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DWR (6): Market, State, and Anarchy

Today, the Center for a Stateless Society publishes an article by my very dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer: “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective.” Though this is not strictly a part of the series I’ve dubbed “DWR” (“Dialogues with Ryan”), the article certainly evolved over a period of time during which Ryan and I have had many lengthy discussions about so many of the issues addressed in this new piece.

The article offers a wide-ranging critique of the status quo of “Liberal Corporate Capitalism”, before launching into a detailed critique of proposed “alternatives to the status quo”, including “Free-Market Propertarianism”, “State Socialism”, and “Anarchism.” Since Ryan considers himself at minimum a philosophical anarchist (as do I), much of what he has to say entails a perceptive engagement with some points of view that he himself has held over the years. Indeed, what makes the article worthwhile is that it is a dialectical combination of both critique and self-critique.

The article includes many wonderful citations, including some to my own work on the usefulness of a dialectical methodology for a critical libertarian socio-political project. Ryan grapples with the need of radicals to function on the basis of the real conditions that exist. His left-libertarian framework—a framework with which I, myself, have been associated—is one that “seeks to make the best of what we have where we are presently at and always push to do better. It will not however paralyze itself with rigid dogmas and face destruction.” He writes:

Ultimately, I fall on the Left-Libertarian side of things. I especially like its emphasis on a sustainable, non-bloated autonomism—that is, the building of spaces of autonomy in the now and outside the current system. Such autonomism requires the freedom to create without asking for permission in a system that provides signals for judging individual needs and relative scarcity. This will most likely entail a complex mix of commons, markets, and cooperatives. It will also require a movement away from a system that treats land like a typical commodity, a system that encourages dependence on capitalists through subsidies, intellectual property rights laws, crony trade deals, and regulations that restrict competition. Politically, more people need “skin in the game” on a decentralized, local level

Given its wide-ranging scope and its accessible, succinct delivery, I strongly recommend Ryan’s article to your attention! Check it out here.

DWR (5): On Cancel Culture, Comedy, and Compassion

The other day, in the New York Daily News, one of my favorite comic strips, “Pearls Before Swine”, by Stephan Pastis, featured this commentary on our age:

“The Judgment Age”… or maybe, the “Snap-Judgment Age”… either way, Pastis is just touching upon a very touchy subject.

In my ongoing Facebook engagement with my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, the discussion turned to these touchy subjects—to issues of social justice, cancel culture, the limits of comedy, and the effects of the 2020 riots in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

As Notablog readers know, I’ve addressed many of these issues before in my own Notablog posts. See, for example, my discussion of the Floyd murder—and it’s aftermath (“America: On Wounded Knee”), my examination of the attack on statues and monuments (“On Statues, Sledgehammers, and Scalpels”), and my exploration of the commonality between Rand’s view of racism and Critical Race Theory (“Ravitch, Rand, and CRT: The Ominous Parallels?”).

A professional psychotherapist, Ryan comes from a dialectical left-libertarian perspective. In a very personal, wide-ranging Facebook post, Ryan grappled with many of the issues mentioned above. That post is not public, but is worthy of a larger audience, in my view, for the thoughtful compassion it exhibits and advocates. Here’s what Ryan had to say:

***

This should be prefaced by the fact that all of my positions are constantly evolving, so what I am going to write is not the final word on anything (nor should it be). I welcome all helpful, critical feedback.

Where to start? It’s difficult because there’s so much in all of this and so many people feel very strongly about where they stand on these issues. So, I think it might be helpful to start elementary by discussing a foundation for handling any issue, social justice or not.

My foundation is a “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” one. The dialectical part is based in Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “dialectical libertarianism”, where he conceptualizes dialectics as “the art of context keeping”. In a 2005 article of his for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), he states: “If one’s aim is to resolve a specific social problem, one must look to the larger context within which that problem is manifested, and without which it would not exist.” Kevin Carson, in further describing Sciabarra’s approach, states that: “Individual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part, and from their function within that whole.”

Despite my differences with him—I’m not as much of a free-market propertarian and not big on the “nonaggression” principle—I love Gary Chartier‘s description of the “Left-Libertarian” here. Wikipedia describes it as “a political philosophy and type of libertarianism that stresses both individual freedom and social equality.” That Wikipedia article mentions Anthony Gregory and says that: “Gregory describes left-libertarianism as maintaining interest in personal freedom, having sympathy for egalitarianism and opposing social hierarchy, preferring a liberal lifestyle, opposing big business and having a New Left opposition to imperialism and war.” Ultimately, the Left-Libertarian framework has a concern with social authoritarianism, whether from government or culture or both, and a concern with economic injustice and dependence on wage labor relations. The core concern is with individual freedom & flourishing.

Now that I have sketched out that foundation, I would like to talk about an important communication concern. Whenever you are discussing issues with someone who disagrees or who holds a very different framework than you do, you have to “know your audience”. You have to get in touch with their concerns and learn how to frame your responses in a way that speaks to those concerns. You don’t want to be dismissive and you don’t want to get them wrong. Otherwise, you will probably do a lot of talking past each other or find yourself in tense and hostile space. Therefore, if you are a Leftist talking to a typical American Conservative, you have to address their concerns with societal stability, government overreach, and family values. If you are a Conservative talking with a typical present-day Leftist, you have to address their concerns with social equality, economic justice, and environmental protection. If you are instead interested in beating these people over the head with how right you are and how trivial their concerns are, you will have ended any hope for reaching them.

Let’s get started on “social justice” (I have to make headway at some point!). The John Lewis Institute for Social Justice describes it as follows:

“Social justice is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person. It recognizes that the legacy of past injustices remains all around us, so therefore promotes efforts to empower individual and communal action in support of restorative justice and the full implementation of human and civil rights”.

