What is the Libertarian Ideal?

The Libertarian Ideal: For Secession, Decentralism, Mutualism and Organic Tradition

The original intent of my website was to simply talk about libertarian theory, applying it to my interests and ideas as they evolved. There was no necessary coherence apart from what I was thinking about at the time. However as my ideas have developed further, delving into libertarian and non-libertarian concepts and coalescing around particular points that can be considered a general ideology, I think it would be best to provide a foundational document for my website that best explains its reasoning and understanding in short form.

The most important aspect of libertarian thinking is its trenchant critique of the state as a coercive arbiter that fails far too often and tends to centralise economic and political activity under its auspice, leading to widespread discontent and poverty. Through libertarian thinking, ideas such as subjective valuation theory, the economic calculation problem and the knowledge problem all present the world as a complex and heterogeneous place. It is a world that is impossible to fully plan and map out, being delineated by different flows of culture, information and capital which cannot possibly be captured. No arbiter, whether it be a state, an international organisation or an economic monopoly, can possibly root out all the problems that it faces. It inevitably decays and crumbles, and thus calls out for more power and authority so as to maintain its societal position. Libertarianism’s formal recognition of the coercive nature of the state means that its cuts through the nonsense of political theory that suggests the state is the natural form of political and social organisation, showing that all its variables are constructed.

However, many libertarians who follow this critique then go on to defend the modern capitalist/market system. They suggest, that while imperfect, many elements of market competition exist and that if we remove a few regulations here and there, the overall system will maintain itself under a voluntary order. This not only effects the beltway libertarian think tanks and academic centres that are normally useful idiots for state-subsidised corporations, but also the more radical groups like the Mises Institute and the Property and Freedom Society. They come out with articles and speeches that defend corporations like Wal-Mart and Microsoft and suggest that the existing relations of private property and economies of scale are generally legitimate, hampered only by distortions that come directly from states. Such a position ignores the vast effects of statism that have constructed much of the existing economy, from transportation infrastructure and land theft which favours artificially up-scaling economies beyond their natural diseconomies of scale, to currency monopolies and IP systems which favour largesse and the privileging of stasis over creative destruction. These innate monopolies have huge distortive effects that rubbish the claim that the existing socio-economic system is in any way close to a libertarian order of free markets and private property.

A libertarian cannot look at the historical and modern evidence of state-based subsidies and incentives which make nearly all markets unfree, and produce a system where corporations and modern business (both those who directly engage with the state and those who do so only indirectly) cannot be truly indicative of the forms of organisation that would and could develop in a truly libertarian society. Thus it is my conviction that libertarians should stop congregating around these companies as if they are saints, and stop producing narratives that suggest we shouldn’t criticise modernity and its latent aspects. At the same time that doesn’t mean theorising romantic nonsense that suggests hierarchy won’t exist, power relations will melt away, and we’ll suddenly live in a classless society as many left-libertarians seem to think.

With the current crises that affect both the market system and the state, there can be room for a radical theory of critique that goes beyond criticising the state to criticising most centralised forms of organisation and activity, from subsidised corporations to independent regulatory authorities. Such a theory can pry open the false dichotomies of our time, from the nonsense of left vs right to the more recent nonsense of globalism vs nationalism. Libertarianism in this regard would need to move beyond simply talking about the beneficence of markets, private property and the non-aggression principle, toward something more integrative and forward thinking. Instead of talking about markets, it should talk about the many forms of market and non-market organisations and institutions that could develop in a truly free system, looking at interstitial movements as varied as the Mondragon cooperatives, the Shanzhai economy in China, the forms of political organisation developing in Spain and Greece, and the other movements that focus on individual and collective empowerment and the decentralisation of political and economic authority. Instead of focusing on private property, it should focus on strategies of radical privatisation that produce multiple property forms, from voluntary commons and collectives through to hierarchical political relations such as neo-cameralist city-states. It should be about cultivating a full world of neo-medievalism that defines property in a variety of ways, rejecting the existing statist modes of private property. Instead of focusing purely on the NAP, it should look at different ways for individual and collective empowerment, whether they be non-violent or violent in their means of opposing centralising forces. The NAP may be one strategy of resistance, but for stateless tribes in Africa and Southeast Asia or peasant groups in South America whose land is regularly taken by corrupt states, the NAP may not have much to say when they engage in protracted armed conflict.

Fundamentally, it should be anti-praxis in the sense of rejecting any one pathway toward a freer, decentral future. It should instead focus on cultivating multiple networks of engagement and activity, combining where necessary and doing their own thing the rest of the time. It is anti-universal, instead allowing different populations to develop their own relations of property and markets and whatever other economic and political forms that they can be can come up with. The libertarian ideal is about always aiming at exodus from any system an individual doesn’t want to be involved in. The best means as I understand them are set out in the subtitle of this article.

Secession, in the sense of always aiming at a form of creative destruction within governance that allows for people to leave when they want and form their own organisations and political discourses. Decentralism, in the sense of always seeing power as best derived from the ground-up and being distributed across a number of networks and nodes, making sure it cannot be centralised under any particular authority (whether that be private or statist). Mutualism, in the sense of always cultivating mutuality between and within different governments and peoples, whether they be vertical or horizontal relations of power and governance. And organic tradition, in the sense of looking at the past as a guide for particular political forms that can push us forward. This doesn’t mean looking nostalgically at the past as some bygone age of near-perfection, but instead recognising that modernity is no swansong either, and that in efforts to cultivate a libertarian society we should look at past structures and develop understandings from them for movements critical of modernity today. None of these are attempts at creating a praxis, but are instead overdetermined concepts that have different meanings in different contexts and are applicable to a variety of scenarios.

This short article sets out my beliefs about what the libertarian ideal is. Libertarianism should be neither left nor right, globalist nor nationalist and should aim at a world beyond the current horizons of modernity. It should not support any one system of governance or economics, instead pushing forth new ones and accelerating their dynamics so as to further processes of creative destruction and multi-scalarity. Above all, it should aim at decentralisation and with it the means to exodus, the ability to exit modernity and allow for new realities to develop in the liquid nature of subjectivity and organisation.

And thus the point of my website in engaging with this project, this libertarian anti-praxis, is to examine the multiple delineations and forms of organisation and institutionalism that exist both within theory and the real world. It is look at ways to attain exodus from both states and the forces of capital, aiming toward an anarchic non-order of multiplicitous polities, economies and social realities, focusing on the micro and linking it into a loose macro-analysis of anarchism and libertarianism that provides tool to those constructing their own alter-modernities.

The Libertarian Ideal: Voice, Exit and Post-Libertarianism

My original essay 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“. 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“. 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 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. 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” 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]“. 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” 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.

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, 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 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.