Category Archives: Education

A Review of a Review of a Companion—to a Big Book

Having mentioned the Center for a Stateless Society earlier today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the challenging essays that my friend Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at C4SS, has been posting for eons. As a coeditor of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, I was very proud to include Kevin’s essay, “Formal vs. Substantive Statism: A Matter of Context,” in that anthology. Kevin always brings to the intellectual table a unique perspective on a multitude of issues and that essay is no exception.

Today, he posted a review of David Harvey’s book, A Companion to Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’ (Verso, 2023), which I’ve not read—but which I’m looking forward to reading thanks to Kevin’s review! My brief discussion here serves as both a promo for Kevin’s work—and my own (but I do it in less than 30 paragraphs!). Still, I realize it may fall into the category of tl;dr—but I had fun writing it!

For those unfamiliar with the Grundrisse, Kevin provides a summary of its controversial position in the literature:

“The Grundrisse itself amounts, more or less, to a voluminous collection of notebooks or commonplace books, filled with Marx’s notes and commentary from his readings through the 1850s. Its relationship to Capital is a major point of contention between the various factions and sects of Marxism. To put it in quick and dirty terms that will probably offend just about everybody, the interpretations fall into two broad categories. The first is dominated by the vulgar Marxists, and particularly adherents of vulgar Marxism’s highest expression in Marxism-Leninism; members of this category see the three volumes of Capital as essentially a completed, stand-alone work in their own right, and dismiss the Grundrisse as yet another of Marx’s ‘juvenalia.’ The other group, among which autonomists like Antonio Negri and Harry Cleaver figure prominently, sees Capital as only one component of a larger, unfinished project envisioned in the Grundrisse.” 

Kevin places Harvey closer to the second camp—a camp with which I, myself, would identify, as a scholar of Marx’s work. Through my graduate and doctoral years, studying with my mentor, the great Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman, I came to appreciate the Grundrisse for providing more insights into what made Marx “tick” from a methodological standpoint than any other work in the Marxian canon. As I write in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia:

“Like [F. A.] Hayek, Marx focuses on the mutual interaction of the parts within an ‘organic whole,’ which must be understood systemically and historically. In the Grundrisse, Marx writes: ‘While in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development.’

“The Grundrisse was not meant for publication, though it was a serious attempt at self-clarification for Marx. And yet, it provides a profound insight into Marx’s method. For Marx, the methods of bourgeois science reify the fragmented reality of capitalism. Marx’s dialectic attempts to transcend social polarities by identifying them as historically specific to and organically expressive of, the capitalist mode of production. It attempts to transcend the fragmentation within the object of its scrutiny by viewing the system as a totality of dynamic and contradictory processes. The identification of structural contradiction is not problematic for dialectical method. It is fundamental to its framework.”

Kevin perceptively highlights not only this theme in Marx’s work but in Harvey’s treatment of Marx’s Grundrisse:

“One recurring theme on which Harvey does place special emphasis, however, is the dialectical character of Marx’s thought. Even the most concrete functional analyses of capitalism are within the context of Marx’s understanding of capitalism as a totality with a beginning and an end, and changing over time. Human society as a whole is in a process of change; relationships within it change along with the larger whole, and the nature of individual entities is defined by their functional relation to the whole. 

“This necessarily entails the recovery of history, in the face of bourgeois liberalism’s largely ahistorical approach (e.g. the origin of private property in peaceful individual appropriation from the common, the original accumulation of capital through abstention, and the predominance of the cash nexus as the result of an innate tendency to truck and barter). Marx rejects ‘robinsonades’ or ‘bourgeois nursery fables’ in which the institutions of capitalist society emerged spontaneously in prehistory from the voluntary interactions of individuals. All human productive activity, going back to our earliest history, has been within the context of an ongoing set of organic social relationships. And — contrary to liberalism’s view of human relationships being governed by ‘eternal natural laws independent of history’ — the specific character of that productive activity has been defined by its relationship to the social context. The social model which bourgeois liberalism framed as natural — one of atomistic individuals relating through contract — was constructed through the forcible suppression of earlier social relationships. And those natural laws, far from being eternal or independent of history, were the conditioned outcome of a historical process.

“The conflict between these two approaches was at the heart of the so-called Methodenstreit, a dispute over economic methodology in the German-speaking world in which Menger (a founding father of Austrian economics) posited fundamental economic laws which were good for all times and places. Menger was the winner in this dispute, to the extent that mainstream capitalist economics operates from the same assumption. But it does so largely by concealing power relations behind the appearance of neutral relations of exchange. And despite this ostensible victory, the institutional school continued to explore the actual power relations which marginalist orthodoxy attempted to hide.”

Kevin’s work, highly critical of those ahistorical and atomist characteristics that can be found in the liberal narrative, has gone a long way toward clarifying what I’ve called ‘capitalism: the known reality’, rather than ‘capitalism: the unknown ideal’. He has been relentless in exploring the historical, dynamic, and structural relations of power within the actual system that exists.

My appraisal of Carl Menger and the Austrian school (including Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and Murray Rothbard) appears to differ somewhat from Kevin’s (though see below!), insofar as I view that tradition as a complex product of diverse intellectual influences, which separate it from other neoclassical schools of thought. In Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, I devote Part II to a critical exegesis of Rothbard’s work, who, influenced by Mises’s organic understanding of the trade cycle, develops the rudiments of a theory of class conflict that is rooted in the historical interpenetration of capital and state (especially in the state-banking nexus and in the genesis of the entire regulatory apparatus). One can agree or disagree with Mises or Rothbard and still appreciate the dialectical unity of theory and history that is entailed in the approach.

