Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective
🏴 Anarchist Federation
Center For Stateless Society
2022 04 25
April 25, 2022 –
This article was originally composed as a series of posts on Facebook; I prefaced my series with the warning: “I have no use for being in anyone’s fan club, whether the U.S. libertarian/classical liberal communities, the Democratic Party, or Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).” My critique extends as well to anarchism, offering a more fruitful, flexible, and evolutionary approach, drawing insights from F. A. Hayek, Elinor Ostrom, Democratic Socialism/Social Democracy, Distributism, Georgism, and other related approaches. Ultimately, my approach opposes all rigid monisms in favor of a productive pluralism.
The Status Quo
Liberal Corporate Capitalism
Any critique should begin with the real conditions that exist. Hence, this essay begins with a discussion of the “known reality” rather than the “unknown ideal” of capitalism, or what can be called “Liberal Corporate Capitalism,” insofar as it entails a liberal political structure enmeshed with a corporate capitalist economy.
Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the United States uphold this system. They just have different emphases with the direction they want it to go. On average, the Republicans want less welfare/state spending, lower taxation, and fewer regulations on business and the Democrats want more welfare/state spending, higher taxation, and more regulations. Both support big military budgets. And the system remains more-or-less the same no matter which party is in power.
Here, my focus is on the Democratic Party version because it is a stronger, more stable, and more “reasonable” version of liberal corporate capitalism than that offered by typical Republicans.
Liberal Corporate Capitalism in its welfare-statist form seeks a stable society for profit generation. It doesn’t care what kind of families you have, who you have sex with, or what gender you identify with. All it cares about is profit generation. So, in the 1990s, a corporation could throw gays by the wayside when it was much more acceptable to be anti-gay and then do a 180-degree spin in today’s climate, with very pro-gay policies because the national opinion has changed. Profit determines values and actions.
The actors in this system do not want revolutions. They do not want market competition. The system itself aims to guarantee profits. This is where the state-corporate nexus forms. Businesses work with the state and capture the state’s regulatory agencies (“regulatory capture”) by getting industry experts in seats of decision-making in order to reduce competition and to ensure that they are protected from excessive or very unfavorable regulation. The most nefarious side of this nexus is the military-industrial complex that profits off never-ending war and conflict. Over the years, several military leaders and elected officials—even President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Farewell Address—have warned about the dangers of this military-industrial complex.
There is a strong tendency in this system to crush smaller scale social relations and instead to centralize, bureaucratize/impersonalize, and regiment society through fewer and fewer large corporations making decisions and profits. Workers are seen as something to keep in line (often through surveillance) and to limit the need for. Wages, benefits, and hours get strategically slashed or expanded depending on the overall context at any given time. They’ll work you to the bone if they can get away with it or they will slash hours if too many hours would legally require them to give you benefits.
Imperialism and corporate international conquest are necessary for this system to ensure greater exploitation of resources and continuous generation of profit. This is especially true with regard to offshoring and exploiting cheap labor in places like China. It is a brutal highly centralized nation-state that exploits workers and very much works hand-in-hand with U.S. corporations in order to generate profits.
While the system exploits people domestically and internationally, it will pay lip service to the need for some regulations and some welfare, but not anything that will transform the system in any meaningful and positive sense. The wealthy and powerful will only get behind changes that maintain their dominance and preserve social stability or stave off revolutionary activities/changes.
Liberal Corporate Capitalism is unable to address serious concerns like climate change because doing so would require significant changes, which would hurt the profits of the oil and gas industries and even the military-industrial complex. By preserving the power of the wealthy to accumulate resources and make decisions, it leads to constant instability. Millions of people are unable to afford the basic necessities in life—food, housing, health care, education, and so forth. This is not the best we can do but it is the system we have been stuck with.
If this is “the end of history”, it’s a depressing one.
Challenging the Status Quo
Free-market propertarianism is a framework that reduces everything in society down to owning private property (usually within a No-Proviso Lockean view) and engaging in market relations without any regulations (community or government imposed). Some defend this view on consequentialist grounds—that it leads to the best results or the best defense of human liberty. Others defend this view from a natural law perspective—essentially that it must be defended, regardless of results due to the requirements of human nature and human rights.
