The Left-Rothbardians, Part II: After Rothbard
This article was originally published on the blog The Art of the Possible.

This post starts where the first half left off: Rothbard’s disillusion with (and abandonment of) his New Left alliance. Now I want to look at some of the people who continued the left-Rothbardian tradition.

Karl Hess was just getting into his full left-wing swing when Rothbard gave up the New Left as a lost cause. Even during Rothbard’s most enthusiastic attempts at collaboration with the Left, Hess was already to the left of Rothbard. As I mentioned in Part I, at one point he was a Wobbly. He continued to move leftward into the 1970s, in 1975 writing the libertarian socialist tinged Dear America.

As the 1970s wore on, his leftism took on more of a “Small is Beautiful” coloring, with an emphasis on human scale technology and neighborhood democracy. In this period he wrote the highly recommended book Community Technology, and coauthored Neighborhood Power with David Morris.

By around 1980 or so, Hess also started drifting back to the right, although he never went as far in that direction as Rothbard did in his last years. His autobiography Mostly on the Edge, written after his shift back to the right, still retained much of the generally decentralist and anti-bigness spirit of his earlier years.

In considering the career of Samuel Edward Konkin III, I rely among other things on his own account of the history of the Movement of the Libertarian Left (PDF). If you want the full, complicated history of all the organizations he built, go to Konkin’s account (along with obits by Jeff Riggenbach and Phil Osborn) and you’ll get all the organizational details and humanizing anecdotes you can handle. I’m skipping over a lot here, because my main focus is on his ideas and the people today who were influenced by them.

Konkin (aka SEK3), a native Albertan and a social crediter in his callow youth, was an associate of Rothbard dating back to the days of the YAF schism (he was a Wisconsin delegate at the St. Louis convention where it took place). His Movement of the Libertarian Left continued to develop Rothbard’s thought in the leftward direction that Rothbard himself had abandoned.

Despite Rothbard’s disillusion with the libertarian-left alliance, the collaboration of 1969 between YAF and SDS dissidents had a certain momentum of its own. For example, according to SEK3’s history of the Movement of the Libertarian Left, Libertarian Alliances formed on a number of college campuses through the 1970s. The phenomenon was kicked off in February 1970, when the California Libertarian Alliance organized a Left-Right Festival of Mind Liberation. Speakers included Karl Hess; the free market libertarian Robert LeFevre; Carl Oglesby; Dana Rohrahacher (yeah, him), who was known as the “Johnny Grass-seed” of the YAF radicals back when he was good for something; and Sam Konkin.

Starting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libertarian Alliance, and drawing associates involved with the mushrooming Libertarian Alliances all over New York and the West Coast, Konkin organized many of his fellow travellers into a left-Rothbardian movement that took on the name New Libertarian Alliance in 1974. Konkin created the NLA as an underground organization, for promoting his stategy of Counter-Economics and his ideology of Agorism. In 1978, he founded the Movement of the Libertarian Left as an above-ground counterpart to the NLA. The Agorist Institute popped up at some point thereafter, if you’re still keeping track. (I’m not blind to the humor in this mad proliferation of organizations, believe me – more about which below.)

Konkin’s chief strategic focus, in keeping with his doctrinaire anti-political stance, was what he called “Counter-Economics (PDF)” or “Agorism.” The idea was outlined in Konkin’s New Libertarian Manifesto (PDF): to build a black market counter-economy, and drain resources from the corporate state nexus, until the free market counter-economy finally supplanted the state capitalist system altogether.

Konkin’s ideas on counter-economics dovetail to a considerable extent with the left-wing ideas of dual power and prefigurative politics. I discussed a counter-economic strategy based on those concepts, from a libertarian socialist perspective considerably to the left of Konkin’s, in “Building the Structure of the New Society Within the Shell of the Old“:

Economic counter-institutions, unfortunately, work within the framework of a larger corporate capitalist economy. They compete in markets in which the institutional culture of the dominant firms is top-down and hierarchical, and are in great danger of absorbing this institutional culture themselves. That’s why you have a non-profit and cooperative sector whose management is indistinguishable from its capitalist counterparts: prestige salaries, middle management featherbedding, bureaucratic irrationality, and slavish adherence to the latest motivational/management theory dogma. The problem is exacerbated by a capitalist financial system, which extends positive reinforcement (in the form of credit) to firms following an orthodox organizational model (even when bottom-up organization is far more efficient)….

The solution is to promote as much consolidation as possible within the counter-economy. We need to get back to the job of “building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” A great deal of production and consumption already takes place within the social or gift economy, self-employment, barter, etc. The linkages need to be increased and strengthened between those involved in consumers’ and producers’ co-ops, self-employment, LETS systems, home gardening and other household production, informal barter, etc. What economic counter-institutions already exist need to start functioning as a cohesive counter-economy.

