As you might have noticed, one of the (very quickly) upcoming Virtual Reading Groups will cover a wide selection of readings on left-libertarianism. So a reasonable question to ask, then, is just what is “left-libertarianism?”
The term (as it’s being used here) points to a broad tradition of intellectual undercurrents that are simultaneously radically libertarian and radically leftist. It includes some of the most radical elements of English liberalism (such as Thomas Hodgskin and the earlier writings of Herbert Spencer), nineteenth-century individualist anarchism, the 1960s alliance between free market anarchists and the New Left, and the contemporary resurgence of left-wing market anarchism.
It’s probably impossible to come up with any concise, neat, and fully exhaustive definition of what ties together the general cluster of ideas that fall under “left-libertarianism,” and there will be clear counter-examples for any attempt at doing so. However, here are three of its most important features.
A Deeper Commitment to Individualism
One way of defining left-libertarianism is to say that it combines standard radical libertarian views about non-aggression with standard radical leftist views about non-domination. A thorough-going individualism connects their opposition to institutions (such as the state) that repress individuals through actual threats of aggressive force to a more general resistance against any social arrangement that subordinates one individual (or group of individuals) to another individual (or group of individuals).
More concretely, this means opposing more informal power structures like sexism, racism, and managerial capitalism (more on this soon). Hence why left-libertarians often stress the importance of markets as a cultural force that can accommodate wide social variation, and undercut those oppressive dynamics.
This intersectional individualism can be found at least as far back as Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics, where he charges that “despotism in the state is necessarily associated with despotism in the family.” Such was also the attitude of the individualist anarchists, who were not only nineteenth century America’s most radical free marketers, but also at the forefront of its feminist movement.
Free Market Anti-Capitalism & Libertarian Class Analysis
When reading the various social arrangements that left-libertarians oppose in virtue of their leftism, “capitalism” probably stood out as odd, given that left-libertarians are still libertarians. Yet for the left-libertarian, it should be understood that “capitalism” does not refer to the market economy, laissez faire, entrepreneurship, private property, or anything else that libertarians who identify with that word typically have in mind.
Rather, “capitalism” in this context refers to things like large concentrations of wealth in a relatively small number of hands, and the social dominance of managers and capitalists over labor and society more generally. Part of left-libertarians’ rejection of capitalism, then, is due to their broader ethos of individualism, but another part comes from a belief that top-down, hierarchical firms are wildly inefficient.
Due to problems like those of knowledge and agency, genuinely free market competition would eat top-heavy organizations alive. This would largely eliminate corporate dominance, leaving flatter alternatives like cooperatives and independent contracting in its place.
So if authority in the workplace is so inefficient, why is it so pervasive? In short: government.
The economic environment we live in is not a free market, but one where certain sorts of organizations are made artificially efficient and others artificially inefficient, due to the institutional backdrop of massive state intervention.
Left-libertarians reject views that frame big business and government as either enemies or irrelevant to one another, instead stressing a fundamental interdependence. It is in government’s very nature that it will be used by those who are already wealthy or otherwise socially powerful in order to extract resources from the rest of us.
During Murray Rothbard’s time on the left, this focus on power elite theory and libertarian class analysis took center stage. Due to influence from New Left historians like Gabriel Kolko, free market radicals began to attack the standard mythology about how regulation exists to protect us from domination by the rich. As Roy Childs argued in “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” the truth is the opposite: sharp increases in regulation have come about as a means of protecting the social position of the wealthy.
A Direct Action View of Social Change
If left-libertarians are right about how states necessarily gravitate towards securing domination and exploitation, this may make political action look hopeless. Indeed it is, if your view of political action consists in electoral efforts and other “policy”-centered approaches.
Instead, left-libertarians tend to focus on interacting directly with the thing they’re trying to change (society), rather than making appeals to the thing they want to eliminate (the state). Not only does this include educational efforts, but also find methods for circumventing state repression and building alternative institutions for handling problems states create or fail to solve.
