Antiharmonism and the Betrayal of Liberty

The following article was written by Neil M. Tokar.

“No! To tell you the truth, I’m never voting again. Like marriage, no matter who you choose it turns out bad. Unless you’re rich. They get everything they want — well, fine! One thing I know: we’re never going to win through the system. Voting has never been the American way.” — Al Bundy in the “Chicago Wine Party” episode of Married with Children

In the introduction to the Mises Institute’s edition of Ludwig von Mises’s Theory and History, the introductory preface contains Rothbard’s lament: “Austrian economics will never enjoy a genuine renaissance until economists read and absorb the vital lessons of this unfortunately neglected work (xix). Unfortunately for Rothbard, I think that Mises’s Theory and History’s discussion regarding the so called “philosophy of antiharmonism” undercuts Rothbard’s argument in favor of voting and engaging in political action as expressed in The Ethics of Liberty (186-87). It seems to me that attempts to bring about liberty “through the system” or “through government” can rather easily backfire on the libertarians.

Let me begin by presenting Mises’s treatment of the philosophy of antiharmonism:

As the antiharmonists see it, community of interests exists only within the group among its members. The interests of each group and of each of its members are implacably opposed to those of all other groups and of each of their members. So it is “natural” there should be perpetual war among various groups. This natural state of war of each group against every other group may sometimes be interrupted by periods of armistice, falsely labeled periods of peace. It may also happen that sometimes in warfare a group cooperates in alliances with other groups. Such alliances are temporary makeshifts of politics. They do not in the long run affect the inexorable natural conflicts of interest. Having, in cooperation with some allied groups, defeated several of the hostile groups, the leading group in the coalition turns against its previous allies in order to annihilate them too and to establish its own world supremacy. (Liberty Fund’s Edition of Theory and History, 28, bold emphasis mine)

At the time of writing this article, one of my friends posted on Facebook a comment. He told me that I reminded him of a movie character named McLovin because of how I acted during high school. In order to have some fun explaining the philosophy of antiharmonism, I have structured this article around references to the movie Superbad. If you have seen the movie, then I think you will appreciate my attempt at humor. If you have not seen the movie then let me briefly summarize its content. Basically, three teenage guys are trying to buy alcohol for a party at the end of their high school experience. Naturally, they have to use a fake I.D. , which has the ridiculous name of McLovin on it. I picked two of the characters, Evan and McLovin (or Fogell) to stand for “good” and “evil,” sort of like the idea of having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder. In my opinion, Evan’s character was more mature and considerate; hence, I picked Evan to stand in for “good.” McLovin’s character stands in for the “bad” guy because he is the one who openly breaks all the rules such as using his fake I.D., going on a joy ride with the out-of-control police officers, and recklessly shooting off a gun.

Initially, I thought that I could explain this passage using the “bad/super-bad” explanation (maybe one could call this the “McLovin Conjecture” because of the “super-bad” component) provided by Étienne de la Boétie in his book The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie mentions that within our ruling class we have a group of “favorites” (the bad) who form an alliance with the “tyrant” (the super-bad); however, this alliance is only ephemeral in nature because the “favorites” end up losing both their fortunes and their lives to the “super-bad” tyrant:

These favorites should not recall so much the memory of those who have won great wealth from tyrants as of those who, after they had for some time amassed it, have lost to him their property as well as their lives; they should consider not how many others have gained a fortune, but rather how few of them have kept it….Most often, after becoming rich by despoiling others, under the favor of his protection, they find themselves at last enriching him with their own spoils. (75)

But then I asked myself, what if instead of conceiving of the antiharmonist philosophy in terms of “bad/super-bad,” one were to consider it in terms of “good and super-bad.” After all, if Fogell or McLovin stands for “super-bad,” because he bought the alcohol with his fake I.D. and because he went on a wild joy ride with the out-of-control police officers, then I suppose it is safe to say that Evan’s character in the movie stands for “good,” because Evan was the responsible and mature one in the group of friends. But what then does this “Evan-McLovin Interpretation” of the philosophy of antiharmonism imply? I think that it implies quite simply that libertarians should not try to achieve liberty through the political system. Let me now explain how I came to this conclusion.

