What’s the matter with left-libertarianism?


Left-libertarianism is a peculiar variant of libertarianism. It has some elements in common with the left, but it also supports positions that are at odds with the left in a general sense. I had previously written about its history, and while doing that I found that left-libertarianism is far from a united theory, but a relatively broad realm of ideas about about free markets and achieving and social justice. Karl Hess, Robert Anton Wilson and Samuel Edward Konkin III are big names in libertarianism on their own and also left-libertarians. Today the Center for a Stateless Society and the Alliance of the Libertarian Left are the new faces of left-libertarianism, most of its writers and members are young activists who despite claiming to be following the paths of the left-libertarians of the past, also raise their own issues.

Left-libertarianism is still unknown to the public. The mainstream media has portrayed libertarianism as something of the right, with an spokesperson like Ron Paul who is pro-life and against open borders, or figures like the Koch Brothers, which are donors to Republican campaigns and the bête noire of a lot of liberals, so isn’t very easy to associate libertarianism with the left. Yet a lot of Ron Paul supporters and those who identify themselves as libertarians are pro-choice, and skeptical of Republican Party. J. Arthur Bloom some time ago argued reflecting on a poll that suggests that young Americans prefer socialism over capitalism but at the same time support a free market system over a government managed economy, my initial reaction was that young Americans could find left-libertarianism interesting, but I wasn’t sure at that moment of the limits of my reflection.

The libertarian movement had been in large part financed by the Koch brothers though institutions like the Cato Institute, Reason, FreedomWorks and Students for Liberty to only mention a few. With the Ron Paul campaign the age-old paleo-cosmopolitan intra-libertarian dispute was reborn. The Ron Paul campaign was closer to the Rothbardians than the Friedmanites and it generated radicals rather than reformers. Despite that some cosmopolitans express his doubts about Ron Paul and the Koch brothers didn’t support or endorse him, I think the Koch brothers were intelligent enough to know that Ron Paul was bringing a lot of young people to libertarianism, something that could be useful to them. That’s why despite the disagreements, Ron Paul has been a main speaker at events organized by Koch-affiliated organizations, they know he energizes the base. Ron Paul and the Koch brothers are capitalist and for different reasons they had a long relation with the GOP. On the left-libertarian side there isn’t much famous politicians or bigger donors. Left-libertarians rely mostly on making new converts at libertarian events, but most libertarians consider themselves capitalists and I don’t think that will change any time soon. There is a solid left-libertarian tradition that young people could find interesting, however, especially in their critic of the corporate capitalism.

I think that it’s better to present my own philosophy before continuing exploring the limits of left-libertarianism. I’m a socialist, not a social democrat whose model is Scandinavia but rather a libertarian socialist whose model are Zapatistas in Mexico or the Kurds in the Middle East. Elections are not the only thing that matters, but I think electoral politics could radicalize the public and also move the left in a more libertarian direction. As far as I know, most left-libertarians come from the libertarian right and the anarchist left, so it’s easy to suppose that few of them ever would be sympathetic to electoral left-wing politics, but history tells us radical libertarians like Karl Hess and Murray Bookchin were involved in third party politics. So to be involved in electoral politics seems more an opportunity than a problem.

The Ron Paul campaign was a better tool for promoting libertarianism than the millions of dollars spent by the Kochs in think-tanks. Sometimes when left-libertarians said: “the dominant left-libertarian aim is to fuse Murray Rothbard with David Graeber,” I think a more interesting goal would be to fuse Ron Paul with Karl Hess. There are limits to the electoral politics, for example most leftists support the minimum wage (there are some left-libertarians that agree but most disagree). Other long time objectives of the left are universal health care (this policy was supported by Libertarian Party presidential candidate Mike Gravel but not for most left-libertarians). But compromise in the search of peace, liberty and justice seems to me a mature political move, along the lines of the one Murray Rothbard hoped for, broad on the left and right.