I feel like that’s a difficult thing to oppose for most people. You may see differences on the specifics, but at least the spirit of it is hard to oppose for most. Personally, I am absolutely committed to this conception of social justice.

In contrast, there are people called “social justice warriors” (SJWs) or “woke” individuals, more often used in a pejorative sense these days (though some own one or both of these terms in a positive sense). A Wikipedia entry on the matter describes social justice warrior as “a pejorative term and internet meme used for an individual who promotes socially progressive, left-wing and liberal views, including feminism, civil rights, gay and transgender rights, identity politics, political correctness and multiculturalism”. That’s a mouthful and not very helpful. On that description alone, I would count for a significant chunk of it (I take issue with the varying ways “identity politics” and “political correctness” get used though). In regard to “woke”, one article states: “The dictionary defines it as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.” That article goes on to say: “It has become a common term of derision among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or infantilise supporters of those movements”. This gets at the key point of all of this: application.

Two people could both advocate strongly for social justice but take very different approaches to it. When people are derided as “SJWs” or “woke”, it is sometimes used to indicate the degree of aggressiveness or rigidity surrounding their advocacy for social justice. And to be fair, there is no shortage of examples of people who advocate for social justice in the lousiest of ways. You have people (taken from my own personal interactions) who say ridiculous things like “science is white male supremacy” or “the only legitimate pronouns are they/them” or “all Trump supporters are fascists”, etc. They often make very extreme or harsh claims that don’t stand up to the slightest of scrutiny. When they get pushback, they often get even more aggressive and dogmatic. Much like very dogmatic religious individuals. I will say without hesitation that I don’t defend these approaches and find them counterproductive to social justice efforts. Putting aside their inaccuracies or foolishness, they push people away from seriously important causes. Therefore, a Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach would want to find ways to communicate effectively with others and ensure that any actions are not harming the push towards greater freedom and flourishing for all.

And here we get to “cancel culture”. First, we must point out that “cancel culture” to the degree that it exists, happens on both the right-wing and left-wing. McCarthyism was institutional cancel culture from the Right in a very extreme way that present-day cancel culture accusations can’t put a candle to, especially with the “wild west” of the World Wide Web at our fingertips. Just watch the movie “Trumbo” (2015) to see how bad it got in one area: cinema. That said, it is more often discussed in association with the Progressive Left these days, so we will focus on its widespread association today. Dictionary.com describes it as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming”. It has more broadly been associated with shouting down speakers, physically shutting down events, getting speakers cancelled from universities, and preventing certain media or materials from being consumed. This topic overlaps with the topic of “comedy” mentioned above.

From a Dialectical Left-Libertarian perspective, one should be concerned with how the things associated with “cancel culture” aid or curtail the project of increasing freedom & flourishing for all. Some actions are perfectly legitimate, such as boycotting when harmful actions are done. That signals that we want the boycotted to do better and potentially to do restitution before we are to support them in any sense again (if at all). However, shutting down speakers and banning books I am much less comfortable with. This more often than not leads to negative pushback and people seeking out or defending the shutdown or banned entities more. In my opinion, this happened with the awful Milo Yiannopoulos. The aggressive demonstrations against him drew more attention than his talks could on their own. It was the highlighting of his comments on adult sexual relationships with 13-year-olds that led to everyone distancing from him and him losing his limelight. You rarely hear from him today (please let’s keep it that way!). Nonetheless, most people I have spoken with across the political spectrum have been uncomfortable with a lot of these previously mentioned “cancel culture” tactics. They may support the underlying causes and some specific implementations of the various tactics, but they don’t like the normalization of the tactics against everything perceived as wrong or offensive. Maybe there are times when stopping someone’s speech is necessary, especially without question when it treads into dangerous territory of inciting violence. However, it’s hardly clear that it should be something we are comfortable with normalizing.

When it comes to comedy, I can’t help but think about this George Carlin interview [YouTube link]. He talks about the importance of comedy targeting people in power and those that abuse others. He appears to have a concern with those who target the marginalized in society, even if he wouldn’t want to ban any comic’s ability to make such jokes. However, there is an ethical question regarding when comedy can “go too far”. On this question, I mentioned in a recent Facebook livestream that I laughed very hard at Lisa Lampanelli’s comedy routines [YouTube link]. They were very offensive without question. And her packed, very diverse audiences were always laughing very hard.

However, in the chat section of the livestream, I responded to a dear friend by saying: “On the one hand, few of us can deny that we find her comedy hilarious. People of all backgrounds in her very diverse audiences were on the floor. On the other hand, there does seem to be a limit of ‘going too far’, but that’s going to vary with each person and their values. So, what’s the way forward? A messy, difficult one that probably has no absolute standards.”

So, in short, I don’t know what the reasonable limits of comedy are. I imagine the answer isn’t “everything is permitted” or “nothing offensive can be permitted”. If that’s the case, and we can’t fall back on simple standards of condoning everything or condemning anything offensive, then we have to make the tough calls, risk being inconsistent or wrong, or, in dialectical fashion, look at the context and see that something may not be right under one context rather than another. But I won’t claim to know where to come down on everything. I just know that I reject the rigid extremes here. Check out one approach to this subject by George Carlin [YouTube link; especially 9:42 to 11:50). I have issues with it, but I still like hearing his perspective as a comedian who was sensitive to these issues. Just like me, he doesn’t get the final word.

