What follows are some 101 questions and answers I designed for a Students for Liberty meeting at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
None of these questions or answers were needed because the group was so well engaged, but I decided to repost them here anyways because of the more general use they may serve.
- What does the “left” in left-libertarian mean?
Left libertarianism can mean “left” as in a Georgist, someone who agrees with the philosophy of the economist Henry George. George tended to believe that the problems of the world revolved around landlords and that a single tax might alleviate social inequalities.
It can also mean “left” in two different anarchist senses.
One sense is anarchist-communism represented by folks like Peter Kropotkin or Emma Goldman.
This philosophy stems from thinkers like Benjamin Tucker, editor of the individualist anarchist magazine Liberty in the late 19th and early 20th century. This form of “left” often involves an interest in solidarity, equality and liberty for the individual and the communities they inhabit. These cultural norms are meant to work against oppressive elements in society like capitalism (which is differentiated from markets), government and things like sexism, racism, etc.
As Gary Chartier puts it in his The “Left” In Left Libertarian,
An authentically leftist position, I suggest, is marked by opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation.
This doesn’t mean no one else can oppose such things or have sympathies towards such opposition. But it’s often not the main cause of conservatives, for example, to challenge things like racism or other exclusionary cultural norms.
2. What does the “libertarian” in left-libertarian mean?
The “libertarian” in left tends to mean anarchist. This isn’t universal as we have some notable folks like Chris Matthew Sciabarra and the Bleeding Heart Libertarians who may consider themselves allied with left-libertarianism in some way, yet aren’t anarchists.
But for the most part, the “libertarian” in “left libertarian” involves anarchism. This a particular form of anarchism that has been advocated all the way from the 19th century by people like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon was mutualist living in the 19th century and one of the first individuals in history to call himself an anarchist.
“Anarchism” within this context doesn’t mean a desire for disorder, chaos or violence. Anarchism instead refers to a political philosophy that advocates the abolition of the state, capitalism and all other oppressive exercises of authority.
…any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself- none of them are self-justifying. Whether they’re in individual relations, or international affairs, or the workplace, or whatever- they have a burden of proof to bear, and if they can’t bear that burden (which they usually can’t), they’re illegitimate and should be dismantled and replaced by alternative structures which are free and participatory and are not based on authoritarian systems.
3. What thinkers do left-libertarians tend to draw from?
Given how big of a tent left-libertarianism even within the specific branch of left-wing market anarchism is, the thinkers may vary.
Regardless, here are some common sources of its thought:
Voltairine de Cleyre
Murray Rothbard (60s and early 70s Rothbard)
Gabriel Kolko (New Left Historian though not an LL himself)
Samuel Edward Konkin III
4. What differentiates between left-libertarians and other libertarians?
Left-libertarians, in comparison to minarchists, tend to be more explicitly anti-political. In the sense that we’re more fundamentally hostile to government. We also tend to favor non-electoral means or at least downplaying their importance within our own tactics. This, as opposed to minarchists who may support candidates like Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, etc.
Left-libertarians in comparison to anarcho-capitalists tend to be more critical of things like corporate culture and bureaucracy within large non-governmental firms. Examples may include things such as non-profits or corporations. Our predictions for what a freed market would end up looking like tend to be more conventionally leftist. For example, we think independent contractors and worker cooperatives will be much more likely to spring up than the traditional hierarchical and large firms we see today.
It should be noted that some anarcho-capitalists care more about anarchism than capitalism and these sorts of anarcho-capitalists may tend to overlap with left-libertarians more. Particularly in that they have no real preference of whether corporations should still exist, or if everything should be privatized or not. They merely want to abolish the state, free the market, and leave it up to individuals and communities from there.
Left-wing market anarchists tend to sympathize with this position though we’d also remind these sorts of anarcho-capitalists that we are market forces and furthermore that some systems tend to be more conducive towards sustaining liberty than others.
5. What differentiates between left-libertarians and anarcho-communists?
Generally speaking, left-libertarians being market anarchists don’t want to abolish markets, money or material capital like anarcho-communists do. On economic questions then, anarcho-communists and left-libertarians may share some overlap with wanting a more fluid way of exchanging value, but on the whole we disagree about how to do that.
Anarcho-communists also tend to favor violent revolutions, expropriation and violent direct action. While there is by no means a consensus on these things within LWM(A) circles, we generally see peaceful gradualism or immediatism as preferable to violence whenever possible. Things like self-defense should be taken seriously but used carefully and strategically even when it’s morally right.
And just as LWM(A)s tend to disfavor monocentric systems of privatization we also tend to dislike the monocentrism via communizing. We’d prefer to socialize/mutualize (see also here and here) functions in society so that individuals, cooperatives, collectives, partnerships and any other sort of collaboration that happens can be done on people’s own terms.
