Thinking Outside the Box (II): The World You Desired Can Be Won

After my last post, “Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains,” I received quite a few public and private comments from people—left and right—wondering if I’d lost my mind (or my soul) because I do not use the word “capitalism” to describe my politics.

It’s nothing new, folks. I stopped using that word back in February 2005, and stated why in my short piece, “‘Capitalism’: The Known Reality” on the Liberty and Power Group Blog—and subsequently re-published on the site of the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS). I should note, for the record, that one person on another Facebook thread said that if I’ve linked to C4SS, I’m “probably broken” already. Well, if this be treason—linking to a site that has so many wonderful contributors and associates, and that also carries some of my work—I warmly embrace my “Humpty Dumpty” spiritual essence!

Back in 2005, when I wrote that piece, I was, in fact, reaching out to the “left or to any other category of intellectuals” because, I argued, “[r]eal communication depends upon a full clarification of terms; if we end up using the same term to mean different things, I fear we’ll be talking over each other’s heads for a long time to come.”

But that piece did not simply signify a shift in rhetorical strategy. I maintained then, as I do now, that historically constituted “capitalism” has never been the “unknown ideal” of Ayn Rand’s narrative. We can stand here and debate this for eons, but it’s not going to change the reality of how the system that came to be known as “capitalism” emerged—as I stated in my last post—very much the product of state forces that worked at the behest of large medieval landowners, using such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations. If the state has always been involved with the social system known as “capitalism”, then the Randian goal of radically separating the state from the economy such that it is no longer a political economy is indeed an “unknown ideal.” It has never existed. Whether it can exist is another question.

Which leads me to my next point.

Just because I abandoned my use of the word “capitalism” sixteen years ago does not mean that I forfeited my libertarian convictions; I still believe that genuinely free markets—or as William Gillis has called them, “freed markets“—can be a catalyst for radical social change.

Some folks have said publicly and privately that I’m a “useful idiot” for Marxists and communists because I dropped my use of the term “capitalism” as a descriptor of my politics. Well, being called a “useful idiot” for my positions is nothing new! I was called a “useful idiot” for Saddam Hussein when I opposed the Iraq war and the view held by some orthodox Objectivists that the only way to “win” the war on terrorism was to annihilate the “savages” of the Islamic Middle East in a nuclear genocide.

But hey, why stop there? After all, my mentor, Bertell Ollman, was a Marxist (and also a Volker Fellow who studied under F. A. Hayek)—and he gave me more support in the creation of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which consisted of three books: Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism) than most libertarians. I guess I’m a “useful idiot” for Bertell too, and have been “sucking up” to the left to prove my worth throughout my entire life!

Gimme a break!

I have spent the last forty years of my professional life fighting against the view that dialectical method is not the exclusive property of the left. Dialectics is a mode of analysis that requires us to look at social problems not as isolated units, but as contextually embedded within a larger system across time. It is a tool of inquiry that must be embraced by those who favor radical libertarian social change if they are to achieve it. One cannot attack structural (that is, political and economic) oppressions without looking at the ways in which personal and cultural social relationships and institutions reflect and perpetuate them.

One doesn’t gain friends and influence people by pissing off the socialist left for using a method typically associated with them, and pissing off the libertarian right because they accept the socialist view that “dialectics” is indeed an exclusively “Marxist” method (except that it should be relegated to the dustbin of history).

Reality check: Even Hegel declared that Aristotle was “the fountainhead” of dialectical inquiry. My reconstruction of libertarian social theory as a dialectical project is, at its core, a call for a neo-Aristotelian methodological revolution to bolster the cause of human freedom. But, obsessively footnoting scholar that I am, I have always given credit where credit is due to all those thinkers and schools of thought—be they on the left or the right—that have led me to this conviction.

One of the most important things I learned from Ayn Rand was the moral imperative to trust the judgment of my own mind. Rand warned against the fallacy of “thinking in a square.” I’ve always challenged myself to “think outside the box” because it is the only way to keep evolving intellectually and personally, to keep learning. I will not be boxed-in by the established categories of others. And I take to heart Rand’s clarion call: “The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

How we get to that world does not entail a mere rhetorical debate over the use of terms. It entails an understanding of what those terms have meant historically—and an honest and civil discussion of what kinds of strategies might be best in achieving that world. We live in a toxic political environment in which some of us can’t help but view our ideological opponents as sub-human. I, myself, have expressed plenty of anger over the course of 33 installments to my series on the Coronavirus to be tempted to succumb to incivility. I do my best to avoid it but none of us is perfect.

So make no mistake about it: I am no less a radical, dialectical libertarian today than I was sixteen years ago, or forty years ago, when I began this intellectual, and profoundly personal, journey.

JARS July 2021 Now on JSTOR & Project Muse!

