Contextual Libertarianism and Class Theory
A specific policy proposal must be evaluated, not only in terms of its intrinsic libertarianism but, in the context of the overall system of power, how it promotes or hinders the class interests that predominate in that system. We must, as Chris Sciabarra put it in his description of Marx’s dialectical method, "grasp the nature of a part by viewing it systemically--that is, as an extension of the system within which it is embedded."(28) Individual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part.
Arthur Silber, working from Sciabarra’s principle of contextual libertarianism, explains the approach quite well:
....there are two basic methods of thinking that we can often see in the way people approach any given issue. One is what we might call a contextual approach: people who use this method look at any particular issue in the overall context in which it arises, or the system in which it is embedded….
The other fundamental approach is to focus on the basic principles involved, but with scant (or no) attention paid to the overall context in which the principles are being analyzed. In this manner, this approach treats principles like Plato's Forms....
….[M]any libertarians espouse this "atomist" view of society. For them, it is as if the society in which one lives is completely irrelevant to an analysis of any problem at all. For them, all one must understand are the fundamental political principles involved. For them, that is the entirety of the discussion....
To sum up, then: we can see two very different methods of approaching any problem. We have a method which focuses on contextual, systemic concerns, and always keeps those issues in mind when analyzing any problem and proposing solutions to it. And we also have a method which focuses almost exclusively on principles, but employs principles in the manner of Plato's Forms, unconnected and unmoored to a specific context or culture. As I said, my solution is to employ both methods, separately and together, constantly going back and forth -- and to endeavor never to forget either.(29)
The enemy of the state must start with a strategic picture of his own. It is not enough to oppose any and all statism, as such, without any conception of how particular examples of statism fit into the overall system of power. Each concrete example of statism must be grasped in its relation to the system of power as a whole, and the way in which the nature of the part is characterized by the whole to which it belongs. That is, we must examine the ways in which it functions together with other elements of the system, both coercive and market, to promote the interests of the class controlling the state.
In forming this strategic picture, we must use class analysis to identify the key interests and groups at the heart of the system of power. As Sciabarra points out, at first glance Rothbard‘s view of the state might seem to superficially resemble interest group liberalism: although the state is the organized political means, it serves the exploitative interests of whatever collection of political factions happen to seize control of it at any given time. This picture of how the state works does not require any organic relation between the various interest groups controlling the state at any time, or between them and the state. The state might be controlled by a disparate array of interest groups, ranging from licensed professionals, rent-seeking corporations, family farmers, regulated utilities, and labor unions; the only thing they might have in common is the fact that they happen to be currently the best at weaseling their way into the state.
What Roderick Long calls "statocratic" class theory (a class theory that emphasizes the state component of the ruling class at the expense of its plutocratic elements) tends toward this kind of understanding. A good example is the class theory of Adam Smith and his followers:
By its nature…, a powerful state attracts special interests who will try to direct its activities, and whichever achieves the most sway… will constitute a ruling class.(30)
Long pointed to David Friedman as an even more extreme example of this tendency:
It seems more reasonable to suppose that there is no ruling class, that we are ruled, rather, by a myriad of quarrelling gangs, constantly engaged in stealing from each other to the great impoverishment of their own members as well as the rest of us.(31)
But on closer inspection, Rothbard did not see the state as being controlled by a random collection of interest groups. Rather, it was controlled by
a primary group that has achieved a position of structural hegemony, a group central to class consolidation and crisis in contemporary political economy. Rothbard’s approach to this problem is, in fact, highly dialectical in its comprehension of the historical, political, economic, and social dynamics of class.(32)
And as we saw in Chapter Four, this "structural hegemony" did not arise in the twentieth or even the late nineteenth century; it was built into capitalism ever since the landed classes and merchant oligarchs created it by a revolution from above, five hundred years ago.
The state is not a neutral, free-standing force that is colonized fortuitously by random assortments of economic interests. It is by nature the instrument of the ruling class--or, as the Marxists say, its executive committee. In some class societies, like the bureaucratic collectivist societies of the old Soviet bloc, some portion of the state apparatus itself is the ruling class. In state capitalist societies like the United States, the ruling class is the plutocracy (along with subordinate New Class elements). This is not in any way to assert that economic exploitation or class domination can arise outside of the state; only that the ruling class is the active party that acts through the state.
28. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000) 88.
29. Arthur Silber, "In Praise of Contextual Libertarianism," The Light of Reason, November 2, 2003 http://coldfury.com/reason/comments.php?id=P1229_0_1_0_C Captured August 21, 2004.
30. Roderick T. Long, "Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class," Social Philosophy & Policy 15:2 (1998) 313.
31. From The Machinery of Freedom, qt. in Ibid. 327.
32. Ibid. 287.