In his first ever treatise in the English language, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Hans-Hermann Hoppe tells us a riveting story that nicely illustrates the “Evan-McLovin Interpretation” of the philosophy of antiharmonism in action! In Hoppe’s rendition of the history of how absolutism emerged out of feudalism, the “super-bad” or “McLovin” component of the story is what he refers to as the creation of “super-feudalism” out of plain-old vanilla-flavored feudalism. The “good” or “Evan” component of this saga is played by the heroes of the story, namely, the inchoate agorists consisting of international traders and merchants who just happen to be audacious enough to defy the local feudal overlord in their quest for freedom.

The “Evan” component of traders and merchants forms an alliance with the “McLovin” component; the “McLovin” component just happens to be a geographically distant feudal lord. This “Evan-McLovin” alliance cooperates because it is perceived to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, namely, both sides will benefit by seeing the local lord overthrown. Without the existing local lord, the “Evan” component will benefit from this alliance by receiving “partial freedom” from the onerous requirements of feudalism. In other words, we are about to see the Janus-like nature of “McLovin.” To form this alliance, “McLovin” puts his best face forward by coming across as “magnanimous McLovin,” the lord who grants freedom! The “McLovin” component—this geographically distant feudal lord—benefits from this alliance because the feudal lord gets to extend his territory of control, at the expense of the other lord.

Now, following the philosophy of antiharmonism, what is supposed to come next in our feudal plot line? Naturally, a betrayal of one member of the alliance by the other member! This is precisely what happens. After the alliance overthrows the existing local lord, the “McLovin” component proceeds to show the “Evan” component its other much nastier face. The “McLovin” component earns the title of “super-bad” at this point by proceeding to transform itself into what Hoppe calls the “super-feudalist.” What this means is that the “McLovin” component of this tale betrays the “Evan” component by breaking the promise to grant freedom. Instead, the exact opposite happens because a new layer of exploitation is imposed on the “Evan” component. Now the “McLovin” component has achieved the ultimate goal of the philosophy of antiharmonism. Everyone, the existing local lord and the merchants and traders (the “Evan” component), is subjected now to the unquestioned lordship of this new “super-McLovin.” The alliance of freedom turned into the alliance from hell as everything retrogressed.

Just in case you think I am making all of this up, let me give you the stern and academic version of this antiharmonist philosophy story in the words of Hoppe:

In their endeavor to free themselves from the exploitative interventions of the various feudal lords, the merchants had to look for natural allies. Understandably enough, they found such allies among those from the class of feudal lords who, though comparatively more powerful than their noble fellows, had the centers of their power at a relatively greater distance from the commercial towns seeking assistance. In aligning themselves with the merchant class, they sought to extend their power beyond its present range at the expense of other, minor lords. In order to achieve this goal they first granted certain exemptions from the “normal” obligations falling upon the subjects of feudal rule to the rising urban centers, thus assuring their existence as places of partial freedom, and offered protection from the neighboring feudal powers. But as soon as the coalition had succeeded in its joint attempt to weaken the local lords and the merchant towns’ “foreign” feudal ally had thereby become established as a real power outside of its own traditional territory, it moved ahead and established itself as a feudal super power, i.e., as a monarchy, with a king who superimposed his own exploitative rules onto those of the already existing feudal system. Absolutism had been born; and as this was nothing but feudalism on a larger scale, economic decline again set in, the towns disintegrated, and stagnation and misery returned. (A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, 86-87, bold emphasis mine)

One can further see this “Evan-McLovin Interpretation” of the philosophy of antiharmonism at work when looking at the history of the American Revolution. Just like the feudal example above, the American Revolution saw the emergence of an “Evan-McLovin” alliance against a common enemy, in this case Great Britain. The “Evan” component of the American Revolution was lulled into an alliance with the “McLovin” component based on promises of liberty and freedom. “Magnanimous McLovin” makes his return! True to form, the alliance was followed by a betrayal since the promises of liberty did not materialize. What did materialize was just the replacement of one tyranny with another.