This perspective could be upheld in both a right-wing or left-wing direction. It’s important to point out that both defend the same essential foundation. They only disagree over how its dynamics will play out. The right-wing advocate will say: “I believe firms might get even more hierarchical absent regulation and that the environment will be much more easily cultivated for production and economic growth,” while the left-wing advocate will say: “I predict that truly free markets will lead to an economy dominated by worker co-ops and less environmental degradation.” Each is dedicated to the process more than the outcomes.
For a while, I, myself, defended this view. It seemed very consistent and straightforward. It also felt appealing because it didn’t seem to require any authority and was able to avert the problem of some groups imposing harmful things on other groups. Eventually though, I came to see this framework for change as problematic—and rejected it.
Any property system requires some form of enforcement. That is how it maintains itself and doesn’t end up becoming something other than itself. Even a Mutualist-Anarchist system is going to require some form of enforcement. We can quibble over what counts as “authority”, but we can’t get around the idea that once we start bouncing around each other in a social context, we need to make decisions over conflict and property ownership—and some entity is going to do the enforcing. If we are to have an actual society with thousands of people clustered around each other, where people are not living miles apart on their own individual homesteads, there is no getting around this reality. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first self-described anarchist, understood this and believed that there had to be some sort of federation that organized things.
Hence, some form of imposition or delimitation within a geographically defined area cannot be escaped. The idea is to have an imposition that maximizes and protects the freedom and flourishing of all (but it will always do so imperfectly because we are imperfect humans). Right-wing anarcho-capitalists hold out the hope that they can avoid government by having competitive governance enforce their system. And yet so many ancaps embrace the cultural status quo—or, rather, a return to cultural “traditionalism”—just without government. The free-market propertarian system would still need to enforce these cultural mores. Some ancap theorists—like Hans-Hermann Hoppe—defend a very authoritarian and hellish form of such a society. They acknowledge the problem of enforcement and run with it—in awful, repressive ways.
I think history has shown that it is unreasonable and undesirable to ever expect to get some perfectly “free” market. Sometimes, external regulation is necessary and preferable. As one example, I always like to point to the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is another example. In each of these cases, government intervened to produce an important outcome that markets were not leading to on their own. In the former instance, the ozone hole was a serious concern and governments around the world came together to ban the use of CFCs, which were going into the atmosphere and creating the ozone hole. In the latter instance, it took until 1990 for government to compel some serious widespread accommodations for and societal-wide changes to how we treat people with disabilities. Should we have just waited for the wonderful, magical “market” to lead to those outcomes (whenever and if ever that happened)? The free-market propertarian would be committed to saying yes, and that’s a serious problem with the framework in my view.
It’s not at all clear that a hyperfocus on private property accumulation and market relations would lead to good outcomes in all cases. The late Elinor Ostrom discovered that common-pool resource management was superior to government regulation and private property market relations in cases where certain requirements were met. Ostrom shows that not everything can be reduced to private property ownership within a competitive “free” market. When the market framework makes these relations the only game in town and rigidly opposes anything that detracts from it, much of the complexity of the world is sidestepped.
None of this is to say that freed markets or freer markets are not good and worth supporting. Freed/freer markets are often very good at producing and distributing things that people want and need. Hayek’s trailblazing 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, with its emphasis on dispersed knowledge, makes a powerful case for leaving decisions to those on the local level, rather than those with centralized authority who think they can just plan everything through computers. Hayek’s work shows further that not all knowledge is articulable and explicit, but often held tacitly by individuals who make decisions relevant to their own contexts, which no central authority can dictate.
Though it doesn’t seem likely to me that some perfect “libertarian” society will exist, one in which no one is able or needing to impose anything on others, we can certainly move more in the direction of freed/freer markets, which can help us to discover more anti-authoritarian ways of social interaction.