Historically this includes experiments like Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company, the radical labor efforts of Dyer Lum, and Sam Konkin’s idea of “counter-economics.” Today it can be found in left-libertarian enthusiasm for projects like crypto-currencies, radical labor activism, 3D printing, file-sharing, grass-roots mutual aid, and cop-watching.
As Kevin Carson explains, the left-libertarian aim “is not to overthrow the state, but to ignore it. Anyone who wants to continue to support the state and obey its laws is free to do so, so long as they leave us alone. Our goal is to build the kind of society we want, and prevent the state from overthrowing us while we’re doing it. The last person out of the state can turn off the lights.”
There are plenty of other issues that make left-libertarians distinct, and the aspects discussed here have only been given at most a cursory glance. Regardless, it should help to remove at least some confusion about what exactly “The Past & Future of the Libertarian Left” VRG aims to cover. If you’re interested in a more detailed explanation over a period of 16 weeks (with ample opportunity to voice your agreements and disagreements), you should sign up here.
 “Left-libertarianism” has also been used to describe anarcho-communism (and other non-market forms of anarchism), as well as a group of theorists in academic political philosophy that affirm self-ownership while rejecting property in natural resources, and attempts to combine moderate forms of libertarianism with progressivism and modern American liberalism. However, these uses are mere homonyms and have nothing to do with “left-libertarianism” as described here.
 So much so that Moses Harman was jailed under obscenity laws for publishing open and honest attacks on the then completely legal practice of marital rape. Voltairine De Cleyre discusses the incident here in her essay “Sex Slavery.”
 In fact, individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker considered private property so important to liberty that he refused to consider anarcho-communists such as Peter Kropotkin and Johann Most actual anarchists, due to their rejection of it.
[Part of the An Anarcho-Capitalist Case Against Left-Libertarianism series.]
In recent years the political philosophy of libertarianism has gained in popularity and interest. Libertarianism as a philosophy concerns itself with the justified and unjustified use of force in society. The guiding principle behind libertarianism is the “non-aggression principle” in which “aggression” is defined as the initiation or threat of violence against persons and their legitimately owned property. This is the scope and focus of libertarianism.
One of the compelling aspects of libertarianism and the non-aggression principle is that it is clear, specific, and fundamentally simple to grasp. Identify interpersonal actions and determine if said behavior qualifies as aggression between persons and their property. If certain behavior does constitute aggression, it is justified to use violence to limit, repel, punish, or defend against such violence through certain norms means.
Under the scope of libertarianism and the norms therein, much can be said and appreciated. However, as previously stated, libertarianism provides a constrained area of political philosophy to demarcate interpersonal activity that does and does not fall under the banner of aggression with the task of determining when violence is justified. It does not seek to define, answer, or resolve every single cultural, moral, or social issue. This is not to say that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with cultural, moral, or social issues. Certainly, it’s normal, if not necessary, to care about these issues and even acknowledge places where libertarianism has overlapping relationships with these areas of inquiry.
Now, there are some libertarians who are unsatisfied with libertarianism as I’ve described it up to this point. They claim libertarianism which only concerns itself with the non-aggression principle is a “thin” libertarianism which is obviously necessary but insufficient. Now, “left-libertarians” attempt to demonstrate how libertarianism would be a “better” libertarianism if its scope and context went beyond the principle of non-aggression and a political theory of the proper use of interpersonal violence. Left-libertarians emphasize a libertarianism that incorporates additional “commitments” which are authentically “Leftist” positions.
In a similar manner, and to his credit, Gary Chartier wrote an article in an effort to elaborate on the leftist positions of left-libertarianism. Chartier defines Left-libertarianism as follows:
Left Libertarianism [LL] is authentically libertarian both because it is anti-statist (the LLs who come readily to mind are all anarchists; We take it as a given here that the LL is an anarchist or something close enough for the difference to be irrelevant) and because it affirms the value of markets and property rights. At the same time, LL is authentically leftist because it seeks to challenge privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination–both ideologically and practically–and because it can exhibit a genuine commitment to inclusion, empowerment, and mutual respect. (emphasis included)
And it can do this, not by redefining terms–so that, for instance, freedom from physical coercion turns out to be the only kind of freedom that really matters–but instead by demonstrating the consonance between libertarian ideals and principles and a good-faith embrace of the left’s central concerns. An authentically leftist position, I suggest, is marked by opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation.
