The Libertarian Ideal Part 2: Voice, Exit and Post-Libertarianism

My original essay[1] defining delineations that make up and inform the libertarian ideal as I see it set out critiques of the libertarian position on markets in relation to modern capitalism. I noted that libertarians played a paradoxical game similar to socialist claims of real socialism never existing. In this case, libertarianism wanted to claim the benefits of modern capitalism (technological development, increasing life expectancy, better choices in marketplaces, etc.) while removing any statist baggage that sullied the waters. Thus capitalism and the progenation of markets were placed in an ideological vacuum that removed them from historical context. I further critiqued the libertarian reliance on abstract axioms, primarily the non-aggression and self-ownership principles, which further removed economic exchange and political development from historical reality.

This second part is a critique of the libertarian position on the state and coercion more generally, and present more fluid, quasi-axiomatic positions that provide greater scope for ideological/political experimentation and allow for a distribution of power in the war of positions between various hegemonic positions. These fluid positions can be described primarily as exit and voice as defined by Hirschman, and the various institutional machinations that lead to the ability to increase their potential and allow for a greater degree of freedom in either leaving a particular organisation or increasing one’s influence/voice within its governance mechanisms.

The libertarian position on the formation and development of the state tends to come from the work of Oppenheimer, who presented a clear conflictual basis for how the state formed. “The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors”[2]. On this reading, Oppenheimer suggests states emerge primordially from conflict where dominion is developed through might. This is described in other terms as hegemony with sovereignty, the imposition of authority from above.

“In the case of the colonizing state (hegemony with sovereignty), the ubiquity of instruments of social control—foreign governors wielding authority through military force; imposed systems of revenue collection, taxation, tariffs, and tribute; subordination of once-autonomous local authorities; expropriation of local land, water, and other natural resources; graphic displays of extreme violence against local resistance; erection of highly visible public monuments such as palaces, temples, shrines, government schools, offices, warehouses, forts, prisons, and the foundation of entirely new colonial cities commemorating and glorifying the power of the state—serve, over time, to alter and even suborn autochthonous social identities and senses of cultural independence”[3]. The formation of state sovereignty in this paradigm is mainly conflictual, aiming to dominate subordinate populations under a central auspice of control. However, Oppenheimer’s analysis begs the question of what the state actually is, and how it formed in situations of complexity and ambiguity. In other words why does the state form where before less coercive governance mechanisms existed, and is the state primarily defined as a coercive apparatus at all.

On formation, while there are certainly conflictual bases for state development, there are also state developments which develop hegemony without sovereignty. Here the institutional framework shows a state developed not through the ossification of centralised structure, but through nested and tangled hierarchies of governance where local forms of power have greater degrees of autonomy in relation to overarching state forms. In this situation, state subjects have an orthopraxic[4] relationship to the state, sublimating certain central functions for practical and/or strategic purposes while maintaining pre-existing institutional mores. A prominent example of this orthopraxic relation is the (re)generation of ancient Khmer states in Cambodia[5]. The socio-economic base remained agricultural inland, where farming surpluses were then exported to the maritime communities on the coast to support the trading posts there. Further, the essentialist political dynamics remained locally focused, based around clan temples. On top of this geopolitical topography, multiple state forms architectured, from religious ideological formations to what Weber would call “traditional commercial transactions”[6] in maritime trade networks.

These ideal types of hegemony and governance belie the question of why states form and reform. In the case of Khmer formations, we see state development relate to increases in social complexity, as maritime trade networks increased in importance in the Southeast Asian region. The infrastructural requirements of trade networks and the political connections necessary to facilitate the enforcement of norms and regulations create increasing issues of complexity, which require more complex and adaptive governance networks to make this complexity work to certain ends (whether those be profit, community development, geopolitical dominance or other societalisation projects). Per Tainter’s view, the development of state formation goes hand in hand with increases in social complexity as networks of socio-economic relations expand. And, with different institutional and societal mores surrounding and underlying state forms, there exist a plurality of potential state projects and hegemonic visions which can coalesce into particular states.

This then goes onto to answer what the state actually is. In this case, it is an assemblage of variable institutions and mechanisms undergirded by different axiomatic functions. Jessop specifically defines the state apparatus as “a relatively unified ensemble of socially embedded, socially regularized, and strategically selective institutions and organizations [Staatsgewalt] whose socially accepted function is to define and enforce collectively binding decisions on the members of a society [Staatsvolk] in a given territorial area [Staatsgebiet] in the name of the common interest or general will of an imagined political community identified with that territory [Staatsidee]”[7]. However, this definition contains a large degree of strategic relativity and ambiguity in regards to other forms of societalisation. Other institutional ensembles exist with differing degrees of independence from the state apparatus (as notable in multiple Khmer regimes). Differing ideological and contextual histories produce differing forms of state with differences in the four characteristics that Jessop identifies. The common interest or will of the state (Staatsidee) is always contested, bordered and polyvalent.