You might ask: What should we do about all of this? Well, that’s easier said than done. And I am not going to claim to have all the answers here. However, I think we have an obligation to stand up for those who are oppressed and should not remain silent just because it is easier or more comfortable. I think we should organize and seek to increase inclusivity and justice in our culture and governance institutions. We should have more than deconstruction and disruption. We need a positive way forward. We need an opening of society. No such opening will come without significant changes to our society, including, importantly, to the economy. Supporting gay marriage and transgender inclusivity in schools isn’t going to help the homeless gay or transgender individual. Those things matter but they are not the only things that matter. At the end of the day, unless we start having more open and honest conversations about these matters, rather than avoiding discussing them (common with the right-wing) or shutting down anyone who doesn’t measure up to peak SJW performance (common with the Progressive Left), we will not make the progress we want on these various important issues.

What about the 2020 demonstrations and riots following the killing of George Floyd by police? First, let us point out that the killing of George Floyd took place in May, just two months after the COVID pandemic took off in the United States. So much of society shut down, many had died or were dying with COVID, people were out-of-work with little to do, finances were rough, tensions were high, we were in a heavily divided election year, and had a president who played on the discord for his own gain. Whew! That’s a lot! This was far from the first wrongful killing of an African American man by US police. But it was the first one that gained major attention post-pandemic. Once it happened, the long history of anger and frustration surrounding this ongoing problem with police erupted into mass protests and riots across the country. My knee-jerk reaction was to come out in full support of anything fighting against this despicable institution. However, I dialogued with a lot of people who disagreed, including African Americans themselves. Several pointed out the harm it caused to so many minority neighborhoods. It’s one thing to protest, demonstrate, and disrupt powerful institutions (like Wall Street and the police). It’s another to burn down and destroy small businesses, the local pharmacy, and homes.

Some may say this is the price of activism and standing up for what is right. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I wouldn’t disagree that it is the price of a very immoral and bankrupt system. But it’s true that once people take to the streets en masse, you often get people who take advantage of the disruption to cause reckless damage with little concern for the lives and well-being of others. Most protesters and most people were not in support of such destruction. An important point is that we should be more angry with the cause of the discord than the discord itself. In contrast, the reactionary who is fine with things being as they are gets more upset with the discord. The reactionary would just love for everyone to go home or protest in ineffective ways that don’t stress the system and incentivize it to change for the better. I certainly don’t want to come across as defending that. However, I think we need to do better than raising our fists and getting excited over watching the local pharmacy burning to the ground. I reject the idea that we must defend every action that happened during the summer of 2020. I also reject the idea that that was the most effective way to address these matters. Regardless, I also know that such social upheavel is difficult to manage or plan ahead for, so we should put more of our resources and thinking towards making our society better so that we don’t warrant such upheaval in the first place. My Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach applied to the 2020 George Floyd protests/riots would want to ensure that any actions were in line with increasing freedom & flourishing for all, especially those most marginalized. If a given tactic or action leads to the destruction of the very lives and neighborhoods that we seek to strengthen and empower, then something is very wrong.

My last point applies to all these topics. There is a real problem with forgiveness, compassion, and flexible thinking in many social justice circles. Though I have hit on the dogmatism and rigidity already before, it is necessary to bring it up again because it is linked with an increased difficulty with forgiveness and compassion. Many people in these circles become so charged, rigid, and intense, that they start to treat others who fall short of their views with callousness, indifference, and aggression. You could be largely in line with them on most things—but fall short anywhere (how dare you, imperfect human!) and get prepared to be cancelled, attacked, smeared, and thrown away without a moment’s thought! We need to distance ourselves from some people or get them out of our lives—especially when they are actively hostile and don’t care. It’s not our responsibility to engage and try to “reform” everyone. But people like the ones being addressed here go to such extremes. They tend to lack compassion for others and look for things to condemn them for with no forgiveness on the horizon. That’s a toxic phenomenon that has no potential for building a just world. If we can’t forgive and show compassion, we fall into permanent war with nearly everyone. Permanent war is not preferable or sustainable, and it doesn’t have seeds for building a free and flourishing society for all. So, if we are to advocate for social justice, we are going to need to get in touch with compassion and forgiveness. If we don’t, we won’t get social justice. Instead, we will get social isolation and decline.

Like I have said many times at this point, this is not my final word or the final word on any of these matters. However, I wanted to cover these various contentious issues and find a way to apply my Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach to them. Let’s continue the project of “context-keeping” for freedom & flourishing together by continuing to dialogue and finding out better ways to approach very difficult issues and topics.

And don’t forget! You (which includes me) most likely didn’t always hold the views you do now. You most likely didn’t always advocate for social justice for all. You most likely suffered (and maybe continue to suffer) from serious ideological blindspots. Before you beat people down with the social justice stick, think instead about the compassion and support you would have liked to have had during a previous stage of your life. Then attempt to give that to the person in need. If they reject it and get hostile, move along. At least you tried rather than writing them off. And who knows, maybe a social justice seed was still planted and will sprout down the road.

***

In the Facebook thread that followed, I stated:

I am so very impressed with the careful way in which you laid out your case, and even more impressed with the ways in which you have applied the whole notion of context-keeping, so essential to dialectical thinking, to the process of exposition. If people cannot articulate their views in ways that even attempt to “reach across the divide”, they will forever be speaking in an echo chamber. And if they surround themselves with nobody but people who think likewise, they will find themselves caught up in the righteousness of their ideas without any concern for how those ideas are to be implemented in a pluralistic society. In other words, people need to exhibit the very charitable and compassionate ideals they claim to extol in the communicative process. If folks can’t even do that, then they are likely never to achieve those charitable, compassionate, or just ideals. To “know your audience”, as you put it, is essential, therefore, not only to the ability to communicate, but also essential to effectively making your point.