In other words, Chartier claims if you really want to be a consistent leftist, you ought incorporate and integrate these “left” concerns of opposing exclusion, subordination, and deprivation into your philosophy.
Chartier follows up the above essay with one named “The ‘Left’ in Left Libertarian” in an attempt to clarify a number of concerns leftists oppose. Chartier starts his essay with “subordination” which he defines as,
One person, A, is subordinate to another, B, when B has significant, persistent power over A. The power involved may be physical, but it may also be economic, psychic, social, or cultural. The important thing is that B determines, to some meaningful degree, what A does. A is significantly un-free in relation to B, either because B can impose on A some cost that A is unwilling to bear or because A genuinely (but mistakenly) believes that B is entitled to determine the character of A’s conduct.
The first problem is that “significant” is not defined, nor is “power.” Then, words like “meaningful” and “significantly” are used without providing proper definitions either. Thus the rest of the conversation is based on assumptions of what these words mean or imply.
Second is the implication that power is bad. Why? Power isn’t necessarily bad. Power is a tool, and just like any tool the user is the person responsible for the outcomes of its use. This is how some contracts work. If A enters into a contract with B, and B is subordinate, then B has voluntarily agreed to such a relationship. However, if A captures B and makes him work under the threat of physical punishment, then A has acted against the will of B. In both instances A exerts power over B. B may take a job that they don’t like. Perhaps they disagree with the mission of the company, the pay, or the number of hours worked. However, B had a choice. There is an opportunity cost, and he might have worked for C, D, or E.
In essence, it doesn’t matter if I influence your behavior by pointing a gun at you or offering you money. If I have “significant” and “persistent” influence over what you do, I’m bad, according to this definition. Would someone be guilty of the sin of subordination if he or she were married and were to require their spouse to not to sleep with anyone else, thereby controlling and/or coercing their spouse’s actions? Would unions not also be guilty of this since it includes the significant and persistent influence of unions over bosses?
Chartier’s definition is totally devoid of actual power. If you loan me money as a dear friend, for example, somehow you have power over me under the expectation of paying you back, because otherwise you won’t trust me or be my friend anymore. But if you’re only loaning me money because we are dear friends, then I have “power” over you because you believe that I get to determine some of your conduct because of the friendship. We both have power over each other, because of this daft insensibility.
In fairness to Chartier, it could be argued that “subordination isn’t merely about the influence of behaviors, but how we influence them.” Offering someone money isn’t an objectionable thing, prima facie. For instance, if you offer someone money while in a position of authority over them and they have little to no authority, either due to your own system or outside constraints, then it could still be considered a subordinating experience by leftist standards. This isn’t because of the money or the influence of behavior, but the type of relationship between both parties. You are significantly and persistently influencing their behavior because they are under you via hierarchy.
However, even this devil’s advocate defense of the concept begs the definition of “authority”. If I hire you to stop by once a week and maintain my lawn, I get to tell you what I want for my money. Is something wrong with that? Is it “persistent” in that it happens every week, or does it have to be a certain number of hours per week? This is based on a false idea of “power”. The idea that, if I ask you to do something and you do it for me, I have exerted “power” over you. It’s not based in coercive force, but because I don’t provide you money otherwise, or you think you’re supposed to, out of friendship or because I’m your boss or because we go to the same church or whatever. This is “social power” and “economic power” and whatever else. Chartier is describing a very narrow sense of “authority”, “hierarchy”, and “power” in relationships as being de facto bad with no justification except a circular argument. In other words, hierarchies are bad because of subordination, which is bad because hierarchy. Chartier’s definition is a very carefully crafted concept of “power”, clearly designed for no other reason than to malign wage labor and hierarchy. Clearly not intended to malign unionization (perhaps I don’t want to strike, maybe I don’t want to keep paying union dues or following union work rules), for example, but that’s an unintended consequence of messing around with definitions for ideological reasons. Chartier never tells us why they are bad to begin with, he just starts the argument based on that assumption. He must first prove they are bad before building his next argument.
