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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Vulgar Liberalism Watch (Yeah, You Read it Right)

Via James Wilson at Independent Country. If you follow the mainstream Democratic blogosphere, you know that any discussion of cooperation with libertarians will evoke the inevitable anti-libertarian slurs from some quarters. As Wilson says,

every time... somebody says something about reaching out to libertarians, then "Libertarianism" itself is put on trial.

The problem is, the people who presume to put it on trial are usually idiots, who know as little about the history of libertarianism as they do about the history of anything else.

Case in point: Logan Ferree, in a thoughtful post in his Daily Kos diary, described the vulgar liberal stereotype of libertarianism:

White men who are opposed to taxes, have read Ayn Rand one too many times (although once might be too many times) and like their guns and the Confederacy a lot.

And that's a pretty cartoonish, not to say stupid, view for a "reality-based" movement that prides itself on its grasp of the irreducible complexity of reality and derides its enemies for black-and-white thinking.

...accepting this characterchure is like believing the description of liberals at Free Republic. Intelligent, rational liberals like ourselves can do better than that.

Can? Maybe. And some do--but all too many do not. The vulgar liberal caricature of libertarianism is, as Logan suggests, an almost exact mirror image of the know-nothingism at Free Republic. As Archie Bunker said, "People who live in communes are commune-ists!" And for the vulgar liberal, likewise, "Libertarians are just pot-smoking Republicans."

Ferree cites Battlepanda's recent post, "Two Flavors of Libertarianism," as an example of a liberal willing to acknowledge the complexity of the real libertarian movement. Sure, the Catoids and pot-smoking Republicans are out there. They're the advocates of what I call "vulgar libertarianism": a crude pro-corporate apologetic barely disguised behind bogus "free market" principles. But there's another flavor of libertarianism:

There is Free Market Anti-Capitalism and a Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left. There are libertarians that criticize big business and criticize the role that big government plays in creating big business.

There's no shame in being unaware of this current of libertarianism. What is shameful, though, is not only being ignorant, but being proud of one's ignorance--indeed, desperately clinging to one's ignorance with the fervency of bigots everywhere.

Despite Ferree's good efforts, the ignorance in some cases was invincible. Worse yet, some of it went beyond the point of sincere ignorance, and instead became evidence of bad faith. Wilson sums up, quite well, all too many of the ensuing comments on Ferree's post:

But as the comments to Logan's post indicate, just saying the word "libertarian" gets some people riled up. Libertarians are greedy bastards, end of story. Some had the attitude of, "A LIBERTARIAN is voting for us? We don't want that!"

The worst of a bad lot was philgoblue, who was apparently channelling the idiot I debated earlier at Progressive Review.

Libertarians would also be against:
Social Security
The Minimum Wage
Union Organizing
Public Schools
etc, etc...
Moving in that direction is the very LAST thing Democrats should do.

When some libertarians attempted to explain their principled opposition to coercive taxation in a thoughtful way, or to point out the shortcomings of government-provided schools and roads, philgoblue's witty rejoinder was "Dumbfuck," and

because of some problems, you're for not building roads, levees and school?


Logan Ferree, perhaps acting on the misapprehension that philgoblue's ignorance was genuine or that he was arguing in good faith, tried to explain the left-libertarian position:

A libertarian would argue that if you removed all of the regulations and government programs that aid the rich and the wealthy, the little guy wouldn't need Social Security, the Minimum Wage, or Public Schools. However you're dead wrong that they'd be opposed to union organizing.

I'll make you a deal. Get the Democrats to oppose government policies that benefit the rich and the wealthy. We do away with all of the programs that create an uneven playing field in favor of those at the top.

Libertarians will vote for Democrats because they'd be the only party pushing for reducing the size of government. After we've done everything we agree on, we can agree to disagree and start fighting again.

The result was what usually follows when one casts pearls before swine:

You're An Absolute Fool.

Without the protection of the collective, the wealthy and ruthless would eat 99% of us for breakfast. See most of world history and many current Third World nations.

Ferree, finally beginning to realize just what kind of utter jackass he was dealing with, responded:

You're an absolute idiot.

