The Individual, the Nation-State, and Left-Libertarianism

Imagine a continuum with the leftwing economic attitude (socialism) on one end—let’s make it the left end—and the rightwing economic attitude (capitalism) on the opposite end. The record of human history tells us to read the chart from left to right; humanity has shifted from socialistic economic relations (democratic, egalitarian, non-exploitative, and peaceful), where the means of production are owned in common and the results of economic activity benefit the collective, to capitalistic economic relations, where work and its results are subject to private control for the sake of individual profit, a situation that allows some (a few) to live without working (or working very much, at least), abandoning the many to the vagaries of the market, to poverty and uncertainty. Here’s what the left-right continuum looks like:

One Dimensional Economic Scale

Now imagine a Y-axis, with the libertarian attitude on top and the authoritarian attitude on bottom (the descent into hell), intersecting our economic scale. The libertarian attitude is one in which the individual lives in a state of voluntary cooperation (yet necessary existence) with other individuals. This attitude, dependent of course on the needs of the organism, is directed through democratic arrangements designed to equitably benefit all individuals in the group, thus maximizing the potential of each person. The emphasis is on human rights, with autonomous individuals free to think and say what they want, as well as live beyond religious affiliation. The authoritarian attitude is one in which the individual is directed not only by organic need, but by external social compulsion in ways contrary to needs. Here, the person is forced to act in ways he otherwise would not choose and in ways that are not good for him. At the extreme bottom end of this continuum lies totalitarianism. This what that looks like:

Two Dimensional Political-Economic Scale

You have likely seen a chart like this before. Something like it is used to help individuals discover what they are politically and, hopefully, inform their political choices. However, there is a conceptual flaw in the model: it is not really possible to extract a form of libertarianism—that is a political practice that seeks to emancipate the individual from oppressive social structures—from the rightwing economic attitude. This is because all rightwing economic practices are based on the exploitation of human labors. It thus falsely disaggregates a totality. Libertarianism is only actually possible on the left end of the continuum where the social system provides every individual the opportunity to be maximally free through an equal distribution of resources.

With this intersecting line, we can identify four quadrants of freedom/unfreedom like so: 

The Four Theoretical Quadrants

In the upper-left quadrant, the left-libertarian, live individuals who exist as autonomous beings, initially linked to other individuals by species ties (that is, biological beings with a natural history, endowed with a common genetic heritage), and developing cooperative ties with those with whom they share a social space. In this quadrant, individuals necessarily depend on others and so live in a society, but do so on more or less equal footing. They are recognized as individuals before the law and in principle. They are not the property of any group. Those who fall behind are lifted up. Here, thriving is a recognized human right.

Let’s next look at the left-libertarian’s polar opposite, the right-authoritarian. Those living in the lower-right quadrant, despite belonging to same species, and therefore having the same needs, are compelled to work for other members of their species. Freedom for those who work is limited under these arrangements; they must do what the privileged members of their species tell them to. This system tends to proliferate hierarchies based on identity—gender, race, religion—as control mechanisms that produce and rationalize inequalities. The system is typically sexist, racist, and often theocratic. It is therefore most self-evidently anti-humanist.

As this quadrant shades into the right-libertarian, individuals may enjoy formal equality before the law, for example under classical liberal arrangements, but that same law allows for systematic inequality in material outcomes by permitting some individuals to privately control the means of production and thus the labor process and the act of work. Without an emphasis on positive liberty, i.e., equitable provision of social resources and surpluses, formal equality reproduces unjust inequalities. In other words, liberty is a negative freedom. Put simply: one is free to be poor. Even when sporting a rhetoric of individual liberty, societies of this type tend to emphasize group identity, emancipating collectives from state control but not individuals, and only where it suits their narrow interests. The paradigms are religion and business activities: these are liberated from the state, but individuals are not liberated from them, kept subservient by the principle of government noninterference (laissez-faire) .

