To Be Free: The Unbridgeable Chasm Between Right and Left Libertarians Notions of Freedom
I find it extremely interesting that people who mutually describe themselves as libertarian can come to such wildly different political positions. How is it that one set of libertarians can see freedom in the form of a society organized around norms of private property relations, commodity production, and exchange between individuals and privately owned institutions, while the other set sees freedom in the form of society’s that abolish all of these institutions, instead replacing them with usufruct based property norms, production to meet human need, and mutual aid between individuals and/or confederations of communes? Why does one group emphasize a critique of state power in defense of unfettered capitalism, while the other critiques all forms of institutionalized and cultural hierarchy in pursuit of a new minimally cooperative, and maximally communist economy? I think the answer to this question lies at its most basic level in our differing conceptions of freedom. Here, I will present different notions of freedom from each tradition, in hope that it sparks some discussion and leads to some degree of mutual understanding, that can be used to move forward. To be clear, I’m no unbiased author here. I fall very firmly into the libertarian left tradition, drawing my greatest influence from Murray Bookchin and Abdullah Ocalan’s works on democratic confederalism and communalism. With that said, I hope that doesn’t taint my writing here too much beyond my conclusory remarks, and this can be a productive thread.
Since I’m fairly confident I’m writing to a predominantly right wing/capitalist audience, I’m going to start off with right libertarian notions of freedom. If you already feel familiar with these ideas then skip to the next section. I think Ayn Rand makes the right libertarian notion of freedom extremely clear in her “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” where she says “Freedom, in a political context, means freedom from government coercion. It does not mean freedom from the landlord, or freedom from the employer, or freedom from the laws of nature which do not provide men with automatic prosperity. It means freedom from the coercive power of the state—and nothing else.” This passage paints a very clear picture of what freedom entails in the right libertarian tradition. Namely, freedom is the right to exist independent of state coercion. Indeed, she generalizes this unto coercion as such, saying “What is the basic, the essential, the crucial principle that differentiates freedom from slavery? It is the principle of voluntary action versus physical coercion or compulsion.” In this sense, freedom is based on the notion of voluntaryism as a principle, on the absence of coercive violence. So then, one may ask, how does this notion relate to capitalism and private property norms? Rand lays down the relationship between voluntaryism, private property by saying “In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgments, convictions, and interests dictate. They can deal with one another only in terms of and by means of reason, i.e., by means of discussion, persuasion, and contractual agreement, by voluntary choice to mutual benefit. The right to agree with others is not a problem in any society; it is the right to disagree that is crucial. It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree—and thus keeps the road open to man’s most valuable attribute (valuable personally, socially, and objectively): the creative mind.” Essentially, a capitalist society is necessarily organized around private property rights and thus contractual agreements. The ability to voluntarily form or leave these contractual arrangements organized around private property relations forms the essence of a society free from coercion in the libertarian capitalist ethos as described by Rand. Rand sees the justification for private ownership in the necessity of man to transform the world in order to live in the world. She writes “The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave”. Murray Rothbard illustrates a similar relation in his work “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” when he says “If a man has the right to self-ownership, to the control of his life, then in the real world he must also have the right to sustain his life by grappling with and transforming resources; he must be able to own the ground and the resources on which he stands and which he must use. In short, to sustain his “human right.”” This belief stems clearly from the classical liberal tradition and still informs our notions of freedom today.
With these beliefs, I think we have a clear image of the logical progression of ideas that inform the right wing libertarian notion of freedom. Firstly, humans are born into this world needing to transform the world in order to sustain their existence. This grants them the right to privately own the products of their labor and the resources necessary to produce them. In their relations with others, the greatest threat to this ownership is physical coercion, through the direct deprivation of life or the indirect deprivation of property granted through labor. To deal with this problem, relations with others must be organized around contractual relations voluntarily entered into by the original proprietors. This is either with other proprietors or with people who would like some access to the fruits of the property. It is worth noting that in this conception, people aren’t entitled to property, merely to the right to own property, based on the principle of homesteading. With that explained, let us now examine the opposing conception of freedom presented by the socialist tradition.