I also think that it is important to note, as you do so clearly, how we all need to have active minds that are open to our own self-acknowledgement of an evolution in our thinking—intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.

I cannot take issue with anything you’ve said above. A job so very well done. It does not solve every problem—nor is it intended to—and if it leads to “pushback”, so be it. And if that “pushback” only goes to prove the points you have made (something that I’ve seen in threads on my own Timeline), so be it. It is just refreshing to see honesty, self-awareness, and compassion shedding light on topics that too often generate heat. …

Since this is a very touchy subject, there are many people who are literally afraid to discuss this issue; hence, they engage in the self-censorship of silence. And that, perhaps, is the greatest casualty of the phenomena that you so bravely address.

Since I’ve devoted so much space to Ryan’s post, I’ll let him have the last word here:

That’s a very fair point. To speak positively about social justice in most right-wing spaces gets you hit with nasty comments, accusations, and demands that you answer for every extreme taken by someone in the name of social justice. To speak critically about social justice in most left-wing spaces gets you cancelled, accused of being a fascist or racist, told you are simply speaking from a place of privilege, or some other dismissive or harsh response. Very unfortunate. Maybe we can work towards undoing that with more of these type discussions. ❤  

DWR (4): Navigating the False Alternatives

This is part four of my ongoing dialogues with my friend Ryan Neugebauer (my DWR series, as I call it). In today’s Facebook posting, Ryan stated:

There are two significant perspectives that compete with each other and are in contrast with the dominant Liberal Democrat and Conservative Republican visions: Free-Market Right-Libertarian and State Socialist.

The former wants to reduce everything to market competition to the greatest extent possible (including in its purest form with police, courts/law, and national defense being provided by competing market entities). The other (State Socialist) wants to shrink market competition to the greatest extent possible and sees “public control” (read nationalization) as preferable in all cases but will simply cede to the market if it doesn’t look likely to go well to them.


I reject both of these positions, never having defended the second but having defended the former for a solid 5 months and having some affinity towards it (though not all out acceptance) for several years.


I accept F. A. Hayek’s defense of markets in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) and am not convinced you could completely replace them if you want a modern, technologically advanced society (and I do). I could be wrong but that would take a change in humans and technology that no Socialist/Communist has successfully argued or demonstrated at this point. I’m just not ideologically committed to markets. If they could be replaced in an anti-authoritarian way, you’d get no tears or fuss from me.


Similar to Hayek, I don’t think all societal mechanisms or norms should or could be market-based. I’m also not hostile to all welfare and regulations, just as he wasn’t in The Road to Serfdom (1944). If we could produce a society without the state or with the state greatly more constrained that achieves the goals I have in the human welfare and environmental preservation dimensions, then I would be very fine with that. I’m an Anarchist at heart and a philosophical Anarchist at an absolute minimum. But, I admit the pragmatic difficulties with bringing an actual Anarchist society (whatever that would look like) about and believe instead in a never-ending evolving process towards increasing freedom and flourishing with no end point.

My framework is what I call “Dialectical Left-Libertarian”, though I’m not big on terms and always see them as unnecessarily limiting. The dialectical portion comes from my dear friend Chris Matthew Sciabarra who states that “dialectical” is about context keeping and whose “dialectical libertarianism” seeks to bring about freedom and flourishing through the utilization of this process of context keeping. This process involves examining the world from different vantage points and modes of analysis. I state similarly in my Facebook political beliefs section: my perspective subjects all facets of society to critique (state/governance, business/economy, school, social norms, etc.) and seeks to reduce hierarchy and increase autonomy wherever possible. This latter portion speaks to my Left-Libertarian dimension that wants to increase freedom & well-being in a comprehensive manner that doesn’t just reduce things down to state vs market like the Right-Libertarians do.


I’m not convinced that the State Socialist framework, even in its more benign Social Democratic forms, is the way to go long-term. Firstly, normalizing a relation of dominance and subservience, ruler and ruled, is always problematic. It allows massive war crimes and levels of abuse to occur that couldn’t as easily without them. But as Frederic Bastiat shows with “the seen and unseen”, governments and their supporters tend to miss all the ways in which their policies lead to bad outcomes and turn out to be very problematic. They simply deal with their immediate expectations and not unintended consequences. Then there is the problem of cronyism and regulatory capture that a state with a class structure will always be prone to, as Marx himself would note. There are also forms of governance that are not nearly as unaccountable and bad like ours like Libertarian Municipalism. So even if some form of government turns out to be necessary, we can do much better than the current modern nation state model.

So there you have it. I could say so much more, but this speaks to my (in my view) balanced approach to libertarian and left-wing thinking.


This article by Jason Lee Byas helps highlight the significance of markets from a Left-Libertarian perspective, even if I don’t hold a commitment to the larger specific framework that he holds to. A nice complement to this in a similar but different spirit is this article by Nathan Goodman.

In response I stated:

As always, I applaud the ways in which you articulate your position—trying to work through all the limiting conventional ‘isms’ of our era. I find myself in agreement with so much of what you say (especially the stuff about that Sciabarra fellow). At the core of your perspective is your rejection of what I think has become a false alternative between a certain form of anarchism that embraces a reductionist “market” resolution of the perceived duality between state and markets, and a certain form of statism that embraces a reductionist “state” resolution to that same duality. What neither side is addressing is the larger context of authoritarian social relations that can stretch across the state-market divide; what neither side is addressing is how culture contributes to hierarchical and oppressive social relations, serving as both the foundation for and reflection of political domination.

