Brad Spangler on left libertarian terminology and strategy: ‘Obama the Statist’ and more.

30 Apr 09 |

Yesterday a piece by Cato-ite In Chief Ed Crane was published: “Obama Is a Statist, Not a Socialist“.

I have mixed feelings about this, but I suppose I have to see it as a potential net improvement in terminology. It’s both more accurate and politically smarter, IMO, to call Obama a statist than a socialist. Yet from my perspective, many of the Cato-ites themselves are comparatively statist and the Red State Fascist Republican establishment they hope to influence certainly is statist beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even so, one must suppose the inconsistencies of others are their own difficulties to manage and their own responsibility.

The political reality is that calling Obama a socialist sets one up as a Strangelovian buffoon psychologically mired in outdated Cold War paranoia. It doesn’t politically suit the rhetorical needs of those who have an intelligent critique of the status quo that demands serious attention. Furthermore, it ignores the statist side of ‘capitalism’ as it has actually existed as well as the long neglected anti-statist tradition within socialism that radical free market libertarians rightfully belong to (but more on that later).

For years, radical libertarian attempts to publicly use the more accurate term “statist” to describe statists have resulted in puzzled looks and the reply, “A what-sit?” This Crane piece at this moment, with follow-through from Crane and others, can change that if enough libertarians get behind the rhetorical shift. There are plenty of intelligent so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’ at the grassroots level that have been alienated by the jingoistic belligerence and big spending (as long as it’s on stuff that goes BOOM!) supported by the red-state fascist ‘wingnuts’.

Those ‘fiscal conservatives’ are running away from the disreputable Bushian nutcases as fast as they can. The Cato-ites have a handy catchers mitt to scoop them up with. That mitt is the term the Cato-ites originally started using out of milquetoast reluctance to call themselves libertarians — market liberal, in reference to what we would normally call “classical liberal” but in a modern context.

Labeling the statists as statists and the market liberals as market liberals suits the strategic purposes of radical free market libertarians — i.e. market anarchists. You see, my position is that in order for libertarian ideals to triumph, the current broad-spectrum libertarian movement as it currently exists — a fusionist alliance of minarchists and reformist-oriented anarchists or ‘partyarchs’ — must die. Or split, anyway, into two strands with better delineated identities and roles.

Libertarian ineffectiveness is the root of perpetual libertarian anguish. I believe this ineffectiveness comes from the overall conception of the movement amounting to trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Let me explain…

Despite Rothbard’s firm recommendation that libertarians absolutely must distinguish themselves from statist conservatives in his confidential 1961 memo to the Volker Fund, “What Is To Be Done?”, the nuts and bolts of reformist activism have lead to obscuring the message of radical libertarians, as well as rotten conservative contamination of the movement.

The result is that the most passionate radicals are typically the ones that throw themselves most laboriously into the reformist projects that appear to have the best chances of success (because they have the most establishment backing, and are typically the most corrupt). In the case of the Libertarian Party, radical efforts to build an organized political party have only resulted in a ‘brass ring’ — a prize for conservatoid petty tyrants, degenerate factions of the statist ruling class, to capture. The radicals then break themselves like ships on a reef, trying to defend it from them.

Historically, though, effective reform movements have typically been partially a response by establishment interests seeking to stem the loss of support for the establishment flowing to those who pose a radical challenge to the status quo. With radical libertarians throwing themselves into reformism, as opposed to building a revolutionary class consciousness, no challenge capable of truly worrying the ruling class results.

But, one might ask, isn’t libertarian reform good? Isn’t less tyranny good? Isn’t Spangler being impractical and infantile in seeking to make the perfect the enemy of the good?

No. One doesn’t have to oppose reform in order to put one’s own efforts elsewhere. As Konkin noted, there is a spectrum of consciousness among the victims of statism. [.pdf] My remarks are addressed to those who already understand market anarchism. I’m calling them to participate in putting that whole body of ideas, in its most shockingly radical form, into the public discourse. The confused mini-statists will be left to react how they please, which will inevitably change anyway with the drift of politics.

The minarchist critics that make up milquetoast libertarianism have a strategic blind-spot. In their cowardly and reflexive zeal to keep up ‘respectable’ appearances by not deviating to far from the political center, they fail to recognize that the political center itself has no objective location. It’s just the rag tied in the middle of the political tug-of-war rope, and gets yanked all over the place constantly. Radicals have the most ‘pull’ when they are acting like radicals instead of trying to be something they’re not — reformists.

If you dream of genuinely anarchist revolution, the smashing of the state, but would settle for some decent reform, then, it still makes sense to act like a revolutionary. The half-steppers, milquetoasts and establishmentarians will get you your reform, and you might get revolution.

What do I mean by “act like a revolutionary”? As anarchists, revolution is a necessarily very different business for us than it is for statists like minarchists and Bolsheviks. We don’t want to seize state power, but rather make the populace ungovernable by anybody — perhaps especially not by us! We have to delegitimize the state, building a revolutionary class consciousness in order to build the will to defend against the state. We have to offer our ideas for how society can regulate itself as an alternative to violence-based government. We have to get behind building disobedience [.pdf] and alternative, quasi-insurrectionary civil society [pdf]. It means ‘coming out of the closet’ and being anarchists.