Whereas the free-market propertarian attempts to address the problems of Liberal Corporate Capitalism through smashing or greatly shrinking the state and reducing everything down to private property and competitive free markets, the State Socialist attempts to smash or greatly shrink reliance on private property and competitive markets and instead bolster up the state in its welfare-regulatory and national planning apparatuses. In most cases, nationalizing the economy to the greatest extent possible is a part of the framework. How much and what gets nationalized is up for debate within State Socialist circles. Even the weakest Democratic Socialist may wish to nationalize more things but would lament that it doesn’t seem practical or possible.
It’s important to point out that there are many, often conflicting, versions of “Socialism”, far more than there are versions of “Capitalism”. At one time, in the nineteenth century, those who were critical of anything called “Capitalism” were identified with “Socialism”. That’s not a very helpful criterion. It makes the critique of “Socialism” all the more difficult.
Noam Chomsky (2016) is known for saying that “Socialism” in its original sense was tied up with “control of production by producers, elimination of wage labor, democratization of all spheres of life; production, commerce, education, media, workers’ control in factories, community control of communities, and so on.” In other words, if you work in the factory, you get decision-making power over how the factory is run. No hierarchical boss/administration telling you what to do and being able to amass way more money than you. This view was represented both by the anarchist versions of Socialist thought and the Statist versions of Socialist thought, even if they offered diametrically opposed prescriptions on how to achieve it. Socialism, in this sense, is something I can get behind to a significant degree. I may have a more flexible approach than some but I can get behind the core concept of supporting horizontal, rather than top-down, workplaces. In this section, I won’t be critiquing this version.
The two main variants in Socialism that I want to critique are Marxism-Leninism and Democratic Socialism (including the tradition of Social Democracy). Marxism-Leninism or highly centralized versions of “State Socialism” are what Socialism has been associated with in the twentieth century due to the rise of the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) and Mao’s China (which had its own unique Maoist perspective that was an extension of Marxism-Leninism). I will first critique this version and then move on to the Democratic Socialist-Social Democratic versions.
For Marxism-Leninism, “the revolution will be led by a single communist party which will be the political vanguard in providing guidance and governance to the working classes in order to establish the key pillars of social state.” Economically speaking, “a planned economy will be responsible for the production and distribution of goods and services that the society and the national economy will need.” Much time could be spent on theory and all the disagreements therein, but that is not the purpose of this critique. What I’ve described here captures what happened historically and what a lot of people who defend these views today still want.
In contrast with Democratic Socialism, these forms of socialism are as anti-liberal as it gets. They oppose having a liberal democratic system with legitimate national elections and leadership changing hands based on the populace. Instead, they promote having a supreme centralized party that controls all decision-making for a given country. To say this is a bad idea is putting it lightly. Even the best group of people with unlimited power and unlimited terms could cause a lot of harm. Yet, as Hayek (1944) said, in a system where political power becomes the only power worth having, it is those who are most adept at using it who will rise. That is why the worst get on top. We don’t want a system where we have to hope and pray that the best somehow rise to the top and then don’t do too much damage when in power. We want a system with robust protections against such abuse. The Marxist-Leninist framework does not promote such a thing. It is born out of massive conflict and then it maintains itself with a brutal centralized fist.
For example, in a discussion of the Francis Spufford book, Red Plenty, Leigh Phillips represents what is so problematic about State Socialist thinking. Just as there can be irrational consequences from market arrangements, there can be irrational consequences from “planning”. Why? Because humans can be irrational and such irrationality is the common thread in all cases. The question, then, is: What arrangements and contexts will best limit that irrationality and produce the best outcomes? I doubt, with high confidence, that the answer is 100% “democratic planning”—given the historical experience with it.
Economically speaking, State Socialism is a mess. Centralized planning is often not very efficient. It’s difficult to decide how much of something is needed and who should get it. Especially when we are talking about everything and not just a few things (like healthcare and postal services, for example). Competitive markets, in contrast, constantly adapt and provide signals (prices) to convey a large amount of complicated information, which leads to more efficient production. And they don’t rely on a supreme ruler to decide everything. The economic calculation debate and knowledge problem aside, there’s a practical issue with any one person or group of people having that much power over everyone. If the central node fails or becomes seriously corrupt, that’s all you have and the whole ship goes down. In contrast, in a more decentralized system, if one node fails not everyone goes down. It’s more robust than the highly centralized system.