Some would locate classical liberal arrangements in the right-libertarian quadrant, assuming these arrangements are libertarian. But the idea that there is anything libertarian about ideas that exist on the rightwing end of the economic attitude is problematic for precisely the reasons I have just identified. We can put the matter this way: however much one may be able to speak freely under capitalism, he is still subject to economic compulsion on account of the imperative to exploit his labor for private gain. Yet this is not quite accurate. It’s worse that this. In reality, a man cannot always say what he wants under capitalism because the speech he may wish to use may be proprietary—somebody owns it (think of the “crime” of online piracy). Indeed, free speech is only fully realizable in the upper-left quadrant because there a person’s words are neither subject to commodification or political correctness (our next problem). The difference between right-libertarianism and right-authoritarianism is not really the absence of stifling authority as much as it is the presence of different rhetorics. The rhetoric is more honest in the latter.

The bottom-left quadrant, the left-authoritarian, does not shade into its counterpart on the left in the same way, but is problematic in its own right. Leftwing identity politics and deep multiculturalism mirror rightwing identity politics but claim not to be sexist, racist, or theocratic on account of the direction of power. Just like the identitarian right, the identitarian left sees individuals as members of groups—racial, ethnic, gendered, religious, etc. Both quadrants order their worldview not only by group division, but by using the same logic of group division. The difference is the sides they take. Thus in somewhat like the way that capitalism undermines the right-libertarian’s claim to represent the values of individual liberty, deep multiculturalism undermines the left-authoritarian’s claim to represent the values of democratic socialism. At the same time, authoritarianism is not intrinsic to the left like it is on the right, so the left bonafides of the left-authoritarian type are suspect. In practice, the struggle for individual liberty means that the upper-left quadrant is surrounded by authoritarian tendencies. In other words, left-authoritarianism is reactionary confusion, 

The archeological and historical record provides the concrete evidence for the truth of these theoretical zones. In prehistory, before around 8000-6000 years ago, all humans actually lived in the left-libertarian quadrant. These societies were not segmented as they are today. There were no genders, races, or religions. Economic activity and its results were shared among members of social groups based on ability and need. Today, individuals are born into societies segmented by one or more social divisions—systems that sort individuals by class, gender, race, and religion. These divisions are limiting, even when perpetuated on the left. Class determines how creative energies are spent and used, which is the major factor in the production of inequality. Gender tells people who they are, where they can go, with whom they may associate, and in what way. Religion tell them what to think and say and how to treat people (such as how the ancient Hebrews were to treat the Amalekites or how they were to treat homosexuals). As humans internalize their objectivations, personal identity comes to lie at the intersection of these social lanes. People tend to stay in their lanes, thus reproducing difference and division. The authoritarian impulse is to assign these conditions to natural causes by appealing to “human nature,” as in the claim that human populations naturally sort themselves into hierarchies with various inequalities as the inevitable result. But there is nothing natural about these divisions. They are the result of history and of power. Thus, for many thousands of years, human beings have found themselves living in a rightwing world, where they are alienated not only from other persons, but also from themselves. Authoritarian situations are unjust. The moral imperative is to overthrow them and return to left-libertarian arrangements on a higher technological plane. 

In case what I have been arguing isn’t clear enough, none of this is meant to suggest that collective arrangements are intrinsically bad. If it were not for society, its systems of language and morality, of science and technology, of government and law, of art and music, then human freedom would have no method for its realization. We have no choice about this; natural history makes humans necessarily social animals who develop technology to solve problems. We are nothing without each other. This is no human nature, only animal nature; the problem is not whether we as an animal species live together, but what type of collective arrangements our species needs to be free and happy. In other words, we are interested to know what social conditions are necessary for the realization of our human rights and potential as animals.

Tragically, the authoritarianism of the rightwing degradation of human social life has colonized the left, confusing the movement that would emancipate humanity from the systems that limit our lives. At the deep level, multiculturalism allows members of different cultural orientations to govern their affairs as they would if they lived in an ethnic state based on their cultural rules. In other words, the existence of nation in the ethnic sense having integrity in a larger national context shaping the lives of individuals who do not share that ethnicity. And this is multiplied by a myriad of group division. This is tribalism, the very condition that the modern nation-state promises individuals they can transcend by creating the ground for their emancipation from group identity through the mechanism of equal rights. Globalism’s assault on the modern liberal republic amount to a transnational class war on the tendency in mass societies to move human beings towards solidarity. Deep multiculturalism places the traditional attitudes and practices of a particular culture—the ethnonationalist attitude—in an antagonistic position with respect to the rule of law of the nation-state, the civic nationalist order, thus allowing for individuals to be governed by one or more forms of social division from which, under properly-observed civic nationalist rules, they would otherwise enjoy freedom.

