elsewhere, so let me just say here that my problem with Keith Preston’s approach is not that he suggests identifying and allying with criminalized, marginalized, or lumpen people. My problem is, first, that he has what I consider a disastrously selective view of whose criminalization and marginalization counts as legitimate libertarian concern (=). And, secondly, that he has the wrong idea about what the process of building such an alliance, and the terms on which allies might ally themselves with each other, looks like.

    Speaking of which, and also in follow-up to the footnote on my comment to Aster, I forgot to include a link above to my direct comment to Keith Preston in the Monster Thread where I talk about the difference between alliance as linking up ready-made political formations just as they are, and alliance as building a new and different kind of community. So, now I have.

    (=) Hence, for example, his bizarre efforts coddle pseudo-populist Right-wingers who support the immigration police state and the mass criminalization of people without papers. Whereas on my view, if you’re concerned about identifying with the most criminalized, marginalized, exploited and oppressed, it would be harder to find a better place to start than with standing up for the rights of illegal alien workers confronting the border Stasi without government papers.

    I don’t know what all goes into it beyond operating an email-list.

    Well, I dunno what goes into it for Keith. For me, the main concrete output beyond reading and writing is that I spend a lot of time right now on activism (1) in defense of freedom for all immigrants, especially the undocumented and (2) in solidarity with homeless people (against the police and the city government’s repeated efforts at socioeconomic cleansing). It’s also why I’ve been heavily involved in the past in, e.g., the peace movement, and ground-level feminist activism against rape and domestic violence. Negatively, it also has a lot to do with why I very emphatically don’t give a damn about trying to intervene in electoral politics, and why I very vocally encourage my fellow libertarians, anarchists, no-borders activists, homeless advocates, peaceniks, feminists, etc., to give up on pretending that electioneering, lobbying, and other forms of governmental politics are reliable, practical or desirable means of social transformation.

  6. Aster


    Thank you such a substantive and factual answer to my concerns. I want to very seriously consider what you’ve said, not least become I confront these issues daily in my practical life.

    If you have any easily available links which would substantiate or situate this scattershot of contra-establishment-liberal-classism data points, I’d appreciate and would carefully read them. Some of them I know to be true, some challenge my world-picture; others jar strongly with personal experience, some don’t have the same meaning to me given our different philosophical and value frameworks. My most immediate response it to emphasise that I’m not primarily talking about an American context; I have in mind also the relative liberalism in rich and poor (often meaning “exploited”) countries in a global contezt. Are you familiar with this study?:


    (the “values map” is fascinating)

    I recently took advantage of a social opportunity to host a sightly edgy gathering of urban bourgeois liberal feminist women. I’m still not sure of what to make of the experience. But it matters a great deal to me when I know for certain that I don’t have to face epithet bombs or dehumanising social treatment, and I refuse to choose my alliances on bases of abstract justice regardless of my physical and psychological safety, and I can never ally with radicals and libertarian whose societies maintain standards contrary to my survival and flourishing. Even when they are right.

    BTW, I wouldn’t bother with Preston; I gather he’s trying to be a nice respectable manicured intellectual, and doesn’t have the courage to be his racist homophobic self any more. The thought of the new nicely ‘siviled Keith is amusing.

  7. Rad Geek


    I’m out of town right now away from my sources, so unfortunately I won’t be able to get back to you for a while on the sources. However, most of the stuff here is taken from public opinion polls (which have their problems, of course, but are often the only available source, so take them for all in all), especially from studies commissioned by Pew and Kaiser. If there is any particular claim that you’d like to make sure you get figures on, drop me a line here or in e-mail and I’ll set up a reminder to fetch some figures for you when I get back home.

    Anyway. On a similar topic, James Loewen talks about levels of schooling and support for the Vietnam War toward the end of Lies My Teacher Told Me (toward the end of old editions; newer editions have been significantly expanded, and I don’t know where the discussion is) — along with a very interesting discussion of how his students consistently predict exactly the reverse of the real figures, when asked to predict which groups exhibited which levels of support.

    I have in mind also the relative liberalism in rich and poor (often meaning “exploited”) countries in a global contezt

    Well, O.K., but it’s important to avoid the ecological fallacy here — my point wasn’t about countries but about people, and it’s important to remember that community norms, political and cultural institutions, etc. in poor countries are rarely set by poor people. Rather, they are usually set by rich people, and typically a kleptocratic post-colonial elite, often boasting European or American educations and significant financial or military dependence on resources provided by the governments of one or several major world powers. Of course, I don’t doubt that localized elites in poor countries are often awfully reactionary — and, returning to my second point, are also likely to remain awfully reactionary no matter how hard you try to persuade them otherwise. But of course the upshot of my anti-elitism is neither to support, nor to try and influence, localized elites in opposition to European or American elites. Que se vayan todos!

    (Also, again, that rich-poor is not at all the only sort of traditional hierarchy that I’m concerned with when I talk about social elites, and that aggregate data is a dangerous tool. There are a lot of intersections to keep in mind here, and they can have quite significant effects.)

