Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Libertarianism and history

Shuggy has an interesting post on libertarianism, prompted by Chris Dillow's assertion that Marxism and Libertarianism are in agreement on education. It raises several themes but seems to concentrate on what he sees as a tendency towards an atomistic individualism, which his liberal humanism deplores.

I suppose I have an advantage. Unlike Shuggy, I do know a libertarian and he is also an historian, so they do exist. He supervised my PhD. What a great bloke too. Good fun, helpful and excellent company over a beer or several. So my experience is positive and personal. I also have an historical viewpoint and so I decided to respond to Shuggy with this post.

My doctorate is on the history of Anarchist ideas in 19th and early 20th century Britain and I see the meeting place between Marxism and Libertarianism in the origins of both, much more than in any current manifestations. Both emerged from critical responses to early industrialism. They drew on radical liberalism, and both had a class analysis based on the division between the ‘productive and unproductive classes’ - in other words, between owners and workers. Not only that, but they both saw the relationship between workers and their employers as a servile one, a form of modern slavery. The idle lived off the produce of those who actually did the work and, as all wealth was the product of labour, this was an act of robbery with violence.

The main accomplice in this larceny was the State. The State was the agent that protected a legal ‘artificial right of property’, ownership by the ‘unproductive classes’, against the ‘natural right of property’, the right of workers to own the means and products of their own labour. But it was here that a divergence occurred. Marxists and State Socialists felt that this could be resolved through collective ownership by the State if it was, in turn, controlled by the ‘productive classes’, even if the State would eventually wither away to leave a free and property-less society. Anarchists rejected the State and so Anarchist Communists talked of the immediate revolutionary abolition of property as well as the State. However, Individualist Anarchism came to a different conclusion and the origin of Libertarianism is to be found here.

The main tenets of Individualist Anarchism were, firstly, that the ‘natural right of property’ is precisely that and that it can never be alienated. State ownership would rip off the workers in the same way that capitalists would and the relationship would be just as servile. As a result, the Individualists argued that workers had to maintain direct ownership of their labour and their own means of production, both to preserve their independence and to protect their right of property in the products of their work. If the workers were also owners, then systems of equitable exchange were as important as the ownership of the means of production. There were a huge range of notions of exchange from Proudhon’s Mutualism to the widespread ideas of the currency reformers who wished to break the State monopoly of money.

Secondly, this led on to the idea that the real enemy of the people is monopoly. Monopoly was seen as the source of exploitation through rent, interest, profit, taxes, and the wage system, all of which were devices by which monopolists extract the wealth produced by others. Again, the answer the Individualists gave to overcome these evils was not to create a single State monopoly but to develop extensive property rights that effectively abolished monopolistic exploitation of others by an ‘unproductive class’.

The other major factor to bear in mind is that both production and exchange were not seen as the actions of atomistic individuals but as intensely social acts. The market brings people together rather than divides them. However, collaboration has to be voluntary rather than forced, hence the idea of contract replacing law and the argument that exchange has to be just and rooted in social equality.

This is a really sketchy summary of the political economy of Individualist Anarchism and it doesn’t touch on their feminism and social libertarianism, both rooted in hostility to the imposition of male middle class values on women and the working class. One thing is clear though, that even if the roots of many of their assumptions are to be found here, this is not modern Libertarianism.

There are many variants of Libertarianism, but the crucial difference is that the Individualist Anarchists were free-market anti-capitalists. They also opposed the limited liability company and the rise of the corporation. Instead, they favoured forms of universal self-employment. Today, Libertarians have made their peace with capitalism. They share Marx’s sense that capitalism is a hugely progressive force but absolutely reject the idea that it is doomed to collapse due to its internal contradictions. Instead they see it as the only vehicle for creating universal prosperity, a position bolstered by the failure of the Stalinist model. They have, just as Shuggy suggests, ‘surrendered the anarchist position very grudgingly’ apropos the State, but have enthusiastically embraced laissez-faire capitalism.

