The Class Divide in Libertarian Politics
An Essay by Ross Miller Kenyon
“… Marx does not consider that certain human situations are, in themselves and absolutely, preferable to others. It is the needs of people, the revolt of a class, which define aims and goals.”1
– Simone de Beauvoir
I spent the bulk of my intellectual energy this past year trying to integrate my understanding of the left-libertarian perspective into my understanding of the broader right or standard libertarian tradition I knew fairly well. However, I had been unable to synthesize the divide down to its purest essence.
While there are some significant policy and predictive differences looming between left and standard libertarians my chin grew chaffed from the pensive stroking. Was the divide purely the result of secondary ideological preferences for how our decentralized communities should look;2 a penchant for progressive culture, localism or using ten dollar words like ‘dialectical’3 and ‘patriarchy?’4 These philosophical departures certainly exist, but after becoming acquainted with many activists and thinkers within the left-libertarian niche I began to suspect that their ideology may have been firmly rooted within their economic particulars, and cast that analysis back upon the broader libertarian movement at large.
Left-libertarian divergences from standard libertarian politics are potentially more than earnest ideological reinterpretations of the world as we know it. Libertarian politics are expressed in a different manner by perennial wage laborers than they are expressed by libertarians who own or expect to own some means of production. These alternative perspectives are valid and rational for their possessors to hold and are in fact an astute grasping of their role within the existing political economy. Mindful of the risk of committing economism, this essay will explore the thesis that differences in politics between these two libertarian camps are at least partially due to the conflicting economic interests of their proponents.
This paper aims to improve one’s understanding of libertarianism and the American libertarian movement by deciphering one of the most pressing sources of internal libertarian disagreement: class struggle. However, this essay is absolutely not meant to be taken as a normative endorsement of either camp. It is merely a description of current political reality.
I. Methodological Limitations
King Arthur: “Camelot!”
Sir Galahad: “Camelot!”
Sir Lancelot: “Camelot!”
Patsy: “It’s only a model.”
King Arthur: “Shhh! Knights, I bid you welcome to your new home. Let us ride… to Camelot!”
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The question of how to analyze phenomena is foundational to any inquiry, social or otherwise. While I find methodological individualism, the attempt to analyze all human behavior from the perspective of the individual as utilized by Austrian economics, to be very useful it is extremely limited in the explanatory power it can provide for the social sciences if used strictly. Speaking meaningfully in terms of groups is virtually impossible because, as Margaret Thatcher crooned, “there is no such thing as society.” Strict individualism is a methodological scalpel.
Class analysis is the inverse of methodological individualism. It allows for individuals to be absorbed into assumedly meaningful and organic groups for the purpose of analysis, as epitomized by its most famous incarnation wherein the proletariat work the means of production owned by the bourgeois as described by Marxism. Class analysis is a methodological club, in that by constructing these models useful nuance is disregarded for the sake of broader vision and description.
We attempt to understand reality and truth through modeling, but modeling is not reality or truth. The broader the model’s net is cast the fewer the number of groups are necessary to describe social phenomena and thus the simpler the model becomes. The more exceptions and groups one allows within a model the less ability it has to deliver succinct analytical statements. Not everything will fit inside of these models well, but if we allow for cases on the margin to pass without disturbing the model as a whole they have the potential to guide us in profound ways.
This essay will not be incorporating any data because none relevant exists to my knowledge. This essay is primarily a reflection upon my personal experiences in the United States, and as with all analysis of class, identity and groups, it is foggier than we would all like it to be. Ultimately, class interest is only one of the many determinants which as a whole create ideological preferences.
In this manner I will cautiously and in full knowledge of its inherent limitations utilize aspects of Marxian class analysis in order to unearth insight regarding how one’s place within the political economy affects libertarian political expression.
II. What We’re Most Familiar With:
The Politics of Libertarians Who Own or Expect to Own
“[Murray Rothbard in Power and Market] defends a libertarian class analysis derived from an early-nineteenth-century American vice president, congressman, and political philosopher – John Calhoun: the idea that the real classes in contemporary society are not boss and worker, but taxpayer (those who are mulcted by the state) and tax consumer (those who gain through the state’s organized theft).”5
- Brian Doherty
Viewing from where we are now, there was clearly a sea change in even radical libertarian politics away from the 19th century pro-labor sentiment possibly as a result of classical liberal alliances with conservatives during the Progressive Era, interwar period and the Cold War. Whatever it was, it is safe to say that modern American libertarians have generally been hostile to labor activism and unions. Ask a libertarian today about a specific or hypothetical workplace conflict and the smart money rides on the odds that they reflexively side with the business owner. The burden of proof for convincing an average libertarian that the boss is at fault is generally far higher than the converse.