  8. Aster


    I remember that bit in Lies My Teacher Told Me. The book in general was a significant effect upon me: as a Randian I’d long been attracted to progressive positions, but most leftish works I’d encountered until that point had been drenched in moralistic demands and/or postmodern epistemology while weak on rational and factual persuasion. It’s a book I’d recommend to everyone.

    Unfortunately, this was the single data point in all of your statements which had the least effect on me. I’m against all (four?) of America’s current imperial wars. I see the Indochina war as murderous on all sides, and would have certainly opposed the war had I lived in the U.S. at the time.

    Yet I don’t feel entirely comfortable with either libertarian or progressive stories on the issue. I’m a minarchist, at the very least. I think that in principle the restraint of violence and oppression by force is a necessity for the preservation of liberal civilisation. I don’t object to humanitarian intervention as an ideal and would prefer a less oppressive foreign tyrant to a more impressive local regime. I with some reluctance support antidiscrimination legislation and state intervention in abusive families on the same principle. I’m open in any particular case to demonstration that state intervention does or does not result in a net gain in negative and positive liberty, and would certainly prefer approaches to the opening of closed societies which do not involve the use of states or other dominating institutions, as serious negative unintended consequences are inevitable whenever such means are used.

    But I remain extremely uncomfortable with populism. Life in a closed community where your whole life is under the control of an uneducated collectivism is Hell. I think decentralism is a terrible idea, and firmly want the tone of social life to be set by people whose minds are familiar with the world’s variety and the best which has been thought and said. My three decades of life and dozen years in the libertarian movement have firmly and irrevocably convinced me that this is a matter of self-defence, and on this larger issue I’m not open to persuasion, barring a massive change in my understanding of what constitutes a good society and human social and economic progress. I won’t support the masses over the elites when I believe that the result will be that all individuality and art will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a parochial multitude.

    I know what those hooves feel like. It is no dramatic exaggeration to say that I’ve scars from those hoofprints on body and soul. Decentralism will in practice throw me under a bus and burn down the library along with the palace. I know we disagree. But I’ve seen enough. I’ve made my choice. I regret that it seems that we must choose between freedoms and liberations.

  9. Rad Geek


    I don’t object to humanitarian intervention as an ideal and would prefer a less oppressive foreign tyrant to a more impressive local regime.

    O.K., but what does that have to do with napalming children in defense of a Catholic/theocratic military dictatorship? I’m not sure I understand why every time I mention real historical wars that killed 4,000,000 real people the discussion turns towards what an imaginary government intervention that has never occurred in the whole history of global power might be like.

    In any case, my main point in mentioning Loewen actually wasn’t so much a data point about Vietnam (there are similar data points about college degrees and, e.g., support for the War on Iraq; and there are similar triumphs of the Best and the Brightest which I could also have mentioned — Buck v. Bell, for example, or World War I as a whole). Rather, it had more to do with the conceits and reality-inversions of the schooled classes when they look back at even the most recent sorts of history. I’d like to suggest that the extent to which the schooled classes have influenced public narratives about politics makes impressionistic takeaway views on this matter extremely unreliable, if not negative barometers. Hence my suggestion that the discussion needs breaking down into specifics, both of issues and of different kinds of elite-subaltern hierarchies. And that it needs reference to empirical data, not overarching gestalt impressions. Like I said, if you have any questions about the specific claims made, drop me a note about which one you want sources for, and I’ll get on it when I’m back home. Otherwise, I don’t really know what to do with this, because trading overgeneralized bow-shots without data isn’t going to get this much of anywhere.

    But I remain extremely uncomfortable with populism. Life in a closed community where your whole life is under the control of an uneducated collectivism is Hell. I think decentralism is a terrible idea, and firmly want the tone of social life to be set by people whose minds are familiar with the world’s variety and the best which has been thought and said.

    Well, whatever. But these are three separate issues. If you’ve already made up your mind about decentralism, I won’t bother going into it. But decentralism and populism are orthogonal issues. (There are plenty of hypercentralist populists, and plenty of decentralist elitists.) As for education, I think it’s a great thing when it happens. But it hasn’t got much of a reliable relationship with levels of approved schooling.

    I won’t support the masses over the elites […]

    O.K., but that seems like a false alternative to me. My aim is not to support the masses; it is to break up the masses and relate to ordinary people as individuals, not as representatives of a compacted social formation. That’s going to be necessary whether you are dealing with masses, or with established elites, if you want to have any hope of communicating with people humanely and moving beyond oconventional idiocies. And part of my point here is that self-satisfied elites are typically a lot harder to do that with — because they have no reason to break ranks or question the orders. They wrote the orders. And they’re generally already right about where they want to be.

  10. Aster


    1) I’d intended my earlier words to clearly show my opposition to the Vietnam War, and that I consider the Americans no less vicious or irrational in that conflict than the Vietnam People’s Army.

    2) I usually work through undecided issues by going out into the world and seeing if the belief as applied to reality produces a sharper clarity of experience. I’m checking your data points with reality as I come across articles and such on the relevant issues and demographics. None of this will happen in a day. I find that the best way to find out what a culture or class is like is to go talk to them. Please let me experiment and think over the issue and I’ll see what I find.

    3) May I ask if you’re familiar with any “hypercentralist populists” and “decentralist elitists.” Jefferson comes to mind for the latter category.

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