Next, Chartier plunges into the topic of exclusion. Now, for any position that a viewpoint holds, it must be able to be contrasted against other viewpoints. This includes leftism and its values. So, it will be important to note here whether a consistent interpretation of Chartier makes any important contrasts from other viewpoints or ways of interacting with people.
Immediately he runs into the issue of contrasting different types of exclusion, since there are some types which are not only habitual for humans, but inevitably unavoidable: such as marriage and tightly bonded circles of friends. Thus, he presents a rough distinction between just and unjust types of exclusion (according to leftist values). But is this distinction fine enough to actually be a guide for behavior, or still too rough and general?
First, he says that a sub-community could justly exclude someone if it would lose its identity upon accepting just anyone into its circle. This is fine, and quite agreeable to anyone. However, how big can this “sub-community” be? No parameters are given. Can it be as big as an entire city? County? Region? Country? After all, the whole world is more and more being considered an “international community,” so any group which composes a portion of the world’s population would therefore be a “sub-community.”
This, though, opens up the door for things like ethnic nationalism, of which only one type of ethnicity participates. However, Chartier does give a couple of stipulations, the first of which is that the excluded individual ought to be accepted in the broader community of which the sub-community partakes. He would probably point out that an ethnic nation would not be prone to engage in the international community, which is fair enough, but his second stipulation is that exclusion should be based upon proper reasoning about the individual or group in question. But whose reasoning? What of a primitive tribe which does not participate in the international community? Are their values and reasoning inferior to those of the leftist’s? (A viewpoint which could be construed as a residual hangover of the White Man’s Burden mentality.)
Chartier gives subpoints to explicate the reasoning, but it’s not evident that these make the issue any clearer.
He gives the example of a marriage. It is reasonable, he says, to decline marrying someone because of significant differences with their conception of the nature of marriage, given that it known that this person does in fact hold to such a viewpoint; and, that it is quite out of the question to decline them because of the their membership of a particular group.
Does this mean that if a left-leaning person desires to decline marriage to a member of a socially conservative group who, while not holding different beliefs on marriage itself, does so on a variety of other issues, that they are bound to drop their reasons for declining the proposal on the grounds that it would conflict with their leftist values to do so? After all, it is illicit according to the leftist values here proposed to decline a person’s proposal for marriage due to their membership of a group that one finds repugnant or intolerable, despite what effects this may have had on both their upbringing and development, as well as inevitably in a million subconscious nuances of their outlook on the world. Or perhaps any number of cultural or regional traits that a person may have as a result of being a part of a particular group.
But this only scratches the surface. Is not a person allowed to exercise their romantic preference for a person of a certain range of other attributes aside from belief, such as emotional maturity, interests, pursuits, and even physical characteristics that one finds personally attractive? This isn’t merely a niggling question needling a non-encompassing example of the principle, because this has a wider impact in other contexts as well. For, it seems that the marriage analogy may perhaps be a softer application to avoid weightier issues — (who doesn’t know about the views of one’s serious partner on marriage, or isn’t intimate enough with them to ask, after all?) — involving community identity, both ethnic and subculture, including not only those of other races but of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Let us say at the outset that one can reasonably observe that most adherents to social conservativism (distinct from political conservativism) and social moderates (both of which include many libertarians) feel that it is unsavory to exclude somebody on the basis of their ethnic identity or race, and, perhaps to many a leftist’s surprise, even some of the most conservative Christians exhibit strident opposition to excluding somebody based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity on the basis of their faith itself. So, this is not a value peculiar to leftists, even if they may vocally champion it (despite the fact that even they will generally be selective when it comes to certain groups — just imagine Ben Savage or Michael Moore sitting down to have a composed and respectful dinner with George Bush, Jr.)