One compelling explanation for this phenomenon below the superstructure of ideology regards the fact that most of the libertarians I know are the talented college-educated offspring of professionals middle class and above, usually occupying or planning to occupy a similar station in life.
I came of age in a well-to-do family. I experienced an upper middle class upbringing with the combined guarantee and imperative of a college education, family vacations that left the borders of the United States and a reasonable expectation of a future niche to be filled as a junior member of the intelligentsia or business elite. Any wage labor I performed had been a temporary way to earn some extra money during the summer or part-time during the school year. There was always a point in the future, clearly visible, where I could see that I would be able to quit, fall back on loans, family and study, and then graduate and head into a line of work where I could experience comfort and fulfillment in using my brain in some creative way. I have never been, nor do I expect to be, anything but a temporary member of the working class. I have only been a tourist to assemble funds for beer and road trips before returning to more stimulating pursuits.
Libertarians of similar backgrounds have generally built an enterprise from within the statist political economy (or are working their way up to the higher echelons of the workplace hierarchy) and have developed a class interest which faces an onslaught from three sides: it must defend against uppity rabble from below, direct taxing from the state and competition from businessmen who more proficiently adapt to a marketplace subject to the state’s roving influence. They see themselves as the primary group being mulcted by the state, and any sniff of class warfare from below, real or perceived, invariably implicates their direct interests in the political economy. Simply put, what superior wants their authority challenged by their subordinates, especially when their paycheck and relative autonomy is on the line?
They already are, or, with luck, are eventually going to be the relative masters and shapers of their own domain; or at the very least they don’t imagine that they will be outside of the upper ranks of the managerial class forever.6
III. Working Class Libertarianism
Peter Gibbons: You see, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t- don’t care?
Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s another thing, I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Porter: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.
- Office Space
Left-libertarians argue that we live inside of a statist political economy which fosters inequity, truncates autonomy and funnels people into an unimaginative and bureaucratized economic landscape. They posit that the basic costs of living are artificially expensive, distantly-produced goods which compete with more local and less alienating forms of production are artificially inexpensive and horizontal alternatives to the plutocratic model are discouraged if not totally excluded by purposeful state action.7 Unless one is daring enough to live as an agorist we must all find ways to sustain ourselves while upon our thoroughly unlibertarian planet.8
My dear friends, colleagues and instigators of profound intellectual influence upon me, James Tuttle and Kevin Carson, have different backgrounds from myself. James didn’t find the structured and modular style of university to his liking and didn’t finish his undergraduate degree. To get by he has been working in retail though he is as of now heroically attempting a second pass at academia as a seasoned autodidact. Kevin finished his undergraduate degree but didn’t find a solid fit as a graduate student, instead ending up as an orderly at a hospital as he documents in his excellent writings on the subject.9
They show up at jobs in which they see themselves as generally objects to be acted upon, who don’t have much say in the terms of their employment or much bargaining power to speak of. They, like countless generations of working people before them, see themselves as staring headlong into a lifetime of being managed and ruled from above. Choice exists within our oligarchical confines but it is far diminished compared to that which a freed market society would provide. In other words, left-libertarians see members of the working class as the primary victims being mulcted by state power.
If they were motivated to do so, they could attempt to climb the workplace pyramid. However, they believe that progress toward the role of a foreman or overseer, a member of the working class whose interests are made to align with management in an attempt to better control laborers, would still leave them excluded from substantive autonomy. This sort of upward mobility by bending one’s will better to the wishes of the employer, while surely an improvement for the direct beneficiary, would do nothing to challenge the class relationship as seen from the perspective of the left-libertarian.
As a working class libertarian, the primary class conflict is between the wage earner and the boss whom they believe is generally more in cahoots with the state than any member or (alleged) representative of the working class. They believe that in the absence of state intervention the natural and more favorable balance between Labor and Capital would be restored or entirely overcome by a new system of workers’ self-management.