Without the power and authority of the state, the wealthy and the ruthless would have no way of maintaining their control over the remaining 99% of us. See most of world history and many current Third World nations. In most of the developing world it's the state, with the support of institutions like the IMF and World Bank, that is nothing more than the servant of multinational corporations.

Wasted breath, though. People like philgoblue are so emotionally dependent on their Art Schlesinger myth about the anti-plutocratic motivation of big government, he might as well have been speaking Esperanto. You can take people like philgoblue and rub their noses in the real history of corporate liberalism, and the role of big business in setting the Progressive and New Deal agendas, and they'll just go right back to repeating their historical mythology without missing a beat.

Eugene, considerably more civil than philgoblue, repeated the assertion about anti-unionism, and added that

the "little guy" needs all those programs not because of government aid to corporations, but because of the nature of capitalism itself. Unless you're looking to abolish capitalism, you'll never be free of the need for a minimum wage or social insurance.

The "nature of capitalism itself," as it actually exists, is statist. We on the libertarian left disagree among ourselves on terminology, especially in regard to the C-word. Like many individualist anarchists past and present, I like to distinguish "capitalism" from the free market, and to reserve the former term for a system of privilege in which the state intervenes in the market on behalf of capitalists. But semantic differences aside, most of us libertarian lefties consider the size and power of corporations under "actually existing capitalism," and the extreme concentrations of wealth, to be the result of state intervention in the market on behalf of the rich and powerful. And unlike Eugene, we've actually tried to make a case for our position, rather than just asserting it.

On the union thing, Eugene was quickly confronted by a self-styled free market libertarian and card-carrying union member. And by the way, I know of at least three free market libertarians (Tom Knapp, Brad Spangler, and myself) who are card-carrying Wobblies. (Here's Knapp's post on the subject, and here are my comments.) [Note--Rad Geek emails: "Make it four, for what it's worth; IU 640, Hotel, Restaurant, and Building Service Workers here. (Which reminds me, I need to get caught up on my monthly dues....)"]

Eugene, unfortunately, wasn't having any of this; he regurgitated philgoblue's idee fixe:

I am familiar with the variants of libertarianism.... [??!] "Economic libertarians" are really greedy Republicans who want to couch their desire for exploitation in some sort of language of rights and freedoms.

And Karmafish added:

Economic libertarian... is more or less the equivalent of Social Darwinism.

In other words, "Don't confuse me with the facts. I'm comfortable with my hate." It doesn't matter how many times you produce documented evidence of free market libertarians who are enemies of corporate power, or of the fact that most state intervention benefits the plutocracy at the expense of the working class, or even that such policies were drafted by the plutocracy. They've got their fingers jammed in their ears as far as they'll go, shouting "la la la la la" at the top of their lungs.

It's so much more comfortable to believe that large, powerful corporations arose out of a "laissez-faire" economy, and that government intervention is the remedy rather than the cause of corporate power. And that the sun shone out of FDR's ass, that he was some kind of populist tribune, a "traitor to his class" who put down the "economic royalists."

Logan Ferree confronted them with the indisputable fact that many economic libertarians are neither "greedy Republicans" or "social Darwinists"; and yet they're still parroting the exact same dogma they were before, as if he'd never written the post. I repeat: beyond a certain point, you have to conclude that you're no longer dealing with genuine ignorance, but with someone who is knowingly and deliberately repeating a lie.

The one saving grace in this whole ugly clusterfuck was DawnG, who wrote:

The problem... with lumping people into categories is that it opens the door for stereotypes that, whether rational or absurd, don't fit everyone labled in that category.

I thank you for giving us some insights into the minds of a libertarian and hope you don't take the reactionary and judgemental componants of our community as representatives of the whole.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've mentioned before that a simple change to the right way of things catches people in the transition, so some of these people's fears about losing social security and the minimum wage are well founded to that extent, even though they entrench the problem and make a vicious circle in the longer term - that's how the trap works. But there are other transitions, like starting with the Kim Swales producer tax offset I discuss at my publications page http://member.netlink.com.au/~peterl/publicns.html.

