Reflections on “A Letter to Libertarians from a Former Libertarian”
Two years ago I wrote a piece entitled “A Letter to Libertarians from a Former Libertarian,” and many of the responses I received made it clear that I did not sufficiently articulate to what kind of political philosophy I now (or then) ascribed. A lot of the confusion with that post would have been alleviated had I explicitly stated that my intent was not to “disprove” libertarianism**.** Rather, my aim was to offer unsolicited advice to libertarians on how to strengthen their positions with the hopes of being taken more seriously by non-libertarians. In that article, I wrote that my drift from libertarianism came when “I started reading things outside of the libertarian canon, primarily critical theory, which made me hesitant to uphold any particular economic or social structure.” I had hoped that this kind of wishy-washy reluctance to self-identify would be understood as resulting from my personal political confusion at the time, but that does not seem to have been the case.
One of the reasons I failed to comprehensively explain my political and economic beliefs in my original post is that, while criticisms of libertarianism had been forming in my mind, they had not yet crystallized. These days, I call myself a left-libertarian, an anarchist, or a post-left anarchist when I’m feeling sufficiently pretentious. In many ways I never left the libertarian tradition, but there did come a time when I no longer felt comfortable using the libertarian label, which in the U.S. connotes right-libertarianism. “Libertarian” did not seem to be an accurate term without explicit qualifiers like “left-libertarian” or “libertarian socialist.” This, I now think, had less to do with the fact that I was reading things associated with the traditional left and had more to do with the dogmatic streak I observed in right-libertarians with respect to private property.
One of the insights that drew me to the ideas of libertarianism was F. A. Hayek’s conception of spontaneous or emergent orders in light of what he called “the knowledge problem.” This bottom-up impulse, in combination with learning more about the history of private property (an institution that has always, to some degree, been protected by the state), led me to have serious doubts about the efficacy of private property in a stateless society, let alone its prevalence and dominance. And I began to question whether I could call myself a libertarian while harboring such doubts. But questioning the role private property would play in the absence of states is different from saying that private property is inherently immoral, exploitative, or even useless. With spontaneous order in mind, I am not willing to assign a political or economic program that exists and operates within a particular historical context to an unknowable future.
But where does that leave us? We live in a world where the Proudhonian distinction between private property (means of production) and personal property is becoming more and more muddled. We see more people working from home, employed in the peer-to-peer economy, and otherwise in non-traditional modes of employment. Marxists and other traditional leftists should be seriously engaging with what it means to seize the means of production from capitalists in situations where someone uses their personal property (computers, vehicles, cell phones) for profit. Libertarians, on the other hand, should consider how the combination of new technologies with these alternative forms of employment can offer opportunities for experimentation in the structures of ownership within and outside of the traditional firm.
It is important to note that the ends of libertarian and communist thought are very similar in their voluntary, pluralistic abundance even though their means can require minimizing or totalizing the state, respectively. It is my belief that leftists and libertarians have much to offer one another in terms of economic and social theory and organizational practice, but we need to create space for meaningful engagement in order to determine those comparative advantages. I do not want to ignore or gloss over the fundamental differences between libertarian and communist thought, but now is not the time for our individual preferences to solidify into dogmas that effectively cut us off from potential allies in our struggles against states as they exist. It is important to have these discussions internally and to try to strengthen our theoretical positions, but there is also, as of yet, unexplored value in building temporary coalitions with other political radicals in order to move closer to a world in which those individual preferences actually matter.