The Work Contract
“Oh, a trooper will get away with what he can; any private with enough savvy to mark time to music can think up reasons why he should not clean compartments or break out stores; this is a soldier’s ancient right.”10
- Starship Troopers
For working class libertarians, the work contract is a document in dispute. They believe that it can not specify precisely how hard one ought to work as that information is generally unquantifiable. Standard libertarians often support Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness, but generally think that laborers should humbly accept all that is demanded of them rather than viewing labor activism toward better conditions and higher wages as part of the discovery process for market prices.11 Carson writes:
Anyone who takes the binding authority of contracts at face value, and who also considers altruism (in the strict Randian sense) as morally repugnant, will pay careful attention to the issue of what one actually agrees to in the labor contract. The concrete details of a labor contract, as an incomplete contract, are very much determined by actual local usage in the same sense that implied warranties rely on local “reasonable person” standards. The idea that anyone should work any harder than they’ve strictly obligated themselves to, by a narrow reading of the implied contract, is suspiciously close to a call for the worker to sacrifice herself for the interests of the boss.12
In addition, since working class libertarians perceive themselves as being in an artificially disadvantaged position of bargaining relative to Capital it is easy to see why they might resist their treatment in some ways which right libertarians will condemn as contractual breach.13
But this sort of politickin’ is not unique to left-libertarians. Ask a garden variety libertarian if they support ‘right-to-work’ laws, which preclude legitimate closed shop union agreements from being made between workers and employers. To limit this action is a clear breach of the freedom of association and contract so heralded by libertarians but they often support such laws because unions allegedly have so much power within the statist political economy that to allow them nominal freedom of association is to lose ground against them. This principle of situational tactics can effectively be generalized as when we have an unfree society the sphere of acceptable behavior shifts and now permits nominally unlibertarian action so long as it serves a genuine libertarian outcome.
The tactics of the Industrial Workers of the World don’t all violate standard libertarian ethics, but it should now be clearer as to why Kevin, James, Charles Johnson, et al, and many of their academic allies are members of the IWW. If the state creates structural barriers in favor of business at the expense of the workers, then left-libertarians argue that the sphere of acceptable behavior has shifted in favor of labor. They perceive their social position to be significantly trapped under the boot of the corporatist state. They aren’t battling for the commanding heights of politics, nor are they waiting for the intellectual climate to shift as per Hayek’s model;14 they are taking rational and immediate steps at the point of production to make their lives better. Carson writes:
If libertarians like to think of ‘a fair day’s wage’ as an open-ended concept, subject to the employer’s discretion and limited by what he can get away with, they should remember that ‘a fair day’s work’ is equally open-ended. It’s just as much in the worker’s legitimate self-interest to minimize the expenditure of effort per dollar of income as it’s in the employer’s interest to maximize the extraction of effort in a given period of time.15
If one is a working class libertarian, anti-state labor struggle can be and often is a rational pursuit of the betterment of one’s material conditions.16 This, however, pits the class interests of working class libertarians against standard libertarians and is thus the source of much conflict within the libertarian movement.
IV. Class Consciousness and Political Ideology
“It is idiotic that those who have figured things out are forced to wait for the mass of cretins who are blocking the way to evolve. The herd will always be the herd. So let’s leave it to stagnate and work on our own emancipation (…) put your old refrains aside. We have had enough of always sacrificing ourselves for something. The Fatherland, Society and Morality have fallen (…) that’s fine, but don’t contribute to reviving new entities for us: the Idea, the Revolution, Propaganda, Solidarity; we don’t give a damn. What we want is to live, to have the comforts and well-being we have a right to. What we want to accomplish is the development of our individuality in the full sense of the word, in its entirety. The individual has a right to all possible well-being, and must try to attain it all the time, by any means…”
- Hegot, Les Temps Nouveaux, 1903.17
If one views one’s interests as more closely aligned with libertarians who own or expect to own some means of production then on a purely existential level one probably perceives less urgency in the fight for a free society. It is easy to patiently attempt to win the long term battle of ideas while sequestered in a comfortable office, think tank or academic chamber.
Working class libertarians don’t believe that they can afford this approach financially and/or shouldn’t have to wait for economic justice. They urgently perceive the need for freed markets now, and their only realistic option may be to turn their local economic tables against those whom they believe benefit more from the state than they themselves do.