I do think that your own affinity with Hayek’s path-breaking essay (“The Use of Knowledge in Society”) is key to whatever social change eventuates. Which is why I think that societies will likely never dispense with markets. Hayek made a “semiotic” case for prices as a reflection of the division and specialization of labor and knowledge. Prices are ‘signals’ as interpreted in an agent-relative manner; that is, they mean different things to different people, given their own context of knowledge (and knowledge here applies not merely to quantifiable data, but to tacit ‘know-how’).

I’m not reifying ‘markets’ or ‘prices’ here; I’m not saying they are categories that have always existed and therefore must always exist. But I take “markets” to be part of a broader category of social relations of exchange, whatever shape they have taken in the past or in the present. Such social relations will exist as long as our infinitely complex world becomes more globally interconnected. Whether we are talking about prices or some as-yet-to-be-manifested system of “non-monetary” signals, Hayek’s argument stands, and is a bulwark against the social relations of dominance and subservience, ruler and ruled that we both oppose.

DWR (3): Rhetoric Right and Left

Back on November 23, 2021, I posted a dialogue I had with my friend Ryan Neugebauer (the third in my ongoing DWR Series) prompted by a Les Leopold article asking if F. A. Hayek was really a Bernie Sanders socialist in disguise. This week, we’ve had some additional discussion, prompted by a Matt McManus article, “To Beat the Right, We Have to Understand Their Arguments.” McManus focuses on the work of Albert O. Hirschmann, who has examined The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. As McManus puts it, Hirschmann argues that

conservatives use three rhetorical “theses” to make their case: the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis.

The perversity thesis holds that when the Left tries to produce some beneficial change, “the exact contrary” occurs; their aspirations backfire, done in by the law of unintended consequences. In his Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre went so far as to argue that God would punish the French revolutionaries and bring about the “exaltation of Christianity and monarchy.”

The second argument Hirschman analyzes is more sobering. It is the futility thesis, or the claim that “any alleged [progressive] change is, was, or will be largely surface, façade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the deep structures of society remain wholly untouched.”

As Corey Robin has observed, the futility thesis is the most effective against the Left because it bears more than a passing similarity to the structural analysis that radicals favor. If the ambition is to fundamentally reshape the institutions and power dynamics of society, and the best progressives can do is make superficial alterations, conservatives will be on hand to declare: “I told you so.” The result is a sense of powerlessness and, well, futility, on the part of the Left.

The last reactionary trope is the jeopardy thesis. While the perversity and futility theses are “remarkably simple and bald,” the jeopardy thesis takes a more elliptical approach to combating left politics by asserting that a “proposed change, though perhaps desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another.” In other words, our desire to have it all jeopardizes what we’ve already achieved.


In the discussion that followed, I remarked:

I’ve read Hirschmann over the years, and he’s very good on these issues.

In truth, however, these arguments—especially those that highlight the important role of unintended consequences and the boomerang effects that happen such that policies enacted achieve the opposite of their alleged intentions—have been and should be used effectively against any “top-down” state planning, be it that of the “right” or the “left”. They are applicable not only to the genesis of “state capitalism” and “state socialism” but even to the rise of the regulatory state, the national security state, and the permanent war economy, each of which taken in isolation, and all of which, taken organically, have produced a host of consequences, both intended (typically, by the ruling elites) and unintended (by those same folks), that have fundamentally undermined the radical, progressive agenda.

Ostensibly, regulation was supposed to rein in the “excesses” of markets, but it typically enriched the very industries being regulated (that’s the history of the Progressive era and everything that has happened since). This is how regulatory capture by corporatist “planners” has panned out. Even the building of a national security state and a permanent war economy were justified to keep the citizenry both “free” and “secure”—and have achieved neither freedom nor security. This was, indeed, “the triumph of conservatism”—as Gabriel Kolko and scores of historians have argued.

Rhetorically speaking and historically speaking, one can turn the tables on the “conservative tropes” by pointing out that “top-down” planning of any political hue typically leads to the entrenchment of the most reactionary elements in global political economy.

The very last sentence in the article hits on a crucially important issue: “This should give the Left confidence that, even if the arc of history doesn’t inevitably bend our way, our ideas will convince more people in the long run. And that’s because they are the right ideas.”

To me, this strikes the most significant chord in the symphony that constitutes progressive social change. It means that the triumph of genuinely progressive social ideals can only happen because more and more people have been convinced of their efficacy—at which point, fundamental change, through a cultural shift from the “bottom up”, rather than the “top down,” will indeed bend “the arc of history.”

Ryan responded:

I think there are weak forms of the theses/arguments that are legitimate. For example, Bastiat’s “the seen and unseen” is an example of how statists often don’t factor in unintended consequences or the ways in which their policies can have negative consequences. So it’s important to not naively think you can just tinker from the top-down and everything works out as intended like so many seem to assume.
 
Furthermore, as you point out with Kolko, there’s the issue with regulatory capture and regulations being used to benefit major corporations. Therefore, any actions will likely be filtered and constrained by the crony system.
 
That said, given that we have the system that we have where business and the state grow closer together and mutually benefit from each other, people like the author and Hirschmann believe we should still try to take actions to reign in the problems that come out of the very imperfect system that we have. This is what the strong versions of the theses/arguments seek to undermine. They want hands off and no regulation, at least in their preferred areas. As you note, the right-wing has their own favored regulations. But we don’t have a non-crony free market system and we can’t just sit around waiting for things to potentially correct themselves.
 