This is where I depart from some of their arguments. I am quite happy with their social liberalism; co-operation, collaboration, friendship and morality cannot be forced but are the result of voluntary, free and equal relationships. I do not think that one can simply wish away the market as a system of exchange, as Anarchist Communists did, however I think that there is a problem with the relationship between markets and centres of power. For example, the modern corporation is an exemplar of collective power par excellence and the market can be an instrument for the exercise of that power over others where access to the market is unequal. The growth of inequality does more than engender relative deprivation; it marks a profound shift in power. Thus, I would always argue that free enterprise cannot be a force for universal prosperity unless it is balanced by forms of collective action. For example, I can only see the withdrawal of the welfare state under current economic conditions as nothing short of an act of violence against the poor.

It is here that I am in total agreement with Shuggy when he writes, ‘their analysis is for me so heart-breakingly monist’. Absolutely. Take the issue of property. I am an individual property owner, I own my own home (nearly – not long to go on the mortgage). I view this as a positive. However, my house would be bloody useless if it wasn’t for the collective property that surrounds it. Yes, streets. They enable me to go to the state-funded institution that pays me a comfortable living for, amongst other things, teaching courses on Anarchism. Collective and individual property are contingent on each other.

Collective action is necessary for security, it is also necessary to resist oppression, and to counter the potentially overwhelming power of others in many spheres of life. There are intriguing debates about how far that collective action should be through the State or through autonomous organisations but there is no doubting its necessity.

So, although I dislike authoritarianism, I would always view myself as a left libertarian and though I find Individualist Anarchism interesting and neglected, I do not see it as practicable. However, I do find it, and aspects of Libertarianism, insightful and pertinent. This is especially true over the nature of property and exchange and particularly so over the role of the State.

Take one example, State ownership of collective property. Working in Adult Education leads one to have an acute sense of vulnerability to the whims of government funding. Yet the origins of Adult Education lie outside the State, in working class 'self-improvement' associations, Trade Unions, political clubs, churches, universities, the Workers Educational Association and the Mechanics Institutes. It was adopted and funded by government and for a time it flourished. Now the commitment is no longer there as government becomes gripped by a narrower educational philosophy. The result is that the efforts of past generations and the sunk investments that built up Adult Education are being thrown away. The people who matter most, the students, have an acute sense of ownership of their provision, but it is a chimera, they are in reality powerless to prevent its loss. Would it have flourished if it had remained independent? It is hard to say. But it is a question worth asking. One thing is sure, that if staff and students had directly owned the services they used no one could have taken them away. Ownership too is a question of power and needs to be addressed if we are to defend the commons as well as the individual.


Unknown said...

As Ronald Reagan used to say, "a state powerful enough to give you what you want is a state powerful enough to take away everything you have."

So many twentieth century millions found that out in practice.

Shuggy said...

They share Marx’s sense that capitalism is a hugely progressive force but absolutely reject the idea that it is doomed to collapse due to its internal contradictions.

Aaaah, now this is true. The spirit of historical determinism dies hard - and when it becomes disengaged from its Marxist roots, it freaks me out a bit. Truth be told it freaks me out even when it isn't. As does the zeal. As somebody of a fundamentally sceptical position, I can't be doing with the wide-eyed zeal.

Anonymous said...

The spirit of historical determinism dies hard - and when it becomes disengaged from its Marxist roots, it freaks me out a bit.

Welll we can't argue with the market.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the interesting and serious points raised in this debate - should I tell Steve that one of those drink soaked trots wants to stuff him and stick him in a museum!

Anonymous said...

A seriously interesting and thoughtful post. Thanks for that.

Peter Risdon said...

However, my house would be bloody useless if it wasn’t for the collective property that surrounds it. Yes, streets.

A good example. While streets obviously predate any form of state, and no doubt predate even the evolution of humans (as any forest track will tell you), a modern street requires significant organisation. It is lit. It needs to be maintained to a standard suitable for motor vehicles. Utilities pass through it. All of which was broadly true 150 years ago, when the state was significantly less intrusive.

