Category Archives: Dialectics

The Theft of the Commons

An extraordinary article, “The Theft of the Commons,” by Eula Biss, was published two days ago, on 8 June 2022. Extraordinary—not because nobody has ever discussed this topic before, but because it actually appeared in The New Yorker (H/T to my dear friend Walter Grinder for bringing this article to my attention). The article emphasizes the ‘original sin’ at the foundations of what I have called “capitalism: the known reality,” in contrast to that ahistorical “unknown ideal” that Ayn Rand and so many others in contemporary libertarian thought have projected. As Biss writes:

As a visitor from the age of private property, it seems remarkable to me that commoners held rights to land they did not own or rent, but, at the time, it was commonplace. In addition to common pasture, commoners were granted rights of pannage, of turbary, of estovers, and of piscary—rights to run their pigs in the woods, to cut peat for fuel, to gather wood from the forests, and to fish. These were rights to subsistence, rights to live on what they could glean from the land. In the course of enclosure, as written law superseded customary law, commoners lost those rights. Parliament made property rights absolute, and the traditional practice of living off the land was redefined as theft. Gleaning became trespassing, and fishing became poaching. Commoners who continued to common were now criminals. 

Biss goes on to examine the 1968 Garrett Hardin thesis of the “tragedy of the commons,” though this thesis was first developed by William Forster Lloyd way back in 1833, in an examination of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land. That thesis was rocked to its core by the Nobel prize-winning political economist, Elinor Ostrom, a writer whose work is, regrettably, not touched upon in the New Yorker article. What Ostrom showed, in books such as Governing the Commons, was not that the Lloyd-Hardin thesis was fundamentally incorrect; it was that such a thesis was applicable less to an acontextual commons and more with regard to an unmanaged, unregulated common pool. Ostrom stressed the importance of context and empirical study and documented what might be called the miracle of the commons, in a way that challenged the monistic approaches of strict propertarians and centralizing statists alike. As the Wikipedia entry notes:

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g. land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better. A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse. When the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no longer be used.

I hope to have a lot more to say about this topic in time; but for now, check out the New Yorker article!

Song of the Day #1948 & 1949

Songs of the Day: This Track is a Planet Killer / Milky [YouTube links] are two songs composed by Soy. (to appear on their upcoming album “Johnathan”), with my dear friend Eric Fleischmann on vocals. The starkly different tracks, which follow one another, are united as part of a live performance that debuted on 2 January 2022 [YouTube link]. The first track is full of punk fury; the second is an ambient-alternative instrumental. The full 50+ minute official video can be viewed here. When Eric isn’t protesting on campus or writing about the work of Laurence Labadie or subjects as varied as historical materialism and the anarcho-punk movement, he’s busy wreaking havoc on stage with his bandmates: Mose Hatcher (bass), Max Folan (guitar, vocals), Noah Michalski (drums), Lex Puckett (guitar), Shaan Dahar aka HHP (guitar, backing vocals).

Soy.

Ed Younkins is Savvy

My dear friend Ed Younkins (with whom I coedited, with Roger Bissell, The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom) has published an essay in The Savvy Street that explores “New Perspectives on Ayn Rand’s Ideas“. Ed writes:

I believe the key is that the concern of every individual should be with truth as an integrated whole. When constructing one’s own worldview or conceptual framework, it is legitimate to take a selective approach with respect to existing philosophical positions because consistency with reality is all that really matters. It is thus appropriate for a person to extract what is true and good from the writings of Ayn Rand and others and to use those components as a basis for a better interpretation that allows for a superior understanding of what would constitute a morally right socioeconomic system. By integrating, modifying, and synthesizing ideas of others with one’s own ideas, it is possible to get closer to a comprehensive, logically consistent view of the world and a foundation and justification for a free society. Eschewing labels, each person has the ability to select the best ideas from a variety of sources, adapt them to his own purpose, and add his own views and integrate them to serve his own ends. The key is to use one’s own independent rational judgement. I have used this approach in some of my articles.