Marxism-Leninism also leads to a very divisive and violent state of affairs that never seems to fully cease. There’s always someone to scapegoat or pillage. Plenty of people would take issue with this characterization or with viewing it as something bad. They’ll rhetorically reply: “Don’t you want to smash the Capitalist oppressors and bring in true liberation for all?” But what I point out here will resonate with many except the most extreme ideologue. If defeating Capitalism requires embracing a one-party state and putting all your faith in it and its centralized planning capabilities, then I’ll stick with Capitalism, thank you very much! We’ve tried State Socialism already and the twentieth century saw plenty of bloodshed and oppression because of it. Not a whole lot of freedom and flourishing for the working class that was supposed to benefit from it in the first place.
Democratic Socialism, on the other hand, “is defined as having a socialist economy in which the means of production are socially and collectively owned or controlled, alongside a liberal democratic political system of government.” This certainly sounds hundreds of times better than Marxism-Leninism and its related offshoots. In one pamphlet, the Democratic Socialists of America described the process as follows:
Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favour as much decentralisation as possible. While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives. Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that the whole economy should be centrally planned. While we believe that democratic planning can shape major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy, market mechanisms are needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods.
This is a much more reasonable form of socialism, and some of it has already been achieved in various places in different ways (but certainly not all the way). It’s different from modern forms of Social Democracy in that it’s not simply status quo Capitalism with a very robust and generous welfare-regulatory state—which is little different from Liberal Corporate Capitalism, except with a nicer face and less dominance by the wealthy and powerful. It instead seeks to bring about “worker’s control” in the original sense that was described earlier. I find this to be better than Liberal Corporate Capitalism or the more generous modern Social Democracy. It disrupts the core of the dominant crony capitalist industries, which lead to militarism and conquest abroad. In fact, I would argue that we should be trying to get some of these Democratic Socialist prescriptions going, even if in a different form.
All of that said, even this nicer version of State Socialism will run into problems. First, as long as we have a powerful centralized government, it will be unlikely to sidestep class dynamics. It has the potential to be captured by nefarious interests, who do harm and increase the riches and power of certain people and entities. As it stands, one such government is already in place and will severely resist any movement trying to change things. This is where the Democratic Socialist focus on building from below will have an edge on those counting on electoral wins and legislative actions to bring about their vision. Moreover, given the Anarchist critique of authority relations to which I ascribe, there is an inherent problem with the normalization of dependence on the state and top-down rule. Bottom-up coordination is a better strategy for solving our problems.
Second, even this form of Socialism tends to be too comfortable with nationalization and planning. Nationalization is ripe for abuse and mismanagement. It can be preferable to other arrangements; I think this is the case with healthcare—especially healthcare insurance—compared to our current arrangement. But we should scarcely ever look at it with glee. It’s unstable and easily gutted by power elites. Just look at the constant trouble with the NHS in Britain to get needed services and pay to workers due to funding cuts (mostly when the Conservative Party is in control). Or think about the politicization of Trans issues and how the right-wing would just love to destroy the ability of people to obtain transitioning care services and the like. Do you really want more of your life’s important decisions and necessities being up to partisan political meddling? I certainly don’t. And much like with the discussion on Marxism-Leninism, I don’t want to count on the angels getting to the top and consistently making the right decisions. That said, we have to make imperfect decisions, and I think having a public health care system with private options is preferable to either total government control or the crony private system we currently have. More options are generally preferable to fewer options, so any ideological Democratic Socialist who wants only government is not going to have my support.
Third, more broadly, within left-wing thought (Socialist, Communist, or otherwise), there is an overemphasis on collectivization and community control. This is even more problematic when it gets equated with government control, but it is also problematic when it’s just common people collectivizing things or being overly controlling over the lives of others. Local tyranny can be far worse than centralized tyranny because it is harder to escape. It’s right in your backyard, so to say. Any successful left-wing movement is going to need to respect individual autonomy and not be overly controlling even on the community level. Community is important and some level of community decision-making is necessary for any society. However, it too needs limits, and I don’t find many leftists taking that seriously enough.