Subscribers to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies can now access the new July 2021 issue of the journal on both Project Muse and JSTOR. Hard copies will be in your mailboxes soon enough!

I previously disclosed the contents of the issue here. We remain the only double-blind peer-reviewed biannual university-press published interdisciplinary scholarly periodical devoted to the critical discussion of Ayn Rand and her times.

The Third Decade Begins …

Thinking Outside the Box: You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

This was something I posted on Facebook, in a discussion in which folks were using words like “socialist” and “capitalist” to define their political points of view:


I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a lot of people I respect and admire identify themselves as “socialists” and some even as “capitalists.” I think we have gotten to the point, however, where these terms are almost indefinable without a mountain of modifying adjectives such that we find ourselves twisted into neo-logistic pretzels.

Having been introduced to libertarian thinking through Ayn Rand, who embraced capitalism “the unknown ideal”—that is, something which has never existed in the way she defined it (it was, essentially a Weberian ideal type)—it took years for me to abandon that term for good (in 2005), because capitalism “the known reality“, like virtually every social system before it, and any “post-capitalist” or “socialist” system after it, has been built on blood and massive state oppression.

Oppression must be opposed across political, cultural, and social dimensions—and to me, this is essential to any project aiming for human freedom and individual flourishing within a communal context. I have found all these terms to be like ideological straitjackets, which led me to embrace “dialectical libertarianism” as that to which I adhere. This of course has its own linguistic baggage, but I think that the politics of change needs to transcend right and left, “capitalism” and “socialism” (scare quotes intended), enabling us to embrace the kernels of truth in Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand, and so forth, on the one hand and Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, Chomsky, Goldman, Luxemburg, Bookchin, and so forth, on the other hand.

Again, though I deeply respect people for whatever labeling they’ve chosen, and the ways in which they’ve defined it, I think we need to begin the process of breaking out of this binary divide. Every time we embrace any term or phrase that has this much baggage, we face the impenetrable problem of communicating with people who simply can’t think outside the intellectual boxes to which they are accustomed, the boxes that make them feel “safe” but that never challenge them to “check their premises” (to use a Randian phrase). There’s got to be a better way of moving this dialogue forward. The “dialectics of liberty”—and our very lives—depend on it.

On Facebook, the discussion advances. I added the following points:

Too many people are talking past each other and the definitions of “capitalism” and “socialism” have never been stable, partially because the “real” history is in stark contrast to the “ideal” definitions being offered, even by these system’s most ardent defenders.

Let’s focus on Ayn Rand herself, for whom definition of terms must accord with reality. She saw capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” Very nice description—but “ideally conceived.” (I might add that Rand also embraced similarly “ideal” conceptions of “selfishness” and “government” that were just as starkly different from the overwhelming conventional understanding of these terms.)

Capitalism did not have a virgin birth through the homesteading of untouched lands and the sanctity of “individual rights”. The whole schema of private property and the consequent recognition of the “individual rights” to such property only happened after the state—working at the behest of large medieval landowners—used such tools as the enclosure acts to nullify peasant land tenure rights and, through the legacy of colonialism, wholly dispossess many indigenous populations.

“Capitalism” in its origins—like every other “social system” before it—was bathed in blood. Hardly in accord with the Weberian ideal-type “definition” that Rand provided.

The well-known record of “socialism” in the twentieth century is also bathed in blood. The description of “socialism”, given by Karl Marx himself, was that of a post-scarcity society in which the abundance of goods is such that each can take according to their needs, without sacrificing anyone else in the process. Again, “ideally” conceived. No “socialist” country has ever been built upon such “post-scarcity” and the results have been murderous.

I would prefer not to speak in terms of these “isms” as goals because their history has severely tainted any possible rational understanding of what a genuinely free society might look like. Given the historical records of both “capitalism” and “socialism” and the role that the state has played in the founding of both “systems,” I’d prefer to sidestep the whole binary discussion. We might wish to talk in terms of such things as “markets” (which, as Pete Boettke once said, grow “like weeds” throughout all historical periods). Or better still: “freed markets“, that is, markets “freed” from the insidious role of political, institutional, and cultural forces that undermine the achievement of human liberty and individual autonomy. And freed and voluntary markets as such can have many different incarnations, from worker cooperatives to exchange relationships.

I have found that the usage of words like “capitalism” and “socialism” just does not advance the discussion, no matter how clearly one defines them—especially when the “ideal” definitions depart so dramatically from the real, historical record.