Konkin’s other major innovation was his development of libertarian class theory. The roots of Rothbard’s and Konkin’s class theory lie in the French thinkers Saint-Simon, Comte, and Dunoyer, and in the radical wing of English classical liberalism. They identified the ruling class as those interests that obtained their wealth by acting through the state.

The classic thinker in this tradition was the English free market radical Thomas Hodgskin, who made the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” rights of property. The former, he said, followed naturally from possession and served to secure the individual’s ownership of his labor product. Artificial property rights, on the other hand, were creations of the state which enabled the holder to collect tribute from the product of labor. Holders of artificial property rights included the great landlords with their feudal rents, the politically connected mercantile capitalists, and the recipients of assorted other privileges and immunities.

The ideas of the French positivists and of Hodgskin were taken up in Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction between “natural appropriation” and “political appropriation” of the land, and between the “economic means” and “political means” to wealth. Political appropriation of land was the chief political means to wealth.

The classical political economists had acknowledged that most people will enter wage employment only when all the land is appropriated and they no longer have direct access to self-employment on their own land. This was a commonplace observation made by Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus. Oppenheimer’s radical contribution was to observe that although the land was indeed all appropriated, it had never been naturally appropriated; it had, rather, been politically appropriated by the great landlords acting through the state. The great landlords used their artificial property rights in the land to control access to it and charge tribute to those working it, and in many cases to hold vast tracts of it out of use altogether. Only under these circumstances, in which the means of direct subsistence were made inaccessible to labor, could labor be forced to sell its services on disadvantageous terms (the British ruling class literature at the time of the Enclosures was full of frank admissions that the only way to get people to work hard enough, for a low enough wage, was to steal their land). Privilege was the political means to wealth, and the state was the organized political means.

Rothbard made this the centerpiece of his class theory, treating collusion with the state as the political means to wealth, and the ruling class as those who attached themselves to the state and used its subsidies, privileges and special protections as a source of profit. Rothbard stated these principles, among other places, in “The Anatomy of the State.”

Konkin took this basic insight and ran with it, applying it in detail to the concrete conditions of American state capitalism. The ruling class was not only state functionaries, but the central banks and associated large financial interests, and the commanding heights of the corporate economy most closely tied to the statist finance system. Agorism was the revolutionary movement of those engaged in the economic means, attempting to take as much economic activity as possible out of the control of the ruling class. Konkin’s agorist class theory was set forth in the first chapter of his unfinished work Agorism Contra Marxism. That chapter is appended to Wally Conger’s excellent Agorist Class Theory (PDF), which itself is based on the chapter and surving scraps of Konkin’s work in the area. An in-depth class analysis of the financial system and its industrial satellites, based on the same version of libertarian class theory, is set forth in an article by Walter Grinder and John Hagel: “Toward a Theory of State Capitalism (PDF).”

As Konkin said, Agorist and Marxist class theories pretty much agree when it comes to those at the top and bottom of their respective class systems. “The differences arise as one moves to the middle of the social pyramid.” The main difference regarding the middle is that Agorist class theory is a lot closer to the “petty bourgeois producerism” of the nineteenth century populists. Agorists don’t have any problem with entrepreneurship or entrepreneurial profit. What they have a problem with is the rentier classes, deriving absentee incomes from huge fortunes with the help of the state. Those at the top of the pyramid generally act through the state to make sure they don’t have to engage in entrepreneurship. Rather, the state protects them from risk and competition, and thereby enables them to collect secure long-term rents (see, for example, here and here – please do!).

In 1999, Konkin founded the LeftLibertarian yahoogroup, the venue through which I first came into contact with him, his ideas, and his wide circle of friends. I had several years of stiulating discussion there that influenced my development to no end. In 2007, three years after Konkin’s death, the list imploded over a political dispute between J. Neil Schulman and just about everybody else, and most of the important figures in Konkin’s circle migrated to the Left-Libertarian2 group. Konkin’s old yahoogroup is pretty much an empty shell, although Neil Schulman and Kent Hastings stayed with it (and the archives are well worth digging into). Because of a similar dispute with Neil over the rights to the name “Movement of the Libertarian Left”, several members of LeftLibertarian2 collaborated to form a successor organization, the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. Again, just about all the leading figures in the old MLL migrated to the ALL and left the old body as an empty shell owned by Schulman.

I know, I know. I’m the first to acknowledge how comical Konkin’s alphabet soup of organizations must seem to anyone on the outside. To beat you to the joke, it’s like one man founded the Judean People’s Front, the Popular Front of Judea, and all those other “splitter” organizations at the same time. Sam’s personality reminds me a bit of Bakunin’s. With his childlike enthusiasm for founding endless organizations (with cool acronyms, of course) and publications, issuing name cards, and forming conspiratorial undergounds, it’s hard to keep track of it all without a score card.

