Memo from a Left Libertarian

Feeling a little frustrated at having to explain how I can be both libertarian and socialist or in fact, what on earth, as a leftist, am I thinking even subscribing to any kind of libertarianism!

I must be loopy. I must be completely out of touch. I must live outside reality and couldn’t possibly comprehend the NECESSITY(?!) of the STATE. In the same vein, I am preposterously absurd if I think SOCIALISM and LIBERTARIANISM might be compatible, afterall, what the hell could a socialist know about FREE MARKETS?!!

Ah, the criticism. Its all good. Except when its either plainly wrong or based on misconceptions perpetuated by those with a longing to retain this dystopia we inherited. My experience tells me that apparently, only Rawlsian Liberals can speak coherently about ANYTHING LIBERAL, Marxist Communists about ANYTHING SOCIALIST and Friedmanites/Hayekians about ANYTHING FREE MARKET. Yes, I’m done with the caps lock now. Its worth noting that there is some great irony present in each of those micro-statements.

Its no secret that in the past I’ve been an advocate for central planning. What changed? This:

an increasing dissatisfaction with party politics in NZ and abroad. Exposure to deeper critiques of State power. An increasing resentment of the function of formal law and its presumed superiority to other ways of recognising human rights and organising society.

There are many who despise the state of NZ politics but who are unaware of any alternatives. Why? Because along with the media, even our academic institutions readily dismiss the alternatives to the status quo as ‘utopic dreams’ preferring to dwell in our dystopic world. So for those readers, feeling lost in the political schema of mass hypocrisy, this is a potential alternative. It is by no means immune from critique, but it certainly provides a challenge to accepted political norms.

I particularly like Gary Chartiers summary of Left Libertarianism:

Commitments to the left:

  • engaging in class analysis and class struggle;
  • opposing corporate privilege;
  • undermining structural poverty
  • embracing shared responsibility for challenging economic vulnerability;
  • affirming wealth redistribution;
  • supporting grass-roots empowerment;
  • humanizing worklife;
  • protecting civil liberties;
  • opposing the drug war;
  • supporting the rights of sex workers;
  • challenging police violence;
  • promoting environmental well-being and animal welfare;
  • fostering children’s liberation;
  • rejecting racism, sexism, heterosexism, nativism, and national chauvinism; and
  • resisting war, imperialism and colonialism.

And simultaneously, libertarian commitments to:

  • affirming robust protections for just possessory claims;
  • embracing freed markets and a social ideal of peaceful, voluntary cooperation; and
  • crafting a thoroughly anti-statist politics.

The whole article on The distinctiveness of Left Libertarianism, is a good read, especially for those who might find themselves agreeing with the bulk of the above, but who subscribe to some other ideology. Here is a good post on  Left Libertarianism that traces the roots of the movement.

A particular kind of Left Libertarianism that I find compelling (which is also a branch of anarchism) is Mutualism. Kevin Carson is probably the best contemporary to read on this topic. Carson writes that:

Mutualists favor a society in which all relationships and transactions are non-coercive, and based on voluntary cooperation, free exchange, or mutual aid.  The “market,” in the sense of exchanges of labor between producers, is a profoundly humanizing and liberating concept.  What we oppose is the conventional understanding of markets, as the idea has been coopted and corrupted by state capitalism.

Carson explains that mutualism promotes democratic control through collective action where necessary but does not favour collectivism as an ideal in itself. His brief exposition of mutualism is available here.

The past few years have drawn a lot of criticism and personal attacks from both left and right wing thinkers about the disarray of left wing politics in NZ. Previously held common or shared visions were replaced by the visions of the dominant voices in the movement, creating a dispassionate and bitter left. Where likely friends have become savage foes. The mutualist in me asks, whether this is the result of a reliance on hierarchical collectivism rather than direct collective action.

The point of this post was to (hopefully) extend the parameters of political debate beyond the rotting old box we are all stuffed into.

To conclude, I will borrow from Karl Hess:

Anarchism is not normative. It does not say how to be free. It says only that freedom, liberty, can exist.

Liberty, finally, is not a box into which people are to be forced. Liberty is a space in which people may live. It does not tell you how they will live. It says, eternally, only that we can

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6 comments

    1. You’re welcome 🙂 LL is stigmatised with deeply embedded misconceptions and it’s not an idea that many choose to pursue further or try to understand as a result. So thanks for reading!

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  1. Thanks for the post, this is very encouraging! I sincerely believe left libertarianism is a logical and inevitable philosophical response to both the unsustainable features of the old welfare state and neoliberalism. The right has been very successful in using post-industrial society to advocate a narrow idea of “freedom” – which is actually less regulation, consumerism as the optimal model for decisionmaking, and use of legislative and extra-judicial power to protect these “freedoms”. The only way for the broader left to address this is to both refocus on the overarching economic and societal framework, and this requires a broader concept of freedom to include both participation in public decision making and the promotion of alternative socio-economic models. At the least, governments can focus more heavily on well-funded community development partnerships with local NGOs and local government on economic development, welfare, and youth participation models. If it is to be a more genuine push for left libertarianism, I would think it would mean incentives to encourage participatory models as to societal problems – especially as you noted mutualism. For example, perhaps lower taxes and low interest loans for consumer, worker, and housing cooperatives?

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    1. I largely agree with your all your comments!

      However, I’ll just first point out that governments don’t have ‘less regulation’ rather that they regulate in favour of monopolies which gives the impression that there is ‘less regulation’ but really it is just ‘less competition’.

      I definitely agree that if there is to be a genuine push for ‘Left Libertarianism’ we absolutely need to be rethinking and reframing in terms of local participation models and co-operatives. I’ve been looking at the New Democracy Foundation website in Australia, who are in the process of researching and developing some very interesting models e.g. multi-body sortition, citizen juries etc. I’ve also seen some advocacy elsewhere for developing models that reflect the values of the Open Source community, which looks fascinating.

      Perhaps lower taxes and low interest loans for consumer, worker, and housing cooperatives?

      I’m an advocate for Geoism/Georgism and the land value tax [LVT] (land broadly including all that which is not created through human exertion). So rather than lowering taxes on productive incomes I think we should be looking at eliminating taxes on productive income and taxing economic rent. This way, the wealth created by the community that currently goes straight to the pockets of the rentiers, can be redistributed back to the community in the form of a citizens dividend or UBI. Additionally, LVT has the added advantage of lowering the price of land by disincentivising speculative behaviour which would make housing more affordable. (If you’re interested in land value taxes see my archives for posts on Reviving Georgism)

      The issue of tax and money are inseparable and need to be dealt with together as you suggest, but the solution I think involves something other than lowering interest rates. I think that money created as debt is extremely problematic and I worry that lowering interest rates under current monetary policy may exacerbate the debt problem by encouraging individuals to take on more debt. Debt is the path to serfdom and its what we want to move away from. Admittedly, I need to spend more time acquainting myself with the different monetary theories, but I find MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) very compelling (although I am still in the process of learning about it).

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