Originally published here by Millennial Transmissions: https://millennialtransmissions.wordpress.com/2017/08/18/interview-with-chris-shaw/
Chris Shaw is an independent writer and researcher that I became aware of through an address he gave to the Libertarian Alliance titled ‘The Libertarian Moment.’ He has his own blog, The Libertarian Ideal (‘for secession, decentralism, mutualism and organic tradition’), through which he espouses his unique and varied philosophical, political and economic views.
Chris Shaw, thanks for agreeing to this interview. As I understand, like myself you used to identify with communism, moving towards a more libertarian outlook in more recent times. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey so far?
Well my first political awakenings, if they can be called such, began developing around the age of 15 when I began to read ideas around socialism generally. I had an initial attraction to egalitarian thinking, possibly because it seemed the most counter-cultural and alternative, thus positioning myself against particular peers and family members. Looking back, this seems self-evident as my reading of socialist theories was extremely thin, rarely reading deeply into the ideas and conclusions that these multiple authors and thinkers developed. In the next few years, these thin readings moved me toward a generally Marxist-Leninist position, supporting an enlarged state, a vanguard party and the destruction of private property and markets. Rather pathetically, my only real reading into these ideas was my delving into the Communist Manifesto, which is the most vapid and useless of Marxian texts. Certainly it presents the basis of Marxian thought (class struggle, historical materialism, etc.) but it never goes beyond this. Weirdly, since I became a libertarian I’ve read much more of Marx and post-Marxist writings which are more interesting and illuminative. For example, the Fragment on Machines and the work of regulationists and autonomists provides a cornucopia of concepts that have libertarian and decentralist ideas, such as the General Intellect, production associations and horizontalism.
Anyway, that adequately sums up my Marxist phase, which ended when I began reading more libertarian ideas, particularly the essays of Hayek and (to a lesser extent) Mises, around the age of 18. These moved my general thinking toward a form of libertarian-conservatism-Thatcherism, which was just as thin and vapid as my reading of Marxist and socialist texts. Thus I became a member of the Conservative Party when I started university, attempting to tout my Thatcherite beliefs and emphasise my faith in free markets and the pathologies of neoliberal modernity. I would say these years were more useless than my previous Marxist tendencies, as it began to slowly dawn on me that the Conservative Party is a glorified party of statism (or as they would say party of government) that is happy to conserve unfree markets, unfree trade and the social liberal consensus. So the two years I spent within its internal organisations, slaving after internships and running for council, was a complete waste of time, except in furthering the socio-economic consensus which I came to vehemently oppose.
Thus the catalyst for leaving the Conservative Party came with its 2015 post-election budget, which was a shameless expansion of state-based economic authoritarianism by continuing subsidies for landlords and landowners, happily throwing money at large business through infrastructure subsidies and money-for-lending schemes, and increasing the minimum wage while pathetically culling the welfare state, simply entrenching the poor within their structurally-imposed poverty. Since this disillusionment, I’ve moved to the positions I currently hold, a generally libertarian-anarchist outlook that aims at secession, decentralism, mutualism and organic tradition. For me, the ideological cleavages I previously held onto have become largely irrelevant. They are only important in recognising what libertarians and anarchists should fight against, which is the forging of consensuses around a socio-economic status quo and a depoliticised post-politics, both of which fundamentally entail the centralisation of power and the limitation of its diffusion and subsidiarisation.
As it states in your bio on The Libertarian Ideal blog, you are an independent researcher and writer. What plans do you have as a writer in the coming years?
My plans at the moment are to continue my research and to hopefully expand my blog by getting in in-house authors and developing the research side of it by publishing more papers. In the next few years I hope to start a PhD, with my topic focusing on the forms and theories of postcapitalism, attempting to understand it as a movement of anti-praxis that rejects modern capitalist universalism and that favours horizontal, multi-scalar forms of socio-economic action over the construction of some kind of universalist movement. I also have some ideas for a book I’d like to write, but that is a long way from fruition.
You seem to be influenced by a number of different anarchist and libertarian perspectives. You have identified with mutualism, and I detect a Konkinist/agorist influence too. Could you tell us about some of your various influences, and how they harmonise?
