Gary Chartier. Conscience of an Anarchist
Jeff Riggenbach's interview with Gary Chartier does a pretty good job bringing out some notable themes in Chartier's approach to his audience. For example, as Riggenbach notes, it "entirely eschews the word libertarian." Where Rothbard and his followers would naturally use the term "libertarian," Chartier prefers "anarchist." By way of explanation, Chartier says,
I really want this book to reach an audience of people for whom the word "libertarian" might be a red flag — people for whom the word "libertarian" might suggest any number of things that they think they know about and don't like. And I felt as if by focusing on anarchy, that certainly is another red flag term, but I thought perhaps there might be some people's defenses I could move past that.
Another such idiosyncracy, although I think Riggenbach exaggerates it, is Chartier's comparative downplaying of moral or natural law arguments against the state. Riggenbach characterizes this approach, based on his interview, as "purely strategic; it does not signal... any general unwillingness on his part to argue for liberty from a natural-rights perspective." In Chartier's words:
Not in this book, no. I'm prepared to argue that at some length elsewhere, but it's definitely, from a strategic point of view, not what I wanted to argue here … not because I want to argue against certain kinds of natural rights approaches — I mean, one of my ongoing academic interests is natural law theory, and I've worked quite a bit in that area. But it seemed to me that for this book that wasn't the most effective rhetorical tack to take. … What I particularly didn't want to do in this book [is] I didn't want to scare off the principled statist lefties. I also wanted this to be a book that anarchists of a pretty broad range of sorts could pick up and appreciate without thinking that by endorsing the book they were endorsing a particular position on the question, "What should a stateless society look like?" I would like somebody who identifies with Kropotkin or Proudhon to pick up this book and say, "All of this seems right to me; now I know this guy and I might well end up having an argument about what we want our stateless community to look like, but the substance of the book doesn't amount to a broadside against me, you know?"
Now, to repeat, I think Riggenbach exaggerates this tendency and goes too far in his use of absolutist language: "...eschewing all moral arguments for a free society." "...his argument... is entirely consequentialist."
In fact I can quote Chartier's own words to demonstrate just the contrary:
As an idea, anarchism is the conviction that people can and should cooperate peacefully and voluntarily....
Because governments are rooted in the use of force, anarchists maintain that no actual government is legitimate....
People can and should organize their interactions on their own terms....
Although he may not appeal to the principles of self-ownership and nonaggression in just those words, he presents what amounts to an argument that the state's claimed basis of authority -- that it initiates force for the general welfare, based on its possession of a police power derived from the will of the majority -- is illegitimate because, in Roderick Long's words, "You don't own other people."
I want to encourage you to shift your point of view -- to come to see the state as a group of people no different from your neighbors, with no more inherent authority, no greater right to tell you what to do....That sounds pretty moral to me.
I'm an anarchist because I believe there's no natural right to rule. I believe people are equal in essential dignity and worth, which means, in turn, that they have equal moral standing. That makes it hard to justify giving some people -- those who rule the state and those who enforce the rulers' decisions -- rights that others don't have. And I'm an anarchist because I believe the state lacks legitimacy. Some people argue that rulers deserve to have more rights than those they rule because their subjects have consented and continue to consent to their authority. But I believe they haven't.
But Riggenbach is certainly correct that Chartier puts the emphasis on consequentialist arguments.
Chartier's primary aim is to make anarchism understandable to those who may intially be hostile to the mainstream image of movement libertarianism in the United States, and who are unlikely to be convinced from first principles like self-ownership and non-aggression.
His intended audience is those who, rightly or wrongly -- and unfortunately in all too many cases it's been justified -- perceive movement libertarians as "pot-smoking Republicans." His intended audience is people who constantly witness newspaper editorialists, cable news commentators and politicians defending iron-heeled corporate domination, gross inequality, and the economic insecurity and pain of the average working person in the name of "our free market system."
His intended audience, further, is people who have come to assume, based on the discourse of both mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives, that corporate power and economic polarization are the natural outcomes of a free market, and that such evils will emerge spontaneously absent the countervailing power of the interventionist state. The average person in this country believes that, absent the regulatory and welfare state, we'd be living in an even harsher version of the Gilded Age.
Such people are not apt to be converted, via arguments for self-ownership and nonaggression, into an acceptance of the "free market" that they wrongly believe will create a Dickensian world of Dark Satanic Mills and workhouses.