Adding to this, some market anarchists advocate a sort of commons advocated by Elinor Ostrom or a peer-to-peer production model as opposed to a communist based commons. Kevin Carson has written about Ostrom’s approach here and the larger anarchist themes in her work. He has also written about P2P relations in a freed society through the topic of intellectual property.
6. What roles do thick and thin libertarians play within left-libertarianism?
Some people see “thick libertarianism” and “left-libertarianism” as synonymous but this is inaccurate.
The terms “thick” and “thin” libertarian refer to a matter of internal and philosophical consistency questions. Can libertarianism be joined to, as Charles Johnson writes, “absolutely any non-coercive set of values and projects” as with Leonard Reed’s famous “anything peaceful” mantra? Or should it be integrated into other social commitments such as anti-racism or religious freedom of various sorts?
To be clear, to be a left-libertarian you do not need to be a thick libertarian.
Although it is true that this is a rare combination it does happen. Historically, you could argue Benjamin Tucker’s version of anarchism was thin. Tucker only saw the goal of an anarchist society to be a lack of physical violence and no state. Whatever else was not the business of anarchists.
To add to this, it is entirely possible to be a thick right-libertarian.
For example, Hans Herman Hoppe has some (in)famous cultural commitments some may see as conservative. A notable example is his as exclusion of queer folks in his favored covenant communities. I may disagree with this view but it’s still a thick one.
7. Is left-libertarianism just a rhetorical device to attract the left?
More than a few people have accused left-libertarians of merely trying to change the rhetoric and not the substance of libertarianism. We would be doing this, so the narrative goes, to appeal to left-wing people. Usually this is implying more moderate liberals and progressives ala Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters.
But given that most LWM(A)s are anarchists this would seem to be very counter-intuitive. It appears unlikely that organizations such as the Center for a Stateless Society has, at least as their number one goal, to win over a Bernie Sanders supporter, for instance. Especially with articles like this and this.
Now, it’s entirely true that left-libertarians tend to focus more on things like prison abolition, LGBTQA+ discrimination, racial discrimination, problems with corporations, etc. But that’s often because we genuinely believe these things are important in of themselves and that they connect to radical libertarianism in important ways that are often under-emphasized within the broader libertarian movement.
And even when we do talk about conventionally left-wing topics we usually tie in the state in some way. Whether it’s mentioning the privileges that the state gives to corporations, the laws that help discrimination or something else. In which case we’re not toeing the mainstream leftist line there either.
So again, it seems unlikely that the main purpose of left-libertarianism is to only appeal to moderate liberals and progressives. As a side-effect of our tendencies, sympathies and interests, it’s plausible. But we’re doing this for a free society, not to market libertarianism a little better.
Moreover, this claim seems to rely on the notion that left-libertarians are lying in some sense. Either to our audience, to ourselves to the person that’s accusing us or some combination thereof. This is a dishonest tactic to use and even if the claim were true it isn’t the best way to go about establishing the idea that we’re only in it as a marketing plot.
8. Who are some contemporary left-libertarian thinkers?
Some notable contemporary LL thinkers are:
9. What are some of the most important left-libertarian works?
This is a(nother)non-exhaustive list of the most important left-libertarian works and should be taken as such:
Markets Not Capitalism (audiobook here, YT series here)
The Conscience of an Anarchist
Studies in a Mutualist Political Economy
The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand
State Socialism and Anarchism: How far they Agree and Wherein They Differ
Advocates of Freed Markets Should Embrace “Anti-Capitalism”
FMAC: The Unknown Ideal
Instead of a Book by a Man Too Busy to Write One
Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Towards a Dialectical Freedom
What is Left-Libertarianism?
10. What means do left-libertarians generally advocate for advancing towards a freed society?
Jason Lee Byas summarizes it beautifully in his article What is “Left-Libertarianism”? published on the Students For Liberty blog:
…left-libertarians tend to focus on interacting directly with the thing they’re trying to change (society), rather than making appeals to the thing they want to eliminate (the state). Not only does this include educational efforts, but also find methods for circumventing state repression and building alternative institutions for handling problems states create or fail to solve.
Historically this includes experiments like Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company, the radical labor efforts of Dyer Lum, and Sam Konkin’s idea of “counter-economics.” Today it can be found in left-libertarian enthusiasm for projects like crypto-currencies, radical labor activism, 3D printing, file-sharing, grass-roots mutual aid, and cop-watching.
As Kevin Carson explains, the left-libertarian aim “is not to overthrow the state, but to ignore it. Anyone who wants to continue to support the state and obey its laws is free to do so, so long as they leave us alone. Our goal is to build the kind of society we want, and prevent the state from overthrowing us while we’re doing it. The last person out of the state can turn off the lights.”’
