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September 9, 2009

Chartier on Left Libertarianism and Socialism

Filed under: Anarchy,Philosophy — rmangum @ 9:59 pm
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Law professor Gary Chartier, who writes the LiberaLaw blog, recently had a pamphlet posted on Center for a Stateless Society entitled “Socialist Ends, Market Means”. Written for Left Libertarians, it addresses the issue of how to frame an ideology that is seen as combining a radical left-wing social agenda with a radical right-wing economic program, as well as a concise statement of what Chartier sees as the particular values that justify the “Left” in Left Libertarianism. He attacks the suspicion of LL as “an exercise in spin” by showing how it is authentically libertarian and left-wing.

“LL is authentically libertarian because it is anti-statist . . . and because it affirms the values 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.”

I do want to give one critique, however. Chartier offers up the possibility of libertarians claiming, or rather re-claiming, the word “socialism”. At a time when our slightly-to-the-left president is being denounced as a socialist, this would be decidedly audacious announcement of sympathy with the left over the right. Chartier argues that “there’s a meaningful opportunity for education- to highlight existence of a credible tradition advancing a different meaning of ‘socialism’.” There have been those in the past who have argued for a free market and yet embraced the label “socialist”. (In fact, I would argue that anyone who is consistently anarchist is de facto positing some form of free market.) Chartier wants to challenge those who wear the label today “to confront the reality that there is an inconsistency between the state-socialist’s goals and the authoritarian means she or he professes to prefer.” I would recommend a particularly useful essay on this point, Professor Long’s “Immanent Liberalism: the Politics of Mutual Consent”, where he borrows terminology from Marx to distinguish between “Vicarious Liberalism”, where relations of mutual consent is mediated through a state apparatus, and “Immanent Liberalism”, in which mutual consent is immediately realized in day-to-day life. Chartier wants LL to spur socialists to decide whether their socialism is of an immanent or vicarious variety. At the same time that LL makes socialists rethink their means, it ought to make libertarians rethink their ends*. What are the ends of socialism? For this I turn to another essay, “The Soviet Union vs. Socialism” by Noam Chomsky:

[T]he socialist ideal [is] to convert the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom.

We shouldn’t think that the ends/means contradiction of state socialism was thought of by us first- it’s an old debate on the left. (Ironically, Chomsky in practice is something of a vicarious anarchist, or a sort of left-wing minarchist like Bertrand Russell.) But so far, so good. What’s my problem with his suggestion? It’s that insofar as we revision socialism as one branch of the libertarian tree we gain a better understanding of our own intellectual and cultural heritage, but insofar as we say to the world “we are socialists, of a sort” we make a confusion of the most unprofitable kind. The reason is that at this point in the modern history of ideas, the word “socialism”, as well as the word “capitalism”, carries too much baggage to be useful to an up-to-date analysis of our political economy, much less an unorthodox view as Left Libertarianism. Each term is tainted by its association with its “vicarious” as opposed to its “immanent” variety. I prefer terms which create confusion of a positive kind, which seem paradoxical enough to generate curiosity without preconceived attitudes, yet admit of concise definitions and do not deceive. I prefer “liberal anarchist” for myself. But, since at this point “libertarian” is somewhat tainted as well, “left libertarian” fits the bill quite well, and LLs have every reason to be content with it. (I don’t mean to indicate that Chartier wants to abandon that label, or even fully embrace the socialist one.) But perhaps, since even after being an ever-present view over the last 200 or so years, at least as and probably more coherent over time than liberalism or conservatism, it still generates shock and confusion, the simple term “anarchist” works best.

*This latter strikes me as the basic project pursued by Kevin Carson, as he attempts to drive a wedge between the free market and “actually existing capitalism”. He challenges libertarians to decide whether they are defending the former or the latter. His writings have led at least one anarcho-capitalist, myself, in a leftward direction. If I have the right-libertarian’s learned aversion to the word “socialism”, I have certainly also reevaluated my stance toward historical “capitalism”, and generally no longer prefer to self-apply the latter term.



  1. Your quoted definition is one giant contradiction. (Non-free) markets and property rights logically entail “privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination.” There’s no middle ground between right-wing rhetoric and left-wing values. You gotta choose one or the other.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — September 10, 2009 @ 7:59 pm | Reply

  2. First, I believe that the definition of Left Libertarianism I quoted from specifically advocates, in the line of Tucker, Rothbard, and our contemporary Carson, “freed markets” not unfree ones. Second, Chartier isn’t trying to combine left-wing values with right-wing rhetoric. The rhetoric is strictly left-wing. It rather seeks to combine left-wing values with a social paradigm- that of property rights and free exchange- which has come to be associated (erroneously, more often than not) with conservatism and the right. Finally, I suppose any coherent conception of property necessitates “exclusion” (an unfortunate fact of scarcity), but its hard to see how a truly free market- whether the property conventions adhere to usufructory or neo-Lockean principles or whatever- can result in more privilege, deprivation, and domination than we would have otherwise is beyond me.

