"The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don't have it." ~ George Bernard Shaw
The Imperative of Counter-Cultural Anarchism
Exclusive to STR
January 31, 2007
Some time ago I made on my blog a late-night 'musing post' listing some things I simply don't understand the allure of: 'Top' 40 music, the big-breasted bimbo blonde type that American men seem to go for, 'reality' television (more accurately, I should have said I don't understand the allure of watching TV in general), American pale lagers, professional sports, and some others. Of course, far be it for me, as a libertarian, to say that my inability to understand the allures of these things is of any bearing whatsoever on law or policy. If people want to watch 'reality' television, fawn over the hackneyed buxom Daisy Dukes mold, or throw back a few cans of horse urine, I really can't do anything about it so long as nobody gets hurt. Value, of course, varies from man to man, and even within the context of the individual man, it varies from time to time. In response to my post, I received a comment which I find well-suited to being quoted in entirety: "You are truly out of the mainstream. This is the problem with the Libertarian movement today, and of most Libertarians connected with the Libertarian Party whom you criticize. "You don't 'get it' when it comes to sports, busty blonde women and apple pie. Fortunately, some of us libertarians DO get it. "Thankfully, we have a growing MAINSTREAM libertarian movement to counter the views of individuals such as yourself, who just don't get it when it comes to Middle America. "May you continue to whither in obscurity, while we Mainstream Libertarians have success for the libertarian movement." Eric Dondero, CEO MainstreamLibertarian.com Now, of course I could 'return fire' by saying that I have no problem with being 'truly out of the mainstream.' And, of course, this comes from somebody who as far as I can tell is a minarchist hack. But, in any event, it was quite fitting that such a comment was made, because I had been recently thinking that it's logical that radical libertarianism ' especially of the anarchist sort ' will by necessity seem to would-be detractors as holding a substantial 'counter-cultural' coloring. What is clear is that this knee-jerk glorification of all things 'Middle America' ' this 'Mainstream Libertarianism' ' is a curious bauble indeed. It certainly raises a question: Just what is a 'mainstream libertarian'? Does he exist? Is he a walking contradiction, or is he presently kicking it in the Caribbean with Tupac Shakur, Elvis, and Santa Claus? Is he just a total dolt who doesn't know what he's talking about? In a society pervaded by a culture of statism, it is a huge contradiction in terms to consider oneself a 'mainstream libertarian.' It is of course strategically disheartening at times to reflect on the fact that libertarianism and anarchism are 'out of the mainstream' ' of course, anarchism will have to become mainstream before its tenets can be embraced. But a spade remains a spade whether one calls it a spade or not. That is to say, libertarian anarchism, given the intellectual climate of statism that pervades most of the 'civilized' world, is by necessity out of the vaunted mainstream and will thus appear to most people to be counter-cultural. This is a truism. It would be ridiculous to even permit the notion of belaboring the point in detail if it weren't for the fact that it would appear that this error is rather widespread! Murray Rothbard, in an article titled 'A Contempt for the Usual' from a 1971 edition (.pdf; pp. 3-5) of the Libertarian Forum, ironically and unfortunately degenerates (after a respectable enough start) into an arguably reflexive defense of 'bourgeois' society. Part of the intellectual's task, writes Rothbard, is to champion Middle America and to shield Everyman from the 'corrupting' influence of counter-cultural 'heathens:' 'What I am saying then is that in this unequal war between the intellectual and the bourgeois, a war in which the clever and facile intellectual has all the aces in his hand, that the average man, beset and bewildered though he may be, is really right. The average man may not see deeply, but he sees clearly and correctly. And this means that one of the great and unfilled tasks of the rationalist intellectual, the true intellectual if you will, is to come to the aid of the bourgeoisie, to rescue the Middle American from his triumphant tormentors.' Rothbard doesn't totally miss the point very often, but here he is dangerously close to doing so. It clearly raises for discussion the question of what exactly the 'true intellectual' is to do if Middle America is rotten to the core. Are libertarians to defend Middle America even if Everyman, exploited though he is, is rotten to the core with an irrevocable attitude of cultural statism? What if Everyman holds to a busy-body view that 'democracy' gives him a 'right' to make other peoples' affairs his own? After all, it is abundantly clear that Everyman, as a rule, is a busybody who likes to vote himself into the bedrooms, dime bags, and other voluntary