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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

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Monbiot: One Step Back

This should probably be another Vulgar Liberalism Watch piece, but it would have made the title too long. Via Steve Mynott on Libertarian Alliance Forum.

Despite Monbiot's apparent awareness, in his article linked in the previous post, of the hypocrisy of vulgar "libertarians" who support government largesse to big business, he seems unwilling to admit that there might be principled libertarians who oppose corporate welfare and consistently support free markets. In this piece of tripe, "They call themselves libertarians; I think they're antisocial bastards," Monbiot seems to have been provoked to insanity over the issue of speed cameras on Britain's motorways. Most of his alleged evidence that libertarians are antisocial bastards comes from 1) vandalism to speed cameras; 2) calls for vandalism to speed cameras; and 3) an inordinate reliance on the writing of one solitary twit, Jeremy Clarkson.

Monbiot draws some sweeping conclusions from the speed camera issue:

But this is not, or not really, an article about speed, or cameras, or even cars. It is about the rise of the antisocial bastards who believe they should be allowed to do what they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences. I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation that recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people's actions.

More than one free market libertarian has argued that the main reason for ills like pollution, energy consumption, etc., is the fact that social costs are not currently internalized through a just system of property rights. In the U.S., for example, most pollution by private sector firms is committed on "public" land to which those firms are given preferential access--because of the lobbying power of logging, mining, oil and agribusiness companies, and other so-called "sagebrush rebels."

And quite a few free market libertarians have called for resurrecting the old common law of public and private nuisance, with stiff civil penalties for pollutors, in place of the least-common-denominator standards of the regulatory state which replaced them. In The Transformation of American Law, Morton Horwitz detailed the process by which such traditional notions of liability were dismantled by state judges, eager to replace them with more "business-friendly" law which allowed commercial interests to deliver "progress" without any fear of having to compensate the people they screwed.

As Murray Rothbard put it, the main function of the corporate state has been to subsidize the operating costs of big business. So while refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions may be an aspect of "individualism," as a crudely stereotyped character trait, it is totally antithetical to any kind of principled free market individualism.

Try picking your way through the minefield of contradictions in this passage:

Of course, these politics are possible only while we have a state capable of picking up the pieces. If there were not a massive hidden subsidy for private transport, those who decry the nannying bureaucrats couldn't afford to leave their drives. Speed cameras, according to the government's study, now save the country £258m in annual medical bills: a fraction of the billions in health costs inflicted by Clarkson's chums. Just as the leftwing movements of the 1970s, in the geographer David Harvey's words, "failed to recognise or confront ... the inherent tension between the quest for individual freedoms and social justice", the new libertarians fail to recognise the extent to which their freedoms depend on an enabling state. They hate the institution that allows them to believe that they can live without institutions.

If irresponsible behavior is possible only because it's subsidized by the state, that would seem to be an argument for principled libertarianism--not for more nanny-state intervention.

Still more contradiction:

....the way in which the transition from individualism to the next phase of neoliberalism - libertarianism - was assisted by [Thatcher's] transport policies has been largely ignored. She knew what she was doing. She spoke of "the great car-owning democracy", and asserted that "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure". Her road-building programme was an exercise in both civil and social engineering. "Economics are the method," she told us, "the object is to change the soul." The slowly shifting consciousness of the millions who spend much of their day sitting in traffic makes interventionist government ever harder.

I totally agree that the car culture and the automobile-highway complex are a creation of the state; and their practical effect has been to artificially generate distance between things, to force the average citizen to spend more and more time commuting in return for making long-distance distribution profitable for the biggest of big corporations. But just how is that an argument in favor of government intervention, Mr. Monbiot? If subsidized road-building is a form of "interventionist government" ("Thatcher's programme of social engineering"), then doesn't it make more sense to say that motorists' addiction to the car culture, rather, makes scaling back interventionist government ever harder?

I don't really understand the sheer intensity of Monbiot's love affair with the speed camera. Like the onetime American double-nickel speed limit, they may have arguably reduced traffic deaths:

As a result, 42% fewer people were killed or seriously injured in those places than were killed or injured on the same stretches before the cameras were erected. The number of deaths fell by more than 100 a year.

But even stipulating that, how does Monbiot get from there to here?

The people blowing up speed cameras have blood on their hands.

Uh, isn't most of the blood on the hands of those driving carelessly and irresponsibly? If prohibition reduced average levels of alcohol consumption, as it arguably did, does it follow that opponents of prohibition are guilty for all the drunk driving deaths and other social ills attendant on legalized drinking? As a matter of fact, you can probably think of hundreds of ways that reducing individual freedom of choice will cause a net reduction in deaths and injuries. So I guess if you oppose allowing the average citizen to get out of bed only with the supervision of a licensed social worker, the blood of all those people who slipped in the bathtub for want of proper oversight is on your hands. And Mobiot says it's the libertarians who are against individual responsibility!

