Reclaiming Libertarianism from Libertarians

Ho Say Peng

Joseph Déjacque: Originator of the term "libertarian"

Mention libertarianism, and most would think of such figures as Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand (though she was in fact an Objectivist and would loathe being called a libertarian, but her political philosophy is essentially libertarian), Ron Paul, and Murray Rothbard.

What the above class of people has in common is that they existed in the American milieu. They are part of the American libertarian tradition. It should be noted however that libertarianism as a term did not originate in America. As with most things American, the term was imported from foreign sources, from the European countries.

But the mainstream usage of the term libertarianism has since been co-opted by the Americans. Mention libertarianism in Great Britain and Europe however, and some of the locals would think of radically different terms from their American counterpart—some of which would seem to the American libertarian to be contradictions in terms—terms such as libertarian socialism (socialism! gasp!), libertarian communism (communism! gasp!), and anarchism (another term that is being expropriated by a group of American right-wingers in Alabama—the so-called anarcho-capitalists at the Ludwig von Mises Institute).

Few mainstream libertarians I have met are aware of their own intellectual history. I think they would be very surprised if they flipped through some history books. There have been attempts though by these libertarians to give a historical account of their own political philosophy, such as this Cato Institute (a prominent mainstream libertarian think-tank) article titled “The Roots of Modern Libertarian Ideas”. But what it is in fact is a dishonest whitewashing of actual libertarian history, completely leaving out certain crucial historical periods and key libertarian philosophers (with whom the Cato libertarians disagree very vehemently of course). The article amounts to nothing but a propagandistic attempt at rewriting history through their narrow conception of the libertarian narrative.

The first person to use the term libertarian was in fact the French writer Joseph Déjacque, a—wait for it…—communist anarchist (!), in 1857, in a critical letter to the socialist and mutualist philosopher P.J. Proudhon, describing the latter as a “moderate anarchist, liberal, but not libertarian”. What Déjacque has done, according to Shawn Wilbur (an anarchist/mutualist scholar), is to have invoked a “fine tradition, of calling your opponents ‘just liberals,’ rather than ‘real libertarians.’” Since then, libertarianism has been used by the radical libertarian left to quasi-synonymously mean communism, socialism, and anarchism.

Mainstream libertarians have always prided themselves on “transcending” the left-right spectrum. In one sense it is true, if we take the left-right spectrum to mean the mainstream conservative-liberal dichotomy. But if we look at the left and the right historically, their long-held positions on certain issues of authority, hierarchy, property, culture, social and economic organization, and so forth, their differences become distinct.

Mainstream libertarians are in fact right-wingers—right-libertarians. What I mean is that these people either favor certain values that are distinctly to the right and do not oppose certain things that left-libertarians think should be opposed.

An important example is the issue of property. Right-libertarians favor private property—i.e. private ownership of the means of production, to be distinguished from personal property—which left-libertarians view as being one chief source of harmful authority.

Social hierarchy and domination emerge when one group of people own the means of production—the means of sustaining life—and the rest, in order to survive, have no choice but to subordinate themselves to labor for the former group. A class of capitalists and wage laborers result. The upper class, the middle class, and the working class are phenomena caused by the current private propertarian system, so is the problem of vast income inequality that vexes many today—which as left-libertarians see, cannot be in any way reduced or resolved unless the current private propertarian system is dismantled so that a more libertarian and egalitarian (<–no contradiction there) system can be erected to replace it.

Another source of harmful authority is the Corporation. Christopher Hitchens, a renowned journalist and man of the left, said in his only Reason Magazine (a mainstream libertarian publication) interview that he found “libertarians more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation.” He was of course referring to the right-libertarians. Left-libertarians on the other hand have always been opposed to the corporate form. Noam Chomsky called corporations “unaccountable private tyrannies”, many of which have traversed the globe destroying people’s lives, properties, and economies especially in the Third World and in countries like Burma and Argentina, cooperating with fascistic nation-states in pursuit of natural resources, building and supplying weapons to warmongering nation-states in pursuit of profit, causing irreversible environmental damage, and so forth. It perplexes me that not more right-libertarians are arguing for the abolition of the corporation since it is in the first place created and sustained by the State.

In opposing private property and the corporation, what are left-libertarians arguing for? Workers’ self-determination as in freedom from being ordered around by a boss and egalitarianism as in equality of opportunity and social equality (non-hierarchical social relations), among other things. And here I want to bring in the related concept of democracy that most people endorse. If democracy means a form of governance in which everyone have equal say in the making of decisions (and not as right-libertarians love to define as “tyranny of the majority”), then I don’t see why it has to be limited to politics. Extend it to the workplace, where it is now the most undemocratic and dictatorial of places, and beyond.

Choosing to only focus their attention on the public tyranny of the State, right-libertarians miss out and in some cases even endorse many forms of private tyranny. One can say therefore that left-libertarians have a thicker and more robust conception of liberty. They not only want freedom in the personal sphere and in civil society, they desire freedom in the workplace and in all areas of life. Right-libertarians only want freedom from the authority of the State. Left-libertarians, whom I have shown to be more consistently anti-authoritarian and libertarian, want freedom from all harmful authority and the freedom to pursue their values and lives unconstrained. Or as Emma Goldman, an individualist communist anarchist (<–no contradiction there also), put it:

Anarchism [or libertarianism], then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.