December 22, 2005 6:03 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

Kevin, have you ever read Arthur Ekirch's Decline of American Liberalism? I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop not long ago - he traces the vicissitudes of (classical) liberalism in American history with a very strong emphasis on how buisiness uses big government to protect its own interests. Ekirch also focuses a lot on the danger that wartime has posed to civil liberties. Seems very much like the kind of narrative that could provide a bridge between libertarians and liberals who are skeptical of big business & pro-civil liberties.

December 22, 2005 6:25 AM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

I do a good bit of head banging from time to time in discussions with "liberals". The state is so embedded in everything for them that they cannot conceive of its absence. If I question public schools, this is interpreted as my being against education. I am FOR education, but I don't like the coercive way it is organized. If I problematize the state, I am inevitably accused of hating roads. I love roads and drive on them all the time. I just don;'t like the coercive way reoads get built and maintained. It seems some folks are incapable of imagining anything being done without the state. This is the awful beauty of the statist meme complex.

December 22, 2005 6:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I agree that there would be problems of transition. That's why I wouldn't push Leonard Read's magic button to make the state disappear instantly. And since the state is to be scaled back gradually, the last things to go should be the safety net that makes things barely tolerable for working people. Logan Ferree has repeatedly suggested, in debates with people like the idiot in the linked thread, that we first eliminate corporate welfare and taxes on working people, and special privileges for wealth, and then gradually scale back the welfare state as disparities in wealth are reduced. But he usually winds up beating his head against the wall, as in this case.


I read Ekirch several years ago. The main thing I remember is his account of Brandeisian liberalism as a transitional phenomenon: the state was to be used to break up monopoly and restore the atomistic markets of an idealized "laissez-faire" era, for which Brandeisians still had an aesthetic affinity.

Vache Folle,

I've noticed the roads thing comes up fairly predictably, as well. It's one thing Ann Landers used to mention in her obligatory annual "price we pay for civilization" piece every tax day.

The worst part of it is, they are wedded to the idea that subsidized highways are a "public good" that benefits "all of us." I got into an extended debate on that subject on a liberal comment thread last week. I pointed out the role of transportation subsidies in the concentration of the corporate economy, and the driving of small producers out of local markets.

The response: so what if the rich also benefit? Roads benefit us all, blah blah blah. I tried to argue that subsidized transportation just increases our dependence on transportation by increasing the distances between things, so that most people have no viable choice to live within walking/bike distance of where they work and shop, and we're paying to ship factory goods and food 1000 miles instead of fifty.

It was wasted breath, though. Goo-goos need their faith in government like a tweaker needs his next 8-ball.

December 22, 2005 7:09 AM  
Blogger Sergio Méndez said...

You have a point Kevin. But this requires patience. I confess I was that kind of close minded leftist in respect to libertarians. Een when I saw libertarians attacking corporate benefits from the states I was highly suspicious of their motives. Then I discovered blogs like yours or the one of Charles Johnson and I started to change my mind. I think many people in the left need something more concrete, things they can percieve as a real and continious position concerning the defense of left causes by libertarians. Cause even there are libertarians of your kind, I still have the percepction that libertarianism is dominated by..ehem..."Pot smoking concervatives" or to say it more clearly, vulgar libertarians.

Another important thing is that some autentic left wing libertarians should be more open to continental philosophy. Cause criticism of capitalism is not only criticism of capitalism as a political and social system, but also criticism of capitalism rationality, which does not require an state to operate. And I sense even left wing libertarians sometimes fail to realize that side of the issue.

December 22, 2005 11:10 AM  
Blogger Ouranosaurus said...

I second Sergio's point about once being very suspicious of anyone calling themselves a libertarian. It isn't so much that the biggest thinkers in libertarian ranks are scary. It's that the people with the biggest bullhorns are.

Try Googling the words Libertarian and blog and the first hit is Militant Libertarian (tagline: Give me liberty or eat lead). No matter how much you agree that personal freedoms are important, no social democrat Canadian type (like me) would have ever started thinking about anarchism, libertarianism or any other decentralist, state-free ideology if that was the first thing they saw of the philosophy.

I came to this whole thing through the back door: reading Ken McLeod's books, wanting to know more about anarchism and Georgism and Trotskyism and all the other isms there, reading his blog and the Anarchist FAQ and Googling things. Then a good read through of "On Liberty" added to the mix. And realizing that my own childhood had been surrounded by organizations that would have fit in perfectly with an anarchist world, including the cooperative pre-school my parents and their friends established, and our street's neighbourhood watch group.

