By Brian Ellis
Feb 10, 2013
The word “libertarian” is becoming an increasingly popular descriptor of political ideology in the US, though many in the US incorrectly associate libertarianism only with the capitalist Libertarian Party. Historically libertarianism was a term used most commonly by anti-authoritarian socialists to describe their political philosophy. In fact, in most countries the term is typically associated with socialism, not capitalism. Libertarian socialists have consistently argued that liberty and capitalism cannot coexist; so the rightful use of the term by capitalists is hotly contested by libertarian socialists.
The term libertarian dates back to the 18th century where it was used by enlightenment freethinkers to differentiate their belief in free will from the theological determinism espoused by many religious believers (in essence, a fatalistic view that the future and human actions are determined by a god, and unchangeable). Later, in the 19th century, the term libertarian started to be used in a political context by socialists who advocated a type of non-state socialism that would be self-managed, i.e., democratically managed by the people. Libertarian socialists used the term libertarian to differentiate their views, which emphasized the importance of individual liberty, advocated the elimination of unjustified hierarchy, capitalism, and the state, from those socialists which advocated the need for a state (hierarchical government composed of professional politicians and bureaucrats). (FYI: some libertarian socialists also used the labels: libertarian communist, social anarchist or socialist anarchist, anarcho-communist or just plain old “anarchist”.)
It wasn’t until the 1950s, at the earliest, that the term libertarian started to be used by capitalists, who previously referred to themselves as classical liberals or market liberals. The term wasn’t popularized by the political right (capitalists) until the early 1970s when the US Libertarian Party was formed. Libertarian socialists have always considered this an insulting co-optation of the term, as capitalism, along with the state, should rightly be seen as the principal enemies of liberty. Capitalism, being an inherently hierarchical system in which wealth is disproportionately distributed to those who own capital in the form of a means of production or other type of workplace, cannot be reconciled with libertarianism as it was known in its original sense (before the mid 20th century): a system of society in which inequality and unjustified hierarchy is abolished. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a minority ruling class, which is typical in any capitalist society, allows for concentrations of political power, and therefore, plutocratic tyranny and hierarchy.
In modern, liberal democratic capitalist society (think the developed societies of the world) the state is used as a tool to maintain class-divided society. These societies use the term “democracy” to give the impression that the working class (those that sell their labor in return for a wage or salary – what the Occupy Movement would call the 99%) exercises control over the political and economic system, when in reality these spheres are almost entirely controlled by a ruling class (those that earn their living by employing others to work for them – the 1%). In order to maintain a shred of democratic legitimacy, and avoid widespread revolt, the ruling class must occasionally make concessions to the working class. The working class has used this one vulnerability to win many protections from the state – like a minimum wage; weekends; benefits; a ban on child labor; an 8 hour day (as opposed to a 12-16 hour day, which was the norm); social safety nets like welfare, unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.
Capitalist libertarians wish to drastically limit the scope of government, extracting it entirely from the economic sphere, which would effectively repeal all of these hard-won working class victories, leaving millions of people to die on the streets. On this issue many libertarian capitalists share the view of early Libertarian Party member and poltician, Ron Paul: that churches and private charities would pick up the slack left by government. Any person who has done any research into the history of poverty in the US would be able to point out the error in this logic. Before government social safety nets were put into place churches and charity groups were continually overwhelmed by homeless and impoverished people and did not have the resources to keep up. Even today churches and charity groups cannot keep up with all of the people that slip through the holes of our shrinking social safety nets. Additionally, churches, which Paul usually emphasizes the importance of, do not have a great record for taking care of non-believers and those they consider to be “sinners”, like the LGBTQ community.*One might think that the reduction of state power libertarian capitalists envision might create conditions hospitable to working class revolution, but according to libertarian capitalist (or anarcho-capitalist) theory employers would hire “private defense armies (PDAs)” to defend private property by battling worker’s unions, thus preventing workers from fighting for better workplace conditions and remuneration and from revolutionary uprising. Also, most so-called libertarian capitalists are actually minarchists, that is, they agree that some degree of external government (some remnant of the state) must exist to maintain an army and police force – no doubt to protect capitalists from the working people they exploit and which vastly outnumber them.
*For a few examples of church discrimination see:
Libertarian Capitalism and Democracy
Any discussion of direct democracy is conspicuously absent from libertarian capitalist theory because they seem to prefer the rule of “elites”, which the all-wise, mostly slave-owning American “founding fathers” advocated. In his December 27th2004 “Texas Straight Talk” column, libertarian capitalist politician Ron Paul stated:
“…our country is not a democracy. Our nation was founded as a constitutionally limited republic, as any grammar school child knew just a few decades ago. Remember the Pledge of Allegiance: ‘and to the Republic for which it stands’? The Founding Fathers were concerned with liberty, not democracy. In fact, the word democracy does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. On the contrary, Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution is quite clear: ‘The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a RepublicanForm of Government’ (emphasis added by Paul).”
He continues, “Democracy, we are told, is always good. But the founders created a constitutionally limited republic precisely to protect fundamental liberties from the whims of the masses, to guard against the excesses of democracy. The electoral college likewise was created in the Constitution to guard against majority tyranny in federal elections. The President was to be elected by the states rather than the citizenry as a whole, with votes apportioned to states according to their representation in Congress.”1
When Paul says the US is not a democracy he is absolutely right. Despite all of the inflated rhetoric politicians like to spew about democratic ideals and freedom, this country was never meant to be a people’s democracy; it was designed to be a type of aristocracy ruled by white, wealthy males, and it was explicitly so for a very long time, and it continues to be in many ways. Libertarian capitalists see no real problem with this and tend to side with Alexander Hamilton and the rest of the old white aristocrats who formed the original US government in viewing the masses as a “great beast” to be controlled and trained. It should be no surprise to anyone then, that this country has always been run in the interest of the wealthy; working people are viewed as mere commodities by elites, “human resources” to be utilized like any other resource, as a means to an end – profit. The only say these lowly wage slaves are to have is in picking a leader every few years to make decisions for them, and even this cannot be completely trusted to them – the powers that be make sure that no one without vast sums of money, and a loyalty to the ruling class, can stand a chance in a political campaign.