The response “just take away all of the benefits/regulations” that Classical Liberals and Right-Libertarians love is just lazy. It’s like “cool, but that’s not on the table”. I like what you said your Marxist dissertation supervisor Bertell Ollman once said (I’m paraphrasing): “Libertarians act like someone who wants to order Chinese food at a steak restaurant. It’s not on the menu!” Heck, I’m not even convinced we can have literally zero regulations anyways, even if it’s not a nation state implementing them. The Montreal Protocol comes to mind as a clear example of the need for swift action that didn’t just depend on markets eventually shifting things.
 
Ultimately, I think the article’s arguing against the theses was more about opposing the strong versions (which you and I would too) than the weak versions (which you and I would see as necessary).

I replied:

I know Ryan is traveling, so he couldn’t look up the exact quotation from Bertell Ollman, my mentor and long-time colleague and dear friend, but the exact quote is even more stinging. I’ll take it from Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

In a 1981 debate with libertarian theorist Don Lavoie, [Ollman] opined: “Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza.” The issue here is: What’s on the menu, given objective conditions and constraints? There may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them.”

(As an aside, it is my hope to finally digitize that debate between Lavoie and Ollman and to put it on my YouTube channel before too long. We’ll see how it holds up to the transfer, but it’s full of many such gems.)

We may not like and have not chosen to live in the societies into which we have been born and within which we all live. But given that these are the conditions that exist, there is not a single person alive who can function outside that context. We are a part of the societies we seek to change. Even as we try to influence a society, we are embedded in it and its institutional constraints will, by necessity, shape the choices we make.

I have argued time and again that fundamentalist “libertarians” have dropped the ball on so many issues that I’ve lost count. The libertarian response to the pandemic could be extended to any number of other huge “externalities”, be it climate change, a tsunami, an earthquake, or any other natural or human-made disaster. We try everything we can to check the powers of states from using ’emergencies’ so as to augment their power and to simultaneously enrich the eiltes to which they are beholden. But given that these are the conditions that exist, every one of us is put at a comparative disadvantage if we choose to completely ‘opt out’ of the political give-and-take. The “strong” versions of the conservative ‘trope’ arguments are self-defeating and utopian; they apply, literally to ‘no-where’ (that’s what ‘utopian’ means). We all live some-where, in the world, as it exists, and if we don’t act to counter the forces that oppress us, thinking that ‘hands off’ is going to take care of itself, we’re conceding all political action to those who are most adept at using it—which is why, as Hayek said—the worst always get on top. If fundamentalist “libertarians” opt out of all politics because they think it “sanctions” actions that are immoral by definition, they will forever marginalize themselves to the point of total and complete irrelevance.

This is not just a battle against high taxes and regulations (whether they are endorsed by the tankie left or the nationalist right). It is a battle against laws that are never neutral; and sometimes, advocating a ‘rollback’ on one regulation, as Kevin Carson has argued, will not lead to a net decrease in state and ruling class power, but actually a net increase. That’s why one cannot opt out of the political battles; sometimes, you might eke out a change that alters the balance of power on an issue-by-issue basis that will benefit the most oppressed classes among us, even if it does not change the system fundamentally.

We have a very profound cultural problem. If we don’t do the hard work that is necessary to change the larger culture—a necessary precursor to fundamental social change—the battle is lost.

Finally, on the issue of political labels. I’ve had a lot of issues with words like “socialism” and “capitalism”, which mean so many things to so many people that it’s almost impossible to have a civil discussion about them anymore. I fear that the term “libertarian” is nearing the point of uselessness for the same reasons. Its first use as a word was in the debate over “free will”; but its first use as a political term was by left-wing European anarchists in the nineteenth century. I can live with that, proudly.

I retain the term “libertarian” to describe my politics and approach to social theory only because I always, and without fail, place the adjective “dialectical” before it; it modifies it sufficiently to keep me out of the fundamentalist camp. And it’s mysterious enough to some folks with thick skulls who are still asking me: “Now, what does ‘dialectical’ mean again?”

I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life fighting for the right to conjoin the words “dialectical” and “libertarianism”, and perhaps I’ve got so much intellectual energy invested in it that I won’t give it up, on principle. I won’t surrender either the terms “dialectical” or “libertarian” to those who are not sufficiently one or the other. The terms require each other because together they are integral to the larger project of human flourishing and human freedom.

Though Ryan and I come at this from different places, he agrees

that we are definitely on the same page and think similarly. As for the label “libertarian”, like Chris, I can’t use it in isolation. I say “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” on my profile to speak to accepting Chris’s wonderful approach and the more leftist variants like you get with Kevin Carson, David Graeber, Kropotkin, Proudhon, etc. It can also be seen as some synthesis of left-wing and libertarian thinking more broadly, not just anarchistic ones.

Sheldon Richman once wrote an article on how you can’t escape regulation but rather it comes down to how it is coming about. So he opposed government/community regulation but supported the kind of regulation that comes about through the market process. Sheldon never really shed his right-libertarian thinking even in his most supposedly Left-Libertarian days. Nonetheless, I liked the point on regulation of some sort always existing. What we are usually talking about is in the legislative and community senses, which Sheldon and most typical libertarians oppose or are very uncomfortable with.
 
Personally, I’ve become more comfortable with regulation of that sort and see it as necessary. I don’t think we can have a peaceful and healthy society without at least some of it. That said, there will always be an ongoing battle with reigning in its excesses and making sure it is done when it needs to be.
 
The typical libertarian hears that description and wants to solve it by eliminating the ability to regulate in the first place. Ha! Then there’s nothing to capture! Ha! And as tempting as that picture is (I ate it up for a short period many years ago), I ultimately think it is wrong. Yes, I’d like to see different governance than the state. But it’s not going away any time soon and may never go away. So, we have to do our best with the context we are in. Furthermore, even if it did go away, there would still be some form of community or federation style regulation. It is just how we operate. Then the question becomes “how” and in what way?
 