Overall, the general problem with all these frameworks is too much centralized control and not enough respect for the autonomy of the individual.
Anarchism—and the Dialectical Left-Libertarian Way Forward
Throughout this paper, I have examined where the status quo and its purported alternatives fall short of achieving the goal of producing freedom and flourishing for everyone. In this section, I consider the Anarchist alternative, another purported alternative to the status quo. This will serve as a means of presenting a more constructive way forward that I call “Dialectical Left-Libertarian”.
Anarchism is “a term derived from the Greek anarkhia, meaning ‘contrary to authority’ or ‘without a ruler.’ Anarchism narrowly refers to a theory of society without state rule, and generally to a social and political ideology advocating a society that does not use coercive forms of authority.” Anarchist William Gillis (2017) examines Anarchism from a non-domination perspective:
Parental abuse of children, partner abuse, sexual violence, community ostracization, and many other informal power dynamics of social capital are often far more visceral and constraining in many people’s actual lives than war, taxes, and police repression. Exploitation at the hand of the thief or bandit, the mugger or rapist, the brigand and minor warlord, is hardly any different than at the hand of a cop or bureaucrat.
Gillis goes on to say:
Anarchism is more sweeping and more ambitious than any of the political platforms it is often compared with. As you can see, we can never make a simple list of demands because our aspirations are ultimately infinite. By declaring ourselves for the abolition of rulership itself we have created a space for striving; the furthest particulars will always be unsettled. Anarchism does not represent a final state of affairs, but a direction, a vector pointing beyond all possible compromises. As the old saying goes we don’t want bread or even the bakery, we want the stars too. And anarchists have gone in many directions, exploring many concerns and dynamics.
In critiquing the state specifically, Gillis states:
Rather than building tolerable and fluidly responsive agreements from the ground up, the state imposes one rigid vision from the top down. Its monopoly on overwhelming violence provides a shortcut to accomplishing things that bypasses full negotiations; not only does this approach suppress freedom in the name of expediency it encourages everyone to do the same. Once the state exists it presents a tool that cannot be ignored—if you want to get a given task done the state makes it enticing to do it through competing for, seizing, and directing the state’s coercion. Nearly everyone becomes invested in expanding the power of the state so that it can assure or enact their desires.
Now that we have a sense of what Anarchism is and what it opposes, it is time to engage with it and see where the baby and the bathwater are. Anarchism as non-domination/non-rulership and an ideal of relating to one another in nonhierarchical ways is solid in my opinion. Ultimately, I am at a minimum a philosophical Anarchist. I do not believe that anyone has a right to rule over another. I also believe that voluntary association is generally preferable over utilizing coercive relations. The Anarchist ideal sets the bar high, guiding us towards freer and less authoritarian social relations and arrangements. As I said in my 2017 C4SS article, “An Evolving Anarchism”: “Anarchism, for me, is less about ‘end goals’ and more about a particular ethic and outlook. It should reject the idea of ‘final’ states of existence altogether and instead emphasize the importance of a never-ending discovery process in producing a better world.” My friend and fellow C4SS writer, Jason Lee Byas, once pointed out in a private conversation that another strength to the Anarchist outlook is that it pushes us to look for voluntary, non-statist alternatives in a way that we might not without it. All these facets are the “baby” from my perspective.
However, Anarchism is not without its bathwater. Though it may seem obvious to many Anarchists, what counts as “authority” and “government” is not exactly clear to many others. Whereas some Anarchists, including the first self-described anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, saw having some sort of established governance like a federation as necessary, many individualist and free-market-oriented Anarchists reject even that. The latter Anarchists want a hodgepodge of fluid and non-centralized organizations addressing concerns, often within a competitive market environment. Anarcho-capitalist thinker David D. Friedman points out in The Machinery of Freedom that in a Market Anarchist society, law will take the shape of what people in a given area want. He would hope it would be in a more libertarian direction, but he admits that it may not. Putting aside how one might feel about that, one must wonder who is doing the enforcing and how do they not count as some form of “government” or “authority”? Furthermore, if some form of authoritarian/harmful rules are being enforced on you, who cares how you classify the enforcers? Whether they are called “private protection agencies” or “municipal government” doesn’t change the anti-libertarian outcomes and nature of what is going on.