My main influences come from a range of thinkers that aren’t really limited to any one school of thought. So certainly mutualism, as identified by Proudhon and added to by Kevin Carson has been massively influential on my line of thinking, particularly in relation to the advocation of free associations of labourers and the development of federations and confederations that act as decentralised, multi-level forms of governance in lieu of the Westphalian order of nation-states. That conception to me is theoretically graceful, presenting a means of understanding governance not as a form of imposition but as something that can be developed on many levels at many different junctures in space and time. Further Proudhon’s dialectic of property provides similar distinctions in relation to private property, allowing one to understand the injustices of modern property relations and their monopolistic tendencies without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Systems of exchange, production and governance can involve property relations without having to alienate the worker from their production or force a form of societal organisation upon the heterogeneous populations of the world. Equally, Kevin Carson’s elucidation of a modern mutualism grounded in a critique of modern production and a belief in the human scale are extremely important when criticising the vagaries of capitalism. Following from Proudhon’s theory of property, Carson’s understanding of non-capitalist markets and multi-scalar economies of scale suggests an alternative that doesn’t require the utopian ideal of non-quid pro quo exchange or a moneyless economy. Rather, the central issue in all of this is control over the processes of production and exchange which allow for both competitive and cooperative impetuses to thrive, as Carson demonstrates.
Agorism has also been influential for the same sorts of reasons. Konkin himself identified markets that were not hierarchical machinations of control by capital and subservience by labour. Rather he aimed to go beyond this simplistic dichotomy to forms of independent contracting that allowed for actual control and, most importantly, the means of exodus for all participants in market economies. Without that exodus, quid pro quo exchange simply becomes a system of exploitation, where one is forced into relations that they may not necessarily desire, creating a situation where their subjectivity is shaped by someone else. As a libertarian such a situation seems wholly inadequate when understanding the sort of systems that I want to see develop and potentially thrive. Writers like Carson, Konkin, Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker and innumerable other anarchists and mutualists present both a theoretical framework and a wealth of evidence that show the possibilities at play when we can ignore the state, and move toward structures that exist outside of it.
The Austrian School has been another school of thought that has influenced my way of thinking. Mises’ identification of the economic calculation problem and Hayek’s realisation of the knowledge problem demonstrate that the world is extremely complex and immune to any form of central planning. I think if these thoughts are taken further, they can be used to fundamentally criticise not only states but also many forms of production and corporate organisation that proliferate in the economy today. Again mentioning Carson, this is something he has described in great detail, showing how many modern corporations are in violation of these problems and really only survive due to the continued intervention of states who provide productive outlets for their excess production and capital (i.e. through privatisation, subsidised R&D, public-private partnerships, outsourcing, stringent regulation which act as entry barriers, and infrastructural provision which artificially increases the economies of scale of productive activity beyond their innate diseconomies).
Finally, much of my recent reading has been in studying accelerationism, an idea crystallised by a number of philosophers including Deleuze & Guattari, Nick Land, Georges Sorel and the thinkers/writers within the U/Acc blogs and forums. What I find most compelling about their line of thought is the idea of pushing contradictions inherent to capitalism to their limits. That means furthering the complexification of capital flows, allowing them to expand in all manners and push their means of usage downwards. To an extent one can see this developing with cryptocurrencies, where extremely complex financial transactions and flows are used by quasi-state actors, criminals and libertarian ideologues, allowing individuals to engage in trading and exchange in a multiplicitous environment. Accelerationism also means continuing with the processes of creative destruction and developing a kind of socio-economic nomadism, where economic and political projects can become adhoc and flexible. This is instead of the rigidity of modern corporate governance, which maintains its hierarchies and promotional structures while precariatising the bottom rung.
I think all these ideologies allow for a massive degree of decentralisation that allows resistance to centralisation on multiple fronts, pushing against the state by leaving its structures behind rather than fight it fruitlessly.
You also promote decentralisation and secessionism, why are these values important to you?