Despite my praise for this radical, dialectical aspect in Rothbard’s analysis of power dynamics in state capitalism, I am highly critical of those aspects of his thought that are undialectical, dualist, reductionist, atomist, and ultimately utopian (insofar as they apply to ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’ on earth, which is what the word ‘utopian’ actually means).

Still, one of the chief themes in Part I of Total Freedom—the finale of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical)—was to rediscover those kernels of dialectical wisdom in the classical liberal tradition. And while Menger might be criticized on a variety of levels, I think the picture that emerges of him is far more interesting from a dialectical standpoint.

In Chapter 3 of TF, “After Hegel,” I argue that Menger’s view of social reality was profoundly organic and relational and could not be fully appreciated outside the continental traditions that influenced it. As Pete Boettke has emphasized, “The Viennese soil was fertilized by the philosophical writings of Wilhelm Dilthey, Franz Brentano, and Edmund Husserl.” The German-born Brentano’s Aristotelian pedigree drew from the writings of F. A. Trendelenburg, who taught Dilthey, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach, and Marx.

Let’s not forget that it was Aristotle who was the father of dialectical inquiry, and for many, Hegel’s thought has been viewed in significant ways as a revival of Aristotelianism. Menger embraced many of the same essentialist, teleological, and dialectical insights of Aristotle. As I argue, for Menger, as for Hegel, social life is

“an organic totality teeming with living institutions and processes, such as language, religion, law, the state, markets, competition, and money. Both see this totality as the result of ‘natural’ and spontaneous forces that generate ‘unintended consequences’ from intentional human actions. The parallels between Marx and Menger are even more pronounced. [Max] Alter goes so far as to characterize these thinkers as intellectual relatives, for ‘when we compare the conceptual apparatus of Marx with that of Menger we can easily see that Menger is much closer to Marx than any other bourgeois economist. The kinship between the two is, indeed, so strong that one could easily talk about Marx and Menger as distant cousins’. Menger’s methodological techniques parallel Marx’s, insofar as they deepen understanding through a hermeneutical spiral: returning to the object of one’s study from different vantage points and on different levels of generality. This assessment is not unique to Alter: [Barry] Smith has emphasized that ‘Marx and Menger share an Aristotelian antipathy to atomism,’ and O’Driscoll and Rizzo recognize that ‘Marx’s conception of social science was, of course, similar to Menger’s.’”

I spend a bit of time in the rest of that chapter detailing the ways in which Menger’s work can be appreciated through a dialectical lens.

I’d like to say that this is the smallest quibble you’ll find in this review of a review of a companion to a big book! But in truth, I’m not sure I’m quibbling at all. Because in his own discussion of the Methodenstreit, which I highly recommend, Kevin shows a deeper appreciation of Menger’s work. Indeed, he credits Menger for calling for a method of explication that applies “the basic, or simplest, economic laws in the context of the phenomena of a particular historical phase”—but argues that this is “precisely what marginalist economics by and large has not done since his time.” He sees in Menger somebody who, at his best, merged a realistic/empirical dimension with a theoretical dimension, providing a glimpse into their organic complementarity. In Kevin’s view, Menger’s approach “had the potential for being the intermediate body of thought that bridge[d] the gap between fundamental or pure theory (‘exact’ theory), and the concrete analysis of economic phenomena in different societies or historical epochs. … This, however, was not the approach taken [by] … [t]he heirs of marginalist economics.” Take a look at his larger discussion of the Methodenstreit, because he’s got a wonderful section in that work where he calls specifically and dialectically for “Restoring Context” so as to grasp the historical, institutional, class, and power dynamics that were all too often obscured by the neoclassical theorists.

In any event, do check out today’s review by Kevin and the volumes he continues to churn out with amazing energy. Prepare to have some of your most precious ideological beliefs challenged!

The Enragés: Dialectics with Ryan & Eric

I was delighted to listen to a new podcast of The Enragés at the Center for a Stateless Society (to which I was recently added as a fellow). The show is hosted by my dear friend Eric Fleischmann, who interviews yet another dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, on his enlightening article, “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective” (previously discussed on Notablog here).

I have known Eric since he was a junior in high school, and have had the pleasure not only to read and comment on his work but to highlight his music as well. As for Ryan, we’ve known each other for five years now, and our ongoing dialogue has been a Notablog feature. Ryan has recently begun building an impressive series of self-reflective articles on Medium, detailing his many journeys—intellectual, personal, and spiritual. The courage and vulnerability exhibited in these essays speak volumes.

Aside from my friendship with these two wonderful individuals, they have both been, in many respects, students of my work. The good news is that they have had an impact on my life and work as well; I’ve been challenged by—and learned from—each of them.

The first question out of the gate deals with how we were introduced to one another and on how my dialectical libertarian approach impacted their thinking. It then proceeds into a wide-ranging discussion that lasts nearly an hour-and-a-half. They confront a diversity of issues, including the nature of ‘freed’ markets, the commons, authority, class conflict, and the state. Nearly every political ‘ism’ under the sun is addressed, from free-market-propertarianism and state socialism to distributism, democratic socialism, and anarchism (in all its varieties).

Most pleasing is the way in which they put dialectics to work, focusing on the structural and dynamic problems generated by the system that exists. They both repudiate binary thinking and navigate the tensions we face in our analysis of apparent opposites. And in their exchange, they place high importance on the necessity to adjust to changing contexts in our prescriptive thinking.