The nature of the “Evan-McLovin” alliance in the American Revolution is put tersely by Howard Zinn. The “Evan” component is played by the “substantial middle class,” and the “McLovin” component is played by the “upper classes”:

Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality. (A People’s History of the United States, 73-74, bold emphasis mine)

Just as the alliance feudal lord, the soon to be “super-McLovin,” promised freedom from the onerous feudal rules but eventually betrayed his “Evan” component in order to establish an indomitable lordship, so too the American upper classes, as soon as they got what they wanted, betrayed their alliance members and successfully established a new indomitable lordship. What do they, the upper classes, want? Paraphrasing Charles Beard, Zinn states that “the rich must, in their own interest, either control the government directly or control the laws by which government operates” (106). One can really see all of these points coming to a head—the phony liberty alliance followed by betrayal—by looking at what happened when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in Boston:

When the Declaration of Independence was read, with all its flaming radical language, from the town hall balcony in Boston, it was read by Thomas Crafts, a member of the Loyal Nine group, conservatives who had opposed militant action against the British. Four days after the reading, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve. This led to rioting, and shouting: “Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.” (A People’s History of the United States, 91-92, bold emphasis mine)

The people of Boston just got “cock-blocked” by “McLovin!” The alliance was formed under the assumption that it would bring about liberty and freedom for the “Evan” component. What actually happened is that the philosophy of antiharmonism kicked in; the “Evan” component was lured in to an alliance with the “McLovin” component, which just was rendered nugatory. Now the true face of the “McLovin” component has been revealed to the people causing them to riot. Not liberty but ordering people into a military draft is that true face. Not surprisingly, Zinn sagaciously observes, “new lords, new laws.” But the “McLovin” component got what it wanted. The Declaration of Independence had been read and so the British ruling class was formally out and the new ruling class was now in charge.

To conclude, I will be bold enough to state that the “Evan-McLovin Interpretation” of the philosophy of antiharmonism is probably one of the first lessons anarchists learned during the French Revolution. In what Peter Marshall calls “the earliest anarchist manifesto in continental Europe,” we read this brilliant passage from Jean Varlet’s work:

What a social monstrosity, what a masterpiece of Machiavellism [sic] is this revolutionary government. For any rational being, government and revolution are incompatible. (Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, 451, bold emphasis mine)

One cannot change the system by working with the government or ruling class elements, the “McLovins.” That is the point. I have tried to illustrate that alliances with the “McLovin” component with their promises of freedom and liberty are nothing but legerdemain, trickery, deception, prestidigitation, call it whatever you want. The “Evan” component thinking that it is getting liberty is actually enslaving itself by trying to work with some government or “McLovin” component. The merchants tried to work with the geographically distant feudal lord to get freedom but that blew up in their faces. Similarly, the middle class Americans tried to work with their colonial rulers in order to win freedom for themselves. “The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial ruling class” (A People’s History of the United States, 101). Again, this working with the government or existing ruling group backfired for the seekers of liberty in America too. One can find other examples of the preachers of liberty—the “McLovins” of history—turning into the barons of tyrannical hell the second they get the opportunity to enslave. They will turn on you in a heartbeat. One of my books on the French Revolution aptly put it this way: “Robespierre the apostle of liberty” in 1793 became “Robespierre the most infamous of tyrants.” Even in classical examples, we again see this betrayal of the seekers of liberty. The “Evans” of ancient Syracuse formed an alliance with Denis or Dionysus in order to save their city from the invading Carthaginians. Like all good McLovin’s, when Dionysus returned to the city victorious over the invaders, he transformed “himself from captain to king, and then from king to tyrant” (The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, 54-55).

So what advice can I offer to Evan and McLovin, the two movie characters whom I used throughout my article? Well, when you head off to college next year, maybe that “alliance” plan of living together as roommates should seriously be reconsidered! Don’t do it Evan! For us, the lesson is don’t work through the system or with members of the ruling class because there is a high probability of getting stabbed in the back by the phony “liberty” alliance member.

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