Our mutual friend and coeditor, Roger Bissell, provided some terrific additional commentary on Facebook here and here, which I reproduce below:

Some of us are old enough to remember that 7up used to be called “the uncola.” Chris himself has a long-running internet presence he styles in delightfully quasi-Hegelian fashion as “Notablog: The Blog of Chris Matthew Sciabarra.” For my part, I have received so many letters and emails addressing me as Dr. Bissell (I am master of one trade, doctor of none) that I sometimes refer to myself as “the undoctor.”Some may see this all as painfully negative and a sign of the “nihilism” of our times. But I can’t help noting that many of these are the same people who insist on defining logic as “the art of non-contradictory identification.” LOL. …

Five words: “The Divine Right of Stagnation.” This syndrome, so tellingly depicted in “Atlas Shrugged” and discussed in the essay of the same name in “The Virtue of Selfishness,” is a virus that has devastated the Objectivist movement since the very founding of the Ayn Rand Institute. You can rail against Open Objectivism and defriend people who push for research and development and expansion of Objectivism all you want, but all you do is betray that you, too, have fallen prey to the wasting, withering malady best encapsulated by James Taggart’s soliloquy about feeling threatened by new ideas and the lurid outburst “We’ve got to make those bastards stand still.”

To those who protest the idea of new, post-Rand Objectivism, I will remind readers that in her final years, Rand publicly acknowledged that Objectivism was incomplete and had gaps and that they would be worked on in the future and NOT by her. So, by whom? Only the anointed and officially approved? That, I think, is what it will ultimately amount to. Even now, we have already seen hints that Peikoff’s (and others’) writings will *eventually* be endorsed as “official Objectivism.” Will the defrienders and purists rail against this, too? Perhaps—but ultimately, who cares? And guess what? In the meantime, the “bastards”—whatever we decide to call ourselves—are NOT going to stand still.

Here, here, Roger!

The Essential Women of Liberty

For people looking for a fine introduction to the thought of a select group of women who have contributed to the cause of liberty, let me recommend The Essential Women of Liberty, coedited by Donald Boudreaux and Aeon J. Skoble, published by the Fraser Institute, with a foreword by Virginia Postrel. My dear friend Aeon informs me that the book is also available in hardcover and softcover editions.

The volume includes essays on Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Rose Director Friedman, Mary Paley Marshall, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand (a nice essay by Carrie-Ann Biondi), Anna Schwartz, Jane Jacobs, Elinor Ostrom, and Deirdre McCloskey.

I am truly delighted by the remarkably diverse selection of thinkers featured in this anthology. Indeed, any volume that runs the gamut from Wollstonecraft and Rand to Jacobs and Ostrom is worth the price of admission.

Deirdre McCloskey is the only woman featured in this collection whom I’ve ever had the privilege of getting to know personally, having worked closely with her as a contributor to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I coedited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins. (Indeed, a Facebook symposium dedicated to that anthology generated a colloquy on her delightful contribution, which appeared in the May 2020 issue of Poroi.)

The book is available as a PDF (for free) and in a Kindle edition (for a mere 99 cents!). Check out a nice YouTube video highlighting the collection …

Paul Crider on Ayn Rand

Notablog readers should check out a critical essay on Liberal Currents by Paul Crider that discusses “Liberalism versus Reaction in Ayn Rand“. Paul writes on Facebook:

Finally published my big essay on Ayn Rand. I’m very sympathetic to Rand and I encourage folks to see what people find so inspirational in her work. It’s all there.

BUT I do two—I think—novel things. First, I troubleth the idea that Rand fits within the liberal tradition, even classical liberal. Her perfectionism precludes the political contestation that is necessary for political liberalism. Atlas Shrugged itself is a kind of vanguardist integralism (though her real life activism differs from AS). Her hierarchical way of thinking masquerades as meritocracy but ultimately upholds traditional social hierarchies and reacts against upstarts—hence she’s much more a heterodox conservative than any kind of liberal. Second, I explore the possibility of a Randian left liberalism. I would say “left Objectivism” but the ARI would probably sue me. A Randian social liberalism seems like a contradiction in terms, but it draws on expressivist individualism of unfolding human potential and the concept of “truly human flourishing” (think Smith, Marx, Mill, and Nussbaum) that very much pervade her philosophy.

I read the essay and wrote on Facebook:

I very much enjoyed your essay, and I’m extremely sympathetic to a left-liberal reading of Rand, as anyone who is familiar with my attempts (in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical) to link Rand to a dialectical mode of analysis can attest. (A more recent article of mine extends this to an alignment of Rand with a certain form of left-libertarian anarchism.)

