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Eric Fleischmann – Materialism and Thick Libertarianism

The Anarchist Library

Author: Eric Fleischmann
Title: Materialism and Thick Libertarianism
Date: August 2nd, 2022
Source: Retrieved 8/2/22 from https://c4ss.org/content/57122

Two years ago, I gave a presentation titled “Prerequisites for Freedom: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective” to a philosophy discussion group, in which I talked about the connection between thick libertarianism and 19th century North American individualist anarchism and how progressive and liberatory values are necessary for genuine and necessarily anti-capitalist individualism. For the uninitiated, the ‘thickness’ in thick libertarianism is, according to Nathan Goodman, “any broadening of libertarian concerns beyond overt aggression and state power to concern about what cultural and social conditions are most conducive to liberty.” This broadening takes a number of different forms as outlined extensively by Charles Johnson: for instance, there is “strategic thickness,” which holds that libertarians need to be concerned about problems like economic inequality because “[e]ven a totally free society in which a small class of tycoons own the overwhelming majority of the wealth, and the vast majority of the population own almost nothing is unlikely to remain free for long;” or there is “thickness from grounds,” which maintains that opposition to ostensibly non-violent hierarchy and domination emerge from the same underlying reasons as the libertarian non-aggression principle does. The cases go on, but in its general usage thick libertarianism is often understood as any libertarianism that sees ideas such as feminism, anti-racism, queer liberation, egalitarianism, and environmentalism as essential to any libertarian program internally and therefore desirable for external proliferation in a libertarian society. I have written extensively about thick libertarianism: in my review of Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation, I claim that “[w]e are all thick libertarians now” and that it’s just a difference of whether that thickness is liberatory or reactionary; in my analysis of anarcho-capitalism’s relationship to anarchism, I argue that thickness is one of the defining qualities that places stateless left-libertarianism within and anarcho-capitalism outside of the anarchist canon; etc. However, I have yet to explicitly connect my endorsement of thick libertarianism with material analysis (in its dialectical form)—my favored lens when attempting to make sense of the world. I will therefore take an opportunity to do so with this piece.

A final point I made in the aforementioned philosophy presentation was that such liberatory thickness or, as I put it, ideologico-cultural values extend to the economic realm and entail anti-hierarchy, cooperation, and worker power in the form of cooperatives, an ethico-cultural labor theory of value, “[c]ommunity land trusts, community currencies, open source technology, mutual banks, etc.” There is nothing wrong with this model from a purely individualist anarchist perspective, however I think that—from my personal perspective—this logic is a bit backwards. That is to say: it is actually the economic base that produces ideologico-cultural values and culture in general. This is in accordance with Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s model of historical materialism, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the Marxist theory of history and society that holds that ideas and social institutions develop only as the superstructure of a material economic base.” According to this view, society forms around the means of production—land, labor, tools, machinery—and the relations of production—property distribution, class divisions, the commodity form—to constitute, as Marx writes in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, on“the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” and, based on this core analysis, he posits in The German Ideology that “[t]he nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” It is important to note however that the influence is not entirely unidirectional. The Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci writes of “a necessary reciprocity between structure [aka base] and superstructure, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process” that must not be ignored when attempting a complete socio-historical analysis. This overall model is often used to organize historical change through various types of societies—slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, communist—but can be used on a smaller scale to demonstrate how to not only achieve immediate thick libertarian ends but also how to generate the desired thick values in general society.

Let’s take a look at the case of producing values like anti-racism and racial egalitarianism. It must first be admitted that racism is extremely complicated, but one way to look at it is as a mechanism of capitalism. This can be seen on a number of levels; racism (particularly anti-Black racism), as explained by Marco La Grotta, has been used to “divide and rule for capitalist gain.” Historically this can be seen in “the transatlantic slave trade, which accompanied the birth of both U.S. and British capitalism. In the early days of slavery, a firm distinction hadn’t yet been drawn between black slaves and white indentured servants.” So in order to quell the possibility of multi-racial rebellions, “the U.S. ruling class developed racist theories to ‘prove’ the inferiority of blacks, doing so to drive a wedge between their subjects, undercut rebellion and to justify their enslavement.” This has continued into the present day through “codifying [racism] in law, funding racist ‘science’ and broadening its scope . . . [in order for] the capitalists to drive down wages, while creating a seemingly infinite set of divisions in the working class.” Additionally, Robert Knox points out that…