The Libertarian Moment: Libertarianism’s Place in Modern Politics

I did a talk for the Libertarian Alliance where I outline the problems with libertarian political engagement and potential solutions that allow for libertarianism to be relevant and radical.

Here is the talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLmlUylfIOQ

And this is the transcript:

The aim of this talk is to look into the idea of a libertarian moment, whereby there will be a particular turning point in the political environment that will provide a pathway for libertarian policies and forms of governance. This idea is encapsulated in the statement, “many people are libertarians, they just don’t know it yet”. Looking in particular at the UK and its political context, as well as parts of the US political makeup, I hope to show why this moment has probably passed on by, and how libertarianism in its current guise has failed to mobilise on a social, economic or political front. From that, I hope to offer ideas and questions that may push forth newer conceptions of libertarianism that can address these failures.

I’ll start with an anecdote. I went to a Conservative student society debate last year, where in a discussion around conservative ideology I revealed I was a libertarian. It was upon this point that he said, “oh you mean like David Davis”. This statement seems to encapsulate the problem libertarianism as both an ideology and a movement faces, that being that a significant number of people don’t know what it means or what it represents. Such a problem goes to the heart of libertarian engagement with modern politics, as the messages of liberty and free markets are packaged in ways that aren’t interesting, engaging or particularly informative to the concerns of the modern electorate. However it goes further than this, as political engagement doesn’t just mean convincing voters during an election or setting up a political party. It also means academic engagement, and engagement with businesses and civil society organisations and other political entities that exist throughout and within the governmental system.

On these fronts, there is in my opinion a failure of libertarian engagement, whether in the inability to gain sufficient representation or to push a radical program of free markets and the decentralisation of political and regulatory power. And I think this springs from the inability to develop a coherent message, to fully articulate and provide understandings of what free markets are and the radical potential they bring to change people’s lives. With the modern failures of the state, libertarians could begin to develop narratives that criticise the fundamental issues that afflict people, such as the state’s inability to regulate huge sections of the economy, as was obvious with the banking crisis and the subsequent bailouts in 2007-08. The housing and planning systems are another area ripe for critique when it comes to the involvement of the British state and local governments in limiting supply, driving up prices and subsidising landowners and landlords through a vastly complex, incomprehensible system of taxes, benefits and subsidies. It could seriously be argued, with the events of Brexit and the surge of turnout for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as similar events in Europe and America, that the Western polity, the modern idea of the state, it itself in significant crisis. Its failure at engagement, as with poor voter turnout figures and the increasing popularity of alternative media sources and forms of populism, suggest it is facing crises of legitimacy that question the innate purpose of vast political machineries and bureaucracies that get very little done in the way of regulatory initiative or efficient use of taxpayer money. Similarly, the range of economic institutions are also being brought into question, losing their legitimacy as the realities of low-pay, low-productivity and pitiful economic growth begin to bite. In the recent UK election, nominally considered a game-changer by political standards as there was supposed to be a real choice on offer, turnout was still only 69%. It involved offering a range of free goodies with no actual explanation for how they would be implemented, and yet still could barely creep up to 3/4 of the registered electorate. During the US election, we saw two of the most unpopular candidates ever fielded, and a turnout that barely limped over the 50% mark. There may have been room for an alternative that offered neither the stereotypical nonsense presented by Clinton, nor the populism of Trump, but it didn’t materialise.

There are significant crises in legitimacy that are found within Western states and the large economic authorities (corporations, lobbyists and independent regulators), and thus room for alternatives that believe in increasing real choice and freedom and moving away from the stultifying nonsense of modern politics and the monopolised economy that seems unable to provide for a range of people. For example, UK job satisfaction is at a two-year low, with the largesse of the corporatised private sector seeing little in the way of opportunity or a desire to the work. Yet where has the libertarian message been, one that actually lays the blame at the heels of centralised political and economic authorities whom cannot possibly engage with the day-to-day lives of most people. One that offered actual control over people’s lives through multi-scalar market systems and the ability for workers to move beyond being simple employees toward a free economy of independent contractors and entrepreneurs.