I think that, like most thinkers, Rand embraces views that are sometimes at odds with her core values. I’d certainly count among these her views on Native Americans, homosexuality, and feminism. My coedited volume with Mimi Gladstein (Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand) includes contributions from those who take Rand rightfully to task for many of her anti-feminist views, while also arguing that her philosophy was fully consonant with a certain kind of individualist feminism.

As for Rand’s views on homosexuality, I’ve argued (in Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation) that many post-Randian thinkers have attempted to correct for her blind spots. And I’ve also argued that Rand has important things to say about race and class in ways that would surprise both her acolytes and her critics (see, for example, my post on the ‘ominous parallels’ between CRT and Rand’s analysis of systemic racism).

Since I’ve plugged some of my own writings in this note, let me plug The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies—which would welcome thoughtful essays like yours into our pages.

Mutual Aid in an Urban Setting

With another H/T to my dear friend Walter Grinder, I wanted to highlight yet another article from Boston Review, this one by Nate File: “Detroiters Are Not Waiting to Be Saved“. The article highlights how Detroit activists have turned to forms of mutual aid to meet the needs of their community, hit heavily by systemic instabilities. From the article:

[Activist Dean] Spade notes that mutual aid has also sometimes been misclassified as a charity project, indifferent to the state. That misreading echoes the conservative view that people should take care of their own communities and eschew government. But mutual aid, Spade explains, is really an entry point into movement building … The leaders of EMA [Eastside Mutual Aid] are aware of criticisms of mutual aid, but they believe it is more important to listen to their community and meet the needs they describe. People sometimes have preconceived notions about “what’s best,” Price explains, “but when they get here [and talk to people], the community needs something completely different.” Marronage and mutual aid may not themselves the end goal, but they can help us get closer to it. “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down,” Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams. “We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”

The essay is worth a good read, especially for those of us who seek nonstate alternatives in a time of systemic crisis.

Learning from Gramsci

With a H/T to my dear friend Walter Grinder, I wanted to share this article by Alan Wald on “Gramsci’s Gift“, which appeared in the April 2, 2022 issue of Boston Review. Wald’s article is a review of Jean-Yves Frétigné’s book, To Live is To Resist: The Life of Antonio Gramsci, but it is much more than a review.

Wald surveys our changing understanding of the impact of Gramsci’s work. That impact, which is typically decried in right-wing circles for having contributed to the rise of “cultural Marxism”, is something from which libertarians, especially those of a more dialectical bent, can learn much. Gramsci’s emphasis on the role of culture and ideas and on the need to build parallel institutions from the bottom up, which might usurp those currently in place, offers many sobering lessons on the nature of social change.

Check out the review and the many books on Gramsci to which it refers.

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.

Easter Egg Surprise!

So we began the process of boiling our Easter Eggs this morning, and I decided to take one out for a rare omelette with my sister’s roasted peppers. Alas, I did not know how rare this would be! Lo and behold … a double yolk! There is a one-in-one thousand chance of this happening, apparently. Yin and Yang right there in a bowl! A Dialectical Sign for sure! Wow!

Coronavirus (37): An Indexical Reflection

This is the thirty-seventh and final installment to my Coronavirus series, which began two years ago on this date. This installment serves as an index to the entire series.

I use the word “indexical” not only to suggest the index herein, but as a reflection of the word’s actual meaning: a linguistic expression whose reference can shift from context to context. That is what this series has done over time; as the context has continued to evolve, not a single installment has ever been written in stone, and all of them should be subject to evaluation based on the contexts in which they were first composed. What could be more dialectical than that?

As a kind of personal “journal,” this series has been as much a therapeutic exercise in dealing with an unfathomable number of deaths in my beloved city of New York as it was an attempt to come to grips with the many issues raised by COVID-19 and the policies adopted in response to it. Ultimately, it asked more questions than it answered.

