Daily Archives: June 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to my next point.

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

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

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

Gimme a break!

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

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

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

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

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

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