Ryan’s fine article is enriched by a commitment to genuinely progressive ideals. But ideals—inspiring though they may be—act primarily as guideposts in carrying forth an agenda for social change. As Eric puts it, Ryan shows that an array of traditions promising social change on both the left and the right often skip the most important starting point for prescriptive thinking: that context matters, that we must begin by asking the questions: “Where are you? What do you have? How did it get there? And what can we do to improve people’s lives in that situation?”

This podcast provides us with a thoughtful exchange that is fully accessible in its substance, conversational in its tone, and not lacking in a sense of humor. Indeed, when Ryan jokingly refers to himself as “Mr. Addendum” or uses phrases like “It depends [on the context]”—he’s preaching to the choir!

Check it out C4SS, Stitcher, Before It’s News, Twitter, and YouTube (see below)!

Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981, Part III

Having unveiled the first of three YouTube presentations featuring the late Don Lavoie on February 13, 2023 (on “Immigration”), and the second on February 20, 2023 (“Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism”), I am proud to present the finale to this series today, “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives: A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman”, which was recorded at New York University on April 22, 1981. This nearly two-hour dialogue was sponsored jointly by the Center for Marxist Studies and the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society. Because it was such a long discussion recorded on cassette tapes, there are small gaps in the conversation due to the necessity to flip or change the cassettes when necessary.

As I explained in my opening essay to this series, this presentation is, by far, the one dearest to my heart. It challenged me profoundly and motivated me to continue my studies at NYU on the graduate and doctoral levels, with the great Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman as my mentor and doctoral dissertation advisor.

Wherever one stands on the issues discussed herein, it is worth noting that each of these thinkers understood the other’s perspective thoroughly. As I have pointed out in previous posts, Bertell not only knew of libertarianism, but had worked closely with libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio in the Peace and Freedom Party, and he was a Volker Fellow under F. A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Don studied Marxism; he read and grappled with the entirety of Marx’s work, and Engels’s work, and of the broader Marxist literature. This is not a man who would have had the audacity to get on a stage to attack Marx and “Marxism”, while simultaneously admitting that the only work by Marx he had ever read was “The Communist Manifesto” as an undergraduate in college.

Despite their opposing interpretive perspectives, Don and Bertell had a depth of comprehension for the intellectual traditions they engaged. Each makes significant points of methodological, substantive, and historical importance in an atmosphere of mutual admiration and respect. Their dialogue exemplifies a humane exchange of ideas, something that has become an anomaly in today’s toxic ideological environment.

I urge folks to listen carefully to this finale of the Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981; it’s a lesson not only in content but in the art of civility.

On Facebook, in various discussions, I had this to say:

Don’s thinking evolved considerably over time. Many in the Austrian school deeply appreciated his enormous contribution to the calculation debate (his dissertation on “Rivalry and Central Planning”), given his emphasis on such epistemic issues as the role of tacit knowledge in interpersonal transactions and the price system. In later years, they were less enamored of his turn toward hermeneutics and a kind of Hayekian anarchism.

But even in his ancap days, he always championed progressive values, and as I have said on many occassions, he would have been aghast at the right-libertarian reactionary shift. He was among the most humane thinkers and people I’ve ever known.

It should be noted too that at this time, he hadn’t yet completed his doctorate and was even referring to Bertell as “Professor Ollman”, in deference to his position in the academy. And Bertell, given his command and presence, could often dominate a conversation. (As an aside, that wasn’t as much of a problem in later years with me because … well… I have a Brooklyn motor mouth and sometimes he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.)

In any event, I’m really happy that I preserved these materials for posterity. And it was nice hearing 21-year old Chris with the same Brooklyn accent of 63-year old Chris (minus the four-letter words).

One other thing I wish to re-emphasize about this discussion between Don and Bertell. Something a bit more personal.

Bertell knew me as an undergraduate in the NYU Department of Politics, and in my work in the history honors program with the Marxist historian Dan Walkowitz, from whom he heard “wonderful” things about me. He also greatly admired all the campus activism I was involved with in the antiwar, anti-imperialist, and antidraft protesting I was doing with Students for a Libertarian Society. By the time this presentation occurred in April 1981, I had had so many conversations with him but had never taken a single undergraduate course with him. He kept driving home the point that it was less important where I pursued my doctorate and far more important to pursue it with a mentor I could not only work with, but learn from. A mentor who could challenge me. And he wanted to be that mentor.

Having already been accepted to the master’s program at NYU in the Department of Politics, this discussion between Don and Bertell, more than any other, convinced me that Bertell was the mentor I was looking for. When he made that comment that libertarians were “a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza,” it rocked me to my core. As he used to say, 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”. He emphasized over and over again: What’s on the menu for social change?—given the real conditions on the ground, the objective conditions and constraints with which we all live.

I chose Bertell as my mentor because I wanted to be challenged; I wanted to think more critically about my own social and political values. I could not embark on a career of writing unless I began with that kind of rigorous critical self-reflection.

And so I took formal courses with Bertell on Marxism, fascism, and, of course, dialectical methodology; I took independent studies with him; he was my doctoral dissertation advisor and followed me thru to the completion of my PhD. He even went on to loudly and publicly endorse all three books in my Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy.

And through it all, having adopted the “dialectical libertarian” mantle, I believe that Ollman’s question continues to resonate and is as relevant today as it was in 1981 when he asked it. I continue to ask libertarians of all stripes: What’s on the menu for social change, what kinds of social changes can we advocate and pursue, given the conditions that exist?