Unlike the typical libertarian, I want to deal with the difficult situation, not by eliminating any ability to regulate in a legislative or community sense, but rather seek to produce a situation where we don’t need to regulate as much and have a healthier mechanism/arrangement than the state to achieve it.
 
One more comment on tHe FrEe MaRkEt before I go skiing. We can clearly have freer and freed markets that open up competition and make things cheaper. Those still can exist in an environment with at least some regulation. So, I prefer “freer” and “freed” as descriptors over “free” which sounds so absolutist and “perfect”. That said, markets are not magical things. Just like governments are not magical things. Both are mechanisms or tools that operate with humans and all of their problems. Neither mechanism is equal to morality. It produces what the sum of the humans involved happen to push towards. A market where people overwhelmingly support sexual relations with children will likely give those people exactly what they want. Same for a government. Which speaks to the necessity of culture in the equation as you both wisely noted. That said, I don’t think any of us wants sex with children permitted, so then we have to ask how that is to be achieved. This is where I strongly oppose fundamentalist free-market thought that says “let the market decide”. The market is not a moral agent. It’s not a thinking decider. It’s a process engaged in by human thinking agents with all of their faults/imperfections and incentives. Therefore, it cannot be counted on to simply bust out what is moral. So what do you do then other than fight for some sort of government or community regulation with consequences for violating it?
 
This is not an easy conversation for someone like myself, who came from the free-market libertarian tradition, and in the fundamentalist Ancap sense. But it’s important to have.

In my JARS review of the Yaron Brook-Don Watkins book, Free Market Revolution, I too argued in favor of “freed markets”—markets liberated from their statist and authoritarian political and cultural structures of oppression, and from the history of state violence that has been the foundation for “capitalism: the known reality,” so unlike the Weberian “unknown ideal” projected by Ayn Rand.

All in all, this was a good conversation, which I wanted to preserve on Notablog, for those who don’t have access to Facebook.

DWR (2): Hayek as Democratic Socialist?

Les Leopold has a Common Dreams essay entitled “Was Frederick [sic] Hayek a Bernie Sanders Socialist?” that checks off the many areas in which Friedrich A. Hayek favored social welfare “safety net” protections that are on a par with the policies advocated by many “progressives” today.

My friend Ryan Neugebauer shared the article on his Facebook Timeline (so a H/T to him!). And it prompted a productive exchange between us. This is the second in what I’ve called my DWR (“Dialogues With Ryan“) series.

Ryan observes correctly that Hayek was “a strong proponent of governmental countervailing power within a capitalist economy,” much “closer in line with [Bernie] Sanders than … with Ayn Rand or [Ludwig von] Mises.” For Ryan, “as long as Statist Capitalism exists (the only form that has ever existed), some form of Social Democratic project is in order.” He therefore favors “a synthesis of libertarian and social democratic thought, … promoting bottom-up dual-power/mutual aid projects [that depend] on the state less and [that build] ‘an alternative society in the shell of the old.'” He argues, correctly in my view, that “it makes no sense to take away the crutches before you strengthen and heal the broken leg.”

Ryan points out further that it was the reactionary conservative “Otto von Bismarck who erected the modern welfare-regulatory state in response to Socialist revolutionaries agitating for change in Germany during 19th century Industrial Capitalism. When people are distressed by poor working conditions, poor pay, and see no end in sight, they agitate for radical change.” Though he embraces long-term anarchist goals, he argues that as long as you have “a situation where a nation state is … affected by crony interests and a distorted banking sector, having a form of social democracy is the preferable option in my eyes. … In contrast to many Progressives and State Socialists, I prefer polycentric systems and multiple option arrangements/escape potential.” He provides a key example:

I would prefer a situation where Trans individuals wouldn’t be dependent simply on the public system, which could restrict their options due to political control, and instead be able to access alternative private options if they should choose or are able to get support to access. I would prefer people being able to access different forms of schooling and not be forced to attend a public school system. Given that the political mechanism is often captured by right-wing interests, it does not make sense to crowd out alternatives, require “public only” arrangements, and simply count on always having “the right people in”, as many Progressives and State Socialists do. I gave a few examples, but I typically prefer having more options than less and power distributed as much as possible.

One can achieve that while maintaining a robust social insurance system. It just will likely always be up for grabs such as long as it is attached to a political system that is easily captured by nefarious interests.

In the Facebook discussion that followed, I wrote:

This is a very nice discussion about the kinds of alternatives that people—who favor freedom and flourishing—must face given the conditions that exist. While Hayek most assuredly was not a strict libertarian on matters of government “intervention”—and I put this in scare quotes because the state has always been intimately involved with all things economic—I think there are two important takeaways from The Road to Serfdom that advocates of more benign social-democratic measures forget at their peril.

The first is this: Politics in general and the state in particular have always been central to the constitution of class structures in society. The more political power comes to dominate social life, the more it becomes the only power worth having (which is why I applaud your support of bottom-up, polycentric, decentralized models of social decision-making). In Hayek’s view, however, the growth of political economy engenders a process in which “the worst get on top” necessarily. And “the worst” are, for Hayek, almost always those drawn from those predatory business-class interests within capitalism that had the most to gain from the regulatory, welfare-warfare state.


Given this reality, even the most benign of social-democratic “safety net” measures that Hayek favored could not escape a class character. Historically, as you suggest, “safety net” measures have often been enacted to not only benefit certain elements of the “ruling class”, but to undercut working class revolts (a la Bismark). (As an aside: I’d go so far as to say that historically, confrontational labor strikes and unrest have been intimately tied up with the depressionary phase of the boom-bust cycle, which both Marxists and Austrians root in the state-banking nexus. Pardon the plug, but on this, see my own undergraduate history honors thesis.