This is where I will contrast anti-statist and non-domination-focused frameworks. The former group is more concerned with there not being a state and only having decentralized governance (and heavily overlaps with the “free-market propertarian” framework discussed earlier). The latter group is focused more on creating the conditions that promote freedom and flourishing and not being married to a particular form or process. As Gillis emphasizes: “This reframing of anarchy in terms of centralization rather than domination is an obvious trick because decentralized expressions of rulership or interpersonal domination can clearly be quite severe.” I reject the mere anti-statist framework while embracing the non-domination framework. I am convinced that freedom and flourishing is something that requires active cultivation and protection and won’t likely come about through embracing a rigid commitment to decentralized market competition.
Due to the association between constitutionalism and the state, Anarchists tend to be opposed to formal constitutions. However, in alignment with the non-domination framework I have embraced, I think that some form of constitution could play a helpful role in the cultivation of freedom and flourishing. In contrast to simply counting on competing private courts and protection agencies, I think the strength of constitutions is that they can formalize a commitment to universal protection for all people and put clear limitations on what can be done to others. They don’t enforce themselves, but they set the limits around what will be enforced. Personally, I think such a thing is likely necessary in some form if we are to have a modern, advanced society with millions of diverse individuals bouncing around one another. As I have stated, every system, even a Mutualist Anarchist one, will require some kind of enforcement.
What would that look like under a Mutualist Anarchist arrangement? I imagine there would be some formalized commitment to the property norms of the Mutualist framework in order to ensure that it doesn’t turn into something that it isn’t. Such a commitment communicates an expectation that certain norms are to be followed. A constitution or constitution-like framework would seem to be proper for this kind of enforcement. I do not think such a framework is necessarily incompatible with Anarchism. Though I could be wrong on the usefulness of constitutions, my framework is not hostile to them right out the gate.
If Anarchism, however, requires a necessary commitment to being opposed to things like constitutions, federation-style formalized governance, and support for small-scale decentralized relations only, I don’t think it will likely materialize as a robust alternative to the status quo. So, what would constitute a positive way forward?
My framework is a Dialectical Left-Libertarian one. As I have noted, the dialectical part is based on Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s “dialectical libertarianism”, where he conceptualizes dialectics as “the art of context keeping.” In a 2005 article, he states: “If one’s aim is to resolve a specific social problem, one must look to the larger context within which that problem is manifested, and without which it would not exist.” Sciabarra (2022) states further that one of the “core methodological principles” of dialectics
is that one cannot examine any fact, event, issue, or problem by neglecting its place in a larger systemic context examined across time. Every fact, event, issue, or problem is constituted by a cluster of relations—that is, its connections to other facts, events, issues, or problems. These connections cannot be ignored without doing irreparable damage to our ability to grapple with and/or resolve the issues or problems at hand. Tracing relations is key to understanding how a fact, event, issue, or problem came to be what it is—while providing a necessary grasp of what it can be, might be, or ought to be.
In further describing Sciabarra’s approach, Kevin Carson (2012) emphasizes that “[i]ndividual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part, and from their function within that whole.”
Wikipedia describes Left-Libertarianism as “a political philosophy and type of libertarianism that stresses both individual freedom and social equality.” That entry mentions historian Anthony Gregory who “describes left-libertarianism as maintaining interest in personal freedom, having sympathy for egalitarianism and opposing social hierarchy, preferring a liberal lifestyle, opposing big business and having a New Left opposition to imperialism and war.” Ultimately, the Left-Libertarian framework has a concern with social authoritarianism, whether from government or culture or both, and a concern with economic injustice and dependence on wage labor relations. The core concern is with individual freedom and flourishing. (See also Gary Chartier’s 2012 essay, “The Distinctiveness of Left-Libertarianism,” which, despite my differences with some of its free-market propertarian views, captures key Left-Libertarian principles.)