One of the best descriptions of the socialist notion of freedom comes from the anarchist Rudolf Rocker’s book “Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory & Practice” where he writes “For the Anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” I think this statement presents a key difference between the capitalist and socialist tradition on the question of freedom. Whereas the capitalist tradition identifies freedom in the absence of statist and physical coercion, the socialist tradition sees freedom in the presence of a condition wherein humans are capable of fully developing their innate potentialities. Murray Bookchin makes this difference explic in his “The Ecology of Freedom” when he states “freedom is more than the absence of constraint”. Rudolf Rocker details the fundamental anticapitalist contours of this notion of freedom by saying “Anarchists demand the abolition of all economic monopolies and the common ownership of the soil and all other means of production, the use of which must be available for all without distinction; for personal and social freedom is conceivable only on the basis of equal economic advantages for everybody. Within the socialist movement itself the Anarchists represent the viewpoint that the war against capitalism must be at the same time a war against all institutions of political power, for in history economic exploitation has always gone hand in hand with political and social oppression. The exploitation of man by man and the dominion of man over man are inseparable, and each is the condition of the other.” This idea is part of the logical conclusion of the free development notion of freedom posited by libertarian socialists. Libertarian socialists counter systems organized by statism or propertarianism, with systems based on free association, communes, direct action, direct democracy, mutuality, etc. Various libertarian socialists have differing opinions on the institutional form a free society would take, with many actively refusing to describe it in opposition to attempts at dictating the future. There are commonalities in underlying principles. One such set of principles is self organization and direct action. In “Toward an Ecological Society” Bookchin writes “By action directly, we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based on self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible. We often speak of self-management and self-activity as our ideals for a future society without recognizing often enough that it is not only the “management” and “activity” that has to be democratized; it is also the “self” of each individual — as a unique, creative, and competent being — that has to be fully developed. Mass society, the real basis for hierarchy, domination, command and obedience, like class society, is the spawning ground for a society of homogenized spectators whose lives are guided by elites, “stars,” and “vanguards,” be they in the bureaucratic society of the United States or the totalitarian societies of the socialist world. A truly free society does not deny selfhood but rather supports it, liberates it, and actualizes it in the belief that everyone is competent to manage society, not merely an “elect” of experts and self-styled men of genius.” These principles are then unified with ideas of an economy organized around direct, nonhierarchical, and communal/confederal or cooperative control of natural resources , as Bookchin for example advocates says in “The Next Revolution”, “Confederalism as a principle of social organization reaches its fullest development when the economy itself is confederalized by placing local farms, factories, and other needed enterprises in local municipal hands; that is, when a community, however large or small, begins to manage its own economic resources in an interlinked network with other communities.”
This assembly of principles, gives us a basic image for the libertarian socialist notion of freedom. Firstly, this notion of freedom is also based on the fact that humans are born into this world with the need to transform the material world in association with others to meet their needs. The libertarian socialist tradition sees freedom in this realm of toil as the state wherein people are able to develop themselves, actualizing all of their latent potentialities and bringing them to social account. Toward that end, the libertarian socialist is not satisfied with the mere absence of coercion, but rather seeks the elimination of hierarchy and private property, of all things that act as barriers to direct action and self management of the material world. The mere legal right to own things is not enough, the libertarian socialist seeks the actuality of a society wherein that abstract is a material possibility for all individuals, in the form of a society based on direct, unmediated management of the material world, organized confederally for the good of all in society.
As a communalist, I am more sympathetic to the latter view. To me, freedom means little if it is not given materiality. Ayn Rand critiques the notion that ‘a starving man is not free’ by stating that freedom only means absence of coercion, but honestly, to me this is far too shallow a notion to constitute genuine liberation. To me, freedom entails the concrete possibility to direct my own fate. In a world where that which I need to survive is privatized and sold to me as a commodity, where my ability to actually put my talents into the world is gate kept behind hr departments and the free market, where my labor only matters if it can make someone else a profit, in what meaningful sense am I free? In a libertarian capitalist society, it is likely all the land would be privatized, restricting my life even more. I truly would be dependent on my ability to produce profit for someone else to survive, since there would be no mitigation by the state. To me, the actuality of freedom has its form in a society organized around direct control of public and economic life by the people. Where, I can’t be excluded from the means of life by property restrictions. Where I don’t have to appeal to a hiring board to work. Where there are no elitist institutions that dictate how I should work for their profit. Freedom is socialism.
But, I’m sure many of you disagree, and I would like to see some of that disagreement in the comments. Thanks for taking the time to read through this pretentious essay.
Article from r/Libertarian: For a Free Society