The lack of a narrative that has anything to say on these issues springs from libertarianism’s seeming inability to forge a coherent understanding. At the moment, it is caught within neo-corporatist support for the existing system, that seems to believe our current forms of neoliberalism are in some way indicative of the strength of free markets and private property. Significant tranches of prevailing libertarian thought seem to be invested in supporting many elements of the current system and taking an uncritical view of modernity. Advocates from think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute, the IEA and the Cato Institute regularly tout the supposed successes of free markets due to the reduction of poverty that globalisation has brought forth. They talk of the beneficence that an international market system has brought and can continue to bring, such as larger levels of investment and higher levels of technological innovation. Things such as cheap food, easily accessible communication technologies and the wider dissemination of information are all made out to be the responsibility of globalisation’s dynamics. Now there is certainly some truth to these claims, yet those libertarians who offer this explanation tend to ignore the underlying statist dynamics that have been fundamental in constructing our existing socio-economic system. They ignore the land theft which has been integral to producing cheap labour forces in urban zones in Asia and Latin America, the intellectual property that artificially monopolises technological innovation and its distribution, the transportation subsidies that make it artificially cheaper to separate global production networks across the world, and the forms of credit provision that make it easier for particular companies to access credit at preferential rates within subsidised forms of banking and investment. Such problems can be seen with the ‘free market’ revolutions in the 80s that developed through the dictates of neoliberal leadership and the move from national Keynesianism. These have tended to co-opt elements within libertarian ideology, bastardising it to a milquetoast belief in small government and lower taxes. Thus libertarians become useful idiots for the generalities of the existing systems of production and regulation, with the occasional reduction in income tax or licensing requirements. Libertarianism is caught up in processes of trasformismo, being made co-optable to dominant ideologies and discourses that aim not a free market and civil society governance, but at a singularistic understanding that places the state as the central arbiter. In this Gramscian understanding, libertarianism is gutted, limiting its capability to address existing issues and to level its own critiques against the prevailing systems of economics and politics.

The most facile elements of libertarianism are given credence while the radical potential is swept under the carpet. It presents little of substance, having practically nothing to say to populations adversely affected by the processes and dynamics of modern globalisation. Libertarianism becomes consistently viewed as some of form of regulation-lite, lower taxation policy system that takes an uncritical view of modern globalisation. Such a perspective is encapsulated in the dictum ‘fiscal conservatism and social liberalism’, which reduces the full heterogeneity of libertarian thought down to basic policy proposals, ignoring fundamental questions around taxation, coercion and the state. It can’t really comment on the systems of post-politics found in Western states today, whereby a general consensus around certain policies develops that becomes practically unquestionable, as it wouldn’t attract the centre-ground voter and possibly derail the ‘gains’ already made via globalisation and the supposed disempowerment of states that globalisation has created. And its only reaction to the rise of populism is to consistently promote the benefits of the existing politico-economic order, touting it as a major step toward a full free market system. What can this possibly say to issues around generational unemployment, deindustrialisation and fears surrounding immigration. What can it say to young people who are unable to afford house and rental prices, and who take on vast levels of debt to afford university educations that are making degrees relatively worthless. What does it to say to wannabe entrepreneurs, who face massive entry barriers that the existing form of state-led globalisation are creating in droves. All it can do is effectively support an order constructed through multiple forms of statism, tacitly making the current system out to be the closest we have come to reducing the power of the state and empowering free markets.

If there exists a marketplace of ideas, then libertarianism is clearly failing. In the US presidential election, there was a choice between Clintonite neoliberalism and national populism, both of which proposed an expansion of the state and false promises of national renewal and a strong international order. In the recent UK election, a choice between two forms of statism presented themselves, both believing in state-led industrialism and the primacy of centralised knowledge. Even during the EU referendum, two visions of corporatism presented themselves, limiting a narrative that presented Brexit as a potentially radical movement of decentralisation that would move beyond simply criticising the EU toward criticising the centralised and bureaucratic nature of all forms of unaccountable national and supranational governance. The modern changes in politics seem to be moving toward statism, and the masses of people who don’t take an interest in electoral politics aren’t exactly calling for a libertarian revolution. Modern politics has itself become a bastion of pointless politicking that ignores the overt issues that different peoples care about. Politicians are happy to continue to screw up the housing market in this country, they are happy to start pointless wars which cause more harm than good and they continue to live under the delusion that an authority as large as the state can direct (either tacitly or explicitly) an integrated economic system. However, many libertarians also live under similar delusions, meaning they are happy to support ameliorative reforms such as shifting the burden of taxation from income and wealth toward consumption, furthering the independence of central banks and generally tending to lend support to right-of-centre political parties, even though their policies are just as stupid and regressive as those coming from the left. Libertarians seem happy to put their support behind ‘austerity’, a term that is frankly meaningless when looking at the current situation of government finances. They present nothing but convoluted definitions and petty proposals, and then wonder why many members of the public aren’t suddenly crying out for free markets.