They are important because they present the most viable means of opposing the centrality of modern states and the international agencies and regulatory systems that have spawned from these states. There will be never a coherent enough form of organisation that could seriously develop a general revolution, simply because something that could do so would be itself be so centralised and omnipotent it would simply replace the organs of centralisation which currently infest the modern world. Thus decentralisation and secessionism present viable means of resistance that push power down and spread it widely.
Of course these ideas aren’t foolproof by any means. Secession will be fought tooth and nail by all states, expressing itself most brutally in the forms of Balkanisation that were seen in Yugoslavia in the 90s. It may well breed its own forms of violence. But the question then becomes: is the chaos and violence that secessionism could potentially breed any worse than the violence we see seething underneath governmental institutions today. I don’t believe so. The former is more comparable to a border skirmish, while the latter is institutionalised and hugely more efficient. To provide a real-world example, the former would be similar to the stupidities seen in Charlottesville recently, where tribal groups interact violently. Now these events were pretty horrid (and were at least partially caused by centralisation as these diverse groups have no means of developing their own governmental agency due to the immense power of the US societal-industrial complexes), but are they comparable to the institutional violence brought upon Iraq, Libya, Syria, Vietnam or numerous other examples. Violence isn’t simply going to go away, but decentralising it to sets of bricoler borders and infrastructures informed by freedom of association and confederation, and the freedom to exit, are better than allowing either tribal violence to fester as it currently does, or allowing states to continue the institutionalisation of mass violence through coercive structures of compliance and the development of industrial complexes. And going back to the point on Balkanisation, I’m not saying that the violence engendered by the fragmentation there was in way good and justified. But it must be recognised that this violence was not bred by secession or decentralism, but by the desire of political elites to try and construct their own centralised systems in the chaos of Yugoslavia’s breakup.
I think the main political fault-lines are not going to fall between globalism and nationalism, but between centralisation and decentralisation. The former is the current hegemonic order, where we accept the coercive structures of governance and recognise its false legitimacy and ahistoricity. The latter on the other hand presents a cornucopia of opportunities for allowing exodus from the current production and political systems. One can see such developments in the hackerspaces and Shanzhai production systems of Shenzhen and other southern Chinese cities; in the municipal movements of Greece and Spain which are rejecting both austerity and statism, fostering instead a politics of adhoc collective action which removes power from the corporate-state nexus; and in the multitude of other movements that aim at cultivating an independent subjectivity. The real issue that decentralisers must face is how does one go about constructing a counter-hegemony of decentralised movements and structures. There are some answers, as with the World Social Forum and the capacity for groups and organisation operating in the black and grey economies to develop treaties, rules and cross-border relations as documented by Carolyn Nordstrom. Also, we need to reject the false swansongs of decentralisation-in-name-only, as seen with the New Labour governments project of regionalisation which simply expanded the ranks of the political classes.
At a glance, the sentiments expressed on your blog seem to mostly be in alignment with “left-libertarianism”, yet you also share some distinctly traditionalist and theistic sentiments that some would consider to be conservative. Do you identify with either the right or the left, or do you feel that the spectrum has become obsolete?
I think the left-right spectrum has become a losing game. In the modern world it means practically nothing. The Labour Party itself followed Thatcherite doctrine on the treatment of public services and its support for the entrenchment of globalisation. Blair himself was practically neoconservative on foreign policy matters. The Conservative Party has become a stalwart supporters of social liberalism and the desecration of tradition. Most populist leaders seem happy to decry “free trade” and reject the idea of a global order, something that many on the left would support if it didn’t come out the mouths of Le Pen, Trump or Orban. The recent UK general election, where we supposedly saw the resurrection of a genuine alternative between left and right, only seemed to propose two turgid forms of statism whose only differentiation came from whom they wanted the state to intervene for.
Even in purely theoretical terms no-one seems able to define this spectrum with any coherence or consistency. Rothbard originally deemed the right as reactionary and opposed to liberalism, and thus saw the left as the means toward a truly free society. Bastiat sat with the left in the French Assembly, opposed as he was to what were thought of as the reactionaries, those who opposed the ideological concepts that came from the revolution. Fundamentally, the left-right distinction doesn’t map particularly well, and is tending to give way to fault-lines that separate nationalists from globalists. Unfortunately this new dichotomy seems as vapid as the left-right one. And as I’ve said, the real political lines in the sand should coalesce around those who support the hegemony of centralisation, and those who support decentralisation and the means of its attainment.
