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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

Monday, February 20, 2006

Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!

Roderick Long recounts a rather involved debate on the relationship between state and social power, and adds some good observations of his own, in "A Lefter Shade of Thick."

Specifically, he quotes from an extended exchange between Charles Featherstone and Stephen Kinsella. The debate was set off by this remark of Featherstone's:

I suspect the reason the residue of cultural Leftism resonates as that there are a whole lot of people, many of whom live in Blue-state urban areas, who find "social power" as oppressive as any state power they could face. I am one of them.

In response, Kinsella treated Featherstone's concept of "social power" as the moral equivalent of the statist left's "market power," which is used to justify state intervention as a form of "self-defense":

I'm not sure what you mean by "social power" or "oppressive," but if by social power you mean some kind of influence that is not based on aggression; and if by oppressive you mean "violation of rights" (since you use it in comparison with state power, which is oppressive in a violent, aggressive way), then your statement does not seem consistent with libertarianism. For it would basically be implying that rights can be violated by both aggression, and by non-aggression--some generic concept of "oppression" which includes both real force and state power and violence, and other, non-violent means. But since rights are enforceable, force may be used against this oppression. Which would mean your statement implicitly endorses the idea that force can be used against non-force; i.e., that aggression is permissible. As I said, I don't think this is libertarian.

Featherstone, in reply, made this astute observation about the interplay of the state with private social power:

I did not want to suggest I endorsed the actual use of state power for anything. ... But I do believe that social power is a lot more subtle, and tends to work fairly closely with both real and implied state power, especially at local levels.

Long suggests that the statist left and the libertarian right have a misconception in common. The "progressive" justification for interventionism seems to be based on a train of logic something like this:

1. Nonviolent forms of influence are sometimes oppressive.

2. All forms of oppression are rights-violations and so may legitimately be combated by force.

3. Therefore: nonviolent forms of influence are sometimes rights-violations and so may legitimately be combated by force.

Kinsella, on the other hand, seems to assume an argument along these lines:

1. Nonviolent forms of influence are never rights-violations and so may not legitimately be combated by force.

2. All forms of oppression are rights-violations and so may legitimately be combated by force.

3. Therefore: nonviolent forms of influence are never oppressive.

But, Long argues, both sides share the same false premise: No. 2.

...there can be, and are, forms of oppression that are not violations of rights – and so are appropriately addressed by means other than force. Treating injustice as the only serious social evil unduly flattens the moral landscape. Nonviolent forms of oppression are evil partly because they tend to reinforce violent ones, and partly because they’re just bad in their own right....

He also links to an excellent essay by Charles Johnson (aka Rad Geek) on "thick" and "thin" libertarianism. The thick-thin distinction itself came from Jan Narveson's presentation to the Molinari Society in December of last year. Narveson distinguished between thin libertarianism, as a restriction on the initiation of force by the state narrowly defined, and thick libertarianism, which concerns broader cultural values as well. Thin libertarianism, to the extent that it is concerned only with the initiation of force by the state as such, is a little too thin. But a libertarianism which concerns itself with issues of social power that don't involve the initiation of force is too thick. The only legitimate concern of libertarianism, as such, is with the initiation of force.

Johnson suggests that Narveson isn't quite thick enough.

There seem to me to be at least four levels on which you might claim that libertarianism ought to go along with some thicker bundle of social and cultural commitments, practices, or projects — each with different upshots between the bundle and libertarianism.

1. The bundle might just be the application of libertarian principle to some special case — imagine an Aztec libertarian, who urged -- Of course libertarianism has upshots for religious beliefs! It means you have to give up human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli. Here the bundle goes along with non-aggression simply in light of non-contradiction. Call this entailment thickness.

2. There might be cases in which the bundle could be rejected without a formal contradiction to the non-aggression principle, but not without in fact interfering with its application. There are cases in which people disagree over the line where my rights end and yours begin; and libertarians might argue that some thick bundles need to be preferred over others in order to avoid conceptual blinders against certain rights or forms of aggression. Think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division between the private and the political sphere and those who draw it in such a way that systematic violence and coercion within families are justified, or excused, or ignored, as something private and therefore less than a serious form of violent oppression. Or the way in which garden-variety collectivism prevents many non-libertarians from even recognizing taxation or legislation by a democratic government as a form of coercion in the first place. Here the bundle of commitments that libertarians need to have isn’t just a special application of libertarian principle; the argument calls in resources other than the non-aggression principle to determine just where and how the principle is properly applied. In that sense the thickness called for is thicker than entailment thickness; but the cash value of the thick commitments is still the direct contribution they make towards the full and complete application of the non-aggression principle. Call this application thickness.