Going back to conceptualising the libertarian ideal, the state as an assemblage of forms and processes presents a much messier picture to be dealt with. It presents both more challenges and more possibilities precisely because the institutional framework that defines the state is made up of various formations that are in tangled relations with it. The possibility for experimentation, and subsequently for exit and voice, are potentially heightened when seeing that state and societal projects intersect and influence each other. Governance in the wider sense presents a greater topography that libertarians can influence and work with, particularly when considering the cross-influences between social worlds (such as business networks and policy-making). The ability to develop soft governance (i.e. wider regulatory norms with interpretative frameworks and non-state forms of litigation) for economic relations in lieu of hard governance forms (i.e. state regulations and coercive mechanisms to enforce them) is one such area where libertarian norms can increase areas of economic freedom and choice. Further, as Tainter has noted, social complexity is a two way street. It both increases and decreases when governance structures become maladaptive. Largesse in any organisation breeds conformity and the ossification of architectural norms. Adaptation through technological advancement and scalar jumps (jumping from one scale of governance to another) requires “architectural innovation”[8] in governance/organisational structures. As adaptation transforms and fragments these ecologies, hierarchies can become heterarchical as the positions of privilege previously held within the state get superseded by extrastate networks and parallel systems. Looking to ancient forms of governance, such can be seen by the resilience of kin-based networks after the collapse of complex government in the middle Euphrates Valley, which were used as the building blocks for regenerating complex forms of government, or by the maintenance of raised-field farming (a labour intensive practice requiring significant organisation and interdependence amongst communities) by local village complexes after the collapse of the Tiwanaku empire in the Andes region[9].

What I would propose here is to recognise the state as a complex formation with multiple points of entry. And what I would propose going forward is to liquefy the axioms, in favour of recognising and experimenting with the patchwork within the state. What early state formation shows is a requirement for adaptive governance to work with increasing social complexity as trade, exchange and societalisation increase in scope and scale. The libertarian preference for secession, decentralisation and a desire for economic over political exchange play to certain strengths when it comes to adaptivity and avoiding concretisation of norms and mechanisms. However this post-libertarian concept I am discussing can only exist in relation to other ideological forms in the general war of positions. To develop libertarian ideals and increase negative freedom, it can only come in conjunction with negotiation with other axiomatic types which prioritise particular societalisation projects and visions. Even in instances of secession and decentralisation, overarching and central frameworks cannot suddenly be ignored or simply routed around.

As noted in critiques of seasteading[10], if one positions their governance network as oppositional to modern states, you won’t get very far. Thus negotiation strategies and conflict management are fundamental to any governance formations which aim to work within the real-world. This requires ideological flexibility and constant adaptivity to innovatory developments. The state as an assemblage is a patchwork developed for societal cooperation and for the dominance of particular hegemonic visions, and post-ideological[11] concepts give greater room for experimentation and the development of best practice. Post-libertarianism then must work in this ambiguity, developing governance relations to facilitate fluid axiomatic ends that reduce coercive mechanisms and increase voluntaryistic and decentralised, Ostromite forms of governance that increase the possibility of exit and the formation of parallel networks, as well as increase the possibility of voice in governance/regulatory frameworks. It is not the rejection of libertarian axioms, but rather the recognition that the real-world is more fluid and more complex, necessitating more than opposition to states and corporatism.

Further reading:

On post-libertarianism’s ambivalent relation to states and criminal networks, potentially increasing the ability for conflict management in coercive settings:

On state formation as an ambiguous set of relations that present a patchwork within the state rather than define the state as unitary form as described by Oppenheimer and Hobbes:

On conceptualising libertarian ideals of secessionism, decentralism, mutualism and tradition in the real world:

On rethinking markets as institutional assemblages akin to the way states have been defined in this essay:

On forms of soft governance, in this case related to privacy concerns and social media:

On different organisational ecologies which allow for the development of technological governance and innovation in varied ideological contexts:


[2] Franz Oppenheimer, The State

[3] Alan L. Kolata, Before and After Collapse

[4] Alan L. Kolata, Before and After Collapse

[5] Miriam T. Stark, Collapse and Regeneration in Ancient Cambodia

[6] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[7] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future


[9] Glenn M. Schwartz, From Collapse to Regeneration



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