However, the question again arises, whose reasoning is inclusion and exclusion supposed to be based upon? It doesn’t seem to have been properly answered by the subpoints. Does this include probabilistic reasoning? Economist Walter Williams made a point about this when he said that people instinctively follow patterns, and react automatically to stimuli that follows certain patterns that experience has taught them involve such-and-such attributes. For instance, he said, if a tame tiger which had become accommodated to humans and treats them without hostility were to enter the lecture hall he was speaking in, almost everyone would jump out of their chair and try to avoid it. The pattern of tigers ripping living obstacles to shreds, plus cultural memes about it, are so pervasive that it creates an automatic reaction. A baby might not react the same way, because these patterns are learned over time. And though they don’t know that the individual tiger stalking the grounds is fierce apodictically, or through personal experience with it, they’ve picked up on a trend and are reacting based upon their precautions.
This is a type of reasoning that most of us would reasonably reject when it comes to speaking of humans, at least in terms of attributes that can’t be helped — as opposed to, say, excluding someone wearing a KKK robe. Yet we see that there is still a reasoning process involved here which is exercising precaution, and is not an ideological prejudice as such — for, one can be cautious about members of a particular group enough to pragmatically exclude them without feeling certain that every member of that group is of a threatening inclination, nor do so simply because there are attributes that the entire group shares that they dislike.
This is, perhaps, why some black sub-communities within universities have sought safe spaces even from white allies, because that deep, knee-jerk level pattern-identifying level of the subconscious only feels safe in the absence of those who share attributes with others who have threatened them. (In a way, this type of perception shares commonalities with body memories, in which particular muscles encode experiences of abuse triggered by being touched.) Likewise, some white folk may feel inclined to gather in their own safe spaces in the midst of incidents like the Milwaukee riots in reaction to a small group of black people overtly on the hunt for any white people they can find to abuse. Those of us who prefer harmony and integration may be saddened by this, even while understanding the natural mirroring tendency toward rivalrous collectivism, and the tendency to extreme precaution. Chartier has expressed recognition, through private correspondence, that defensive situations ramp up the situation and may call for leniency from a leftist point of view; yet this only seems to dilute this leftist ideal until even instances of segregation are seen as permissible.
Now, further down Chartier clarifies the earlier subpoint about excluding someone from a sub-community being permissible so long as they aren’t excluded from the wider community. He says that this is not objectionable so long as the sub-community isn’t too large or relatively impersonal. Perhaps we could assume by ‘impersonal’ he means something along the lines of ‘non-intimate.’ But even small associations and organizations that center around particular identities, such as the NAACP, are not intimate enough for everyone within them to know everyone else, or even close — and yet, they exclude anyone who isn’t a person of color. Is the NAACP out of step with leftist values? We would doubt that Chartier would agree with this. So, these terms must be defined. What degree of largeness or impersonality is permissible? Or are these even the right parameters for determining leftist permissibility, and why?
Furthermore, given what Chartier has said privately about this piece about defensive measures (which is in concert with his general outlook), and what he alluded to in the marriage analogy, what of whole groups of people who don’t see eye to eye on how to organize socially? Can each society exclude the other? Can a group of left-libertarians expel a fascist from their midst, or a group of classical liberals exclude communists? Indeed, if Chartier agrees that this is consistent with leftism, what distinguishes his values from Hoppe‘s values and his definition of covenant communities that left-libertarians generally abhor? Does this mean that Hoppe’s statement is consistent with this particular leftist value, or that the value is not, in fact, uniquely leftist?
As Nick Ford, Senior Fellow at Center for a Stateless Society, has said,
Opposing vulnerability, however, isn’t enough. A particular method for opposing it is necessary. There is a difference between means and ends, though. I don’t think (and neither does Chartier) that exclusion is inherently bad, just that it is generally suspect to a leftist. A ‘leftist’ usually considers the facts and ensures that said opposition is legitimate before acting on it.
In other words, leftists, as any other group, evaluate the set of facts before them according to their reasoning and make appropriate and relevant decisions on whether to exclude certain people accordingly. This is essentially a way of articulating freedom of association. But what is uniquely leftist about this? All that being said, however, Ford has simply confirmed what has been written about exclusion in this article.
