Thursday, October 13, 2011

Questions about libertarian socialism

Reader Sunflame asks my opinion about the Wikipedia article on Libertarian Socialism. It's a long article, and will probably require following a few levels of links, so I'll have to give the article a close reading and careful analysis before I can respond in depth. A superficial reading, however, reveals a few questions.

I'm all for socialism, so the issue turns specifically on the libertarian component of the definition. It seems (again, at first glance) that libertarianism here means fundamentally that there should be no state. Now, when I hear "state", I interpret it to mean, "the sovereign organization which holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a well-defined territory." A broader sense of state would remove the "within a well-defined territory" condition. It is important to understand that this definition of "state" does not talk about how the organization is constituted.

Is this the sense of "state" that anarchists mean, and if so, in which sense, the narrower the broader? Are we talking about whether there should be a state in this sense, or about how to constitute a state?

The "democracies" of today's world are all republics: In a "true" democracy, the people rule; in a republic, the people choose their rulers. Does libertarianism advocate for a truly democratic state: an organization with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence which operates in some truly democratic manner?

I hesitate to call myself an "anarchist" for the same reasons I prefer not to call myself a "socialist" (even "communist" suffers from the same flaws; I choose "communism" as the least bad option.) Regardless, I am all in favor of true democracy, and I want to figure out how to implement truly democratic political systems in the real world. Is all that stands between me and the anarchists merely a label of self-identification?

13 comments:

  1. Thank you for that overview. I asked because I consider myself a libertarian socialist but do not reject your definition of the state. Your definition (the broader definition without physical borders) allows for dynamic states to be truly democratic and thus allow for maximum participation and freedom. I do consider it a good reflection of the concept (as a I accept it, but as stated in the article, it's not an end goal and you'll be hard pressed to find any two who agree on exactly what it means).

    ReplyDelete
  2. What do (almost) all self-identified libertarian socialists agree on? If a democratic "Weberian" state is compatible with libertarian socialism, then we probably differ only, I suspect, on the "socialism" part, i.e. the relationship of a democratic state to the means of production. As a communist, I'm going to want to see the state owning most capital.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think the "problem" with the state (your definition works fine) for most libertarian sociaialists is the idea of the state using violence to enforce social norms, epsecially ones that result in hierarchies or have to do with purely personal choices. There are so many ways outside of violence to get people to work together, that it seems like an arguably outdated (undeniabley overused) metric to get people play well with everyone else.

    The way they often distinguish themselves from "pure" pacifists is by their support of the legitimacy of defensive violence (basically crime with identifiable individual victims). However, such defensive violence need not (must not?) rest on monopolistic factors, nor necessarily ones tied to geography.

    It would be important to note that many understand the philosophy of libertarian socialism to be an ethical framework, not neccessarily a political one. They often see it as the goal to work towards, not something that happens tommorrow, and in that case many share Marxist sentiments. Many syndicalists/mutualists consider themselves to be libertarian socialists as well.

    It's a pretty big tent, and has commonalities with a wide range of minarchist/anarchist socialist/communist schools of thought.

    In short: No monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Don't use violence to enforce socially normative behavior, unless it is in actual defense of a person/s. Labor theory of value premise for the social ownership/control of the means of production, but not the fruits of one's labor.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous: Please pick a handle if you want to carry on the conversation.

    There are always disagreements about the appropriate use of force. The questions then become: who decides? and how are those decisions effected?

    One problem with the "defensive/offensive" dichotomy is that when the distinction is obvious, everyone (almost) agrees. Almost everyone would agree that it's bad to run around randomly hitting people on the head; almost everyone would agree that it's acceptable to individually use violence to stop someone from randomly hitting you on the head. It is only when the distinction becomes equivocal, that reasonable people start to disagree. "Defensive" becomes "to ends I like," and "offensive" becomes "to ends I dislike."

    Similarly, reasonable people disagree about what constitute "purely personal choices." And, similarly, almost all reasonable people agree that violence should be a last resort.