That, and that alone, is how we can pose a radical challenge to the status quo.

Getting back to terminology, we have three points so far:

  1. Label our enemies statists, not socialists, to indicate that statism in all forms is what we oppose.
  2. Label the reformers “market liberals”.
  3. Label ourselves “market anarchists”, or agorists or simply anarchists.

We come then to a fourth point of terminology and strategy: we are socialists! More specifically, we are both free market libertarians and libertarian socialists — and there is no fundamental conflict between the two in their most radical and principled forms. There are differences over theory that could be better addressed if free market libertarians were to shed reformist cultural baggage (e.g. internalization of conservative narratives that flatter the oppressor state) that makes us reluctant to apply our own theory more stringently, such as the understanding that (particularly in the context of Konkin’s agorist theory of revolution) we support the revolutionary redistribution of property! [.pdf]

It’s relatively non-controversial to recognize that classical liberalism was the original left. It’s also widely recognized among libertarians that Rothbard placed free market libertarianism on the far left opposite statist conservatism with Marxism in the confused middle. And that Konkin expanded on that point that we are the real left. [.pdf]

To drive the point that we are the real left home, though, we must reclaim our socialist heritage. Great socialist thinkers like Warren, Proudhon and Tucker all examined ‘the social question’ of what was wrong with classical liberalism. They proposed continuing classical liberal theory to its most consistent form — the abolition of the state and the end of monopoly exploitation through complete laissez faire and resulting unbridled competition. Forget the labor theory of value. Forget everything else we’ve moved past in terms of refining economic theory. By the standards of the great libertarian socialists, we ARE libertarian socialists wanting to end the statist privilege of subsidies and monopoly for all time and achieve justice in property. Marx, by comparison, was the first Cato-ite — offering a ludicrously statist “transition program” to anarchy.

That all gets swept under the rug in the libertarian fusionist eagerness to make nicey-nice with the market liberals in the name of attempting reformism. Positing classical liberal reform as the route to achieving anarchy necessarily de-emphasizes the market anarchist critique of market liberalism. We then have difficulty credibly discussing what was wrong with classical liberalism, which we must do to “answer the social question”, when we’re busy advocating classical liberalism (i.e. market liberalism)!

As a result, the audience for libertarian rhetoric, although they may not put it so explicitly, doesn’t believe the libertarian advocate of classical liberalism (both minarchist and partyarch) — because they know the current social democratic establishment arose because there was something wrong with classical liberalism (and the social democrats managed to position themselves as having the answer, albeit a false answer from our perspective).

Liberty, and liberty alone, truly answers the social question.

Well, one might ask, why do we have to get into the whole confused array of definitions of socialism in order to advocate market anarchism effectively?

We recognize that the mainstream left and right are both factions among supporters of the social democratic state. Not only does explicitly understanding and explaining ourselves as socialists emphasize that we market anarchists have an alternative answer to the social question — as distinguished from the failed answer of the social democrats and the lack of answer from the market liberals — it positions us capture the loyalty of the particular people we must necessarily recruit in order to pose a radical challenge to the status quo resulting in either effective reform or revolution.

Why do I say that and who are these particular people?

Libertarians are typically aware that, at least in the U.S., the divide between center-right and center-left is a pretty much the result of an arbitrary divvying up of issue positions between ruling class factions. There is no systematic ideology there, in either spot. Rather, the center-left and center-right are more like tribes or ready made identities that people ‘try on’ and keep if it seems to fit or discard if it doesn’t in their own personal case.

At the root of this, I believe is a difference in personality types or psychographic profiles between what are typically regarded as “right-wingers” and “left-wingers”. While that certainly isn’t true in all cases, and some people don’t fit into either category, it only has to be true enough for enough people in order for it to be a part of the political landscape we must navigate.

These two broad categories of people could be regarded as mirror images, but there is an asymmetry to them as well. That asymmetry is crucial for our purposes as revolutionaries. Right-wingers are ‘loyalists’. They are psychologically incapable of acting as revolutionaries. They can only act in a rebellious manner when driven into psychosis, examples being Timothy McVeigh and white supremacists. To build a cadre of advocates of revolution big enough to not be disregarded, we must become adept at explaining market anarchism as the answer to the social question and thereby recruiting enough ‘leftists’ with a temperament or personality type suitable for acting as revolutionaries.

Brad Spangler is the director of the Center for a Stateless Society and publishes a blog:

  1. Great analysis, I think my favorite part has to be this:

    The minarchist critics that make up milquetoast libertarianism have a strategic blind-spot. In their cowardly and reflexive zeal to keep up ‘respectable’ appearances by not deviating to far from the political center, they fail to recognize that the political center itself has no objective location. It’s just the rag tied in the middle of the political tug-of-war rope, and gets yanked all over the place constantly. Radicals have the most ‘pull’ when they are acting like radicals instead of trying to be something they’re not — reformists.

    What a great analogy. I’m so tired of hearing people act like “centrism” is (1) a well defined, stable, and objective position on the political spectrum and (2) a virtue and an end in itself. Your tug-of-war analogy is especially apt.

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