In the talk you gave to the Libertarian Alliance on ‘The Libertarian Moment‘ you expressed some rather radical views against intellectual property. This is quite a contentious issue within libertarianism: in an ideal world, how would issues concerning “intellectual property” be dealt with?
In an ideal world, I think intellectual property would develop along the lines of private legal and commons-based polycentric systems of law which would significantly limit the extent of monopolisation that modern IP engenders simply because these decentralised modes of law are too diffuse and flexible to really create the stringent IP rights agreements and mechanisms that currently inform much of IP law.
If one really wanted to hold onto a particular invention, idea or concept, they would most likely have to pay the full economic cost of holding it out of the domain of the intellectual commons, rather than having a state subsidise those costs through TRIPs agreements and national legal diktat. Frankly, the evidence doesn’t support IP to any great extent. The work of Boldrin and Levine in their book Against Intellectual Property shows that much of the case for patents, whether in their claim to innovation or their claim of facilitating legitimate market competition, are complete bunk. This quote sums it up quite well: “Despite the significance of the policy changes and the wide availability of detailed data relating to patenting, robust conclusions regarding the empirical consequences for technological innovations of changes in patent policy are few.” (Boldrin & Levine, 2008, 193) This quote from Kevin Carson’s essay The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand further proves the negative effect of patents and IP. “Patents eliminate ‘the competitive spur for further research’ because incremental innovation based on others’ patents is prohibited, and because the holder can “rest on his laurels for the entire period of the patent,’ ‘with no fear of a competitor improving his invention.’ And they hamper technical progress because ‘mechanical inventions are discoveries of natural law rather than individual creations, and hence similar independent inventions occur all the time. The simultaneity of inventions is a familiar historical fact.’”
When taking into consideration the extent of entry barriers to most wannabe entrepreneurs and their ideas, as well as the extent of patent monopolisation (such as the case of researchers signing over the rights of their work for private funding), patent hoovering (where companies hoover up patents as with telecommunications monopolisation in the US in the early 20th century) and the extent of publicly-funded research, which is subsequently used by private companies to further their own research which they then patent, we see a system that is not particular innovatory or consumer-friendly, particularly considering the increasing diminishment of product life, the forms of built-in technological obsolescence and the requirement of advertising and brand relations to continually push products from the production line to people’s homes.
A truly free system of entrepreneurial activity and innovatory practices would mean much more research in the public domain, particularly that developed by universities and in the realms of open-source systems. It would also mean a more competitive environment that encouraged cross-product innovation and the lack of need for clever branding and advertising which guarantee product lines, instead moving to batch production such as that in Shenzhen, where the Shanzhai economy of knock-off production occurs in extremely clustered markets of small producers cross-innovating as well as pirating existing products like smartphones and computers.
Lately there has been a lot of concern in both conservative and (UK/Euro-style) liberal circles about censorship and PC culture on university campuses; limits to free speech, safe spaces and so-called “social justice” agendas. This is not just limited to college campuses but seems to manifest most intensely there. As an undergraduate, have you experienced any illiberal roadblocks such as these?
The most I’ve experienced are the nonsense of safe spaces and speech codes, but these are relatively tame. Any actual political debate will probably never occur within students unions simply because they have no real responsibility. With the rise of new public management discourses which encourage private sector management structures in the public sector, much of the decision-making within universities, such as course funding, living costs and quality of education and accommodation are done by unaccountable managers and chancellors (most of whom seem to come from the business world as in the case of my alma mater, Warwick). The most useful thing that SU’s are doing right now is opposing the further centralisation of further education through the National Student Survey and the Teaching Excellence Framework, which entail a perverse form of commodification along the lines of public risk and private reward.
I think if SU’s had any sort of decision-making power over the running of universities themselves, much of the SJW crap would go pretty quickly. Its only with diminished responsibility that I’ve seen the rise of these left-identitarian movements, most of which are short-lived and unable to cultivate meaningful student support.