associations and actions of people who have not physically aggressed against him. Why defend this? It is clear that the libertarian must not waste even a word defending the statist proclivities of the sheeple. Defending the right to the nonviolent choices made by Middle America ' watching the football game on Sunday, eating turkey on Thanksgiving, putting up a Christmas tree during the Christmas season, and so forth ' is all well and good. But putting Middle America up on a pedestal and reflexively defending every last thing that classifies as 'pop culture' is passing dangerously close to giving the appearance of defending the whole package ' including Everyman's glaring philosophical errors. Kevin Carson, who could probably quite fairly be called The Godfather of contemporary "mutualist" anarchism, has gained infamy among certain anarchist circles for his coining of the term 'vulgar libertarianism.' Carson discusses his online 'Vulgar Libertarian Watch' in this post, where he also explains the concept. Risking brutal simplification, I would explain vulgar libertarianism to mean this: offering apologia for the present state-capitalist order, 'our' very own contemporary ancien regime, if you will, with 'free market' principle as the alleged buttress of that apology. The phenomenon is also called the 'New Fascism.' If that's clear as mud, take the following example. Say some powerful multinational corporation ' perhaps already a beneficiary of "corporate welfare" ' uses its state-augmented 'superprofits' to buy influence with an overseas gang of thugs (read: a State) in some Third World country. Say then that the multinational in return for its payments to the gang of thugs will be allowed to build a new textile plant with first-world capital in the country. In return, the gang of thugs will push subsistence farmers off their land, round them up, and condemn them against their own wills to the proverbial "needle and thread crucifixion." The State in question gets handsome amounts of money; the corporation in return gets the guarantee of a steady supply of workers who are not allowed 'by law' to leave or organize. 'Vulgar libertarianism' would consist in defending such a combination of practices of 'bringing 'capitalism' to the Third World' because it's somehow 'good for' (as if enslaving people is 'good for them'!) the subsistence farmers, even though free market thinking doesn't apply. That's clearly a total affront to libertarianism; it is 'vulgar' because arguing that the free market, and voluntary transactions, is good for people doesn't really have much bearing on the true situation, born as it was of the cooperative depredations of the corporate/state alliance. The truth is that we have a severe case of violent intervention in the market, so the traditional 'market justifications' for such and such an action or situation simply do not apply in the context. Doing so makes libertarians ' anarchists and minarchists alike ' look like bloody idiots, if not downright would-be tyrants. (It would also be quite vulgar indeed to flatly deny the existence of such practices [.pdf].) Along similar lines, Sheldon Richman ends a post on the same phenomenon with these apt words: "Libertarians: wake up! Make the technical corrections, but be sensitive to how it sounds when you leave things at that. Keep your eye on the ball!" I bring this up because it seems to me that there may be a different kind of vulgar libertarianism going on within anarchism. The plain truth that seems apparent is that many libertarians are dangerously close to taking their eye off the ball with regard to more than the economics and ethics of state-capitalism and the military-industrial complex. Part of Retta Fontana's Strike the Root column 'Must Love Liberty' details an instance of one mother 'intervening' in the team selection process for an informal pickup ball game. When this mother noticed that her child had been selected last, she loudly jumped into the situation and made the kids ' who, in the first place, undoubtedly probably intended no personal insult to the child picked last ' restart the selection process. And so on the one hand we had this elegant process of spontaneous order going on among 'mere children,' without authoritative direction; on the other hand we have a matriarchal figure interjecting in this organic, voluntary process on behalf of some arrogant paternalistic notion of 'fairness.' It has been quipped that the principle of voluntary association is so simple a concept that 'even children and savages' can understand it, while the 'civilized' folks ' like the mother under consideration ' have problems fathoming it, and thus wish for nothing less than to interfere in it for the 'good of the participants.' I'm guessing the game wasn't as much fun for the kids as it would have been without the authoritative intervention. It is easy to see the parallels between such behavior and a statist attitude. And this is merely one example of the problem that is so frustrating. Namely, the greatest strategic problem anarchism faces is the widespread attitude of statism that has become hardwired into Everyman's