As dates go, this one has an additional degree of irony. Fifty years ago today, “The Godfather” premiered at the Loew’s State Theatre in New York City to much fanfare. The film, and its later re-edited incarnation (with its two sequels) as a chronological epic, remains one of my all-time favorites. Not for its famous tropes or its classic quotes, but for its illustration, in painstaking detail, of how the inversion of values destroys the human soul. The characters therein ostensibly try to preserve that which they value through nefarious means that lead to the loss of those values—and of life itself.

While that 1972 film drives home this point in the context of warfare among mob ‘families’, their legions of hitmen pale in comparison to the warfare perpetuated by states across the world, which have perfected the art of mass murder in a way that would make even the most ruthless of Mafia Dons blush.

In war, even in those wars fought against horrific forces of oppression, there are always consequences, both intended and unintended, that forever become a part of the political landscape. For example, the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II left in its wake the consolidation of a U.S. military-industrial complex and a national security state and ongoing policies of “perpetual war for perpetual peace”—whether it was called the Cold War, the War on Terror, or the War on Drugs. But states and their ruling classes, ever responsible for wars, have also exploited disasters—natural or man-made—to expand their powers, suppress civil liberties, and destroy the fabric of social and economic life.

That is why libertarians have been gallant opponents of state expansion, knowing full well that state actors rarely act in good faith and that governmental overreach especially during emergencies is not easily rolled back. Such emergencies have been exploited throughout history in ways that tap into people’s anxieties and fears while augmenting their obedience to a class of politically connected “experts.”

I am a libertarian—a dialectical one at that. Which means that while I retain my libertarian distrust of political and economic elites, I fully understand that we live under a certain set of institutional constraints and that the real conditions that exist give human beings highly limited and imperfect tools to deal with emergencies as they arise.

I am also a native New Yorker. I have experienced much heartache in this city, from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy. And I have witnessed, with my own eyes, the deaths of countless fellow New Yorkers at the height of the COVID pandemic. I was utterly aghast when many of my libertarian friends were branding the pandemic an “exaggeration” or worse, a “hoax”. There has always been room to debate the effectiveness of this or that policy in response to COVID. But the epidemic of denialism that swept across libertarian circles—while neighbors to the right of me and neighbors to the left of me were literally dropping dead—only compounded my sadness. Denialism is not a strategy. It is an admission of defeat—that one has no proposals to deal with an externality, whatever its scope or fatality rate.

***

I was recently asked a very interesting and relevant question by my friend, Alexander Wade Craig: “What context have we lost in the changes COVID brought to our social lives that you think we are 1) better off for having lost, and 2) worse off for having lost?”

I acknowledged that this was a very difficult question to answer. Even though I’ve written 36 previous installments covering the pandemic and its implications, it is going to take many years to truly understand COVID-19 and the response to it—and the costs that each brought to both life and liberty. Still, this event helped to illuminate notions that we are better off for having lost, as well as notions that we are worse off for having lost—and these notions are essentially two sides of the same coin:

1) The spread of COVID-19 made it clearer than ever that the world is a global community, interconnected in ways that cannot be altered by artificially created borders. Given the ebb and flow of peoples across artificial boundaries imposed by nation-states, we learned swiftly that a virus, like the people it infects, knows no borders. What first shows up in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, in China, spreads to the Korean peninsula, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, the United States, Russia, Africa, and throughout the world. This is not a call to close borders; it is simply an acknowledgment of the unavoidable interconnections between peoples across the Earth. So, we’re better off for having lost the idea that somehow people can be isolated from one another—a rather sobering lesson, considering that the response to an infectious disease has typically been lockdowns, quarantines, and other policies of separation.

2) So, the other side of that coin introduces us to a whole litany of ‘separateness’: distancing, mask-wearing, quarantining, and so forth. Hence, just as a global pandemic illustrates that people cannot be hermetically sealed from one another (a good thing), it simultaneously leads to efforts to do precisely that: hermetically seal ourselves off from others. The effect of isolation (whether it was chosen or coercively imposed) has been increased social alienation, a rise in mental health problems, substance abuse, and overdose deaths. People of all ages, from the very young to the very old, were deleteriously affected by this isolation. I suspect that these effects will lessen over time, as the COVID ‘crisis phase’ dissipates, but we are still worse off for having lost that social connectedness for such a long period of time, no matter how necessary it may have been for various people in various contexts.