On this last value, Chartier insists that the concern that people aren’t deprived of that which makes life livable and enjoyable is a part of what makes up the left-libertarian ethos. From an anarcho-capitalist perspective, he doesn’t say anything in this section that is explicitly objectionable, he’s just defining an aspect of leftism — though, again, charity is a value shared by people from across the board, whether left or right or just basically libertarian. But Chartier makes sure to say, at least at this stage in his argument, that he’s not placing responsibility for anyone’s deprivation on anyone else, nor is he prescribing any remedies.
Most of the statist-left place responsibility on some group/actor, and they propose coercive redistribution on that basis. They thus make meeting the needs and desires of others a political concern. Libertarianism, though, sees this as outside the realm of political concerns altogether. And Chartier himself states that he’s not proposing any particular way to remedy the problem, so he’s overtly stating that this isn’t enforceable. It is uncertain whether we agree with his opposition to “deprivation” as pertaining to a position on political philosophy, but we think what Chartier says here is acceptable within the NAP. And as a personal opinion or preference, none of us are particularly keen on people being “deprived” of things which make life livable and enjoyable. But again, it’s not certain what place this has in political philosophy. It’s very like saying, “I would prefer if everyone were polite.” But this is just a broad, not even particularly leftist, social preference.
It would make sense to provide this as an additional objection to the state and coercive law given that it rips the rug out from underneath the vulnerable and deprived (despite giving them compensatory “welfare” as a sort of backhanded gift to sweeten them up), but Chartier doesn’t make that connection here.
However, if anything about this can be tied into a legal aspect, the ending lines perhaps could:
“But a position can reasonably be regarded as leftist while defending any of a wide range of responses to that deprivation as consistent with (or demanded by) prudence or justice, provided those responses can reasonably be regarded as effective, or likely to be so.”
Not to argue in bad faith, but in light of some of the things in Chartier’s prior “First Pass” article about the way different libertarian communities might regard the definition of property, it might not be too out of line to see a subtle suggestion that some folks might actually be required to meet the “deprivation” of others with whom they’re economically engaged outside of what would normally be required by a Lockean perspective.
First, he speaks of a wide range of responses that might be demanded by justice (to pick out some of his wording). But justice generally touches upon issues of law. If it does not, then perhaps it could’ve served to clarify here that this is not what is intended, or to use different wording, given open concerns rooted in the prior piece and the non-specific wording here.
Then he says, “provided these responses can reasonably be regarded as effective, or likely to be so.” This at best seems like strange wording for a voluntarily engaged charity endeavor. Is it that a charity or mutual aid society ought not be considered to be aligned with leftist values if it is particularly inefficient, or might there be the background suggestion that one ought not be obligated to give up some of his or her wealth if the means are particularly ineffective? The former sounds somewhat unlikely, though one might not seek to pin Chartier with the latter without proper evidence.
But this is very much a pattern detected amongst the writings of left-libertarians — the wording is often just vague or general enough to enable in the smuggling of implicit, not overtly stated, concepts. This makes any such concepts and proposals difficult to ascertain and thus to oppose, if they are not clearly brought out into the light of day. Other issues arise from the values being stated so broadly that they could appeal to everyone, and not just leftists. The general impression is of a thinned down set of broad convictions that are permeable and malleable for almost anyone, even those who don’t share the concerns of the author, to take advantage of.
On the other hand, convictions arising from conscience usually compel those who hold to them to be stated clearly and explicitly, and given very certain terms, in order to be properly fleshed out in reality. This is just why the libertarian philosophy of the NAP is so concretely defined. Conversely, statements arising from an unclear moral perspective, or even from illicit desire such as envy or sloth, tend to be buried in obscurant language; either because the perspective has not been fully critically evaluated, or in order to justify itself to a broader audience, and even one’s own sense of respectability, by disguising the way that the entire issue is framed.
Chartier appears to generally have charitable intentions, and so we give him as much of the benefit of the doubt as possible with his writing, while still critically evaluating the way his writing could be construed. But there is a much larger concern with the left-libertarian perspective that cannot go unspoken for, such as contempt for hierarchies and being inconsistent (on issues such as what was pointed out in “Exclusion”), which we hope has been to some extent duly addressed in this analysis.
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