This paper does not take a normative stance on the libertarian battle of the workplace; it seeks only for libertarians to understand the various class interests which define the struggle. By understanding each other perhaps libertarians can become more nuanced in their conception of American political economy and the employer-employee relationship.18
The divergent libertarian class consciousnesses discussed above are within the range of their wearers’ rational self-interest but this divide is ultimately undesirable. Libertarianism insofar as it is a utopian philosophy aims to eliminate the fundamental social antagonisms of society and to solve the problem of humanity. By striking the root of privilege, the State, its detrimental imbalances of wealth and power will hopefully no longer be able to be sustained and more wholesome processes can be allowed to become. Then, the true cost of action can be internalized, every act of production will be a net positive for humanity and people will be rewarded more justly by the marketplace for their actions.
In these parting words I humbly submit the reader to examine to what degree one’s class interests have determined what one currently believes about political philosophy. To some extent, economics may always be the base of any social order with ideology, law, culture, politics, etc. forming the superstructure above it. No one likes to think of the grand ideas they hold about how the world ought to operate as being formed from within oneself as an egoistic expression of material desire and personal gain.
By no means are class interests everything, however. I favor a more robust and dialectical view of ideology; giving people the benefit of the doubt and not degrading them to the point of vulgar economism, though I do posit that class interest as ideological motivation has been unfairly ignored by libertarians and exists beyond dispassionate and noble analysis.
The truth, as in all things, probably lay in the brackish water between. Class interests to some degree determine political ideology, and libertarians are certainly not exempt from this phenomenon.
1. Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (New York: Citadel Press, 1976), 18.
2. Ross Miller Kenyon, “Anarchists for Gun Control: Methodology and Ideology from within a Monopolistic Legal Order,” The Social Rationalist, May 17, 2011 <http://www.jacobroundtree.com/2011/05/17/anarchists-for-gun-control-methodology-and-ideology-within-a-monopolistic-legal-order/>.
3. Charles Johnson, “Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism,” Rad Geek People’s Daily, 2008 <http://radgeek.com/gt/2010/03/02/liberty-equality-solidarity-toward-a-dialectical-anarchism/>.
4. Charles Johnson and Roderick T. Long, “Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage be Saved?,” Charles W. Johnson, 2004 <http://charleswjohnson.name/essays/libertarian-feminism/>.
5. Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), 269.
6. There are working class libertarians who mistakenly identify themselves as middle class. Being middle class does not refer to one’s standard of living but to one’s relation to the means of production and the relatively enhanced subjectivity and control of one’s fate that accompanies upward mobility.
7. Much has been written about this topic, with its most comprehensive treatment on these issues will most likely be found in Kevin Carson’s The Homebrew Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto.
8. An agorist is someone who practices counter-economics by participating in the informal economy, avoiding taxation and regulation which favors larger more well-connected firms and financially supports policies which agorists find to be undesirable and/or immoral. Visit http://www.agorism.info/ for more information.
9. Kevin A. Carson, “The Healthcare Crisis: A Crisis of Artificial Scarcity,” Center for a Stateless Society, March 24, 2010 <http://c4ss.org/content/2088>.
10. Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers (New York: ACE Books, 1987), 164.
11. Kevin A. Carson, “Contract Feudalism,” Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Captialism, February 25, 2005 <http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2005/02/contract-feudalism.html>.
12. Kevin A. Carson, private email correspondence, July 21st, 2011.
13. Kevin A. Carson, “The Ethics of Labor Struggle,” Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism, April 19, 2007 <http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2007/04/media-print-projection-embossed-body.html>.
14. F.A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” Mises Daily, August 16, 2008 <http://mises.org/daily/2984>, originally printed in The University of Chicago Law Review (Spring 1949).
15. Kevin A. Carson, “The Wobblies and Free Market Labor Struggle,” On ALLiance: Rational Review, 2011 <http://alliance.rationalreview.com/2011/02/the-wobblies-and-free-market-labor-struggle/>.
16. Kevin A. Carson, “Labor Struggle: A Free Market Model,” Center for a Stateless Society, September 29, 2010 <http://c4ss.org/content/4163>.
17. Doug Imrie, “The ‘Illegalists,” Anarchy: a Journal Of Desire Armed, Fall-Winter, 1994-95 <http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Doug_Imrie__The__Illegalists_.html>.
18. Ross Miller Kenyon, “Free Market Base or Superstructure: An Open Inquiry Regarding Resultant Political Economies & the Moral Culpability of Current Beneficiaries,” Liberty Forum Online, March 29, 2011 <http://studentsforliberty.org/news/liberty-forum-online-presents-ross-kenyon-free-market-base-or-superstructure/>.