    And finally, why should "defensive" (i.e. acceptable) violence not be monopolized?

    ReplyDelete
  5. "One problem with the "defensive/offensive" dichotomy is that when the distinction is obvious, everyone (almost) agrees."

    Which is pretty much the entire point of my position. These are the times when force is more ethically justifiabe, almost to the point of consensus. They also happen to be the times when force is more clearly "necessary" (like people running around hitting others in the head with bricks).

    "It is only when the distinction becomes equivocal, that reasonable people start to disagree. "Defensive" becomes "to ends I like," and "offensive" becomes "to ends I dislike."

    Which, is also the exact justification for the idea of letting these solutions come down to peaceful interaction. The vast majority of human disagreement exists here. Using force when there is no clear intellectual consensus will propogate force more than rational dialogue. We just need to put down the guns and work it out non-violently.

    "Similarly, reasonable people disagree about what constitute "purely personal choices."

    Of course. However,this alone is not a problem. The frightening implication rests only in the idea that these disagreements have to (or even should) come down to violent resolution. I don't think that is the case. I think that behaving like it is the case, often leads to far more "bad" things than either "side" of the original disagreements projected. It's better to have matters "not settled" then to point a gun at them.

    "And, similarly, almost all reasonable people agree that violence should be a last resort.

    Sure, at least philosophically. In practice, it often ends up quite the opposite, which kind of leads to the next part:

    "And finally, why should "defensive" (i.e. acceptable) violence not be monopolized?"

    These organizations invariably develop goals that suit themselves to the detriment of the communities the purport to serve. There is no Vanguard. There are no philosopher kings. There is no "better" group of people to rule over the rest of us. There are no people more worthy to be trusted with violence, than the flawed humans whose problem this is supposed to solve. If there were, the last place you would find them is in organizations Whose primary defining trait is some measure of implicitely legitimized violence.

    The Democide of the last century was not the result of decentralized communities,anarchists, trade councils or anything like that. It was the result of centralized power.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Charles, the "problem" with your position is that it seems eminently reasonable and commonsensical. It doesn't really specify a distinct or controversial political philosophy. By and large the governments of all industrialized republics use violence only when legitimatized by the preponderance of popular opinion. Most people simply do not feel violently oppressed.

    I'd have to see evidence that popularly controversial positions really are decided by politically legitimate organizations by violent means. And by popularly controversial, I want to see more than a few hundred thousand obstinate hotheads who are themselves instigating violence against the popular near-consensus.

    These organizations invariably develop goals that suit themselves to the detriment of the communities the purport to serve. There is no Vanguard. There are no philosopher kings.

    You are conflating two different notions: the notion that the use of violence should be institutionalized, and the notion that the institutionalization of the use of violence necessarily entails members of those institutions having ethical privilege. The two ideas can and have been conjoined, but I don't think there's a necessary, logical entailment.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Wow, thanks for the rapid response :)

    "It doesn't really specify a distinct or controversial political philosophy."

    Well, I actually identifiy closest with mutualism for now. Which is a little more precise, but I "accept" pretty much anything that is at least minarchistic and not radically propertarian. Here, I'm taking a broad approach to all of libertarian socialism, since it was the topic, and I'm still not "settled in" to anything.

    "By and large the governments of all industrialized republics use violence only when legitimatized by the preponderance of popular opinion."

    This, I'd dispute. Most states are willing to (and often do)use violence against majority opinion. More importantly, they use violence in matters that are highly contested, or don't actually directly immediately threaten anyone. Legal positivism is the order of the day, and violence is at least a threat behind even the smallest actions, like registering your plates, or starting a lmonade stand.

    "Most people simply do not feel violently oppressed."

    I agree. Which, I find really strange because they literally are. I do think this attitude is changing, though it still tends to get stuck in the "it's the other party doing it, not the whole state" false dichotomy.

    "I'd have to see evidence that popularly controversial positions really are decided by politically legitimate organizations by violent means."