But you can't start thinking these thoughts if you come into it from the wrong direction. If the first time you run across a libertarian, he's an asshole who talks about how much better things would be if only everyone was armed to the teeth, and could shoot baby seals at will, it's a little off-putting. Too many Ted Nugents, not enough Arthur Silbers. Mix in the Bush-loving vulgar libertarians (oh, how nice it is to see that term meme-spreading) and you've got a recipe for instantly repelling half of all Americans, not to mention about 75 per cent of Canadians and even more Europeans.

This post has gone on way too long already, but what I'm saying is: reclaim the word libertarian, or pick a new one. The ideas are too important to lose to the idiots.

December 22, 2005 3:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Roderick Long and Chris Sciabarra are a couple of postmodernish libertarians who deal pretty well with structures of social power outside the state, and all that kind of Foucalty goodness. Long's article on libertarian class theory, and Sciabarra's book Total Freedom, are both worth reading many times over. Shawn Wilbur of Libertarian Labyrinth blog is also into that sort of thing.

Personally, I find the continental pomo stuff a little too abstruse in style for my taste, even deliberately obscure (although I've read some of the Frankfurt people), but it's something I'd definitely profit from studying more.

December 22, 2005 6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the liberals are a lost cause for the same reason conservatives and so-called "moderates" are.

1) The policitians are beholden to special interest groups.

2) There is a great deal of hypocrisy inherent in the ideology of the left-wing and right-wing these days.

3) There is a penchant for statism among the more voiciferous electorates(neocons, Religious Right, feminists, etc.)

4) Ideological rigidity in individuals looking for pre-fab platforms prevails, instead of questioning the merit of every tenet in the philosophy of a group. I suppose us libertarians can fall into the same trap.

December 22, 2005 6:42 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I find it helpful to approach mainstream liberals and SDs with baby steps when it comes to gun control. For some reason, the idea that an armed populace could reduce violent crime, or might help deter a tyrannical government, seems to be counter-intuitive to many of them.

I have difficulty keeping my cool sometimes, though. Some of the anti-gun arguments are such non sequiturs. For example, "a handgun has only one purpose: to hurt or kill people." Well, isn't that just as true of a handgun carried by a cop? So why are they comfortable giving people in uniform a monopoly on firearms? What it really comes down to is not hurting and killing, as such, but the idea that only the government can be trusted to decide who needs to be hurt or killed. Implicit in the belief that it's OK for cops and soldiers to be armed, is the assumption that some people NEED to be shot; it's just that they consider Cory Maye less trustworthy than the thugs who attacked him.

December 22, 2005 6:51 PM  
Blogger Joel Schlosberg said...

Of examples that might productively bridge the gap between pro- and anti-gun people here's what comes to mind:

1) The anime film "Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind" is an example of taking a strong pacifist position but also critiquing the role of statist disarmament with crushing dissent. It shows how the Torumekian army that occupies the Valley takes away the Valley peoples' weapons to prevent them from revolting. Even better, there's a later scene where a bunch of poisonous spores infect the town and the Torumekians grudgingly give the people back some of their fire-throwing weapons to burn the spores (since otherwise the spores would spread and completely wipe out the town), and the Torumekian brass are complaining about letting them have even those few weapons. (OK it makes more sense if you see the movie)

2) How's this for a "baby step": I've seen an interview with Gene Roddenberry where he's talking about how he was a LAPD policeman, and how if he had stayed in that field instead of going off to write for TV and eventually make "Star Trek" he might have risen to be the head of the LA police department, and so was talking about what reforms he would have wanted to make. One of the things he said is that he didn't like the way police had to rely on guns, and that if it was technologically possible, he wished that cops would be using phaser-type weapons where they could at least have the choice of using either lethal or non-lethal force in that situation; he thought that having more intermediate options would prevent the rash use of lethal force.

3) Gandhi was critical of gun control; one quote from his autobiography that resurfaces on the Net is: "Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest."

4) A piece by Jesse Walker about Doonesbury where he quotes a pro-gun control Doonesbury strip and then says: "I disagree with Trudeau about gun control, but I still think the first strip is funny."