Nathaniel Branden once wrote: “We stand within an endless network of relationships. Separation and connectedness are polarities, with each entailing the other.” It’s very sad that so many people have learned the truth of this principle in such a tragic way.

Here is a chronological index to all the installments in my Coronavirus series; unless there is some huge issue that needs to be addressed in some dramatically different way, I suspect that this installment, like the last one I wrote on 9/11 (for the twentieth anniversary of that day), will be the final installment in this series. And it’s fully in keeping with my friend Tom Knapp‘s “Prime Number Obsession”—that “all sets should consist of a prime number of items.” 37 is a Prime Number! (Tom also reminds me that it’s Pi Day too!)

Coronavirus (1): School Closures (March 14, 2020)

Coronavirus (2): Disease and Dictatorship (March 18, 2020)

Coronavirus (3): Love, Pets, and Booze to the Rescue! (March 22, 2020)

Coronavirus (4): In New York State … and Beyond (March 23, 2020)

Coronavirus (5): C’mon Ol’ Folks – Do Your Part for the Sake of the Country and Die! (March 25, 2020)

Coronavirus (6): Corona-Comedy – A Little Gallows Humor To Get Us Through (March 27, 2020)

Coronavirus (7): Corona-Chaos – A Pandemic from the Political to the Personal (March 28, 2020)

Coronavirus (8): A Message from Italy (March 29, 2020)

Coronavirus (9): A Message from New York City (March 29, 2020)

Coronavirus (10): “Standing Man” as Metaphor … or Blessed are the Healers! (March 30, 2020)

Coronavirus (11): “Opening Day” and Pitching In … (March 31, 2020)

Coronavirus (12): The Trials and Tribulations of Grocery Shopping … and Living in New York City (April 3, 2020)

Coronavirus (13): New York State of Mind (April 6, 2020)

Coronavirus (14): Numbers and Narratives (April 8, 2020)

Coronavirus (15): What’s in a Number? (April 13, 2020)

Coronavirus (16): Pearls Before Swine – Comic Gems In These Times (April 16, 2020)

Coronavirus (17): Ilana Mercer on Covidiots! (April 17, 2020)

Coronavirus (18): Gallows Comics (April 23, 2020)

Coronavirus (19): Reality Check (April 23, 2020)

Coronavirus (20): A Light-Hearted Moment in the Post Office (April 25, 2020)

Coronavirus (21): Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation (May 5, 2020)

Coronavirus (22): Spring Cleaning (Or Three Cheers for Sanitation Workers!) (May 8, 2020)

Coronavirus (23): Mutual Aid During a Pandemic (or Three Cheers for the Volunteers!) (May 11, 2020)

Coronavirus (24): Three Cheers for the Ol’ Folks (May 12, 2020)

Coronavirus (25): Joseph “Joe Pisa” Sanfratello, RIP (May 15, 2020)

Coronavirus (26): Gallows Humor In These Times (May 28, 2020)

Coronavirus (27): Majority Rules NY (June 25, 2020)

Coronavirus (28): Sweden is Not New York (July 16, 2020)

Coronavirus (29): Medical Procedures in the Age of COVID … And I’m Still Alive! (October 6, 2020)

Coronavirus (30): “Cuomogate” and Systemic Crisis (February 19, 2021)

Coronavirus (31): Dose #1 for a “Fake” Virus (March 18, 2021)

Coronavirus (32): Junior’s Cheesecake (or Bring On Dose #2!) (March 27, 2021)

Coronavirus (33): Dose #2 and Done—Or Not! (April 15, 2021)

Coronavirus (34): “Virtue Signaling” vs. Doing the Right Thing (August 21, 2021)

Coronavirus (35): The ABCs – Authority, Boosters, and Caregiving (November 10, 2021)

Coronavirus (36): Denialism = Death (January 5, 2022)

Coronavirus (37): An Indexical Reflection (March 14, 2022)

I will end this series with one final dose of gallows humor, something that has marked many of the installments I posted over the past two years. And let’s face it, we have needed some laughter to get us through [YouTube link].

In one of my favorite comic strips, “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis, “The Game of COVID Life” reminds us of how crazy our lives have been upended since the beginnings of this pandemic. Here’s hoping that the Finish Line is not one of closeted isolation, but a new commitment to social life, human freedom, and personal flourishing.