Sadly, so many of the responses I continue to get remain much too ideologically rigid, undialectical, and ahistorical for my tastes. We are all guided by basic values and frameworks, but if one’s values and one’s framework cannot accommodate the complex realities and structural rigidities of our particular time and place, then at the very least, a shift in our perspective on things is requisite to our acting in—and upon—the world we seek to change.

Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980-1981

Throughout my life, I have learned from so many brilliant teachers and colleagues. Some of them became among my most beloved friends. Among these was Don Lavoie.

Having been introduced to libertarian thought in my senior year of high school, I chose to go to New York University partially because of its well-known program in the Austrian school of economics. I had started out as a double major in politics and history (with honors). Don—whom I met early in my undergraduate years—would later encourage me to expand into a triple major, adding economics to my already full academic plate. If anything, this expansion only enabled me to study more extensively with Austrian-school theorists, including Israel Kirzner, Mario Rizzo, Gerald O’Driscoll, and Roger Garrison. Through various colloquia and seminars, I came to know so many others, including Murray Rothbard and Pete Boettke and a whole generation of up-and-coming students of the tradition.

Don and I had some interesting and ironic scholarly parallels between us. He had written a 1981 doctoral dissertation, “Rivalry and Central Planning: A Re-examination of the Debate over Economic Calculation under Socialism”, in which the Austrian-school Kirzner was his dissertation advisor, while Marxist James Becker sat on his dissertation committee. By the time I had finished my own doctoral dissertation in 1988 (“Toward a Radical Critique of Utopianism: Dialectics and Dualism in the Works of Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Karl Marx”), my dissertation advisor and mentor was the Marxist political theorist Bertell Ollman, while Austrian-school theorist Mario Rizzo sat on my dissertation committee.

These parallels of a sort continued into our professional lives as well. I truly enjoyed Don’s 1985 book, National Economic Planning: What is Left? as well as his later works on the interrelationships of culture and economics and on the important methodological implications of hermeneutics to the study of economics. Citations to—and discussions of—his important contributions can be found throughout my “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and especially Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. His enthusiastic endorsement of my work went way beyond simple promotional blurbs; indeed, he was the first professor to adapt any of my works for classroom use. Marx, Hayek, and Utopia was among the texts he used for his Autumn 1996 George Mason University course on “Comparative Socio-Economic Systems.”

You might say that we were part of a mutual admiration society. Over and above all this, Don and I became close friends. He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, and supportive friends that I ever had. His death at the age of 50 in November 2001 was a devastating loss to me—and so many others whose lives he touched.

So, there is a certain poignancy to my presentation of the “Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980–1981”. I am so happy to have retained three of his talks presented at New York University during my undergraduate years. These talks were taped on a small cassette recorder and trying to preserve them digitally—only recently—proved somewhat daunting. They are of varying lengths and sound quality. I’ve done everything I can to preserve their integrity in digital transfers. It should be noted, however, that because cassette tapes need to be flipped over, there are a few dropouts in the continuity of the featured discussions. And because older cassette tapes tend to lose their inner lubricant, the content will sometimes sound as if it is moving in slow motion. None of this discouraged me from moving ahead with this long-overdue project.

First, a little background on their history.

One of the perks of my attendance at NYU was that, as cofounder of the NYU Chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, I had developed relationships with a broad social network of intellectuals, many of whom I invited to speak at various events sponsored by our campus club. My involvement with NYU-SLS began in 1979, as the national organization joined with other antidraft groups to mobilize against Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of selective service registration. On April 19, 1979, I was part of a boisterous protest in Washington Square Park, in which David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven, fired up the crowd of around 350 people. As chairperson of the NYU chapter, I was among those chanting in unison, “Fuck the Draft”, as I handed out antidraft pamphlets to well-dressed men wearing sunglasses standing on the sidelines. Could the FBI have made it any more obvious that they were observing the “New Resistance” take shape?

The antidraft rallies were only the beginning. NYU-SLS began to sponsor many events over the years, inviting a diversity of speakers who provided radical libertarian perspectives on everything from abortion and the drug war to the history of government interventionism at home and abroad.

On three occasions, Don Lavoie was among our featured speakers.

Each of these presentations shows a different side of Don, who had not yet completed his doctorate. No matter how much his perspective evolved over the years, Don was, in some respects, one of the earliest left-libertarians, if by that we mean somebody who was always invested in the progressive goals of the left, even if he was critical of the means by which certain segments of the left attempted to achieve those goals. He deeply appreciated the tradition of radical social thinking and was committed to reinvigorating radicalism in ways that were neither traditional nor conventional.

I will be rolling out these presentations on a weekly basis over the next three weeks.

The first talk that premieres today, February 13, 2023, is a brief one (it runs a little over 20 minutes). It was part of a panel discussion at a Human Rights Forum held on March 11, 1981, sponsored by NYU-SLS. In it, Don presents a hardcore libertarian perspective on immigration and open borders. In the current political environment, where so many remain suspicious of the ‘illegals’ among us, Don’s words continue to challenge us to think outside the box.

In the following two weeks, I will feature two lengthier presentations on my YouTube channel.

On February 20, 2023, I will present a talk (with Q&A) that Don gave on September 23, 1980, as part of a series of lectures that NYU-SLS dubbed “Libertython”. “Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism” is over 90 minutes in length and echoes many of the themes that Don reiterated in his 1985 book, National Economic Planning: What is Left?