3. There might be cases in which a bundle is neither strictly entailed by the non-aggression principle, nor necessary for its correct application, but may be a causal precondition for implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world. Thick libertarians might suggest cases in which it’s difficult or even impossible for a free society to emerge, or survive over the long term, or flourish, without the right bundle of commitments, because the wrong bundle (say, blind obedience to traditional authority), without logically conflicting with libertarianism, might still make it very hard for libertarian ideas to get much purchase in our actual society, or for a future free society to resist a collapse into statism or civil war. Since this offers instrumental grounds for, say, individualist self-reliance to be bundled along with libertarianism, call this instrumental thickness.

4. Some bundles might be consistent with the non-aggression principle, but might undermine or contradict the deeper reasons that justify libertarian principles in the first place. Here it would be claimed that the you could accept libertarianism without the thicker bundle consistently, but that you couldn’t do so reasonably, because rejecting the bundle means rejecting the grounds for your libertarianism. Call this grounds thickness.

5. Finally, it might be held that a thicker bundle should be adopted because it has its own reasons, independent of libertarian considerations, for being considered right; in this case, nothing more is being asserted than that you ought to be a libertarian (for whatever reason), and, as it happens, you also ought to accept some futher set of commitments (for independent reasons). Since no deeper relationship between the two is being asserted here, call this kind of thickness conjunction thickness.

In a subsequent post, Long makes this general observation on the relative importance of state and social forms of oppression:

Ever since libertarians and leftists went their separate ways, libertarians have specialised in understanding

a) governmental forms and mechanisms of oppression, and
b) the benefits of competitive, for-profit forms of voluntary association;

while leftists have specialised in understanding

c) non-governmental forms and mechanisms of oppression, and
d) the benefits of cooperative, not-for-profit forms of voluntary association.

Libertarians have a great deal to teach leftists about (a) and (b), but leftists likewise have a lot to teach libertarians about (c) and (d).

Norm Singleton jumped in, questioning whether there even is such an animal as a "non-violent form of oppression";

Also, maybe some of what the left complains about as oppression is totally justified, such as an employer imposing a dress code on employees [or making them read Who Moved My Cheese?].

This latter remark touches on what I've called (hat tip to Elizabeth Anderson) "contract feudalism." Long, in fact, challenges Singleton's visceral sympathy for the employer:

On the issue of dress codes, it depends what’s meant by “totally justified.” If it means “just” (in the sense of “non-rights-violating”), sure – at least so far as the employer’s position is not itself the result of state intervention on his or her behalf. (Rothbard was friendly to the idea that companies that owed their wealth primarily to state patronage should become the property of their employees.) But something can be just without being justified; there’s more to what virtue demands of us than merely refraining from violating rights. Whether a dress code is justified or not will depend, I suppose, on a variety of factors, including how relevant it is for the job and how burdensome or otherwise obnoxious it is for the workers. Suppose Colonial Bank announced that all its black employees had to dress as slaves. Unjust? Nope. Unjustified? Yup.

In any case, dress codes aren’t primarily what leftists complain about on behalf of employees. They mainly complain about low salaries, lack of job security, lack of voice in management decisions, and the petty chickenshit tyrannies of bosses. I think those problems stem in part from the lack of a competitive labour market, thanks to government intervention; nonviolent oppression draws much of its support from violent oppression, and so would be much weaker in a genuine free market. (That’s the point that leftists often miss.) But I don’t think such problems are reducible without remainder to government intervention; they also depend on cultural factors that need to be combated separately. (That’s the point that libertarians often miss.)

As further reading on "the 'labortarian' thesis that libertarians should return to the days when they shared many of the concerns of the labour movement," he links to a long series of posts by yours truly, Charles Johnson, and himself. I suggest you go over to his post and click on them all--even mine.

Long also draws Ayn Rand into the picture, pointing to her fictional treatment of private social pressures toward conformity as the primary evil in The Fountainhead (his original use of the argument appeared in an excellent essay on libertarian feminism coauthored with Charles Johnson).

Although its political implications are fairly clear, The Fountainhead pays relatively little attention to governmental oppression per se; its main focus is on social pressures that encourage conformity and penalize independence. Rand traces how such pressures operate through predominantly non-governmental and (in the libertarian sense) non-coercive means, in the business world, the media, and society generally.

Long has since written more on the left-libertarian aspects of Rand's thought, including this brilliant phrase:

Rand understood and emphasised the interlocking, systemic connections between governmental and cultural factors....

Here he cites Chris Sciabarra, surely the big dog on the block when it comes to this side of Rand scholarship. Sciabarra, in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and in Total Freedom, delves deeply into the dialectical aspect of Rand's work: i.e., her treatment of the mutual interaction between Personal (psycho-epistemological/ethical), Cultural (linguistic/ideological), and Structural (economic/political) levels of analysis. The photo of Ayn Rand with close-cropped hair in Long's piece, by the way, is hot--certainly a word I'd ordinarily never use in the same sentence as Ayn Rand.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I just wrote something tangentially related to this subject at my lil' myspace blog (http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.ListAll&friendID=48209047&MyToken=48e6999f-5267-420f-813f-68b16d87f4f3ML) :

An argument against pornography?

Ok, nothing mind blowingly incriminating here on the issue of pornography, but I just have an observation.

Actually Pamela Paul, author of "Pornified", has an observation, which she acquired secondhand from a somewhat famous study done in the 80s on the effects of porn conducted by social scientists Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant. Male and female students were exposed to a certain amount of hours of pornography, then questioned, to see what kind of effect it had.

Some of the more controversial "results" of the study show that men and women who viewed pornography were more lax in their outlook on the punishment given to rapists. This does seem unlikely, and somewhat alarmist.

But another less often mentioned outcome of the experiment was that the students, when questioned, said that they would prefer to have male children when the time to consider having kids was at hand. BEFORE the viewing, they were more open to the idea of raising a child of EITHER sex. And after viewing hardcore pornography for an extended period of time, who wouldn't prefer to not bring a woman into this world, only to be pushed and prodded around like cattle, forced onto her knees execution style, and basically treated like a salmon tossed into a cooler by a couple of redneck boaters?

(Ok, they're not REALLY forced, but it's theatre, and that's what is being acted out.)

I know, I know, as long as its consensual. Libertarian and all. But I'm not calling for any legislation, only pointing out what I believe to be a negative side effect of mutually beneficial sex acts between adults on film.

I remember watching a documentary some time ago, maybe on HBO or something, that followed a group of teenage girls in a low income neighborhood for a year. One of them had a baby, and it was a girl. She regretted that she hadn't given birth to a boy, because her little girl's life was going to be a shitty one in the machismo infested world she had to live in. Patriarchy sucks.

Choosing to have fewer girls because too many gawking, unintelligent, fucked up men are predisposed to disrespecting them is a tragedy. Call me crazy.

Keep in mind I'm writing for a larger, more apolitical audience (of mostly friends), so it might seem a bit quaint.

Libertarianism should definitely be about more than simply countering state power.


February 20, 2006 1:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I said "larger" audience. More like "more mainstream".


February 20, 2006 1:28 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I totally agree. Not long ago (I can't remember where) I saw an argument from a libertarian, apparently building on Rothbard's belief that blackmail and slander didn't violate the non-aggression principle. This guy took it a step further, and argued that it wasn't legitimate to restrain such behavior, then it wasn't legitimate to object to it, either. In a nutshell, he was saying that anything that's not a rights violation under the non-aggression principle is "OK."

Well, sorry. It's still possible to be a jerk without violating the non-aggression principle.

February 20, 2006 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it was Walter Block?

Yea, stuff like the blackmail thing is awesome food for thought, and I'm glad he wrote it, but to emphasize it only draws the usual criticism of libertarians as being rather cold and out of touch.


February 20, 2006 12:39 PM  
Blogger Ouranosaurus said...

I'd think this kind of thing wouldn't be such a big problem for libertarians/anarchists/etc. Even most liberal/social democrats I know have the same views about, for example, the Mohammed cartoons. Yes, you can do that because you're free. It doesn't make you any less of an asshat. Same goes for denying the Holocaust. Go ahead, and I'll excoriate you in print, spit at you in the street and refuse to do any business with you.

But it is your right.

February 20, 2006 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think Ayn Rand is "hot" Kevin? Somehow I imagine you and her locked in the throes of intimacy and I'm very, very disturbed...

February 20, 2006 5:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

That's pretty disturbing to me, too. In fact, I need to scrub my visual cortex out with steel wool and Chlorox. It was just something about that picture in particular.

Actually, I had an Ayn Rand dream right after reading Walker's book The Ayn Rand Cult. I was sitting in my living room, asking her what she thought about Murray Rothbard's theory of something or other, while trying desperately not to infuriate her. And all the while, I was thinking "Please don't let her find me sexually attractive! Please don't let her find me sexually attractive! Please don't...."

February 21, 2006 11:18 AM  
Blogger iceberg said...

It's apropo that Walter Block was mentioned; he recently wrote about the cartoon controversy from a libertarian perspective: http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block58.html

February 21, 2006 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've posted my reaction to Dain's words on pornography on my escortblog here:



February 21, 2006 5:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Anon and iceberg,

I don't think it was Walter Block. Somebody at anti-state.com or something more along those lines, I think.

Lady Aster,

Glad to see you've got a blog.

February 21, 2006 9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libertarianism is an ideology rooted in liberalism, but construed thinly can be fleshed out in what most would consider antithetical fashion, thence old testament morality nationalist 'libertarians'.

February 22, 2006 10:51 AM  

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