    Think of something like weed legalization. It is by no means a consensus that it is "bad", much less that the best way to deal with it is the drug (a dismal failure by pretty much any metric), but the state has more people locked up for it than all the murderers in its history.

    Again, I think the problem is the focus on violent solutions. It's not whether or not the majority supports a new law to ban sagging pants, it's whether or not it is ethical to use violence to enforce it. I'd like violent enforcememnt of laws to end somewhere between assault and sagging pants. Right now, the state uses violence(as an endgame at the very least) for everything it regulates.

    "And by popularly controversial, I want to see more than a few hundred thousand obstinate hotheads who are themselves instigating violence against the popular near-consensus."

    Even things as obviously terrible as slavery, U.S. involvement in Vietnam, or unequal civil rights didn't illicate this sort of response until they were far past the "tipping point" of culture.

    "You are conflating two different notions: the notion that the use of violence should be institutionalized, and the notion that the institutionalization of the use of violence necessarily entails members of those institutions having ethical privilege."

    I'm not sure if that is a conflation considering The most significant reason I think the state is bad is the tendency for this. I think it is "how states work".

    "The two ideas can and have been conjoined, but I don't think there's a necessary, logical entailment."

    Theoretically, I'd agree. In a realistic sense, these institutions will/do/have largely run with privilege. The type of people who could build a privilegeless state, wouldn't really need one.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This, I'd dispute. Most states are willing to (and often do)use violence against majority opinion. More importantly, they use violence in matters that are highly contested, or don't actually directly immediately threaten anyone.

    I dunno. I'd like to see evidence of this. Remember, I'm talking about the industrialized republics, such as the United States.

    "Most people simply do not feel violently oppressed."

    I agree. Which, I find really strange because they literally are.


    I dunno. Oppression seems very subjective. Can you be, for example, literally unhappy when you subjectively feel happy?

    Think of something like weed legalization. It is by no means a consensus that it is "bad", much less that the best way to deal with it is the drug (a dismal failure by pretty much any metric), but the state has more people locked up for it than all the murderers in its history.

    Again, I dunno. A consensus means that literally everyone agrees, and in a society larger than a few hundred people, I don't think you can get a consensus about anything. But the majority opinion for a long time seemed to be that marijuana should really be illegal. Now that the issue is becoming more controverted, laws are changing.

    Again, I think the problem is the focus on violent solutions. It's not whether or not the majority supports a new law to ban sagging pants, it's whether or not it is ethical to use violence to enforce it. I'd like violent enforcememnt of laws to end somewhere between assault and sagging pants.

    Ok, that's what you'd like, and you're free to advocate that view. But if the majority of people want to draw the line more towards saggy pants than you would, why should you prevail?

    Theoretically, I'd agree. In a realistic sense, these institutions will/do/have largely run with privilege. The type of people who could build a privilegeless state, wouldn't really need one.

    I dunno. We've seen a lot of institutions, and we seem to be moving, in the long term, towards less privilege for our institutions of government. Republican governments, for example, seem much less privileged than monarchical or oligarchical governments, but have more rather than less institutional structure.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "I dunno. I'd like to see evidence of this. Remember, I'm talking about the industrialized republics, such as the United States."


    I'll dig some stuff up later today. I know the wars are unpopular. I'll grab some links for some stuff.

    "I dunno. Oppression seems very subjective. Can you be, for example, literally unhappy when you subjectively feel happy?"

    It is subjective. Well, it's got a few definitions. I was thinking of this one

    "Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner"

    I think our state is often burdensome, occasionally cruel, and thoroughly unjust (according to its own laws).

    "Again, I dunno. A consensus means that literally everyone agrees,"

    Yeah, I was using that word as a placeholder for:

    "when the distinction is obvious, everyone (almost) agrees. "

    "But the majority opinion for a long time seemed to be that marijuana should really be illegal. Now that the issue is becoming more controverted, laws are changing."

    And people are still in jail. The idea is to not use violence long before things are that controversial. Leave force for the things everyone (almost) agrees on. For stuff like weed and thong size on the beach, use other social mechanisms.