The second takeaway is Hayek’s view that extensive government control produces a socio-psychological alteration in the character of individuals within the larger culture. This social-psychological corruption is both a reciprocally related cause and effect of advancing political economy, a process of mutual reinforcement that undermines accountability, personal responsibility, and the autonomy of the individual’s moral conscience.

As a long-term alternative, Hayek advocated social change for sure, but with a dialectical sensibility; he believed that it could only occur through a slow and gradual change in cultural mores, traditions, and habits, which are often tacit. Like you, he argued that trying to impose such change “top-down,” without the requisite cultural foundations, is doomed to fail. And yet despite this almost Burkean emphasis on slow and gradual change, Hayek adamantly declared he was not a conservative. He embraced the essence of a radical approach. “We are bound all the time to question fundamentals,” he said; “it must be our privilege to be radical.”

I think this was a worthwhile discussion … and wanted to preserve it on my Notablog.

DWR (1): Take What You Want and Move the F&*K On!

This is a Facebook post from my friend Ryan Neugebauer (part of what I’m calling my DWR or “Dialogues with Ryan” series). I’m reposting it here because I’ve been thinking the same thing for a long time, given my experiences on social media. From Ryan:

I’ve noticed that there are trends for hating on certain thinkers/figures in different political spheres. People in both groups will chastise them and make them out to be valueless.”In left-wing spaces it will be Ayn Rand or some free-market economist (Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, or Friedman). In right-wing spaces it will be Karl Marx, Saul Alinsky, Noam Chomsky, or some self-described Socialist politician.

I have NO USE for this kind of tribalism. I take insights from thinkers across the political spectrum. I’ve read people like Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Benjamin Tucker, Mikhail Bakunin, P.J. Proudhon, Kevin Carson, and numerous others. Some of those are Traditionalist Conservatives, Classical Liberals/Right-Libertarians, left-wing Anarchists, as well as State Socialists & Social Democrats.

I have disagreements with all of the thinkers I read. Some more than others for sure. But I won’t throw an entire person out just because of significant disagreements. I won’t pretend they don’t have insights just because I really hate something they say. I take the good, understand and reject the bad, and simply move on.

It’s important to learn to engage diverse thinkers and not close yourself out. It’s also important to be reasonably charitable and not write someone off entirely unnecessarily.

Though this approach will not help you with group membership in a political tribe, it will help you with being a better thinker and a better interlocutor. So please choose that over fitting in.

And let me just add: If you’re not capable of thinking outside the square of a stultifying ideology, you’re impoverishing your own critical thinking abilities. My own approach for every thinker I’ve ever read has always been the same: Take what gems you can find in each writer and/or school of thought you are exposed to; criticize that which you reject (but PLEASE, OH PLEASE understand what you’re accepting and what you’re rejecting!), and MOVE THE F&*K ON!*


* This is a play on the old Spanish proverb often quoted by Ayn Rand and her followers: “God said, take what you want and pay for it.”

Postscript: In the Facebook discussion that followed, I made these additional points:

1. Evil may be real, and we can call it for what it is. But there are many insights that one can glean from thinkers that many libertarians and Objectivists might consider “evil”. Many of those on the left brand Rand and Hayek as evil, as apologists for a system of exploitation, but if left-winger Slavoj Zizek can find value in Ayn Rand, and “postmodernist” Michel Foucault can find value in F. A. Hayek, surely those on the other side of the divide can find something of value in the works of Hegel, Marx, Engels, and others.I, myself, give enormous credit to Marx for bringing a dialectical sensibility to the analysis of social relations. As I point out in my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism), it was Hegel who viewed Aristotle as the “fountainhead” of dialectical inquiry (and he used that word), which compelled the theorist to look at every issue, problem, or event by tracing its relations to other issues, problems or events within a wider system across time. Both Marx and Engels did enormously important work in applying these insights to the analysis of social systems, crediting Aristotle (in the words of Engels) as “the Hegel of the ancient world,” among “the old Greek philosophers [who] were all born natural dialecticians … the most encyclopaedic intellect of them, [who] had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought.”

Even Lenin (!) worked on a lengthy treatise dealing with dialectics, in which he praised Aristotle for providing theorists with “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it.”

One can reject so much in Hegel, Marx, Engels, and others, and still marvel at the ways in which they applied this essentially Aristotelian mode of inquiry to the analysis of social relations, systems, and dynamics. The whole point of my own trilogy was to reconstruct that mode of inquiry as a tool that could be used fruitfully by libertarian social theorists. And for this project, I had to face the wrath of scores of folks who labeled me a nutjob.

Well, I may still be a nutjob—but I stand by my conviction that dialectical inquiry is something of great value, and that there is much to be gained by studying the works of those on the left who have used it. I may disagree with many of their conclusions, but I can still give credit where credit is due and, as I said in my post, “move the f&*k on.”

2. As someone who embraces dialectical method (the art of context-keeping), it is context above all that matters here. Which is why we can take the gems from other thinkers and reinvent them, reconstruct them, invert them, and place them in a larger context that speaks to the real conditions that exist, in our attempts to change them fundamentally.

Cheering for Ski!

I just wanted to extend my thanks to the many people who keep sending their good wishes for my sister’s recovery. One of her colleagues sent this YouTube video to me—when Ms. Ski (as she has always been affectionately called) was showing how much rhythm she’s got, with the Brooklyn Tech Cheering Squad (at the “40 Years of Cheers” reunion). She’ll be back dancing before too long …