Song of the Day #1867

Song of the Day: Donna Summer Disconet Medley [YouTube link], mixed by Mike Carroll and Steven Von Blau, kicks off The Sixth Annual Summer Music Festival (Dance Medley Edition). The Northern Hemisphere greets the Summer Solstice at 11:32 pm ET, and what better way to embrace the warmth of Summer than with Summer herself! She may have been known as the “Queen of Disco,” but her powerful pipes transcended genres. Her music graced film and even ended up on Broadway in a poignant, joyful bio-musical. From “Spring Affair,” “Bad Girls,” and the technoblazing Giorgio Moroder-produced “I Feel Love” to “Rumor Has It,” “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” (her duet with Barbra Streisand), and the Oscar-winning “Last Dance,” Donna strikes the match that lights up our Summer dance floor.

2021 Summer Music Festival (Dance Medley Edition)

I’ve been doing a Summer Music Festival now for six years. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, it was an eclectic mix, but by 2019, I began more “thematic” installments, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. In the summer of 2020, it was a Jazz Edition. Folks who have followed the 1,866 “Songs of the Day” that I’ve posted since 2004 must know that I have an immensely diverse musical palette, which embraces everything from classical, jazz, musical theatre, and the Great American Songbook to R&B, rock, prog rock, and ‘Planet Rock‘ (hip hop). This year, however, it’s all about Dance Medleys! Yep! Unabashed, unapologetic, dance music—much of it even Disco, stretching from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, the very years that I was working part-time as a mobile DJ and MC, playing engagements, weddings, school proms and reunions, New Year’s Eve parties, and Bar Mitzvahs (see photo below, circa 1986). Not to mention doing custom-made mix tapes for people who attended those parties and for all my friends! (Heck, I even created dance mixes for Ms. Ski‘s [my sister’s] award-winning Dance Teams!)

So, let the Haters sit this one out! This fun, rhythmic music emerged from R&B, soul, funk, and Latino influences, with many of its early DJs coming out of an urban gay subculture. That might explain some of the hostility heaped on the genre in such events as “Disco Demolition Night” [YouTube link], which took place on 12 July 1979 at Comiskey Park. Alas, Comiskey Park is now history [YouTube link], but disco’s influence on house, techno, electronica, hip hop, and dance pop lives on. And we’re not even counting the hundreds of disco hits that have been “sampled” ever since by artists across all genres in the extension of their craft.

So, it’s time to dance down memory lane! Most of the featured medleys this summer are from Disconet, the New York-based “subscription” label founded in 1977 by Mike Wilkinson. Two of the medleys that I’ll post over the summer were created by me back in the 1980s, and will be making their debut on YouTube publicly for the first time! (And a special shout-out to my dear friend Ryan Neugebauer for guiding me through some of the YouTube tech issues! Thank you! ❤).

There were many fine DJ subscription labels, including Hot Tracks and DMC, but Disconet was the pioneer. I was very good friends with the late Bobby “DJ” Guttadaro, an award-winning club giant, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who was a member of the original team of remixers hired by the Disconet service. When we walked into a club where Bobby was mixing, I’d slip him a playlist, and could be certain that at some point in the night, he’d play virtually all of my requests! I dedicate this year’s Summer Music Festival (Dance Medley Edition) to his memory and the memory of all those heroic, trailblazing DJs who mastered the art of the mix. We start on June 20, for by Sunday night at 11:32 pm (ET), the Summer Solstice arrives! Watch this space!

^ Me (DJ’ing, circa 1986)

Ten Iconic Hollywood Film Scenes (X)

The tenth installment of my series of ten iconic Hollywood film scenes among my all-time favorites is from the Francis Ford Coppola-directed 1972 film, “The Godfather”: The Baptism Scene. Filled with the tension of ‘payback’ justice and the symbolic depth of the inversion of “good” and “evil” through the interplay of the sacred and the profane, this film’s climax, highlighted by its superb film editing, constitutes the finale to my current series. I’ve got many more all-time favorite iconic cinema moments, so maybe we’ll do this again sometime! Till then: Leave the gun, take the cannoli [YouTube link]! (Coppola insists that actor Richard S. Castellano, who played Clemenza, improvised that line!)

Birds, Bees, and Commas?

The editor in me was just so turned on by this one … 😉

Ten Iconic Hollywood Film Scenes (IX)

The ninth in a series of ten iconic Hollywood film scenes ranking among my all-time favorites is from the 1997 James Cameron-directed blockbuster, “Titanic”, the 11-Academy Award winner that tied “Ben-Hur” (and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) for the most Oscars for any single film. The scene: The Sinking of the Titanic, in which this film’s Oscar-winning direction, art direction, cinematography, costume design, film editing, sound, sound effects editing, and visual effects are all on full display. Not to mention a spectacular Oscar-winning score by James Horner that grippingly augments this harrowing epic scene.

Ten Iconic Hollywood Film Scenes (VIII)

The eighth in a series of ten iconic Hollywood film scenes among my all-time favorites is another stop motion animation gem, this one from the great Ray Harryhausen: The Skeleton Duel from the 1963 film, “Jason and the Argonauts“, aided by an action-packed Bernard Herrmann score.