liberal anarchism

Hagbard Celine, the Nietzschian superman and leader of the Discordian anarchists in Robert Anton Wilson‘s Illuminatus! Trilogy, defines anarchism as “That organization of society in which the Free Market operates freely, without taxes, usury, landlordism, tariffs, or other forms of coercion or privilege.”

He goes on to distinguish what he calls RIGHT ANARCHISTS, who “predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to compete more often than to cooperate,” and LEFT ANARCHISTS, who “predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to cooperate more often than to compete.”

As someone who came to libertarianism through the Nolan Chart and its rejection of the left-right dichotomy, (and as someone who was rejecting the Left but absolutely didn’t want to be associated with anything remotely right-wing, as I understood the term) I wasn’t happy with the language Wilson chose for this competition/cooperation distinction. (In fact, I’m not even happy with the competition/cooperation distinction itself.)

Murray Bookchin But that was the language being used by anarchists themselves back in the 1960s, as evidenced by the Left-Right Anarchist Supper Club in NYC, conducted by Murray Rothbard on the right and Murray Bookchin on the left.
Murray Rothbard
According to Sam Konkin, of the “left-Rothbardian” movement, Bookchin claimed to disband the supper club over ideological differences, but actually quit because too many young, left-anarchists were being converted to Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism.

The anarchism of the 19th century was split in America between the Chicago Anarchists, who were communist, and the Boston Anarchists, who were free-market individualists. The commies accused Benjamin Tucker, the lead figure in individualist anarchism, of being a “liberal anarchist” — which was meant, of course, as an insult. Tucker accepted the label as accurate. He saw anarchism as the logical consequence of consistent liberalism (in the classical, 19th-century sense of the L-word).

Recently, a friend of mine chaired a panel at an academic conference. The panel was called something like “Anarchists & Rebels” and one paper was going to be on “Anarchist Aesthetics”. She asked me what in the world anarchist aesthetics could possibly mean.

I took a guess: both left- and right-anarchists reject coercion, but left-anarchists believe that hierarchy is inexorably linked to coercive authority, and that bourgeois culture and values are symptoms of the State, products of political privilege. Right-anarchists draw no such conclusions. Whatever aspects of hierarchy result from voluntary and spontaneous order are legitimate, while only those aspects that result from coercion and state privilege are illegitimate.

This brings me back to the idea of liberal anarchism. Classical liberalism was based not only in the rejection of coercion, but in the belief in Society as distinct from the State. The State is force, whereas Society is the spontaneous order that arises from voluntary arrangements. Liberals believed that property — the recognition of mine and thine — was the foundation for peace, cooperation, prosperity, and progress.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first man to call himself an anarchist, wrote, “Property is theft!” and believed that the bourgeois order was anything but spontaneous and rested entirely on political privilege and State-sanction. He also rejected communism, promoted individualism and free markets. Anarchism since Proudhon can be seen as three historical traditions:

  1. Those who remained Proudhonian — the Mutualists;
  2. Those who rejected Proudhon’s individualism and support for markets — the anarcho-communists;
  3. Those who rejected Proudhon’s denouncement of property and the bourgeoisie — the right-anarchists.

Now look at today’s Boondocks and see which flavor of anarchism Huey Freeman believes in:


(Click to Enlarge)

This, unfortunately, is the reputation that left-anarchism has earned for the A-word: “tearing down the societal order!”

(No wonder people equate anarchy with chaos.)

I would argue, in fact, that while so-called left-anarchism is an umbrella term for the mutualists and communists alike, so does so-called right-anarchism cover two distinct sub-cultures, or visions of a Stateless spontaneous order:

  1. conservative anarchists, who believe they know which aspects of bourgeois and capitalist history were the result of voluntary, spontaneous order, and which aspects were artifacts of the State; and
  2. liberal anarchists, who remain agnostic on the cultural symptoms of statism and embrace whatever peaceful order might emerge from voluntary contracts and private property.

Just as left-anarchists combine an anti-political agenda with a cultural agenda — leading to such perplexing paper topics as “Anarchist Aesthetics” — so do conservative anarchists combine an anti-political agenda with a cultural agenda: traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian family values.

Liberals — as anarchists — are culture-neutral. To the degree that any individualist has a cultural agenda, it is distinct from his individualism.

By these criteria, I’m a liberal anarchist, and I’m not always comfortable with the conservative prejudices and assumptions of the rest of anarchy’s right wing.

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3 Responses to liberal anarchism

  1. Wally Conger says:

    Pal, you’re quickly becoming the “official” historian of market anarchism!

  2. Tim Swanson says:

    Anarchist supper club… here is one that goes on in the San Jose area: http://www2.sjsu.edu/stringham/snac/

  3. CoffeeTalk says:

    “…conservative anarchists combine an anti-political agenda with a cultural agenda: traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian family values…”

    Can you not see the oxymoron here? Way to group people into poorly constructed cliches, holier-than-thou stereotypes contingent upon the same “prejudices and assumptions” that you accuse this group of in the first place…

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