Thus it seems that a libertarian moment, as consistently prophesied by libertarian activists and ideologues, has gone by, at least in the watered down versions that seem to gain the most public presence. It generally seems that libertarianism in this regard has little to say, and what it does say tends to get co-opted towards forms of political engineering that favour particular distributional coalitions. The existing political and economic systems favour centralisation and the control of information. Such a system will happily apply certain libertarian policies when it favours their political position, but otherwise libertarianism is seen as a kooky, outlandish set of ideologies and policies that will never gain traction. This then raises two fundamental questions. 1. Is the political order worth working with? 2. Can libertarianism be made into something more than the neo-corporatist idea it is currently seen as? Maybe, rather than David Davis or some other politician being seen as a major representative of libertarianism, it could instead develop generalisable and coherent understandings that actually answer the political and economic questions that are currently being asked.

If there is to be an actual libertarian moment, whether that be in building a general counter-institutionalism against predominant state structures or gaining greater public awareness, it needs to break with simplistic narratives that support the predominant forms of globalisation and neoliberalism, that asserts that markets are the main aim of libertarianism and that views modernity uncritically. Such potential may already exist with the recent populist risings that have characterised electoral politics over the last year. False narratives, such as the new paradigmatic dichotomy of nationalism and globalism, are beginning to spring up as a new form of politics, that will displace the older idea of left versus right. Yet as seen with the recent election, when two forms of statism were placed against each other, neither gained a full enough support of the electorate to prove truly viable. For all the hype, all the talk of a new paradigm, it proved to be pathetic and pointless, constituted by a number of undeliverable promises and stupid policies that barely made any sense. At the moment, libertarianism doesn’t really fit into this new mould, and it seems to find itself siding with the globalist side of the argument. But as I’ve mentioned, all this does is support a tacit form of state control, one that is strained through a number of international organisations and independent regulators. Instead of moving in this direction, such a dichotomy should be ignored and pushed against, thus opening a political space where it can be disregarded through a radical libertarianism that is all-encompassing, moving beyond markets toward an integrative theory of society that presents genuine alternatives to the centralisation of political and economic power.

Such a libertarianism should be focused on creating integrated alternatives to the present political and economic orders, focusing its criticism on the extent of massive economies of scale, the stringency of internationalised trade and property agreements, and the post-political world that currently exists. The existing economies of scale are the fullest representation of state-led intervention which favours large, corporate actors and removes control from communities, individuals and free markets. Normally presented as the natural progression of market forces, modern economies of scale have been effectively constructed by states and supranational organisations through a range of subsidies and mass infrastructure funded not by those who use it the most, but by general taxpaying population. The majority of modern corporations are a part of this oligopolistic system, from Apple and Microsoft to Nike and Wal-Mart. A huge range of entry barriers are constructed through lobbying efforts and the revolving door between established businesses and major regulatory agencies which limit the effects of market competition and allow for the development of monopolies and oligopolies that lead to centralised pricing systems and the limitation of genuine entrepreneurial activity. These systems are held in place by legislative efforts, including TRIPS agreements, bilateral trade agreements and a range of licensing and capital requirements which produce a floor below which business becomes extremely difficult or practically impossible.

Take for example the internationalised model of intellectual property which has been increased in scope, enforcement and scale, limiting the effects of entrepreneurial innovation and market-based price discovery. The lack of correlation between intellectual property and innovation shows that it isn’t particularly useful in encouraging innovatory activity, and can even be regressive when considering its capability to limit the production of particular products in different regions. Take Nike, who not only has a trademark on their signature tick, but also IP rights on the generic design of their trainers, meaning that potential competitors in the countries where these trainers are produced are legally unable to do so, thus limiting the expansion of various competitor products and preventing entrepreneurial innovation. This serves to upscale economies beyond simple production and consumption within particular regions, creating new layers of complexity and bureaucratic engineering which serve to exponentially increase costs and the levels of capital and income required to service these costs. Intellectual property in its current guise is simply the means to monopolise the flows of knowledge and information, limiting their entrepreneurial and emancipatory potential in favour of stringent control that maintains the largesse of existing economic institutions. When combined with the internationalisation of investor rights and the significant limitation of liability, we have a corporatised charter that is completely inimical to free markets under any definition.

The flows of technology are another area that are negatively affected by artificial up-scaling created by state-based intervention. Fears of technological unemployment are normally seen as part of the innate problem of market and profit systems, where to reduce costs on the bottom line businesses cut employment in favour of programmed machines. However this ignores that technological innovation is a process, and that its flows and delineations are down to who controls these processes and how they are applied. In the modern economy, it may well be responsible for unemployment because of the huge entry barriers which limit entrepreneurial activity and the development of independent contracting over the existing employment relation. It is the state’s use of licensing, wage and price setting, and monopolisation that limit the ability for technology to lead to innovation and new economic activity.

