“I will argue that, rightly understood, these demands are more intertwined than many contemporary libertarians realize: each contributes an essential element to a radical challenge to any form of coercive authority,” Charles “Rad Geek” Johnson wrote in this essay published in 2008, excerpted in this post. “Taken together, they undermine the legitimacy of any form of government authority, including the ‘limited government’ imagined by minarchists.”

This short treatise on what it means to stand as a left-libertarian activist begins with the argument for liberty is a primer for non-libertarians on the significance of liberty as a concept and imperative relient on purity. For libertarians, the primer makes the definitive argument against the legitimate existence of the State for which minarchists, constitutionalists and capitalists are ardent proponents.

On equality:

Attaching my controversial understanding of liberty to the standard of equality might seem less than prudent, if my interlocutor is a minarchist libertarian. Modern libertarians make demands for individual liberty with passion and urgency; their reaction to demands for social equality is more often tepid if not openly hostile. Criticism of social inequality is much more likely to be heard from the mouths of unreconstructed statists, and “egalitarianism” is hardly a term of praise in most libertarian intellectual circles. But I shall argue that equality, rightly understood, is the best grounds for principled libertarianism. When the conception of individual liberty is uprooted from the demand for social equality, the radicalism of libertarianism withers; it also leaves the libertarian open to a family of conceptual confusions which prop up many of the common minarchist arguments against anarchism.

On solidarity:

I have chosen the word “Solidarity” to stand for a family of cultural and political commitments usually associated with the radical Left, among them labor radicalism, populism, internationalism, anti-racism, gay liberation, and radical feminism. These commitments share a common concern with the class dynamics of power and a sensitivity to expressions of non-governmental forms of oppression. They demand fundamental change in the cultural and material conditions faced by oppressed people, and propose that the oppressed organize themselves into autonomous movements to struggle for those changes. They also emphasize strikes, boycotts, mutual aid, worker cooperatives, and other forms of collective action, both as a means to social transformation and also as foundational institutions of the transformed society once achieved. These shared concerns and demands have often been summed up in the call for “social justice”—a slogan assailed by Hayek (1978) and reflexively associated, by libertarians and state Leftists alike, with expansion of the anti-discrimination and welfare bureaucracies.

But solidaritarian ends can be separated from authoritarian means, and the relationship between Liberty and Solidarity has not always been so chilly. 19th century libertarians, particularly the individualist anarchists associated with Benjamin Tucker’s magazine Liberty, identified with the cultural radicalism of their day – including the labor movement, abolitionism, First Wave feminism, freethought, and “free love.” Indeed, while Tucker described his position as “Absolute Free Trade; … laissez faire the universal rule” (1888, ¶ 21), he and his circle routinely identified themselves as socialists—not to set themselves against the ideal of the free market, but against actually existing big business. They argued that plutocratic control over finance and capital was the creature of, and the driving force behind, government economic regimentation and government-granted monopolies.[35] The Tuckerite individualists saw the invasive powers of the State as intimately connected and mutually reinforcing with the exploitation of labor, racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression, with governments acting to enforce social privilege, and drawing ideological and material support from existing power dynamics.[36] From their point of view, attacking statism alone, without addressing the broader social context, would be narrow and ultimately self-frustrating.

The harsh, rational argument against conservativism—appealing to the tendency over scrutinizing all institutions of authority, privileged domination in the defense of liberty—as a tactic for libertarians:

Consider the conceptual and strategic reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. If libertarianism is rooted in the principle of equality of authority, then there are good reasons to think that not only political structures of coercion, but also the whole system of status and unequal authority deserves libertarian criticism. And it is important to realize that that system includes not only exercises of coercive power, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authorities. In the political realm, these patterns of deference show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive etiquette, and unquestioning obedience extended to heads of state, judges, police, and other visible representatives of government “law and order.” Although these rituals and habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced voluntarily. Similar expectations of deference show up, to greater or lesser degrees, in cultural attitudes towards bosses in the workplace, and parents in the family. Submission to traditionally constituted authorities is reinforced not only through violence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons, historiography, journalism, childrearing, etc. Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of inequality of authority, you could—in principle—have an authoritarian social order without the exercise of coercion. Even in an anarchist society, everyone might voluntarily agree to bow and scrape when speaking before the (mutually agreed-on) town Chief. So long as the expectation of deference was backed up only by means of verbal harangues, social ostracism of “unruly” dissenters, culturally glorifying the authorities, etc., it would violate no-one’s individual liberty and could not justifiably be resisted with force….

Libertarian equality delegitimizes the notion of a natural right to rule or dominate other people’s affairs; the vision of human beings as rational, independent agents of their own destiny renders deference and unquestioning obedience ridiculous at best, and probably dangerous to liberty in the long run….

General commitments to anti-authoritarianism, if applied to specific forms of social power, have far-reaching implications for the relationship between libertarianism and anti-racism, gay liberation, and other movements for social transformation. I have written elsewhere on the strategic and conceptual importance of radical feminist insights to libertarianism, and vice versa.[41] The causal and conceptual interconnections between patriarchal authority, the cult of violent masculinity, and the militaristic State have been discussed by radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan, as well as radical libertarians such as Herbert Spencer and, more recently, Carol Moore.[42] Moreover, the insights of feminists such as Susan Brownmiller into the pervasiveness of rape, battery, and other forms of male violence against women, present both a crisis and an opportunity for the application of libertarian principles.

For the point-counterpoint meat on these points and the complete essay, read the full essay at Mr. Johnson’s blog here.

  1. Solid stuff, especially pointing the intersections with radical feminism. I’m reminded of Voltairine de Cleyre’s “Sex Slavery,” in which she castigated marriage as an oppressive institution that enabled rape. De Cleyre started out in the individualist anarchist scene, and probably held such views at the time she delivered that lecture.

  2. [...] And Freedom By Milton Friedman – Book Review | I Am Not.. Presenting…Bastiat! Charles Johnson’s ‘Liberty, Equality and Solidarity: Toward a D.. » Reason.tv: Free or Equal? – Johan Norberg Updates Milton &amp.. Kansas and Wichita [...]

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