Now, OK, this is opening a can of worms, but what the hell, this has been bugging me for a while: A lot of anti-gun arguments are dumb, but there are plenty of equally dumb pro-gun arguments as well.

For instance Eric Raymond had a piece written hours after 9/11 saying that it was due to gun control preventing armed airline passengers from resisting the terrorists -- never mind the problems with shooting bullets within a pressurized plane (hasn't he seen Goldfinger?)

I've also seen personal nastiness towards those who have aesthetic dislike of guns, such as a blog post where Wally Conger called the new James Bond actor a "pussy" for some rather mild aesthetic reservations about handguns. (Since I'm complaining, it must mean I'm a pussy, too.) This (and a lot of Eric Raymond's gun stuff) seems to come as much from macho-ness for its own sake as for a principled stance on rights, and as Matthew said it's this macho-ness that turns people off.

Also, there's plenty of black-and-white thinking on both sides: if anti-gun people are dismissive of the possibility of legitimate use of weapons for self-defense and are naive about cops, then pro-gun people are often just as dismissive of any attempt to restrict the spread of weapons as undercutting self-defense, or that there might be weapons (if not guns, maybe land mines, nukes, or chemical/biological weapons) it might be desirable to restrict the prevalence/spread of (by voluntary rather than statist means). I'm reminded of a Far Side cartoon where one of Larson's frowsy women looks across the street at a missile lying around in her neighbor's front yard and clucks to her husband, "Oh look, now the Hendersons have the Bomb."

Emma Goldman argues convincingly in Preparedness: The Road to Universal Slaughter that the mere existence of standing armies and weaponry creates a pressure to use them, and this would apply to weapons in private as well as State hands:

"You cannot build up a standing army and then throw it back into a box like tin soldiers. Armies equipped to the teeth with weapons, with highly developed instruments of murder and backed by their military interests, have their own dynamic functions."

However, there's no denying that a good amount of NPR liberal anti-gun attitude, indeed has to do more with a distrust of the people and their incompetence to do stuff without the State than opposition to violence. For instance this gem from statist goo-goo par excellence James Hughes:

"Fifth, only a strong liberal democratic state can ensure that posthumans are not persecuted.... While libertarian transhumanists may imagine that they will be able to protect themselves if they are well-armed and have superior reflexes, they will be severely outnumbered. Nor is civil war an attractive outcome."

This is very different from real pacifists who have a principled and consistent opposition to violence per se.

December 22, 2005 8:48 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I certainly agree that voluntary associations might intervene against especially threatening situations in a free society. The individual right of self-defense includes preemptive action against a neighbor whose conduct is so negligent or careless as to present a "clear and present danger." And in the end, the individual is the judge of last resort as to what constitutes unacceptable risk--limited by the community's right to decide he went too far, of course. And what's legitimate for an individual is legitimate for any number of individuals in association.

For example, a mutual defense association would almost certainly decide that a nuke in the hands of one of their neighbors was an unacceptable risk to them all. I'd hope they'd decide the other way about automatic weapons. But where do you draw the line? You can't for somebody else.

December 23, 2005 10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been surfing through this bolg in hope that some of you may have stumbled on the "nut" or "core" problem. I find little to encourage me.

At the center of all this blather; dueling 'experts' and who's philosopher is better; the truth lies in the use of any monetary system. Before you poo-poo this bold statement, think a moment. We, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, are technologically able to produce everything we need...once conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence are scrapped.

We have a long history of trying and failing to control Capitalism. Greed seems to always find a way....as long as there is a monetary system that allows for the hoarding and amassing of wealth. Once all monetary systems are removed, the solutions are no longer ranked by costs, but rather by effectiveness.

By removing all monetary systems we are not reverting back to the stone age....we have the technology and knowledge to keep much the same lifestyle we have now...minus the sap on resources that "profit" creates.

So I'll keep searching for like minds who are willing to think the unthinkable. There can be little doubt that our current system is top heavy and ready for collapse. The only question is, who and what will rise from that collapse. I am hoping to influence enough people so we may have a chance of building a far better system, based on equality and freedom for the individual, and bottom up organization and control.

Jayson R. Jones

July 01, 2008 7:18 AM  

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