On February 27, 2023, I will present the final installment: “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives: A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman”, which was recorded at New York University on April 22, 1981. This nearly two-hour dialogue was sponsored jointly by the Center for Marxist Studies and NYU-SLS.

That finale is, by far, the one dearest to my heart. Listening to it today, I find myself deeply drawn to many of the important methodological and substantive points made by Bertell and many of the historically rich issues raised by Don. And yet, it was from this wonderfully humane exchange of ideas that there emerged a classic line by Bertell that I cited in Total Freedom—and it would have a huge impact on my approach to libertarian social theory. As I wrote:

Ollman was fond of saying that libertarians, progressive though some of their ideas might be, were anachronistic—or, worse, irrelevant—in their prescriptions for social change. In a 1981 debate with libertarian theorist Don Lavoie, he 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”. For Ollman, libertarians advocate a quasi-anarchistic system that is simply not within the realm of existing possibilities, for it abstracts from history and from current material and class conditions. “Society provides the necessary conditions for intentional human activity,” [Roy] Bhaskar argues similarly, and this “essentially Aristotelian” model stipulates that people can only fashion “a product out of the material and with the tools available to [them].”

For me, it was as if Ollman had thrown down the gauntlet in his “Chinese restaurant” analogy. He challenged my framework in a profound way. Over time, in studying with him, I re-oriented my thinking to be less concerned about utopian “unknown ideals”. After all, it was Thomas More who coined the word “utopia”, from the ancient Greeks, deriving it from ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’.  A genuine radicalism must begin from somewhere. It must be focused more dialectically on the wider context of the real conditions that exist upon which any ideal of any kind might be built. As I argued in Total Freedom, my own perspective recognized this challenge as “a double-edged sword,” with “a need to cut both ways in our attempts to bleed the socialist Left and the libertarian Right of their utopian elements—’the end of history’ or the ‘state of nature,’ respectively. A politics for the ‘end of time’ and a politics for the ‘beginning of time’ are equally utopian.”


One final observation. Each of these talks has a certain historical specificity—this was the early 1980s, after all, the time of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, with period-references that might be lost on some of today’s younger listeners. It should also be pointed out that Don’s own views evolved over time and his later perspective on the world is not fully reflected here. Indeed, even my own introductory comments in the second installment, “Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism”, provide little clue as to what eventuated in terms of my current approach to political and social theory. Still, there are universal themes at work here that speak to any era.

Ultimately, I am honored to have brought this series of presentations to a larger audience; these recordings have not been heard in over forty years. Listening to them today, I realize how much I learned from them. It is my hope that a new generation of listeners will learn as much.

This article can also be found on Medium.

Postscript (14 February 2023): In a Facebook discussion of this article, I expanded on the point that it is important to start from somewhere, from where you are, in any discussion of social change:

I would say that starting where you are is true of all GOOD thinking. Observing the facts on the ground and logically assessing the possibilities, while keeping context and looking at things from as many vantage points and levels of generality as possible (being ‘dialectical’) so as to understand any social problem and its place in a larger system of interconnected social problems, all of which have an interrelated past, present, and many possible futures (that’s a mouthful!)… is crucially important to the whole radical project of social change.

What is NOT helpful is acting as if one can wipe the slate clean and start from scratch (the kind of “canvas-cleaning” that all too many ‘revolutionaries’ have attempted to do, with brutal consequences, both intended and unintended) or acting as if one can deduce an entirely new and just society from “state of nature” principles that can’t possibly be traced back with any degree of historical, judicial, or ethical accuracy. Hence, my comment above that a “politics for the ‘end of time’ and a politics for the ‘beginning of time’ are equally utopian” — though I’d go further. The results would be horrifically dystopian in their consequences.

There is everything right about trying to get a grasp on the nature of things; it’s part of the philosophical enterprise. There is also everything right about trying to understand the nature of things in terms of how that nature is embedded in contexts of historical and systemic specificity. That is where I think Ollman’s ‘gauntlet’ made a big impact on my thinking about the world.

YouTube Index to Don Lavoie Lectures, 1980–1981

A Libertarian Perspective on Immigration (February 13, 2023)

Planned Chaos: The Failure of Socialism (February 20, 2023)

Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives A Discussion with Don Lavoie and Bertell Ollman (February 27, 2023)

DWR (7): On Free Will, Rand & Branden

Notablog readers should be familiar with my “Dialogues with Ryan” series, which began on November 7, 2021, and continued with Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. Today, I add my reflections on a new live streaming video that my friend Ryan Neugebauer posted earlier this afternoon. In it, he discussed a wide range of issues, including the debate over libertarian free will, soft determinism/compatibilism, and hard determinism, the Libet experiment, the self and to what extent it’s an “illusion”, religion and religious ritual, and John Vervaeke’s views on the meaning crisis (a subject to which I will return later this year, when I complete Vervaeke’s brilliant series on the subject). Ryan asked me to comment on the views of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden with regard to the free will issue. Below are my lengthy comments:


I was finally able to watch the full stream and, like the earlier one, I thought it was wonderful. Since I was invited to say a few words, I’ll try to do so in a concise manner! (STOP LAUGHING! I will TRY!)