worldview; for this attitude and a 'culture of statism' has literally poisoned, albeit to differing degrees, nearly every last once-good bastion of society. It probably glorified the ego of the mother to reorganize the team selection process in concordance with her sense of 'fairness' or what have you. By the same token, it glorifies the egos of 'civilized' Middle Americans to go to the polls and vote themselves by way of the ballot into the lives of sexual 'deviants,' drug users, 'illegal immigrants,' 'The Children!!!' and so forth, or to vote into political office men and women ('politicians') who will do it for them. For 'children and savages,' informal, improvised, off-the-cuff cooperation ' such as in the selection of teams for games ' is a way of life; for 'civilized' adults, an attitude of coercion via voting and otherwise endorsing the State is the pathetic norm. This observation ' that adults tend to be more authoritarian than children ' is perhaps the only proof needed of the extent to which people under states are conditioned to be statists, both in government 'schools' and at home by a media establishment of shills and propaganda hucksters. Getting to the explicit point, it has occurred to me that it borderlines on 'vulgarity' for anarchists to claim ' without qualification ' themselves to be 'socially conservative' or 'culturally conservative,' while in reality such an attitude of statism remains so disappointingly pervasive. Sure, anarchists should say they love 'society' and all (after all, such is why anarchists hate the State). But saying that and quickly moving on to other points is taking one's eye off the ball and leaving an incomplete picture. It is not so much 'vulgar,' strictly speaking, to consider oneself a socially conservative anarchist as it is indicative of intellectual sloppiness. (Indeed, Hans Hoppe has argued quite convincingly that consistent social conservatism really requires nothing less than a radical rejection of the State; so, being a 'conservative anarchist' is not necessarily a contradiction in terms.) However, when an anarchist says, 'I'm socially conservative, but I'm an anarchist,' and leaves it at that, such an argument is incomplete and, I daresay, quite lazy. The problem lies in the fact that such a statement, when not carefully qualified, is simply not quite good enough for showing the true heart and soul of anarchism as a comprehensive social outlook. That is, there is a broad gulf between what anarchists consider society and the choking pall of the statist culture that in reality surrounds the few of us. It is absolutely imperative that anarchists doggedly level critiques of Middle America's culture of statism. If anarchists do this part of the 'job' well, then we will quickly and persistently be labeled as 'counter-cultural,' 'libertine,' or worse. (It should go without saying that an anarchist who isn't fully prepared to be ruthlessly and dishonestly labeled, smeared, and challenged with incessant straw-man 'arguments' isn't really ready to be an anarchist!) What might be called the counter-cultural imperative of anarchism logically follows from a necessary rejection of many institutions that are nigh worshiped by most, from the Federal Reserve, to the State-academic complex, to voting, and of course, the very institution of 'democracy.' Anarchism will necessarily take on the appearance of being 'counter-cultural' as soon as we start proposing the culling of Everyman's favorite sacred cows. Of course, being counter-cultural in this sense doesn't mean that an anarchist 'must' renounce the music of Mozart, the books of Leo Tolstoy, the architecture of the Victorian era, or the art of Salvador Dal', simply because doing so will make anarchism look more 'consistently rebellious.' It doesn't mean, either, that the practice of anarchism necessitates burning weed by the bag or dropping acid regularly, just as it doesn't mean that we should all take up New Age spiritualism or start arranging polygamist familial relationships. Do such things if you want; such a laissez faire attitude is the essence of anarchism, after all. It does mean, though, that anarchists must be very clear on several points. First, society and law, rightly understood, are good. Second, the existence of States undermines and ultimately destroys both; and by implication, the State is therefore quite 'bad.' Third ' and this is the assertion that anarchists seem to refrain from consistently voicing ' as society has been destroyed by the state, what we have now is clearly not genuinely society, simply because it has been hijacked by Middle America's attitude of statism, 'democracy,' voting, anti-individualist creeds, and all similar oppressive ideological abominations. In short, call yourself a 'socially conservative' anarchist if you please, but don't ask the rest of us to wax poetic about the same claim without an explicit qualification like the one contained herein. The rest of us have a widespread statist 'culture' to smash. I have a feeling that not many anarchists will explicitly take issue with the above. Yet, sadly, they seem to act and speak differently.