And while we're at it, is the British surveillance state really something Monbiot wants to defend? Although U.S. Homeland Security and Bloomberg's Singapore-on-the-Hudson are striving mightily to catch up, the UK is the pioneer country of the industrialized West in keeping its population under public camera surveillance. Not only speed and red-light cameras, but surveillance cameras on streets and in other public places are ubiquitous. Imagine if St. Woodrow had had such cameras, mated to facial recognition and license plate identification technology, with a database of Wobblies and members of other "disloyal" organizations, during his War Hysteria and Red Scare. Imagine if Hitler had had them. Every time you walked past a camera, or drove your car past one, you might set off a secret police alert. But gosh, that's just tinfoil hat stuff. But Monbiot, God bless him, is foursquare on the side of "if you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to fear."

Monbiot's reliance on Clarkson to illustrate some general object lesson on the nature of libertarianism is especially asinine.

After the London bombings in July, he observed that "many commuters are now switching to bicycles ... can I offer five handy hints to those setting out on a bike for the first time. 1. Do not cruise through red lights. Because if I'm coming the other way, I will run you down, for fun. 2. Do not pull up at junctions in front of a line of traffic. Because if I'm behind you, I will set off at normal speed and you will be crushed under my wheels ... "

I don't know how typical the circles I inhabit are of libertarians in general, but the "hippies of the right" I know are probably more likely to get around by foot or bike than the average person. Good God, why didn't Monbiot just pick up a book of Ed Anger's old columns on paving the Amazon and nuking baby seals as a "libertarian" foil? What Clarkson illustrates is not libertarianism, but a sense of entitlement. But starting as he does from the assumption that libertarian=asshole, every time he sees an asshole he says "Aha! There's another one of those libertarians!"

In describing vulgar libertarians, I wrote that they're equivocal in identifying the "free market"; they shift back and forth between defending free market principles as such, to defending the position of big business under existing capitalism. As a corollary, I might add that vulgar liberals take a similarly equivocal position on libertarianism. They can't remember from one minute to the next whether they're criticizing principled anti-interventionists, or corporate welfare queens with a sense of entitlement. Monbiot tries to switch between blaming the interventionist state for the car culture, and blaming libertarians for opposing the interventionist state. But he can't have it both ways.

Addendum. Also on LA Forum, Nigel Meek comments:

Unfortunately, I have some sympathy for what the author is saying. In an essay republished by the LA, the individualist anarchist writer Larry Gambone distinguished between two very different but often confused types: the “individualist” and the “narcissist”. Too many of those held up as libertarians are in reality the latter.

As Gambone says, “The individualist desires a situation of maximum liberty and a minimum of coercion, while the narcissist is content with a maximum of consumer goods to satisfy every little childish whim and a minimum of voluntary social restraints such as manners and consideration for others.”

The sort of person who wants to destroy speed cameras for no other reason than their desire to drive very, very fast through suburban streets is a classic narcissist.

I would add the caveat that, although Nigel and Larry make the distinction between individualism and narcissism, Monbiot did not make that distinction.


Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Monbiot confuses individualism with narcissism. As the old individualism - based upon a sense of responsibility and voluntary cooperation - breaks down, it is replaced with a false version - a dog-eat-dog, do anything I want and bugger the consequences attitude rooted in consumer capitalism. These same narcissistic "individualists" are the ultimate conformists culturally and intellectually and persecute anyone who dares think differently from themselves. Rather than "individualism" being a problem, the pity is that we don't have more individualists. If you want to find real individualists don't look to the yahoos on the expressways of Canada, the USA or UK, go check out some French or Spanish peasants!

January 01, 2006 8:57 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

There is a missing link, and he's in the Oval Office. Seriously, I did leave that as a placeholder, and forgot to fill it in. I'll have it fixed shortly.

Thanks for the tip, and Happy New Year.

January 01, 2006 9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So on December 20, Monbiot publishes this paean to roadside surveillance cameras and calls people who have misgivings about the police recording their every move "antisocial bastards."

Then on December 22, the following story appears under the title Nothing to hide? So there's nothing to fear:

A new national surveillance system is to be introduced to make Britain the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

The network will incorporate thousands of existing closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide coverage of all motorways, main roads, towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.

The images captured will be held on record for two years.

But of course it would be irresponsible (not to mention "antisocial") of me to suggest that the prior existence of a national network of speed cameras could in any way have helped set the stage for these new measures.

One of the most puzzling things about statists is how much blind faith they seem to have that the Orwellian powers they keep handing the government will only ever be used as they were originally "intended," i.e. against people they don't like. The statists are then shocked and appalled when the government turns right around and uses these powers against people they do like. And this cycle repeats again and again and again.

Of course, the more sophisticated statists like Monbiot undoubtedly do know what the measures they're supporting will eventually lead to, but they support them anyway. I guess they must consider a national database recording people's every move as a necessary evil in the fight against the far more dangerous enemy, namely "individualism."

January 02, 2006 1:37 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Well, there's a saying that you shouldn't trust any government with powers you'd fear in the hands of a bad government. If there's ever a full-blown dictatorship with martial law and all the trimmings--quite plausible in the event of another mass-casualty terror attack--then shit like this will make it a lot harder for dissidents to hide in the catacombs, won't it?

But Monbiot, despite being considerably to the left of American managerialist liberals, is a cousin of Chuck Schumer in many ways. No amount of evidence will persuade people like them, despite all their kvetching about specific governments/administrations they don't like, that government isn't in principle just "all of us working together."


January 02, 2006 9:29 AM  

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