11. Are left-libertarians and Bleeding Heart Libertarians the same?
As Thomas Knapp explains in, Now Hear This: There’s a Difference Between Left Libertarians and Liberaltarians:
Most, if not all, left libertarians are anarchists. Most, if not all, liberaltarians consider the state at least inevitable and possibly necessary; and following from that,
Most, if not all, left libertarians eschew electoral politics and “public policy,” while most, if not all, liberaltarians consider those two things part of their program of action.
In addition, Roderick T. Long in his post, Left-Libertarianism: Its Past, Its Present, Its Future says:
Insofar as BHL represents a fusion of the free-market commitments of libertarianism with the social-justice concerns of the left, left-libertarianism may be counted as a subset of BHL; but left-libertarians tend to be more radical, in both their leftism and their libertarianism, than the majority of those self-identifying as BHL proponents. … Most BHL proponents appear to see their libertarian commitments and their left-wing commitments as at least to some extent moderating each other; left-libertarians, by contrast, tend to see their libertarian and leftist commitments as mainly reinforcing each other.”
12. What is mutualism?
Mutualism is an anarchist school of thought founded by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 19th century.
Mutualism more contemporaneously has two schools of thought
Carsonian Mutualism (CM) is much like Benjamin Tucker’s mutualism. Tucker mixed Proudhoun and the first American anarchist, Josiah Warren, who was himself an individualist anarchist. This approach is mainly an economic one that relies on the minimization of usury (interest, profit and rent), worker directed cooperatives, etc.
Neo-Proudhounian Mutualism (NPM) is more “classical” in its approach. It may attach insights from Tucker, Warren and other individualist anarchists but it depends less on them than CMism. In addition, NPMism is more of a philosophical approach that relies on concepts like reciprocity, the golden rule, and approximation.
It should be noted that both schools of thought have much overlap and that economics and philosophy are important in both schools. One just tends to emphasize one over the other.
In either case the goal of mutualism is a more “mutual” society. One where people encounter each other in a more equitable way that depends less on hierarchy and command. Instead mutualism urges us to depend more on fellowship, respect and understanding. Institutions like mutual banks, cooperatives and communally owned institutions tend to be favored by mutualists as expressions of their desired political economy.
The CM tends to be a “minarchist” when it comes to usury. Profit, rent and interest are likely to exist (and perhaps even be necessary) on some level, but likely drastically less than what the situation is currently. While the NPM may be less flexible in its lack of necessity.
Both schools of thought tend to advocate a private property of sorts but one that is based on personal use and occupation. Contrary to some people’s claims this does not mean the milkman can come and take your house when you leave to buy groceries from the local co-op. Proudhon described mutualism as a “synthesis between communism and property” which is the “liberty” he desired most.
I recommend Shawn Wilbur’s The Gift Economy of Property and In Defense — Such as it is — of Usufructory Land Ownership by Kevin Carson for more. You can also see the C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium on Land which Carson and Wilbur both took part in.
And for a fairly comprehensive overview of mutualism I recommend Clarence Lee Swartz’s “What is Mutualism?” published in 1927. Carson and Wilbur have also recommended this work to others.
These two schools of thoughts are still very new and as such my descriptions should be taken as my personal experiences mixed with some of the originators own terms. As such, make sure to look up Kevin Carson and Shawn Wilbur’s work to see for yourself.
It should be noted that in recent years Shawn has distanced himself from left-libertarianism and ALL/C4SS. Still, I believe there is much of value to be found in his work that relates to the efforts left-libertarians do. More recent work by him that may better encapsulate his current positions can be found here and here.
13. What is individualist anarchism?
Individualist anarchism is a bit more complicated as the strands that exist under its labels are much more diverse and numerous.
For example, left-wing market anarchism is very different from egoism. Egoism was a philosophy most notably subscribed to by Max Stirner who was against the state and morality. LWM(A)s tend not to be against morality itself (though this is by no means essential).
There was also European individualist anarchism that was embraced by people who engaged in what was called illegalism (also see here). These people were involving themselves with illegal activities of one sort of another, often to upset the established capitalist order. Either by robbing banks, shooting officials or fighting cops. They had much overlap with the egoist philosophy.
The historical individualist anarchism of America was naturally more informed by American values. As such Lysander Spooner heavily relied on natural law, Benjamin Tucker only became an egoist later in his life and other individualist anarchists would even rely on spirituality to some extent to justify their beliefs.
It should also be stated that the lines between mutualism and individualist anarchism can sometimes be blurry.
Early Benjamin Tucker drew heavily from Proudhon and it may be difficult to say whether he really neatly fit into one category or the other. Similarly Dyer D. Lum drew heavily upon mutualism and in his “The Economics of Anarchism: A Study of the Industrial Type” seemed to mostly agree with Proudhon but also have some of the same Tuckerite caveats as well.
14. Where can I find left-libertarians?
If y’all liked that article consider donating to my Patreon!
You can donate for as low as $1 a month but I especially encourage $5!
Donating helps articles like this one come out more frequently. : )