Therefore, the Dialectical Left-Libertarian framework seeks the Anarchist ideal, in alignment with the goal of “freedom and flourishing”, while doing so pragmatically, taking the overall context into account. As I argue in “An Evolving Anarchism”:
Quite to the contrary of many anarchists, I think changes that make the present system more open and free are very helpful. This allows for greater ease in building alternative organizations that can flourish and help people and communities become less dependent on state-backed institutions. … The rigid people who sit on their high horses and call people ‘statist authoritarians’ for not being purists don’t represent anarchism. Rather, they hinder it with their dogmatism and rigidity, which is antithetical to the anarchist ethic.
This framework seeks to make the best of what we have where we are presently at and always push to do better. It will not however paralyze itself with rigid dogmas and face destruction. So, for example, if the best way to avoid climate catastrophe presently is using some regulations, the Dialectical Left-Libertarian will not hesitate to embrace such regulations given the current context. In contrast, the dogmatist rejects the state as such and will not support or condone any state actions. This is a poor strategy to move in a better direction. That doesn’t mean that we should support just any state intervention or support state intervention without hesitation even when we do think it could be helpful or necessary. It does mean we shouldn’t rule it out and face major negative consequences to freedom and flourishing under the present context.
Given that context, I support a wide diversity of libertarian, social democratic, and socialist policies to increase freedom and flourishing. Wes Whitman’s essay, “Libertarian Distributist Social Democracy”, represents this approach very well, insofar as it combines approaches and policies from frameworks as diverse as Distributism, Cooperativism/Workers’ Democracy, Classical Liberalism and Free-market Libertarianism, Georgism/Geolibertarianism, and Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism. Any use of regulations or social insurance measures are grounded in a commitment to expanding individual freedom and flourishing rather than some sort of top-down collectivism or elitist technocracy. Despite some differences with Whitman, in emphasis and approach, Carson’s essay on “Libertarian Municipalism” offers a complementary example of a framework that aims to transition away from the status quo based on the conditions that exist. He writes:
In particular, it is to a large extent a transition to a post-capitalist society centered on the commons. As Michel Bauwens puts it, the commons paradigm replaces the traditional Social Democratic paradigm in which value is created in the ‘private’ (i.e. corporate) sector through commodity labor, and a portion of this value is redistributed by the state and by labor unions, to one in which value is co-created within the social commons outside the framework of wage labor and the cash nexus, and the process of value creation is governed by the co-creators themselves. Because of the technological changes entailed in what Bauwens calls ‘cosmo-local’ production (physical production that’s primarily local, using relatively small-scale facilities, for local consumption, but using a global information commons freely available to all localities), the primary level of organization of this commons-based society will be local.
The major point with all these approaches is to pragmatically embrace liberating policies in the now, which uplift the individual and oppose problematic private and public relations. There is no ideological commitment to one approach no matter what. If a given approach ceases to be effective when the context changes, so changes the approach. There are also no guarantees in this life. Almost anything can be abused. That requires us to be vigilant and to continue to critique given structures and relations as they evolve. We can’t just hope that once we abolish the state, free the market, or abolish money (if you’re a communist), that our work is done. There are no panaceas to addressing the complexities of life. If we want to avoid the ineffective monism and reductionism of the dogmatists of all flavors, then we are going to have to be committed to the messy process of balancing a multitude of approaches, policies, goals, and ideals.
Under the conditions of Liberal Corporate Capitalism, the political Left has overwhelmingly stagnated in the stasis of the welfare-regulatory state. Ideally, the Left embraces “democratizing” policies in its attempts to minimize reliance on markets and capitalists and to increase state control in areas like healthcare and energy. By contrast, the political Right has overwhelmingly stagnated in a stasis of Christian Nationalism. Ideally, the Right wants to minimize reliance on government and to increase the strength of the nuclear family to be able to handle things that government would otherwise take care of. Whereas the Left wants stability/rigidity in economic governance and fluidity in social relations, the Right wants stability/rigidity in social relations and fluidity in economic governance. The Left has embraced “purity” tests in discourse, while the Right has embraced anything and everything that seeks to “own the libs” through the most offensive and controversial rhetoric imaginable.