But his ideas deserve to be taken seriously in their own right, and his work had a serious effect that belies the snicker factor in all the organizational mitosis described above. His theoretical ideas in the New Libertarian Manifesto, and in his unfinished work on agorist class theory, are both monumental contributions to libertarian thought. His ideas inspired a large circle of prominent libertarians who are influential in a wide range of organizations and publications today, and their ripple effects continue to spread outward.

The most important association of Konkin’s left-Rothbardian followers today is the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. There’s nothing remotely “Judean People’s Front” or splinterish about it. If anything, it’s a textbook example of how an affinity group should be organized in an era of networked politics. It is a large, vibrant community of left-Rothbardians and other left-wing allies (like me). It’s an umbrella organization something like an Agorist International.

In a sense, the Alliance of the Libertarian Left is an improvement on its MLL predecessor. The old MLL was almost entirely made up of Konkin’s Agorist fellow-thinkers. Although it was descended from Rothbard’s attempt at a New Left alliance, it included only one side–the market libertarian side–of the alliance. There weren’t any New Leftists or libertarian socialists in sight. The closest they came to dialogue with the genuine left was when some anarcho-commies or Georgists stopped by the LeftLibertarian list for a while and then moved on. Although the nucleus of the new ALL is made up of Konkin’s old associates, it includes a much larger accretion of left-wing movements. Several Tuckerites and mutualists of my general stripe (who stress the socialist as much as the market aspect of individualist anarchism), and quite an assortment of geolibertarians. In addition to the old core of Agorists, there are a good many small-a agorist fellow-travellers. Chuck Munson (Chuck0) of Infoshop even has friendly ties with several members of the ALL. In a sense, the Alliance of the Libertarian Left is exactly the kind of left-right alliance Rothbard tried and failed to achieve almost forty years ago.

So despite Sam’s seeming silliness with all his organizations, in the end he built something important that lasted. He impressed his thought on a wide range of people, and brought them together, and most of them are still together and building on his and each other’s. His influence continues to leaven the broader libertarian movement in ways we may never fully realize the importance of in our lifetimes.

Just by looking at the links on the Alliance of the Libertarian Left site, or clicking the movement’s associated blog ring, the Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left, you can find a wide range of sites hosted by Konkin’s old fightin’ comrades from the St. Louis days, more recent disciples of left-Rothbardianism and Counter-economics, and some even newer left-wing friends like me, who–despite never having considered ourselves followers of Rothbard or Konkin–have been strongly influenced by their thought.

Brad Spangler’s site, Agorism.Info, reproduces the NLM along with many of Konkin’s other pamphlets.

The Agorist Action Alliance (A3) was created by Spangler as an activist organization for coordinating agorist propaganda and counter-economic organization.

KoPubCo, a publishing outfit owned by old Konkin associate Victor Koman, has reprints of much of the MLL’s literature, including reprints of New Libertarian Notes and Strategy of the Libertarian Left.

The Rothbard-founded scholarly journal, Journal of Libertarian Studies has since December 2004 had a left-Rothbardian editor, Roderick T. Long.

Another member of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, Sheldon Richman, is (sic) editor of Leonard Read’s long-lived periodical The Freeman; he has in recent years moved its editorial stance in a decidely left-libertarian direction and been a vocal critic of state capitalism.

Joseph Stromberg – although completely unaffiliated with the Alliance of the Libertarian Left–is nevertheless something of a Left-Rothbardian eminence.  He has himself rejected as artificial attempts to divide Rothbard’s career into left- and right-leaning phases.  But the division is quite useful in my opinion, and Stromberg clearly falls into the left-Rothbardian category when it comes to his analysis of the role of interests in U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

Probably the two centerpieces of his body of work are:

1. His analysis of corporate liberalism in American domestic policy in “The Political Economy of Liberal Corporatism,” and

2. His extended effort at integrating radical left-wing theories (Hobson, Beard, W.A. Williams, and the neo-Marxists) of monopoly capital and imperialism into an Austrian theoretical framework, in “The Role of State Monopoly Capitalism in the American Empire (PDF).” This article I cannot recommend highly enough.

In addition, it’s worthwhile to browse his archives at LewRockwell.Com and Antiwar.Com. Although Mises.Org… doesn’t maintain an author archive, his work can be found by a Google search of their site. Probably his single greatest work, aside from the two articles mentioned above, is his lengthy annotated bibliography of revisionist literature on war and foreign policy: “War, Peace, and the State.”

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 3rd, 2008. 

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory