Its strange how in the United States libertarianism denotes a right-wing ideology commonly understood to represent advocates of minimal state intervention in the economy. In America, libertarianism is associated with a free-market capitalist philosophy revolving around this utopian supremacy of the individual as the basic unit of life. Today’s libertarians associate themselves with the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, two extraparliamentary organizations whose goal is to dismantle institutions of state power and replace them with hierarchical corporate systems. This is a strange development unique to the United States because for the rest of the world, especially in Europe and Latin America, libertarianism has been historically associated with the exact opposite.
The first public intellectual to call himself a ‘libertarian’ was Joseph Déjacque, a proponent of a revolutionary form of socialism which would eventually come to be called anarchist communism. In fact, Déjacque’s views on liberty were so radical he critiqued self-professed anarchist Pierre Joseph-Proudhon for his reactionary views on women’s liberation. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term libertarian referred to ‘anti-authoritarian socialists‘ in the labor movement. The term has its origins in the split within the First International over the role of the state during a worker’s revolution. Council communists, revolutionary trade unionists, autonomous Marxists, mutualists, radical social democrats, and anarchists all referred to themselves as libertarians to distinguish themselves from the socialists who sought state power as a road to a revolutionary society. The term ‘libertarian revolution’ usually describes worker uprisings where the masses liberate themselves through prefigurative construction of a communist society without the direction of political leaders. Worker revolts from the Paris Commune to Spanish Catalonia have been described as libertarian revolutions.
In Europe, libertarians have scared conservatives and socialists alike because of their adamant rejection of authority and desire to truly bring about a revolutionary society. These anticapitalist libertarians have often been derided as ultra-left, whose desire to be liberated not just from capital but also from labor itself, were often characterized as being incompatible with the centralized-state “socialism” of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. From 1919 to 1921, a Third Russian Revolution challenged the rule of the Bolsheviks who they viewed as having betrayed the communist revolution.
Libertarianism Without the Liberty
Today, libertarianism seems to have lost its original meaning. Liberty has come to be defined as freedom from government regulation. Its seen as something akin to the concept of rights, rather than a perpetual state of being obtained through constant and repeated struggle. The foundations of modern American libertarianism have their roots in the teachings of Milton Friedman in the Chicago school of economics as well as the more extreme economists in the Austrian school. According to Friedman, the inequality and oppressive nature of American society stems from government interference in the free-market economy. Friedman argues that under conditions of a completely unregulated economy, the market can provide for the health and well-being, security, and general welfare of the public as well as provide the net benefit of prosperity. The problem with this assessment is that its assumptions are completely false. What Friedman called “the free market” doesn’t exist and in fact has never existed in any human society. Quite the contrary, markets and states grew in tandem to each other.
The first market-oriented economies can be traced back to early Mesopotamian civilizations. Many of these societies revolved around territorial conquest and as more land fell under control of these empires, their armies grew larger. In order for the Kings to convince such a substantial number of soldiers to fight for them, they devised a system of taxation on the territories. Currency was distributed to villages and towns which residents could use to trade goods and services. Any profits that accumulated were then collected to pay soldiers. This history shows that markets never existed independently of states. States created markets to support territorial expansion. Markets need states to survive. Essentially, markets derive from a system originally meant to sustain conquering armadas which means that capitalism is fundamentally based on the perpetuation of violence. There is nothing “voluntary” or “non-aggressive” about it.
Libertarianism as Fascism
American libertarianism is nothing more than a theoretical exercise in the academy that has no tenability in the real world. Upon examining how libertarian programs are implemented in practice, it becomes quite clear that the creation of a free society is not part of the agenda. Just look at how Friedman’s teachings were implemented in Chile after the 1973 US-backed military coup that replaced the democratically-elected government with a quasi-facist dictator. Shortly after seizing power, Augusto Pinochet employed a team of Chilean economists who studied at the Chicago school in America and began implementing neoliberal “reforms.” Pinochet’s new economic program resulted in the wholesale destruction of unions and progressive political parties, creation of a mass carceral state, and an ethnic cleansing campaign of the Mapuche natives all the while enriching a few privileged Chilean elites. The Chilean experiment was the test model that would be exported to the rest of the world in the 1980s.
Libertarianism as Racism
Libertarianism is a product of the 1960s counterculture fusing with the highbrow elitism of Wall Street. It took off as a mass movement in the 1970s, just as neoliberalism began to enter the academic and political sphere. Friedman even admits his philosophy’s conservative origins arguing that libertarians like himself could defend orthodox social values such as anti-abortion and even opposition to civil rights as long as these views were kept within the mind of the individual. The problem with this assessment is that it shows exactly where Friedman and his peers were coming from intellectually. As the counterculture movement made traditional bigotry unacceptable in the public sphere, advocacy for individual rights became a euphemism for discrimination. Libertarians began to argue that the Civil Rights Act violated business owners’ rights to refuse service to people they didn’t like. In fact, much of libertarian debate over the next three decades would focus on the rights of businesses to discriminate over the rights of individual workers to be secure in their health and safety. Just look at the heroes described in Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable, praising pimps, drug dealers, blackmailers, corrupt policemen, and loan sharks as champions of liberty ignoring the sex workers, addicts, and poor communities these people prey upon. Furthermore, both Walter Block and Robert Nozick have argued in defense of voluntary slave contracts as legitimate arrangements undertaken with the consent of the parties involved. This completely ignores any social environment in which people’s prospects for advancement are so poor they are forced to sell themselves into slavery. They assume everyone starts out on a level playing field. Additionally, Block’s description of chattel slavery as “not so bad — you pick cotton and sing songs,” as well as his assertion that blacks and women are paid less because they are “less productive” than white men further shows the underlying racism that libertarian thought emerges from.
Libertarianism as Domination
Granted, not all libertarians subscribe to these specific beliefs but all libertarians do emphasize the supremacy of property rights, the subjective theory of value, and the authority of bosses over the values of human life and human liberty. Libertarianism is really just a safety mechanism to discredit any and all criticisms of capitalism. Its works perfectly as part of neoliberalism’s plan for total enclosure of the Earth and its culture. The primary project of neoliberalism has been convincing the world that capitalism is the only possible economic system rather than transforming capitalism into a viable long-term economic system. In university economics departments, professors repeatedly emphasize the “rationality” of neoclassical economics. This tactic shuts down all debate about alternative economic proposals. By claiming that those who subscribe to capitalist economics are rational, they can discredit any critics by simply calling them crazy. Even the rise of so-called “anarcho”- capitalism is an attempt to destroy all criticisms of the economic system. The term necessarily denotes that even anarchism, the most radically leftwing political ideology, isn’t safe from market enclosure. Indeed, we see many libertarians claiming individualist anarchists as part of their historical inspiration despite the fact that many individualists were huge critics of both property and capitalism. Max Stirner’s egoism was a rejections of all “spooks,” including the state, property, labor, society and civilization itself. Much of Josiah Warren’s work focused on the creation of alternative business models to a profit-driven economy. And Benjamin Tucker even described his philosophy as Anarchistic-Socialism. When you take extreme libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism to their logical conclusions the society that enfolds bares an awful lot of similarities to Medieval feudal kingdoms. And that strikes at the heart of the libertarian goal: The complete utter dominance of all life, land and existence by a privileged elite.
Deregulation Means More Regulation
Libertarians’ main critique of the state focuses on bureaucracy. They always deride any criticism of capitalism as faults of state bureaucrats who impose a bunch of rules that make corporate actions inefficient. Their solution is then to deregulate state agencies and limit the number of bureaucrats. Again, this solution is based on false assumptions. As David Graeber points out in his book The Utopia of Rules, bureaucracy is actually a feature of corporations. It has its roots in the Victorian Gilded Age as the creation of large multinational corporations necessitated the formation of top-down management systems to administer large populations. It wasn’t until the New Deal that bureaucracy began to be associated with government administrations. The New Deal was pretty much the application of corporate governance techniques to state agencies so this makes sense. But the libertarian assertion that deregulation of state agencies will limit the number of bureaucrats in the market is also a gross misunderstanding. History proves that the opposite occurs. Graeber’s Iron Law of Liberalism states that, “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.” Our current age of hypercapitalism proves this to be true. In a world where much of the Keynesian economy has been deregulated and privatized, every aspect of our lives is dominated by bureaucracy. University administrations are often quite larger than faculties and non-profits, state agencies, and business start-ups all employ legions of middle managers. The fusion between the public and private spheres has become so entrenched that describing American political life as a corporate state isn’t just appropriate, its accurate. That’s what America has essentially become.
Bureaucracy is a very American phenomenon. When the United States remained the sole superpower at the end of the Cold War, it attempted what no other power had done before. The United States began to administer the world. The creation of the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and a plethora of trade deals created a global bureaucracy whose role involved extracting wealth from Third World nations by sacking them with unpayable debts. Administrators are the light-bearers of power in the neoliberal world and are probably what make this type of capitalism so incredibly authoritarian. As more and more spheres of life become privatized, our ability to organize freely, speak freely, and even think freely become diminished. It is virtually impossible to navigate the world without filling out forms, making phone calls to numerous disembodied voices, and having your fate dictated by people you will never meet.
Toward an Egalitarian Concept of Liberty
With the Left regaining its place in the world, old terms and concepts seem outdated for the current era of struggle. As transfeminists and queer anarchists have noted, the term “equality” has been co-opted by liberals to mean assimilation into a power structure that is inherently unequal. So, the time has come again to focus on reimagining a new concept of freedom, one that could foster egalitarian social relations while simultaneously respecting individual sovereignty. However, we must realize that certain terms can no longer represent the ideas we advocate due to co-optation by conservative interests. Whereas Leftists used “libertarian” to reclaim agency from autocrats that tainted the term “socialism,” we must again invent new language to reclaim liberty from its association with corporate tyranny. Given the history of resistance from oppressed peoples and the goals of the Left, I feel calling for “Liberation” and “Abolition” are good alternatives to the term “liberty.”
At its core, the Left has historically been an anti-bureaucratic movement focused on human liberation. When the Soviet Union discredited the revolutionary strategy of the Old Left, students and intellectuals formulated new ideas about how to reconcile individual liberty with collective organization. One of the most interesting developments to come out the 1960s was the revival of the Ultra-left. This was best exemplified in the French general strike of May 1968. Students organized through the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France took to the streets with over 11,000,000 workers bringing the French economy to a grinding halt. Not only were they protesting capitalism but also advocating for the liberation of the human mind from cultural spectacle. Whereas old Marxists valued labor, these new revolutionaries valued play. They saw that the culture promoted by the capitalist economy was just as alienating and destructive as capitalism itself. Much of the thought to come out the strike was heavily influenced by the Situationist International.
An American situationist collective called For Ourselves best described this philosophy as “egoist communism.” The collective synthesized Max Stirner’s critique of society with Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. They understood it was impossible to escape enclosure so they essentially challenged the system by demanding the impossible. “Greed in its fullest sense is the only possible basis of communist society,” they argued. Basically, the only way to bring about egalitarianism in an advanced capitalist society was to demand infinite rights and perpetual freedom. Everyone has a right to everything all the time forever. In being such a radical and ridiculous demand, the Situationists provided one of the most substantive critiques of liberal society. Its impossible to guarantee equal rights for everyone. Liberal society is constructed in such a way that there will always need to be a large pool of people at the bottom to be exploited for the maintenance of that society. The political thought of May 1968 has been extremely influential on the Left today with concepts such as culture jamming, occupation, and communization characterizing modern radical movements. Its through this thought that we can reclaim both physical and cultural spaces from the tyranny of capitalist bureaucracy.
The Oppressed’s Perpetual Demand for Freedom
Another case for advocating liberation rests on the experiences of historically marginalized groups of people and what they were actually fighting for. Let’s take Black Americans for example. For over 500 years, the black struggle has been characterized by its resistance to relentless oppression and exploitation. If your historical condition has its roots in escaping from slavery, then naturally liberation seems to be the most relevant value of your struggle. In fact, Assata Shakur and Ta-Nehisi Coates both make this same assessment. It should also be noted that most leftwing social movements started with abolition of slavery. The fact that so many movements often describe oppression in relation to slavery further proves this. Feminists talk about bondage to man just as socialists describe working conditions as wage slavery. Thus, the critique of the system rests on its ability to control and our resistance to it can be characterized as breaking free from that control. The New Left brought about this conception in all social movements. Black liberation, women’s liberation, and gay liberation replaced calls for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights respectively.
So, maybe equality isn’t really the goal and perhaps it never really was. Instead, let’s advocate liberation by calling for the abolition of all oppressive institutions. Then we could finally experience the true liberty that everyone Left, Right, and Center seems so keen on achieving.