Why I Call Myself a Libertarian

Discourse on libertarianism turns on the definition of liberty, of which there are basically three. The oldest notion of liberty in the Western tradition is the liberal contradiction simultaneously holding to the labor theory of value, in which, on the one hand, those who mix their labor with the instruments and objects of production are seen as naturally entitled to the things they produce, while, on the other hand, the insistence on bourgeois property relations that allow individuals to have property in things they do not produce themselves and acquire without fully compensating the producers the full value of labor expended by virtue of a monopoly over the means of production. John Locke and Adam Smith, among others, held this view.

The early theorists of political economy suspected that capitalism was exploitative, since the capitalist made off with more value than he produced—often he did no productive labor at all—but their science couldn’t reveal the secret of accumulation. They weren’t too troubled by this, however, since, the utilitarian side of their thinking allowed them to argue that the benefits—wealth creation and emergent social order—outweighed the moral downside, namely inequality and poverty.

In Capital, Karl Marx solved the riddle of the metamorphosis of labor into capital scientifically: M-C-M’. Earlier, he had resolved the contradiction of liberalism by jettisoning bourgeois property relations in favor of workers keeping the full value of their production, that is socialism. Unlike the capitalist ideologue, Marx saw liberty—i.e. individual freedom and personal sovereignty—as predicated on substantive equality. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” he and Engels wrote in Manifesto of the Communist Party, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Marx and Engels here anticipate Abraham Maslow.

Anarchists agreed with this conclusion, but disagreed with the political strategy the communists advocated. As Alexander Berkman noted in the ABCs of Anarchism, the end goal, communism, was common to Marxists and anarchists, but the proper path to the promise land was not through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Anarchists identified themselves as communists and socialists but distinguished themselves from Marxists by calling themselves libertarians, creating compound words such as anarchist-communist (Berkman and Goldman were fond of this term), libertarian-socialist (Kropotkin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and later Chomsky and Bookchin), and libertarian-communist.

The libertarian tradition on the left has a long history. Anarchist Sebastien Faure’s Le Libertaire, published in 1895, is the first publication to use the term in a purposeful political sense, although the earliest usage politically appears to have been anarchist-communist’s Joseph Dejacque’s use of the word in 1858. The anarchist tradition of libertarianism continued throughout the 20th century. The Libertarian League was founded in the United States in 1920, publishing the journal The Libertarian. During the Spanish Revolution, a coalition group, the United Libertarian Organizations, was created to get the revolutionary anarchist message out. The anarchosyndicalists were influenced by Spanish anarchist Isaac Puente, who in 1932 wrote the pamphlet Libertarian Communism. Gregory P. Maximoff founded the Libertarian Book Club in the late 1940s, which by 1954 had grown into the second Libertarian League (the first having dissolved in 1930). George Fontenis’ The Manifesto of Libertarian Communism was published in the 1950s. In 1959, Cuban anarchists founded the Libertarian Association of Cuba. In 1962, George Woodcock published Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Also in the 1960s, the Solidarity Group published Solidarity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism.

In other words, long before there was a US Libertarian Party, which was founded in 1971 and didn’t call itself libertarian until 1972, there were libertarians—and they were anarchists, communists, and socialists!

Which brings us to the rightwing libertarian. Perhaps recognizing the contradiction between the labor theory of value and bourgeois property relations, the rightwing libertarian jettisons the former. In their view, all value is reduced to use value only, and even more to the subjective, to the desire of the individual will. There is no social order really, only individuals, families, and markets. To the extent that there is an economic reality, markets reflect the natural order of things—survival of the fittest—and individuals are either more or less fit to survive. This is why right-wing libertarianism is more aptly labeled social Darwinism.

There are different varieties. Anarchocapitalism (for example, Murray Rothbard), dreams of no government and corporations running everything. Corporations would provide the police and military. Indeed, everything would be private. If your labor wasn’t needed you would starve or be shot for trying to procure food for your family. It’s a truly horrifying vision. It’s a sort of stateless fascism, tyranny of the corporate bureaucracy. Others believe government’s role should only be protection of property and contract enforcement (see F. A. Hayek). The outcomes of this arrangement is not much different than anarchocapitalism, as the state is obligated to treat everybody exactly the same even though there are vast differences among individuals. Imagine a world in which the disabled are treated the same as the ablebodied without regard to the disabilities and see the nightmare scenario unfolding. This is the Ron Paul world where white restaurant owners deny black families service because the former’s property rights trump the latter’s humanity. Libertarianism without civil liberties? I think you see the absurdity. There are still others, for example Robert Nozick, who believe a free society allows individuals to sell themselves into slavery. Again, libertarianism without civil liberty.

All these views lead to the same place, a place where liberty is enjoyed by a few and denied to or curtailed for the many, with either no government standing between exploited and the exploiter or a minimalist state aiding the exploiter in perpetuating the conditions of exploitation.

What we have is a contest between those who first used the word libertarianism to advance their vision of liberty worldwide—the radical left—and those who broke away from the Old Right seeking to co-opt the term “libertarianism” to advance their vision of liberty—a form of tyranny by the minority.

Since my definition of liberty is consistent with the radical left, libertarianism means something radically different to me than it does to those on the political right. And, since my definition of libertarianism is the much older and the more recognized worldwide, it is the best way to express myself to my comrades around the world. Moreover, I am a dedicated civil libertarian, a card-caring member of the ACLU (I’m even a board member).

The right has co-opted the term for use as propaganda for an ideology that does not hold individual freedom as its overarching concern, but rather seeks unregulated tyranny of property over society. By letting the political right have the term, those of us who believe in freedom participate in legitimating a conception of liberty that is antithetical to freedom. If we cede the term to them, then we allow them to define liberty, and if their movement continues to gain followers, and if in the end they should win, that will be a disaster for freedom and democracy.

Make no mistake about it, the libertarian right openly despise democracy. Democracy is incompatible with their definition of liberty. But it’s compatible with mine. I use the term in its traditional non-contradicted understanding where the labor theory of value underpins the realization of liberal values.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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