    "Ok, that's what you'd like, and you're free to advocate that view. But if the majority of people want to draw the line more towards saggy pants than you would, why should you prevail?"

    I shouldn't. Make the law banning them, just don't make that law ultimately enforceable with violence. I am largely unconcerned with the parameters of specific laws, merely the methodology of enforcement. It's not a question of "how low should pants be before we start using violence?", it is a question of "should pants height be correlated with organizational violence?".

    "I dunno. We've seen a lot of institutions, and we seem to be moving, in the long term, towards less privilege for our institutions of government."

    That's true in some places (switzerland, Scandanavia, etc...) The U.S. is not among them. Our state has never had more power and less answerability ot the people. It is functionally owned by corporate interests, who beneifit greatly from it, to the disadvantage of everyone but the one percent and some of their buffers. Wealth inequality, prison population, and the decline of civil liberties is growing in direct proportion to the size of the state.

    "Republican governments, for example, seem much less privileged than monarchical or oligarchical governments, but have more rather than less institutional structure."

    There are more people putting their fingers in the pie, for sure, but they're not always taking any less pie. Though, I will admit that we have made much progress from the absolutist phase of European monarchies. I'm more concerned with the recent backwards trend.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Charles, you have your preferences, and they are not too different from my own. I don't like laws against saggy pants or marijuana usage. I concur that corporations have way too much power. But I'm trying to do something more than elicit individual preferences: I'm trying to extract a theory, and I'm trying to extract a theory that talks specifically about non-obvious and non-trivial decisions. And, more importantly, I'm trying to understand the Libertarian objections to things such as taxes that seem obviously legitimate outside Libertarian circles.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Charles, you have your preferences, and they are not too different from my own."

    The idea of libertarian socialism is not how we interact on preferences that we agree on, but how we interact regarding preferences we don't agree on.

    "But I'm trying to do something more than elicit individual preferences:"

    So am I. I'm having a hard time getting the idea across. This is in no way connected to the idea of what preferred beahviors people hold, merely the mechanism they use for conflict resolution when they disagree.

    "I'm trying to extract a theory, and I'm trying to extract a theory that talks specifically about non-obvious and non-trivial decisions.'

    The theory for that is "don't use violence". When it comes to non-obvious non trivial decisions, then stop threatening and killing eachother.

    "And, more importantly, I'm trying to understand the Libertarian objections to things such as taxes that seem obviously legitimate outside Libertarian circles."

    Well, all anarchists are "anti-taxation by violence". Again, it's not the "tax" that is the problem. it is how that state gets the taxes (not voluntarily). It functions exactly like exortion: "You have to give us money to provide services that you may or may not want, otherwise we'll physically harm you, because this is our neighborhood".

    The idea of taxation only being legitimate when voluntary, is well recognized by even staunch advocates of the state. It's why social contract theory (or various other philosophical mechanisms) try to frame the narrative as though the payment of these taxes was, in fact, voluntary.

    Personally, I'm not anti-tax. When I work, I would be more than willing to contribute to the community. The more services that are publicly provided, the more I would be willing to contribute.

    However, we live in a society without adequete housing, medical care, and food for the poor. Yet, our tax burden (on avergae) is around 50% (after state, local, federal, sales,gas, property, etc...). Like Thoreau, as long as that money is spent on murdering children in other nations,destroying communities here, and givng handouts/privileges to corporations, I think it is more than ethical to not pay. The state is only able to get away with this stuff because they have a monopoly on force to extort their blood money from people.

    Basically, libertarians just don't think "being the state" grants them any special pleading ethical immunity to phohibitions of violence. "Right" libertarians (vulgar libertarians)tend to over focus on taxation, which is really a minor part of state violence. There is a lot more that needs to go away, long ahead of taxation. Most importantly, capitalism.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I haven't forgotten you, Charles. But it's finals week, so it might be a few days until I reply.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I've responded to your substantive points here: Violence and the state. I still don't think your position is well-detailed enough to evaluate its coherence.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.