A person on the left, in theory, opposes ordering the affairs of people on the basis of, for example, racial ideas and practices, correctly identifying these as prejudicial and discriminatory. Race is an entirely arbitrary social construct; it is not a part of our natural history nor of most human history. Race is a construct developed by men who seek to control human populations in order to secure the conditions of their exploitation. Emancipation of the individual from the limiting structure of racist myth and ritual, of Barbara Field’s “racecraft,” is the essence of the left-libertarian attitude. Yet many on the left assert the integrity of racial identity and demand differential treatment of individuals based on that identity. Determining the fate of individual on the basis of a socially constructed group identity is a decidedly authoritarian impulse, and this impulse defines life in the left-authoritarian quadrant. This impulse is strangely coded as “social justice.” But it is a form of false consciousness.

In a secular democratic republic based on liberal freedoms and humanist values, the individual should be free from religious or tribal marking, such as the act of religious or medical authorities surgically altering his genitalia when he is an infant and cannot consent to this painful and irreversible procedure. A newborn is not in a position to decide whether to be a Muslim or a Jew or something else and therefore cannot give permission to his parents and his community to cut off part of his body because ancient texts said to be dictated by angels command it; the fact that a baby is born to parents who hold a particular religious identity does not automatically stamp that baby with that religious identity. Like race, religion is also not part of our species’ natural history. More than this, unlike race, religion is an ideology that one may or may not subscribe to. One doesn’t have to be a Muslim or a Jew like one has to be black or white under the system of racism. When it is the operating principle of a society, the libertarian attitude stops society from doing this to children. Branding a child is a product of the authoritarian attitude. A society that continues to allow this is, at least in this regard, a society that sanctions authoritarian control of humans. 

This is why we say that individuals are not emancipated from religion under negative liberty regimes. Such branding represents not the emancipation of the individual from religion, but the emancipation of religion from the state, freeing religion to write its name on the newborn members of our species. That the multiculturalist defends such practices as fathers and mothers forcing girls to wear restrictive religious costuming reveals the authoritarian impulse that shapes their judgment. Identity politics keeps alive the categories of difference and division. Alienation is coded as a beautiful rainbow but that only aids the continuation of alienation. Under left-authoritarianism, the struggle for equality gives way to the celebration of diversity, a world of differences created by centuries of oppression. It reifies the oppressive categories of unjust power.

It is the nation-state guided by values of civic nationalism that provides the context in which individuals may be liberated from oppressive group relations and set the stage for the socialist transformation of society. The nation-state protects societies so transformed from the regressive forces of oppressive cultures that have not yet been dismantled in this way. In this way, the world is progressively transformed. Globalism and multiculturalism are those forces that are holding up human progress by undermining the transformative power of civic nationalism. Because it allows groups to control individuals over against the rule of law, deep multiculturalism is a regressive force. Gender, race, and religion do not respect the rights of the individual, but disappear the individual into collectives that privilege some and disadvantages others. In these systems, you are not a person, but a Christian, a black man, and so forth. You bear a tribal stigmata, a master status. The extent to which people appear to willingly submit to irrational conditions of belief and practice and claim their stigmata as representing some essence of their being is the extent that they are falsely conscious ad self-limiting. Ultimate freedom lies in the emancipation of human beings from these exploitative and oppressive structures. 

The first step to achieving this freedom was the emancipation of these systems from the state itself. Not living in a Christian state makes it possible to not live in Christianity. Not having state-enforced blood quantum rules makes it possible to reject race altogether. Yet the end of de jure oppression has not brought about the end of de facto oppression. This is because of commitments on both the right and the left to identity politics. It is tragic that people are not taking advantage of the opportunity to finally rid the world of these oppressive divisions and the alienated conditions these divisions perpetuate. There is a future in left-authoritarian practices, but it is not the future of human freedom. 

Published by

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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