This is where the concerns of many of today’s electorate are found. Issues surrounding the inability to find capital funding for small businesses and new technologies, the drudgery of modern employment that discourage independent activity, and the up-scaling of economies beyond any form of control except through centralised institutions. When considering the fact that regional economies of scale are the most efficient for the majority of modern products, including smartphones and computer technology, we see the galling problem of global production networks. They are consistently reliant on state inputs to soak up excess production runs, and are thus less efficient than alternative production methods, such as small batch production and peer-based production within local and regional producer networks. Even at the level of international production and trade, it is more efficient for small-batch ordering and production runs rather than the consistent output of mass production and its reliance on huge infrastructures and market bases.

Libertarianism’s focus should be on furthering this critique and deepening its reach and space of activity and involvement. Thus, going back to the questions I posed earlier, is the libertarian moment now beyond our reach. In its current form, it certainly is. The direction of travel, even amongst young voters seemingly, is in the direction of requiring more state intervention to correct the ills that state intervention and neo-corporatism created in the first place. Libertarianism, as an ideology that tacitly supports modernity and its subsidised systems of unfree markets and statist diktat, cannot compete in such a political reality, as it promotes unpopular solutions that are incoherent when considering the full extent of state involvement in the economy. Rather, a libertarianism that supports a pluralistic, secessionary world of decentralised polities and multi-scalar economies actually has a basis in reality, as seen with the effects and involvement of people of varying backgrounds have in the black economy and other interstitial socio-economic projects.

This means attempting to move beyond the existing political order and producing spaces of exodus that allow individuals to engage in genuine forms of choice and free activity. This doesn’t mean rejecting industrialism or employment relations. It means, as Foucault describes, opening a genealogical understanding of politics and economics that opens up more possibilities. If someone wants to be an employee in a 9-5 job, then let them. But for those who are caught in the current vagaries of our socio-economic system, who cannot escape because of the imposition of entry barriers and monopolies which limit choice and competition, and destroy the idea of free markets, we should aim at supporting their capability to become entrepreneurs, to develop different institutions and exist on multiple economic scales, working within different, multi-scalar regulatory environments that don’t favour the invested interests of distributional coalitions that rely on the beneficence of the state.

It should move toward a political order that emphasises the adhoc of civil society over democratic regimentation, and pushes forth a popular litigiousness of decentralised polities and juries that have actual say over regulation and taxation. This pushes against the processes of homogenisation and trasformismo which aim at curtailing the radical ends of free markets, instead offering a vision of overlapping jurisdictional governance that incorporates the tribal identities of a number of groups, pushing against both an overt politics of violence and the post-politics of consensus and centralisation. It emphasises a range of alternatives that present the reality of an interstitial economy, comprising many different nodes in a variety of networks of economic and social governance and regulation. Such alternatives comprise a decentralised set of possibilities, including the knowledge sharing systems of P2P production, the de-scaling innovatory activities of networked small-scale producers and the move toward decentralist technologies such as the blockchain and 3D printing. They all present particular nodes in a wider network that allow for individuals to become economically and politically independent, gaining meaningful control over their lives.

The popularity of these ideas surrounding decentralisation and de-scaling are obvious to see. From the campaigns against library closures and the desire to see public services made responsive to the local population, to the range of alternative economies that have sprung up, such as the Transition Towns movement and the Men’s Sheds collectives. They may seem petty, yet they are the result of people genuinely wanting control over their social and economic environments within the context of significant strictures imposed by centralised authorities. Similarly, the vote for Brexit represents another outlet of dissatisfaction with the prevailing socio-economic order. The fact that it was a vote around the EU, something that most people don’t care about, is again a sign of the limitations that people have for expressing their desire for more control over their lives. It isn’t nationalist fervour or an expression of democratic ineptitude, but simply one of the ways individuals placed within the vagaries of a monopolised, up-scaled economy make it known they want change.