Here at The Mitrailleuse, there has been some polemic about left-libertarianism. James E. Miller argue that left-libertarianism is closer to left-liberalism than libertarianism, I disagree with that, I think that the fact that some left-libertarians had un-libertarian positions don’t mean left-libertarianism as a whole is doomed. For other part I recognize that the argument that sometimes C4SS sounds like Salon is true, far from joking some time ago I consider seriously writing a response Kevin D. Williamson argument that the Baltimore riots should be blame on the Democratic Party which historically has governed Baltimore, my response was going to be that the riots should be blame on the Republican Party crackdown on the Black Panthers because since then the Afro-American communities lacked radical organizing. When I was thinking where to publish the article, I thought C4SS and Salon. J. Arthur Bloom makes the case that it’s difficult for left-libertarians to gain support in the broad left, I agree a lot anarchists are closer to the Democratic Party.

There is something that should be said — Karl Hess, probably the most radical left-libertarian, was still a man of the Old Right, even when he joined Students for a Democratic Society and Industrial Workers of the World. He was deeply patriotic and inspired from the American history, he was not a cosmopolitan libertarian but a rather a man of a community. The Neighborhood Power of which the New Left speaks was an idea that had on board both the Black Panthers and radical Christians; a self-governing community was a real policy for left-libertarians. Since the New Left era, the idea of liberal identity politics was present and affected the movement. The black power, feminist and LGBT struggles were co-opted by the Democratic Party which, though movements that at some point were anti-statist, become functionally supportive of growing state power.

I don’t think that left-libertarians are going to win that argument by sounding like left-liberals, but by actually accepting that a free society would not be constructed if some day everybody started to think the same, but when one can reach broad agreement about letting communities be free. For example when it comes to immigration, most left-libertarians tend to support Open Borders, and I also do, but I understand that probably cosmopolitan communities like Williamsburg or Echo Park are more willing to receive immigrants than communities in rural Alabama, and a real immigration policy should respect that the communities could have different positions on whether or not receive immigrants. When Karl Hess spoke about education he also had the same argument, he said that there isn’t a problem if a black community decided to teach Swahili to their kids, I think that the same arguments should go for a religious community teaching their kids their values. Radical decentralization really means that abolishing the state or not, the communities at least would be freer to choose their own policies based on their everyday life rather than waiting for a bureaucrat in Washington.

Left-libertarians had an interesting history, in the present they are growing and their future is still unknown. Trying to recruit new members at libertarian events had it limits. With the exception of agorists, most left-libertarians weren’t organized in the past in any specific group but they were in a lot of ways closer to more average New Left radical, not only because of the left was more decentralist back then, but also they more willing to engage in a debate with the radical left. Most left-libertarians are great fans of the Marxist historian Gabriel Kolko, but I listen to very few about the reflections of other socialists. For example, Carl Oglesby the former leader of SDS is considered by the people of C4SS and ALL as a left-libertarian, though he wasn’t an anarchist and supported the minimum wage. Left-libertarians tend to criticize liberalterians saying that they are not radicals because they aren’t anarchist and also supported some state policies, so why do left-libertarians claim Carl Oglesby as one their own, when he probably should be called a proto-liberalterian? I think that a really thoughtful reflection of that would tell us a lot of left-libertarians claim to be radicals, yet still prefer the comfort zone of libertarian conferences rather than, say, going to the Left Forum to speak about free markets and property rights. If they want a revolution they should reject the liberal identity politics of us versus them, the real struggle is between the political elite and the grassroots rebellion.



    1. The writer is presumably not a native speaker of American English. And if e were, I imagine es willingness to consider left-libertarian ideas would be greatly diminished.


  1. “fight against the real elites”
    And how is this not populism…? Decentralization implies a form of identity politics (which is not something I particularly like, nonetheless, I believe it is useful)


    1. Now that economic elites are no longer considered elites, I don’t see how this is even possible. The mainstream and conservative media are united on what libertarianism “is” – market fundamentalist conservatism plus pot and gays.


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