  1. On the libertarian free will vs. hard determinism debate, I agree with you 100%. I’ll preface this by saying I am a political and social theorist by profession, neither a trained philosopher nor a cognitive scientist. But, as you know, I look at things from a dialectical perspective, and this almost always leads me to charting a middle course through ‘extremes’ of all kinds. Like you, I too don’t like labels such as ‘soft determinist’ or ‘compatibilist’, but I think these approaches seem far more context-sensitive than the polar alternatives. I think that no choice is made outside a context and that context includes a mixture of in-born qualities, cognitive and emotional development distinct to each individual’s experiences, the social and cultural context within which we live, and the ways in which these contexts either nourish and promote or constrain and inhibit our ability to make choices. Hence, we choose, but our choices are never made outside a context, which both frames and influences them. (How much and to what degree is an open question…)
  2. I mentioned the work of Nathaniel Branden during the stream, but I’ve also been asked to comment on Ayn Rand’s approach to the issue of free will. While hard-core “Objectivists” will tell you that Rand was an ardent advocate of what is today known as ‘libertarian free will’, contained in her comment that the choice “to think or not to think” is the essence of that approach, it is true, as you note, that it’s far more centered on what she and Branden called the ability to volitionally raise or augment our focal awareness. That’s a far more meta- approach to this question (what Rand and Branden saw as a ‘psycho-epistemological’ issue).

    But I think she and Branden end up far closer to the ‘soft determinist/compatibilist’ view than most people realize. Each recognizes that there are myriad experiential factors that go into any individual’s capacity to augment focus and Rand was particularly critical of the anti-conceptual means exhibited in both culture and education, which undermined children’s abilities to augment focus and to move toward critical thinking. Having those abilities stunted by what she called ‘the comprachicos’ (a term meaning ‘child-buyers’, borrowed from Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs”), Rand argued that the cognitive damage done to people from a young age was fully in keeping with a distorted social system that required the stunting of that ability, the inculcation of obedience, and the bolstering of hierarchical authoritarian social structures.

    Branden, of course, went further, insofar as he added a substantive psycho-therapeutic dimension to this issue. He used an array of clinical techniques based on an integrated biocentric view of the human organism (with no bifurcation of body and mind ever implied), designed to help individuals in their own lives and in the context of the larger culture and social system in which they live to ‘break free’ of many of the constraints imposed by this context. Neither he nor Rand suggested that it was possible for anyone to jump out of their own skin and view things from a ‘synoptic’ vantage point outside the larger context of which they were a part, since we are both creatures of it, and creators of it. But he was committed to helping individuals reclaim aspects of their disowned selves, so often a product of their embedded past patterns, influenced by personal, cultural, and structural factors.

    I know that we often joke about the Randroids; I have been a frequent target of their scorn and they have been a frequent target of my ridicule. And they have done, in my view, more damage to the legitimately radical and enlightened elements in Rand’s approach than any of her critics.

    That said, my take on Rand has always charted a ‘middle course’ between the extremes of those acolytes and sycophants who believed she had popped out of the head of Zeus as a modern goddess of wisdom and those critics who have ridiculed her as a cult figure of no philosophical, intellectual, or critical importance. I reject both approaches unequivocally. I state that here only because what I’ve said about Rand above might strike those on either side of this divide as … surprising.

Walter Grinder, RIP

October 12, 1938 – December 4, 2022

When I first saw posts circulating on Facebook that my friend, Walter Grinder, had died at the age of 84, my only thought was: “Oh, no.” We would sometimes share stories of our lifelong health woes, but Walter had sent out an update to his email list in late September indicating that he came “very close to dying a couple of weeks ago” only to “beat the Grim Reaper for the time being.” I had hoped he’d keep beating the odds moving forward despite his fragile state of health. Last weekend, however, he died, and so many people whose lives he touched have been expressing their condolences and genuine love for this gifted man.

For those who don’t know much about Walter, he was a graduate of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, who went on to study with Ludwig von Mises and Israel Kirzner at New York University. He taught economics at Rutgers University for a while, became the executive director of the Center for Libertarian Studies, and eventually the Vice President of the Institute for Humane Studies, which is where I was blessed to encounter him for the first time in the early 1980s.

Walter was a constant source of support, guidance, and advice for countless numbers of students in the areas of classical liberalism, Austrian economics, and the potential for a genuinely radical libertarian social analysis. Indeed, his seminal 1977 article, with his dear friend and colleague, John Hagel, “Toward a Theory of State Capitalism: Ultimate decision-making and Class Structure,” was one of the most important contributions to the development of a uniquely libertarian understanding of class dynamics.

A more powerful defender of human liberty we would be hard pressed to find. But he was also second to none in promoting the works of those whose lives he so deeply touched—mine included. To be honest, sometimes his effusive praise of my work would make me blush, but it never came without constructive, helpful criticism concerning this or that point, which needed further development. He was always a teacher.

But he was also always a friend. Our relationship deepened immeasurably over the years, and I would say that among the most poignant memories I have of him were our literally countless exchanges on music—from the blues and rock to jazz. Indeed, among our last notes to one another, back in August, Walter shared with me a wonderful 1956 album, “Pres and Teddy”, a sweet jazz union of tenor saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Teddy Wilson. Walter said: “Just sitting here taking in two of my favorite musicians, and I thought you might wish to join in. Are there any smoother musicians anywhere? Lester Young is the epitome of cool, and Teddy is always also cool and unobstrusive. Put them together and one gets some mighty fine listening, for sure. Enjoy!” So, I checked out that YouTube link—and within 5 minutes, responded: “Awww, Walter! Both are terrific! And I’m already listening along with you, my friend.” We listened together from afar, and I’m only sorry I was never able to make the trek out to see him and to listen to so much more together—but life has a way of complicating things.