As a great admirer of Attack the System and the work of Keith Preston, I am a strong proponent of anarcho-pluralism and diverse, cross-spectrum collaboration. However, many people disagree on where the line must be drawn. For example, there are many “anarchists” (whether they are truly anarchist or not) that are vehemently opposed to collaboration with national-anarchists (of the Troy Southgate school) as well as those libertarians that are very skeptical of collaboration with the so-called “alt-right”. Where would you personally draw the line when it comes to collaborating with such ‘fringe’ elements within anarchism, libertarianism and pan-secessionism?
In my opinion the line should be drawn along the axis of centralisation-decentralisation. If you support the latter, then alliances should be feasible. This axis seems to cut across all of these movements you mention, particularly the alt-right. The alt-right is an interesting movement. It is extremely heterogeneous, and is both an intellectual development in right-wing political philosophy as well as something of an activist movement. Personally I see no problem allying with it, so long as these alliances are made with those who actually support decentralisation and the diffusion of governmental power to smaller and smaller units. That is my main concern, no matter if you call yourself a fascist or a racialist.
I think those who decry the alt-right off the cuff are playing a game they can’t afford to win. Anarchists and libertarians are nowhere near a majority, despite what the Libertarian Party says. And the United States in its current form will never be libertarian. In fact no existing nation-state will. So in actually crafting a secessionist/decentralist movement, it will need to be pan- or meta- oriented in some way, whether that be crafting formal alliances with different ideological groups or developing flexible relations based on particular issues. Jeff Deist’s recent speech For a New Libertarian lays some of the groundwork for this idea, as do Keith Preston’s ideas surrounding a pan-secessionism that actually opposes the forces of empire. There is nothing wrong with recognising that blood and soil, not as a Nazi concept but as an abstract understanding of nationalism, are important to many people’s lives. You can’t simply have mass movements of people and expect everything to be happy and peaceful. Humans are tribal creatures with their own cultural precepts and concepts. They aren’t the rational automata of neoclassical economics, and nor are they ‘open-minded’ agents as progressivist ideologies posit. We can be happy go-lucky, but we can also be prejudiced and exclusivist. No matter how much one wishes, that will never change.
Thus it becomes imperative to craft institutional frameworks that allow for individuals to be peaceful and free, as well as cultivate their own identities and subjectivities, even if these are prejudicial or bigoted. Such a framework won’t come from libertarians like Steve Horwitz or Jeffrey Tucker who seem more interested in telling everyone how good the modern world is and why McDonalds is the idealistic example of free markets in action. And it won’t come from groups like Antifa who are more interested in punching anyone who disagrees with them. However, I think it can come from a reflexive politico-economic set of movements that supports decentralisation and the means for multiple groups and people to develop their own idea of the common good, independent of centralised structures.
Outside of the Libertarian Ideal blog and academic papers, do you plan on publishing any lengthier written works any time in the future?
I have a book in the pipeline that will look at the examples of European feudalism and petty commodity production in a critical manner, attempting to understand whether these forms of societal organisation contained anything that can be considered anarchistic. However, this is years from completion and will require a lot more reading and research on my part.
Finally, are there any books that have had an especially big impact on your thinking that you would care to recommend to the readers?
The best book I’ve read that theorises libertarian ideals and presents a coherent set of ideas and conceptions that move toward systems of decentralism and secessionism is Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale. It posits a decentralist vision which is both compelling and thorough, showing why the centralisation of life within either corporations or states is anathema to any conception of freedom, and why a flourishing of varied movements and organisations present the best means of attaining a less centralised world.
State/Space is another good book. It’s a collection of academic essays that explain the changes in spatial governance in the era of globalisation and neoliberalism, explaining how governance has become more centralised in many aspects while becoming depoliticised and removed (to some extent) from the auspices of the modern nation-state. It also contains some brilliant essays that explain how our more multi-scalar, multi-level world of governance presents potential means of exodus by using these institutional settings to further complexify relations and de-centre governance from central authorities.
Thanks for your time, is there anything you would like to conclude with?
Thanks for the good questions. It’s great to see a like-minded libertarian making the case for a libertarianism without adjectives.