Each side sees the other as the ultimate enemy. So, the implication of writing off one or the other is not insignificant. While we shouldn’t dismiss the differences between them, we shouldn’t be indifferent to finding ways to peacefully interact with both the left and the right and to be charitable where possible.
Nevertheless, in a world where the political Left aims to expand welfare-regulatory state institutions, and the political Right wants them gutted, I fear we may be stuck trying to constantly patch and repair the status quo.
In contradistinction to this status quo, the battle between Left and Right has continued even within the realm of libertarian ideas, despite each side’s shared concern with government power. The Left-Libertarian sees government as bolstering the power of capitalists, but they are less confident in the Right-Libertarian’s prescription to privatize everything and to see markets as a panacea for everything. The Left-Libertarian sees an important place for the commons/non-market activity and nonhierarchical ways of relating and organizing. By contrast, the Right-Libertarian seeks to privatize as much as possible, freeing up markets, and getting the government out of as many decisions as possible. They celebrate capitalists and don’t like regulations. But both the Left-Libertarian and the Right-Libertarian believe that much social conflict stems from forcing people to be subject to the same top-down mechanisms.
Ultimately, I fall on the Left-Libertarian side of things. I especially like its emphasis on a sustainable, non-bloated autonomism—that is, the building of spaces of autonomy in the now and outside the current system. Such autonomism requires the freedom to create without asking for permission in a system that provides signals for judging individual needs and relative scarcity. This will most likely entail a complex mix of commons, markets, and cooperatives. It will also require a movement away from a system that treats land like a typical commodity, a system that encourages dependence on capitalists through subsidies, intellectual property rights laws, crony trade deals, and regulations that restrict competition. Politically, more people need “skin in the game” on a decentralized, local level.
I am convinced that the Dialectical Left-Libertarian framework will best move us in the direction of this project. And if, in the process, we end up with an Anarchist society—whatever that looks like—so much the better!
Burgis, Ben, Leigh Phillips, and Bhaskar Sunkara. 2020. Red plenty: Was the dream of Soviet abundance ever possible. Jacobin (7 December). YouTube video.
Carson, Kevin. 2012. Dialectical libertarianism. Center for a Stateless Society (21 December).
———. 2018. Libertarian municipalism: Networked cities as resilient platforms for post-capitalist transition. Center for a Stateless Society (20 January).
Chartier, Gary. 2012. The distinctiveness of left-libertarianism. Center for a Stateless Society (5 November).
Chomsky, Noam. 2016. Socialism in the age of reaction. Interviewed by Vaios Triantafyllou. Jacobin (13 December).
Eaton, George. 2018. The conservatives’ underfunding of the NHS made a crisis inevitable. The New Statesman (3 January).
Friedman, David D. 2014. The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism. 3rd ed. Chicago and LaSalle: Open Court.
Gillis, William. 2007. The freed market. Panarchy.org.
———. 2017. Your freedom is my freedom: The premise of anarchism. Human Iterations (14 June).
Hayek, F. A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1945. The use of knowledge in society. American Economic Review 35, no. 4 (September): 519–30.
Neugebauer, Ryan. 2017. An evolving anarchism. Center for a Stateless Society (13 July).
Rand, Ayn. 1967. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: New American Library.
Rapoza, Kenneth. 2019. Why American companies choose China over everyone else. Forbes (3 September).
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 2000. Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
———. 2005. Dialectics and liberty. The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty (September): 35–38.
———.  2012. “Capitalism”: The known reality. Notablog (4 February). Republished by Center for a Stateless Society (20 December 2012).
———. 2022. Mutual exchange symposium: A dialectical Rand for an egoist anarchism. Center for a Stateless Society (21 February).
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew and Ryan Neugebauer. 2022. DWR (5): On Cancel Culture, Comedy, and Compassion. Notablog (23 February).
West, Darrell M. 2021. Techtank: How employers use technology to surveil employees. Brookings (5 January).
Whitman, Wes. 2020. Libertarian distributivist social democracy. The Isocracy Network (24 June).