Since we're talking about historians, read the first page of AJP Taylor's volume in the Oxford History series. He describes a country, pre 1914, that satisfied most of a modern (small 'l') libertarian's wishes.

There's an obvious element of "stop the world, I want to get off" about that, but in the willingness to recognise the intrinsic failure of both socialist and statist approaches, and to discuss alternatives, libertarianism is the leading edge of the wave. Which is why it's being discussed here, and it's why socialists often reserve their greatest violence of language for it.

The Plump said...

"He describes a country, pre 1914, that satisfied most of a modern (small 'l') libertarian's wishes."

Presumably without the social conditions amongst the working classes, which produced the levels of public health that shocked army recruitment in 1914?

"...the intrinsic failure of both socialist and statist approaches ..."

Failure in what? This is both vague and an overstatement. Hyper-authoritarian systems such as fascism, Stalinism, and varieties of despotism have been economic, social and moral failures. I am not sure how far you could define "shock therapy" as a success either. Social Democracy has produced strong, prosperous societies that withstood Stalinism and defeated fascism. They are not failures in total, far from it, but 'could do better' in some areas.

This is where I differ in that I do not see any one theoretical perspective offering a total answer and I think (pace Nick Cohen) that we are too quick to criticise the real achievements of western democracies.

Libertarianism is interesting as it is a critique of conservatism and populist nationalism as much as socialism, but it is not the only critique. Notably, anarchism provides a strong non-statist left critique. I have a strong moral preference for liberty, as I do for autonomous self-organisation from below, but I still want to hang on to a sense of liberal pragmatism in recognising and preserving success rather than dismantling it in favour of the latest ideological fad. A lack of a sense of proportion bedevils radical politics of all hue.

" … why socialists often reserve their greatest violence of language for it."

No, Will reserves that for Harry's Place.

Anonymous said...

I've been following this thread, but have only just got round to commenting.

Your pragmatic left-libertarianism is something is a refreshing contrast to the unhingedness of what passes for Libertarianism in the blogosphere. Shuggy is quite right to question whether such Libertarians live in communities. I get the impression of relatively antisocial individuals interacting almost exclusively with their computer operating systems.

I particularly like your last comment. No matter how 'libertarian'-minded we are, we would be foolish not to acknowledge that social democracy has produced stable and relatively prosperous societies. I just wonder how long the prosperity can last with a micro-managed Keynesian economy. I also worry about the seeming tendency of social democracy toward authoritarianism and paternalism in social policy that requires periodic liberal rebellions to keep in check.

Of course, someone like me who has experience of living in Scandinavia should be wary of generalising here. Sweden and Denmark both have highly developed welfare states, but their peoples are quite different, with the Danes being fairly individualistic and the Swedes more 'socialised' and conformist. Where do the British peoples fit into this spectrum?

Anonymous said...

Well I gather somebody want to mount and stuff me! That sounds very nice I must say - at least on one reading!

I think Peter's historical analysis is broadly right - libertarian individualists came to terms with corporate capitalism in the early 20th century, partly because they realised that their own favoured future of a society of self employed or mutually cooperating individuals wasn't coming to pass. Compare someone like Wordworth Donisthorpe with Sir Ernest Benn for example. Once state socialism became the main alternative they became very enthusiastic about capitalism.

There's still a minority tendency among libertarians that is sceptical about corporate business however. It's worth pointing out that Hayek's arguments are a critique of managed/planned orders in general, not just government ones, it's just that they apply with particular force to government.

Shuggy, historical determinism is much older than Marx - he got it from Adam Smith plus a whole lot of French guys.

I do think social democracy is stable and much better than many of the alternatives but I really don't like the way it empowers a particular kind of elite (Polly Toynbee?) and (imho of course) requires an increasing management of many aspects of life.