With the advent of Brexit in the UK, and the rise on the one hand of national populism (combined with demagoguery) and on the other hand liberal cosmopolitanism in America, libertarianism could be basking in the glory of its own radical praxis. It could advocate for economic and political decentralisation, for political pluralism and for the development of truly freed markets which limit the effects of capital accumulation and rentierism. They could be showing the world examples of stateless and quasi-stateless societies that have existed for millennia, or simply demonstrating the multitude of free market systems that exist within the cracks of modern state capitalism. Fortunately there are some that actually do this. However the majority seem more interested in defending corporate largesse, intellectual property and the plethora of phony free trade agreements that abound.
In effect libertarians have become useful idiots for a larger corporate system that cares nothing for their ideology but likes its ideational effect. What better than to wrap the realities of corporate control in a language of virtue-signalling and assumptive radicalism. Effectively, modern libertarianism acts as a defence for any action committed by the private sector. So long as the state had no role, it doesn’t matter. Things like workers rights, employment law and the river of implicit state action which helped create the private sector are ignored, belittled or, in the latter case, defended as unfortunate but necessary action to cement “free” markets.
For these people, aptly described by Kevin Carson as vulgar libertarians, the state only matters in the present moment, in the static reality that exists around modern capitalism. Historical primitive accumulation is an irrelevance to these libertarians, with their history coloured by the nonsensical idea that the Industrial Revolution (and all that followed) was simply a form of Hayekian spontaneous order. Most of the “libertarian” think tanks continue with this blind theory of the world. For example, groups like the Cato Institute, Adam Smith Institute and IEA regularly defend intellectual property. However intellectual property is the definition of state intervention, creating artificial scarcities and with it a system of defined winners and losers. “Intellectual property has become the prime source of rental income: this arises through market power created by trademarks, copyright, design rights, geographical indications, trade secrets and patents”. IP mandates a market of rentiers.
These think tanks, along with other libertarians, hold the same logic for a multitude of different policy areas. Land speculation, financialisation, the sharing economy and other facets of the modern economy all receive a hearty defence from these groups, whom all the while ignore the statism that underlies them. They are the public faces of rentier capitalism, who scream free markets while the hierarchy of the firm controls all areas of the actual economy, from supply chains and subcontracting to the regulatory frameworks multinational companies pick and choose from.
This pathetic defence of free markets (of which none exist in their conception of capitalism) regularly descends into farce. Seeing fake libertarians from these think tanks talk about the beneficence of existing markets in relation to slave wages paid by Sports Direct, or how Uber is the epitome of free market activity, and that regulating this glorified technological monopoly would be beyond the pale, is a regular sight on most news programmes.
Many libertarians question why they have failed politically. Well look no further than the ideology’s self-appointed spokesmen. Instead of developing a pluralistic ideology that is radical and decentralist in focus (which in the current political context would be entirely feasible), libertarians prefer petty arguments with egotistical politicians and bureaucrats. And this is simply a UK-centric perspective. In the US, where as I’ve mentioned there is a major gap in the market for radical libertarianism, the Libertarian Party has decided to run with a guy who happily calls libertarianism a combination of “fiscal conservatism and social liberalism”. Libertarian and anarchist philosophers must be rolling in their graves at such feeble politicking. Trump and Clinton both make arguments for the bolstering of the American police state, and all Gary Johnson can do is talk about marijuana. Sketch comedy couldn’t come up with such a laughable scenario.
At the end of the day, libertarianism has got itself stuck in a rut. In popular opinion it is largely ignored, and when its spokesmen do pop their head above the parapet, it is to defend the corporate state and to make the pathetic case for more neoliberal interventionism. Unless there is a radical break from this dead-end strategy, libertarianism will continue to be a pointless, moronic-looking fringe with minimal impact in existing politico-economic discourses.