    Comment by rmangum — September 10, 2009 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  3. The issue is not whether property rights in a more egalitarian system entails MORE privilege, deprivation and domination than it would under a less egalitarian system. The issue is whether property rights are compatible with “challenging privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination.” If it is to mean anything, challenging those things must also mean elaborating ways to minimize or eliminate them, or at least supporting those that exist. Eliminating property rights is one obvious way of doing so.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — September 10, 2009 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

    • I’m curious- by “eliminating property rights”, do you mean universally (and if you mean universally, is it accomplished by abolition of property in one fell swoop?), or in communities which voluntarily choose to live communally? The way I see it, a freed market would be far more egalitarian (not just compared to now but to most societies ever)would see a very wide distribution of capital and less hierarchical forms of organization because that is what people prefer given the option, and because it is more economically efficient. But yes, property rights would still exist, though undoubtedly there would be many communal forms of organization within that framework. And unlike the Hoppean anarcho-capitalist, I think that even following Lockean principles there would be vast areas of the earth which are entirely unowned, because nobody could or would transform it with their labor- and that is a good thing.

      Comment by rmangum — September 12, 2009 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

      • If property rights still exist, then hierarchies still exist, and we’re not talking about an Anarchist society (or a left-libertarian, or a libertarian socialist society). We’re also not talking about a free market. We’re talking about an oligarchy of owners, just like we have today. And usury still exists, which means we’re definitely not in mutualist or libsoc territory.

        Comment by Francois Tremblay — September 12, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

      • Chesterton once said that the problem with Capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists, but too few. The way I see it, it is far easier to obtain a much wider distribution of property through a natural market mechanism than to abolish property. If this is an oligarchy, it would contain the largest number of oligarchs ever. The difference between us is I believe one of degree and not kind, but if this fails your strident definition of Anarchy then I am fairly untroubled by that. I hope not to have my Left Libertarian badge and decoder ring revoked, but it won’t be the end of the world.

        Comment by rmangum — September 12, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

  4. I am not concerned that you are or are not troubled by the fact that you fail to fulfill the most basic definitions of Anarchism. I’m just pointing it out, that’s all.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — September 13, 2009 @ 7:12 am | Reply

    • I wonder if your unstated “definition” is as basic as you assert. See here: http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/black/sp001644.html and here: http://praxeology.net/blog/2007/04/01/against-anarchist-apartheid/ for starters. And refer back to my Chomsky quote. I still view that as a valid goal, yet I refuse to identify as a socialist. But does it matter? My whole point was the labels socialism and capitalism were too loaded to be useful, but that was not so of the label anarchist. Everybody thinks they know what they mean when they say “socialism” or “capitalism”, but those who don’t identify with anarchism are often confused about what it actually means (in the film Anarchism in America, an interviewee is asked to name an anarchist, and he says, “the Ayatollah Khomeini”, while another identifies it with “forcing your opinions on others”) while those that do will deny the label to others who claim it. It’s hotly contested. Perhaps there is not, as of yet, an Anarchism- only anarchists.

      Comment by rmangum — September 15, 2009 @ 5:41 am | Reply

  5. I’ve never found a better term than ‘libertarian communist’ for the number of confused ‘wait, what?’ faces it produces. Especially because each of the halves is liable to have a lot of baggage, but in totally opposite directions. Obviously it doesn’t fit with advocacy of free markets, though.

    Comment by Alderson Warm-Fork — September 27, 2009 @ 3:20 am | Reply

  6. Also, I agree that defining ‘anarchist’ is hard, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me I’m not one (from lifestylist, marketist, and conservative standpoints, no less).

    Comment by Alderson Warm-Fork — September 27, 2009 @ 3:22 am | Reply

  7. “I’ve never found a better term than ‘libertarian communist’ for the number of confused ‘wait, what?’ faces it produces. Especially because each of the halves is liable to have a lot of baggage, but in totally opposite directions. Obviously it doesn’t fit with advocacy of free markets, though.”

    I don’t see how that’s “obvious.”

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — September 28, 2009 @ 6:11 pm | Reply

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