Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Poverty and Pathology of the Continuum of "Left" to "Right" Libertarianisms

This post began as a comment criticizing the shared recourse of some well-meaning folks in the Moot to the notion of a wholesome "left libertarianism," and it quickly sprawled too long for the comment utility to accommodate. It's completely off-the-cuff, so the usual apologies.

To the extent that "left libertarian" names a kind of woozy feel good New Age anarchism confronting the hard-edged self-interested opportunistic competitive anarchism of "right libertarianism" I must say that I find the two visions precisely equally dangerous and equally deluded, arising from the same social and historical conditions and likely discursively co-dependent.

When these phrases name orientations more ideal than simply partisan political affiliations, left and right libertarian identities both bespeak at their essence the pathologies of postwar Americanness, in my view, that is to say, the aspirations and assumptions of infantile egotists insulated by imperial corporate-militarist violence from too many of the real consequences of their irrationality and enabled by the same to confuse personal luck and disavowed exploitation for individual accomplishment and autonomy.

The self-indulgent sentimentality of one libertarian variation and the callous sociopathy of the other perfectly complement one another in the American psyche, and often oscillations between the two provide the dance beat to the dance of death that is the average American life as its consequences play out to their indifference in the wider world.

Let me elaborate more of what I mean so I won't be accused of just spewing bile in saying this. If by "left libertarian" one simply meant instead to designate a staunch support of civil liberties, that is to say an individual rights culture (an ethical position) that trumps the claims of subculture/moral positions to enable the reconciliation of disputes among them, then it occurs to me that both left and right political orientations in their present construals, even their partisan construals, owe quite a bit to this notion and tradition and both still cite it in their rationalizations (with what justice changes on a case by case basis).

But one thing I would emphasize is that if "libertarian" is meant to evoke "civil liberties" or "rights culture" in particular, rather than the usual anarchisms of privilege I have derided, both left and right, then this conceptual discursive vantage, the civil libertarian vantage, absolutely cannot derive from the usual figure of negative liberty, liberty as empty unencumbered space, liberty as the solitary mind dictating action or the solitary actor occupying and accomplishing things in public space, the figure on which both left and right libertopian fancies crucially depend.

Notice that civil liberties are indeed Civil: the liberty and dignity they indicate does not amount to an empty space in which we are "at liberty" but is a fulsome substance, full of the enabling artifice and ongoing experience of freedom: Civil liberties depend on the creation and maintenance of a ritual (right as from rite as from ritual) artifice (made not spontaneous, founded not found) of norms, customs, laws, regulations, infrastructure. There can be no question of an imaginary autonomous sovereign judge or will or actor but a self born into a normative/linguistic world, immersed in an ongoingness, at once enabled and frustrated in absolute inter-dependence with others.

The utter vacuity of the chestnut "that government governs best which governs least" so beloved of the loose libertarian/libertopian imaginary, both left and right -- like the figures of "spontaneous order" that inevitably freight sweeping anti-governmentalities -- is conspicuous the moment one contrasts to it, say, "that government governs best which manages best to establish and administer justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for a common defense, promote general welfare, and hence secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Can you imagine the self-defeating absurdity of a ringing declaration to the effect that "that government is best that provides the least justice or tranquility or security or welfare"?

In the absence of the provision of any explicit standard on the basis of which one decides what good government consists of as such, to say as one does in that libertopian chestnut that the less of it the better, come what may, no end in specified or in sight, is always really simply to declare the wish that there were no government at all. And to indulge that wish is little more than the infantile wish for a world without other actually different people in it, without the need of law or institutional spaces in which to adjudicate the disputes of such difference.

In light of all this, what it seems to me the Left really needs to get better at is not so much appealing to libertopian frames which bespeak, at root, a pre-political lack of understanding rather than some viable political understanding among others and which also reflect most of all the position of uncritical beneficiaries of imperial economic violence and industrial ecologic violation, but,, to the contrary, the Left needs to get serious about and better at formulating the very idea of good government as such. The post-anarchic post-communistic but still radically democratic Left needs to recall that the business of citizens and activists and elected representative is not only to administer good government but continually to commend to ourselves and clearly to teach to the rising generation the far from natural, far from intuitive, far from easy, far from conclusive lessons of equity-in-diversity in relation to good government in the first place: that the ongoing nonviolent reconciliation of the interminable differences between the diversity of stakeholders with whom we make and share and contest the world demands the maintenance of unique and indispensable institutions for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, the administration of services which ensure that the scene of consent is informed and nonduressed, and the commonwealth of shared resources, accomplishments, criticism and creativity as well as the consent of the governed.

No New Age (left libertarian) or Randroidal (right libertarian) narcissistic fancies are equal to these demands or dynamisms. Our easy recourse to them even now bespeaks our ugly lazy self-indulgence -- and by all means include me in that accusation before you or anybody else wrongly takes it more personally than what I intend, in deadly earnest, as a general critique.


jollyspaniard said...

Whenever I hear left libertarianism I think of Robert Henlien novels. He wrote some pretty good books but you wouldn't want to live in a world run by Henlein. It requires an intervensionist god (in this case the author) to fudge things to keep it from collapsing into feudalism.

There's always a simplistic "if only.." element to left libertarianism. The only thing it has going for it is that at least it tends to be good natured. Although most of them I've spoken to when asked hard questions admit that they don't have the answers.

Your last paragraph basicaly presents the prisoner's dilemma. There's only three solutions 1) Screw over the "other" 2) Cooperate with the "other" or 3) The Mafia solution (who solved the prisoners dilemma before Nash did however crudely).

Dale Carrico said...

A couple glib comments -- again, off the cuff! (I think that caveat should possibly accompany every blog post or Moot comment from here on out...)

The odd thing about the Prisoner's Dilemma is that it purports to be descriptive when it is actually prescriptive. That's true of a lot of presumably descriptive principles or models, of course, but it has always struck me how the name of principle captures so well, but so differently than it intends, the phenomenon it describes. While economists and sociologists of a certain bent (I don't agree that any of the philosophers of whom this is also true are properly described as philosophers) seem to find the Prisoner's Dilemma nearly everywhere in public life, and everywhere profoundly explanatory, it seems to me that it has never adequately captured the stakes in any actually human encounter or situation -- except to the extent that it imposes its limits on the imaginative capacity of people who would otherwise interact in more generous and creative terms than it allows. In that sense, the dilemma of those who find the model compelling is precisely that they have been imprisoned by it, very much to the cost of what might otherwise have seemed possible and important, when few would ever otherwise have to be.

As for Heinlein, I do think he illustrates rather forcefully how readily libertarian sentiment without left commitment can drift into right testament with the greatest of ease. (I speak as something of a lifelong guilty fan of Heinlein's work -- TNotB being, I know, I know, my very favorite of them all).