As a side note, it is interesting that in the above paragraphs Paul also glosses over the true nature of the electoral college – a system he defends despite the fact that, for over 60 years, most Americans have held the view that the electoral college should be done away with so that the president can be elected by direct popular vote.5,6 The electoral college was instituted more so as a concession to the slave-holding South than it was a way “to guard against the excesses of democracy.” Rather than a popular election, which would have placed the South at a political disadvantage, being less populous in enfranchised persons (white males), Southerners wanted an electoral college system where their slaves (which, bear in mind, could not vote) counted toward their states population, and as a consequence their state’s political power, i.e., their representation in the electoral college. The Northerners, who were, for the most part, somewhat uneasy about slavery, though by no means hard-core abolitionists, displayed their relative indifference on the issue by creating an electoral college system where, as a compromise, slaves could be treated as 3/5 of a person in the “3/5 compromise”. The creation of the electoral college system ensured that the South would maintain substantial political power which they could use to defend the institution of slavery, which was the basis of their economy.
As he continues on in his pro-electoral college rant, Paul further displays his muddled “libertarianism” by evoking the bogey man of the power-hungry statist liberal – undoubtedly a Bolshevik in disguise – who is out to take away property rights and guns, rather than addressing the elephant in the room – the stupidity of a system in which a president and other politicians hold power like monarchs over a federation of states and a population. What is bizarre about proponents of libertarian capitalism is that they do not critique the idea of professional politicians and bureaucrats at all. Libertarian socialists find a system in which politicians run on a platform and are then selected via multiple choice to be absurd , and instead promote actual democracy, where representation, when necessary, is implemented through a system of instantly re-callable (impeachable) delegates whose duty is to represent the democratic decisions of the bodies which select (or elect) them.
When defending aristocratic rule libertarian capitalists like to bring up the supposed need to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority; as capitalists that see no real problem with the pursuit of profit, the minority they are concerned with is fairly obvious – the ruling class, i.e. the 1% — those who make their enormous sums of wealth by exploiting the labor of others (in Marxist terms the ruling class, aka the employing class, make their profits by extracting surplus value, i.e. paying workers less than the actual value of their mental or physical labor). Libertarian socialists couldn’t differ more from libertarian capitalists in regards to how society should be managed. Libertarian capitalists subscribe to the fallacious belief in the ability of the market to regulate itself and the ability of elites to run society in the best interest of all; libertarian socialists, on the other hand, advocate a cooperative economy managed by workers syndicates and community councils, and believe that the people themselves should manage their communities through direct democracy and the election of recallable delegates. Libertarian socialists, who have always recognized and stressed the importance of individual liberty, understand that individual liberty is best protected when all have a say in the management of their community, and furthermore believe that individual liberty should be bolstered by codified human rights principles (much like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the US Bill of Rights and the rest of the amendments to the US Constitution).
Libertarian Capitalist Economy vs. Libertarian Socialist Economy
Libertarian socialists have very little in common with libertarian capitalists since, as stated previously, most libertarian capitalists do not actually desire the complete abolition of the state. Though both libertarian socialists and capitalists talk about abolishing the state the key difference is that libertarian socialists not only want to do away with the state but the capitalist system as well. Instead of private property (factories, hospitals, other infrastructure, and miscellaneous workplaces/productive equipment, etc. Not to be confused with personal property – homes, toothbrushes, clothing, computers, etc., which would be owned by individuals) being owned by capitalists, private property would be converted to communally owned and controlled infrastructure; workplaces would be democratically managed by the workers in cooperation with those living in the community. In place of buying and selling in a market, all would have free access to what was available (perhaps after a transitional stage where labor notes are issued for the time an individual has spent working – which are different than money in that they do not circulate – and then used to obtain non-essential goods or services that may be scarce).
Libertarian socialist society would eliminate work deemed difficult, dangerous, or tedious through automation or simply through sacrifice of unnecessary goods (of which there are plenty in capitalism). In addition, work would not be coerced and the jobs which were only necessary to maintain capitalist functionality would be eliminated (banking, investment, accounting, etc.; not to mention the standing army). The amount of work necessary to keep society functioning would be reduced drastically due to the resultant expansion of the labor force and the abandonment of the profit motive. After the dissolution of capitalist production for profit rational production for human need would be instituted and environmentally destructive technologies, that continue to exist merely because they are profitable and heavily invested in, would be abandoned in favor of safer, sustainable technologies.
The type of society libertarian socialists envision is much different than the type of society libertarian capitalists hope for – which would likely resemble early industrial capitalism, where there was little regulation, and employers exploited workers with impunity. For example, in 1900, before the US labor movement won significant workplace safety regulations, nearly three hundred out of every one hundred thousand miners were killed on the job annually. Today, although mining is still a dangerous occupation, the annual mortality rate for miners on the job is nine deaths for every one thousand workers.4 This is largely thanks to hard-won reforms like OSHA that organized workers have struggled to obtain. The working class is exploited by capitalism whether it is regulated or not, but workers would suffer even more under a libertarian capitalist system. Liberty can only be achieved when all people are free to realize the life they want to live, free from coercion and privation; a society in which one is forced to sell themselves as a commodity, as is the case under capitalism, is a society which is antithetical to the concept of liberty.