The best approach is to approach these people in baby steps, to point out the extent to which the power of big business and the plutocracy result from state intervention, to show that the corporate ruling class has always played a primary role in formulating the state's policy and that it is the primary beneficiary, and to create awareness of the role of the state in suppressing all the kinds of egalitarian, bottom-up, grassroots, self-organized alternatives that people like Pyotr Kropotkin, E.P. Thompson and Colin Ward have written about.
I think this approach is the correct one, if libertarianism and market anarchism aren't to be the insular philosophies of a narrow segment of the population who sit around grumbling about lazy union workers and welfare queens, and who reflexively view any critique of corporate power as statist.
It's entirely understandable that the kinds of liberals who read Daily Kos and HuffPo come from a position of skepticism toward the free market and an assumption that state intervention is necessary to prevent big business from running roughshod over ordinary people. What mainstream "libertarian" commentators in the print and broadcast press defend, in the name of the "free market," is exactly that kind of neoliberal brutalization. If all I knew about the so-called "free market" was what I heard from people like Dick Armey and the folks at CNBC and the WSJ editorial page, I'd hate it more than anybody.
Such people need to be approached sympathetically, with an awareness of their understandable reasons for skepticism, and a willingness to address the received version of history -- shared by both mainstream Left and mainstream Right -- that has distorted their understanding of the world.
But they are approached, from the right-wing culture that dominates too much of mainstream libertarianism, by people with a chip on their shoulders, just waiting for the opportunity to denounce them and to retreat into the bastion of their righteous Lost Cause.
People on the statist Left who rightly perceive that corporate power and the concentration of wealth are evils, but who are understandably confused about the cause of these evils, are the most promising audience for a viable, growing libertarian movement. Saint Paul's role in the history of Christianity is a good analogy for this approach. He bypassed the natural audience for the messianic gospel -- the Jews who had been awaiting the Messiah since the time of the post-exilic prophets -- and took it to the Gentiles.
So long as libertarianism is the preserve of right-wing, white, middle-class people who grumble about "the unions" and people on welfare, and whine about how the poor drug companies and Microsoft are picked on, it will be about as relevant to the average person in the real world as, say, Jacobitism was in England ca. 1750.
The only way to advance the cause of libertarianism is to stop preaching to the choir and present libertarian ideas in a way that acknowledges the legitimacy of the concerns of people who are not already libertarians -- rather than treating them as the enemy.
Gary Chartier's book is the best attempt to do just this, to make market anarchism and libertarianism understandable to ordinary people who aren't already sympathetic to such ideas, that I've seen.
Chapter by chapter, he presents sensible and plausible arguments that:
- rather than the disappearance of government law enforcement leading to a Hobbesian war of all against all, most people are peaceable and could organize voluntarily in fairly effective ways to protect themselves against the violent minority;
- big business fears genuine free markets more than anyone, and that its power and profits result from government restriction of free market competition;
- far from providing "national security" and protecting us from "foreign threats," foreign adventurism by the U.S. government is the main cause of most of the actual dangers to the American people;
- working people have been very creative historically at making arrangements for pooling risks and income, and organizing mutual aid for the sick and unemployed, and would be even more effective if the state didn't criminalize low-cost comfortable subsistence and erect so many barriers to making ends meet, in order to keep us dependent on wage slavery.
As a specimen of apologetic literature, that presents ideas clearly and simply to those not familiar with them, I put this in the same category of books as Alexander Berkman's The ABCs of Anarchism (on the Left) and Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World (on the Right).
If you're the kind of person who sees libertarianism as an ideology that defends the frugal, provident and industrious rich against everyone else; if you're the kind of person for whom the main appeal of libertarianism is an eschatological vision of yourself and the rest of the Elect entrepreneurs and writers of code, all smugly chortling to yourselves in the stronghold of Galt's Gulch as the moochers, looters and slackers outside perish in the economic apocalypse; if you're this kind of person, I say, you should spare yourself a lot of aggravation and leave this book alone.
If you get goosebumps reading statements like these...
innovation is the product of exceptional, dedicated individuals who must overcome the uncomprehending dullness of most of their fellows, and often their hostility as well.
You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.
--Ludwig von Mises to Ayn Rand
...this probably isn't the book for you.
On the other hand, if you don't automatically hold in contempt everyone who isn't entirely convinced that a squalid social Darwinist shithole is an ideal society, you might like it.
If you have a family member or friend who is skeptical about anarchism, whom you want to encourage to become more open to libertarian ideas -- as opposed to shouting "Aha! I knew it -- you statist!" and righteously shaking the dust from off your sandals as you anathematize them for rejecting the prophet of Saint Ayn -- I urge you to give them this book.