I will miss this loving, caring, gentle man.


This post is not about me… but I needed to pause a moment to acknowledge something very personal. Since late October 2021, I have mourned the loss of Anne Conover Heller and Sharon Presley. I also heard about the passing of the all-too-young Jeff Friedman, with whom I had many differences, but with whom I also shared many happy times when we were both involved in Students for a Libertarian Society and in the earliest days of Critical Review, which published some of my first pieces critiquing ‘the crisis of libertarian dualism’. And of course, the death of my sister, Elizabeth “Ski” Sciabarra—not even two weeks ago—has been emotionally shattering in so many ways. I know that my heart has an almost infinite capacity to love; I’m not sure it has an infinite capacity to grieve. But I draw strength not only from the many memories I will always cherish of those who have departed—but from the dear friends and family who remain behind and who continue to give me so much love and support moving forward. And that is not a small consolation.

RIP, dear Walter. My very deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Postscript (10 December 2022): Check out Irfan Khawaja’s essay, “Three Passings, Three Losses“.

Postscript (14 January 2023): Check out John Hagel’s obituary at the Cato Institute.

Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra, RIP

September 2, 1952 – November 26, 2022

My sister Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra—Ski to the thousands of students whose lives she touched as an educator for half a century—died at 8 p.m. tonight after a two-year long bout with many serious health issues. Her passing came quite shockingly after a steep decline over the past week.

Ski was the recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the opening of Brooklyn Technical High School [YouTube link]. She was fortunate enough to view the YouTube video of this presentation this past week and was very deeply moved; I think that it provided a poignant coda to her lifelong, passionate commitment to the education and well-being of young people.

Back in 2010, before she’d go on to become Executive Director of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, she retired from the NYC Department of Education—after a professional life that took her from teacher and coach to assistant principal at Tech, principal at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, deputy superintendent and founding CEO of the Office of Student Enrollment at the DOE. At that time, I had the occasion to speak at her retirement dinner. I highlighted one of my sister’s favorite quotations, which she often used at various commencement exercises. It could just as easily and appropriately speak to her own impact and legacy. Noted historian Rina Swentzell (1939–2015) of Santa Clara Pueblo said:

“What we are told as children is that people, when they walk on the land, leave their breath wherever they go. So, wherever we walk, that particular spot on the earth never forgets us, and when we go back to these places, we know that the people who have lived there are in some way still there, and that we can actually partake of their breath and of their spirit.”

In every place she has been, with everyone she has worked, all those students she has taught, advised, assisted, coached, all the teachers, assistant principals, principals, parents, community partners and others with whom she has interacted, not to mention her dear friends and beloved family—all these have been blessed to partake of her very strong spirit.

Wherever she has walked, people will be hard pressed to forget her and her impact on their lives.

I once told her that she may not have had kids of her own, but she mothered literally thousands of kids, whose lives were forever changed by their encounters with her. Indeed, as a caring educator, in the eyes of those kids, my sister flew around the city of her birth, the city she was so proud to call home, with a huge “S” on her chest, which could have stood for “Sciabarra” or “Ski”—or even “Superwoman.”

For me, however, that “S” always stood for “Sister,” which means more than that one word can ever convey.

Indeed, as siblings, we lived together for as long as I’ve been alive. She was more than my sister. She was my friend, my confidante, my partner-in-crime, my advisor, my guide, not only for all things academic but for life itself. As someone who struggled with chronic, congenital medical issues, I could never have made it without her loving support and encouragement. She was my strongest advocate and fiercest defender.

Even over the last month, as she struggled with increasingly difficult medical complications, she was elated as I completed the copyediting and formatting of the last essays for the 2023 grand finale of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. She gave me a fist bump when I told her, “It’s done!” As a lover of music and dance—and boy did she have rhythm [YouTube link]—she was also privy to all the “Songs of the Day” that I had already lined up for the upcoming holiday season, my projected January 2023 fifteenth-anniversary tribute to the “Breaking Bad” franchise, and my annual Film Music February Festival. And so, those songs will be posted, no matter what, with added poignancy.

There wasn’t a holiday she didn’t embrace or celebrate in grand style. She was even able to glimpse the Christmas decorations I put up the day after Thanksgiving. I know that it brought her peace and joy even as she fought bravely against the agony and pain that were consuming her body.

Tonight, my heart is shattered. I am comforted only because she is finally out of pain and that she died with dignity in her own home—by the grace of the generosity of the multitude of people who contributed to her #GoFundSki campaign. For all that love and support, our family expresses a profound depth of appreciation.

My brother Carl, my sister-in-law Joanne and I ask for privacy at this time. We will announce a more public memorial at an appropriate time and place, which will be held sometime in 2023.

I will always love you, my Bitty.

A Happier Time, late 1980s

See Facebook condolences.

Postscript (29 November): There is a poignant tribute to my sister by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (NY) on Facebook.

In addition, I was interviewed by Annalise Knudson of the Staten Island Advance this morning, before attending my sister’s funeral, and I was very touched by this wonderful article detailing my sister’s legacy as an educator. See here. And also see this tribute from Tim Bethea.

Postscript (12/22/22): My deepest appreciation to the literally THOUSANDS of people who reached out and expressed their love and support during this difficult time. I am truly blessed. As is the memory—and legacy—of my dear sister. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Postscript (2/14/2023): I was informed this morning that a tribute to my sister was posted on UFT Honors.

