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March 15, 2010

Libertarian Literary Kicks

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 2:53 pm
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To be conscious of the social context of art seems automatically to entail a leftist orientation. But a theory is possible that is both avant-garde and capitalist.
-Camille Paglia

I forget who said that though libertarians defend the right to bear arms, the average libertarian is far more likely to pick up a book than a gun. At the core of the libertarian world there is an intense book culture, which is one of its glories. In short, we are nerds. But when we think about the literature of liberty, who do we have in mind? Depending on your particular bent, you might think of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard; or Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman; or maybe Benjamin Tucker, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Lysander Spooner; perhaps someone more outré like Max Stirner, or a newcomer like Kevin Carson. But what about Shakespeare? Dostoevsky? Cervantes? Percy Shelly? Joseph Conrad? Probably not. Those named in the former group, for all their differences, are political and economic thinkers who took up the issue of human freedom as their primary concern. The latter are all entertainers. Brilliant ones, sublime ones perhaps, but what can they as artists contribute to the conversation about liberty?

Marxism long ago took a cultural turn, and hence there is a voluminous supply of books on art and culture from a Marxist perspective, but from a libertarian one its just slim pickings. True, many libertarians are converted first through novels, by Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlen, but its time to get out of the sci-fi ghetto and take up the Canon. (Not that I’m putting down sci-fi as such. I’m a big fan myself, though not really of those particular authors.) Pioneering work here has been done by Professor Paul Cantor, and I am greatly excited to learn from the recent Austrian Scholars Conference that he has co-edited a book with Isabel Paterson biographer Stephen Cox, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which is available online. Some of Cantor’s essays have been around in different forms for a while, but its nice to have them all collected in one place, along with some intriguing new works by other writers on Whitman, Willa Cather, Cervantes, and especially Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. And Cantor’s ideas on the arts and the market have been presented in a great lecture series from some years back at the Mises Institute.

As a libertarian and an English student, I’m always interested on hearing libertarian perspectives on art and culture, but also I have some additional concerns to add. My literary taste was formed before my politics, and I’ve always enjoyed literature that is apolitical, such as Wallace Stevens’ poetry, the stories of Jorge-Luis Borges, and the plays of Oscar Wilde. But I know Cantor’s work well enough to know that he isn’t creating anything like a libertarian version of culture-studies, which politicizes everything. He respects the autonomy of art. And yet I do happen to agree with the cultural-Marxist rallying cry that “art is not created in a vacuum”. When I inspect the politics of the authors already mentioned, I find they have sympathies with my own. Stevens by many accounts was an Old-Right Taft Republican who opposed the income tax, and Borges often called himself a “Spencerian anarchist” in a Latin American milieu whose politics were mostly divided between Nazis and Communists. As for Wilde, while he espouses some misguided social-democratic views in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he was an admirer of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and once said “The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” So what does this mean? That we cannot escape ideology, that there is no autonomous aesthetics? George Orwell took up this issue in an essay on Swift, appropriately titled “Politics vs. Literature”:

For a great deal of his waking life, even the most cultivated person has no aesthetic feelings whatever, and the power to have aesthetic feelings is very easily destroyed. When you are frightened, or hungry, or are suffering from toothache or sea-sickness, King Lear is no better from your point of view than Peter Pan. You may know in an intellectual sense that it is better, but that is simply a fact which you remember: you will not feel the merit of King Lear until you are normal again. And aesthetic judgement can be upset just as disastrously—more disastrously, because the cause is less readily recognized—by political or moral disagreement. If a book angers, wounds or alarms you, then you will not enjoy it, whatever its merits may be. If it seems to you a really pernicious book, likely to influence other people in some undesirable way, then you will probably construct an aesthetic theory to show that it has no merits. Current literary criticism consists quite largely of this kind of dodging to and fro between two sets of standards. And yet the opposite process can also happen: enjoyment can overwhelm disapproval, even though one clearly recognizes that one is enjoying something inimical.

It is often argued, at least by people who admit the importance of subject-matter, that a book cannot be “good” if it expresses a palpably false view of life. We are told that in our own age, for instance, any book that has genuine literary merit will also be more or less “progressive” in tendency. This ignores the fact that throughout history a similar struggle between progress and reaction has been raging, and that the best books of any one age have always been written from several different viewpoints, some of them palpably more false than others. In so far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be something blazingly silly. To-day, for example, one can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, pacifist, an anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction.

So a book need not be libertarian to be good, which is a relief since few of the great authors of history have been, but Cantor’s work show that there is more libertarianism in great literature than has previously been imagined. Also, when Orwell writes about the “false view of life” I can’t help but be reminded of Ayn Rand’s “sense of life” critical approach. A more expansive perspective that remains libertarian is possible.

Another concern for me is my own affiliation with a specifically Left-libertarian perspective. (One question which occurs to me as a left-libertarian that the basically Mises/Hayek approach of Cantor & Co. does not undertake is why, if the seeming panoply of economic approaches to culture are all on “The Left”, they are all a variant of Marxism rather than some other form of anti-market stance, such as anarcho-socialism or Keynesianism.) I take the Paglia quote above as a truism, but I now view the word “capitalism” is dubious, more likely to describe the corporate fascism we are used to rather than a genuine free market, and do not self-apply it. I do consider my orientation to be leftist, though not the politically correct quasi-Marxist one that predominates academe. My own work, proceeding from here will be founded on the notion that not only is a theory possible that is both avant-garde and left-libertarian, but that a left-libertarian theory can only be avant-garde.

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