Decentralisation in this sense is best described by Jean Baudrillard, where he says “to a universe of networks, of combinatory theory”[1]. This, alongside a system of pluralistic, overlapping, tribal governance, that incorporates identity instead of destroying it as the modern precepts of globalisation and post-politics seem to, should be a fundamental political aim. Such can be seen in the idea of an alter-modernity, one that neither rejects modernity in its material elements (i.e. technological progress and innovation) nor simply looks back to the past. Instead, this conception incorporates both, recognising the history of pathways that present a world of multi-scalarity and interstitialism. This is where libertarianism’s philosophical aim should be. Not in cultivating the turgid realities of modernity, that present a world along one track, but in creating a world where the free movement of ideas allows for many different pathways, that coalesce into different theoretical junctures and networks. It should allow people to actually take control, not through petty votes in elections or referenda, but through a range of alternatives that expose the overdetermined nature of our political and economic lives. Whether that be living on a farming collective, or becoming an entrepreneur engaged in innovative socio-economic activity.

However, such a project of decentralisation and economic empowerment may not be achievable without a systemic break that projects forward the innumerable alternative modes of production and consumption into a coherent alternative. It may be that it requires significant economic crises, as in Spain and Greece, where the 15M and Syntagma movements have pushed forth new political and economic models that have developed out of their respective economic/political crises, that will develop new pathways toward general economic freedom and property relations. In other words, any sort of libertarian development will need to evolve from the small-scale, from the interstitial alternatives that exist in plethora throughout the world, from decentralised production models in Shenzhen and the black markets of Southeast Asia, to the alternative currencies, cooperative ownership models and men’s sheds movements found in England. Such a range of alternative forms shows that people see it as genuinely important to their lives, as an escape from the ordinary drudgery of existing employment where they have control, removed from the vagaries of globalised monopolies. However, for such a model of politico-economic relations to fully evolve beyond the strictures of statism and corporatism, it may require a revolutionary break brought forth by political and economic crises. There are consistent historical examples of decentralist activity providing meaningful lives for a range of individuals, yet we do not see a fully integrated system evolving from these myriad examples. Now this doesn’t mean waiting for revolution with baited breath as communists and Marxist do. It means exposing the stupidities of the existing political order wherever possible, and making sure that every crisis doesn’t go to waste. In the terms of accelerationism, it may mean willing forth the crises of legitimacy and finance to allow for a full break with the prevailing system, allowing for varied populations to take advantage of the ensuing chaos.

Fundamentally, libertarianism needs to disconnect with neo-corporatist managerial policies that pathetically aim at semi-privatised public services and some undefined idea of a smaller state, and instead move toward a radical theory of decentralisation and pluralism, that aims at redefining the economic variables around scale, property and markets, and pushes against both an overt Schmittian politics on the one hand, and a post-politics of homogeneous consensus on the other, instead developing a politics of adhoc, flexible governance based around civil society that creates a number of different socio-economic pathways that constitute an alter-modernity. It “means consentism, voluntarism, sovereign individuals doing their things, instead of imposing their ideas, laws and practices upon others”[2]. This then means that libertarianism has no place in modern politics precisely because the point of libertarianism should be to transcend the current forms of political order, rather than attempt to co-opt and accede to them.

When politicians continually push for more state involvement to correct the problems its created, libertarians should be there not just to say no, but to provide alternatives that are developed from the ground-up. When tragedies like the Grenfell tower fire occur, or when energy price tariffs go up consistently and trains always run late, we should do more than resist the expansion of the state. We should make the case for decentralisation and community-led alternatives, for genuine forms of privatisation that doesn’t mean the externalisation of costs onto the state and glorified cronyism, and for the ability for individuals of all classes and creeds to have actual control over their lives. From here we can develop spaces of exit that encourage freedom and a foot outside the prevailing state system. This form of libertarian politics ignores the state and its vagaries, providing spaces that weather the consistent crises of neo-corporatist economics and centralised politics, providing de-scaled alternatives that allow for meaningful control over one’s life and meaningful engagement with new political environments.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 49

[2] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/the-lumpenproletariat-as-class-vanguard-why-anarchists-must-attack-the-left-from-the-left/

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3 thoughts on “The Libertarian Moment: Libertarianism’s Place in Modern Politics

  1. I really liked this talk. You mentioned being driven out of the C4SS and I was wondering if you could say a little more about this. I’m starting university this September and am looking for think tanks and societies to be involved in, but have sympathies with left and right libertarians and am trying to avoid sectarian groups on either side.

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    • To be honest there’s not much to say about my being driven out of C4SS. I just woke up one day to find I was blocked by a number of their senior members on social media and had been removed from their email group.

      If you’re trying to avoid sectarian groups I would say avoiding C4SS is a good idea, as they are generally intolerant of anyone who doesn’t explicitly support their views on intersectional feminism and their disavowal of all things ‘fascist’ (which they use in such a broad sense it means almost nothing).

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