Ski: A Lifetime Achievement Award

At the Centennial Gala on November 19, 2022, celebrating a century of excellence at Brooklyn Technical High School (1922-2022), my sister, Elizabeth “Ms. Ski” Sciabarra received the Lifetime Achievement Award. My deepest thanks to the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation and its President Denice Ware for sending me this wonderful clip celebrating the life and legacy of a beloved educator whose work has touched the lives of countless thousands of students and colleagues over a fifty-year career. Check it out on YouTube (and below)!


Thank you to everyone! And a special thanks also to Carol Cunningham dropping off these lovely flowers and memorabilia from the Centennial Gala!

Sharon Presley (1943-2022), RIP

My dear friend, Ellen Young, announced today that Sharon Presley, lifelong libertarian feminist writer and activist, died on Monday, October 31, 2022, at the age of 79. Her partner Art—who has had his own share of health challenges—was able to be there to say goodbye to her.

Sharon had been suffering from serious illnesses for quite a while. In the wake of eviction from her apartment and the loss of her cats, she was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes for over a year.

Sharon received her B.A. in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, her M.A. in psychology from San Francisco State, and her Ph.D. in social psychology from the City University of New York. She taught on the psychology of women and other gender-related courses at California State University, Iowa State University, the College of Wooster, and Weber State College. Her published research included historical papers on women resisters, a study of Mormon feminists, an edited collection of essays on nineteenth-century individualist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre and the 2010 volume, Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated, and Abused. Sharon was also a national coordinator for the Association of Libertarian Feminists and Executive Director of Resources for Independent Thinking.

Her frail state over these many months was quite a contrast to the rambunctious fireband whom I met way back in 1978, when I was an undergraduate student at New York University. She and John Muller had helped to launch Laissez-Faire Books, which offered a treasure-trove of classical liberal, libertarian, and anarchist literature in the heart of Greenwich Village. As a cofounder of the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, I spent a lot of time at that bookstore, especially in 1980, when it became a virtual warehouse of antidraft placards and pamphlets that we distributed in Washington Square Park, joining with other student groups to protest Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of Selective Service Registration.

From the very beginning of our friendship, Sharon and I had our differences, but it never interfered with her willingnesss to step up and speak out in an uncompromising, principled way on many controversial topics. She gladly accepted our invitation to speak at an NYU-SLS-sponsored event, delivering a fiery lecture in support of reproductive freedom. Given that Ayn Rand’s work played such a key role in initially sparking Sharon’s political radicalization, I was delighted, many years later, when she accepted an invitation to be among the diverse group of contributors to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999), which I coedited with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, for the Penn State University Press series, “Re-reading the Canon.” That volume, prominently featured among anthologies on thirty-five major figures in the Western philosophical tradition, brought Rand’s work into critical engagement with various feminist perspectives. Sharon’s essay, “Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Individualism: A Feminist Psychologist’s Perspective”, was one of its gems.

My very deepest condolences to all those who knew her. I will miss her.

Sharon Presley (1943-2022)

See comments on Facebook.

#GoFundSki !!!

Nearly two years ago, in November 2020, my sister, Elizabeth Sciabarra—“Ms. Ski” to her students—nearly died. She has gone through agonizing hell for two years now, through surgeries and crippling illness. By October 2021, near death again, she was placed on in-home palliative care, under the assumption that she would not last six months. She confounded medical authorities and now must be re-certified for palliative care every two months because she refused to die on Medicare’s schedule.

With my sister living on a pension, Social Security, and dwindling savings, ineligible for Medicaid, we began a #GoFundSki campaign on March 25, 2022. As a testament to the impact she made as an educator of fifty years, influencing the lives of thousands of people, we exceeded our $150,000 goal within ten days. That money was designed to keep my sister at home, with the assistance of 24/7 home health aide coverage. We projected expenditures of approximately $15,000 per month on aides and other non-insured supplies to turn our home into a hospice. Unfortunately, $15,000 could not even cover our home health aide assistance; with supplies and other necessities, we have been averaging $20,000 per month, as inflationary pressures rose across the board. Nevertheless, our #GoFundSki campaign raised enough money (clearing $165,000+) to sustain my sister thru January 2023.

It was to my sister’s profound embarrassment that we had to pitch a #GoFundSki campaign to begin with. But at this juncture, we are faced with some very tough decisions. My sister is stable and has a strong heart. With a very strong will to live, she has no intention of dying anytime soon. Once the current money runs out, we will have no choice but to place her in a Medicare-insured inpatient hospice—as long as that choice is open to us and that she is not de-certified from palliative care simply because she’s outlived Medicare guidelines.

It is our conviction that my sister has survived this long precisely because she’s been at home getting loving, superlative, top-notch care that she would never have gotten in any inpatient facility, be it a hospice or a nursing home.

We are therefore raising our #GoFundSki goal to $325,000, which means that we’re hoping to clear an additional $160,000 with this extended campaign to cover her care way beyond January 2023. To be blunt: If Ms. Ski outlives the additional finances raised for her, we will not extend our #GoFundSki campaign. And difficult choices will be made for her.

We have updated this campaign several months before the current money runs out and do not presume that we will be able to raise the same amount of money we asked for at the end of March 2022. But this goal has been set—and we will be eternally grateful for anything we can raise toward meeting it.

Fully aware of the increasing economic pressures that have impacted so many people throughout this country, we thank every single person who has already contributed to my sister’s welfare—and all those who might still be able to contribute.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra (on behalf of my sister)

Posted to Facebook.


Ms. Ski celebrated her 70th birthday on September 2, 2022