Radicalism as Revolution: A Call for a Fractal Libertarianism

In this recent post at Students for Liberty (SFL), Clark Ruper calls for libertarians to stop fighting between themselves and to band together in the name of spreading freedom. Using the story of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a parallel, he decries going too far down a “rabbit hole” of “reflective thinking.” It is Ruper’s claim that because SDS became too concerned with ideological commitments beyond their central focus, their movement imploded in a mess of intra-group Marxist feuds. From this analysis of SDS’s history Ruper warns libertarians that SFL and libertarianism more generally are risking SDS’s fate. Because of fighting between different groups within libertarianism, (objectivists, left-libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, etc.) we risk losing the ability to work toward our common end – freedom.

Ruper’s claims are odd for a libertarian. After all, libertarianism is a system of views specifically orientated toward unique individuals of common or conflicting interests working together peacefully. If there is a danger of ideological debate between libertarians degenerating into useless bickering and a broken movement, then perhaps there’s good reason to reconsider libertarianism as a whole.

Despite this tension, there are compelling parts of Ruper’s article. In discussing topics which informed people care about, it is common for discussion to degenerate into wastes of time like ad hominem attacks or strawmen. In this regard, it is very important that libertarians are vigilant not to let infighting kill the movement. Focusing too much on personal grudges or allowing dialogue to rot into the aforementioned “time waste” just squanders energy and time. However, it is not the case that this means “reflective thinking” need be abandoned by any group in particular, much less the movement as a whole. A movement that does not define itself is powerless when calling for change. It can express disapproval for any number of problems, but without specific or clearly defined tenets, it cannot move. The “movement” stagnates. In this regard, it is useful to distinguish between two types of infighting: discussion and discord. Discussion is the necessary form of internal conversation that transforms a movement into a tradition. Discord is the partisan altercation that leads to the demise of groups like SDS. Both can appear tumultuous and divisive, but where tumult in discussion is passion, tumult in discord is budding enmity, where division in discussion reveals ideological questions to be addressed, division in discord leads to a fracturing of the movement.

Ruper, in all fairness, does say he appreciates libertarians’ intense self-analysis. He seems to just want libertarians to redirect their energies toward spreading broadly libertarian ideas, rather than converting members of the libertarian movement to a different faction therein. He specifically says defining people out of the libertarian movement is unhelpful, as it only splinters those working toward a common cause. He is right to call for caution in how libertarian movements build themselves, but it is impossible to imagine a movement that did not define who was not a supporter. Whether they are libertarians or not, people believe in varying numbers of libertarian principles. Who counts as a libertarian is, therefore, an important questions for groups seeking to push libertarian ideas. For a big tent group like SFL, a more lenient set of criteria (like simply believing in substantially greater individual liberty) might suffice. However, that does not mean that the end of necessary or even useful libertarian self-analysis is this politically expedient inclusion of all those who aim for freedom for whatever reason. Even for SFL, discussion and disagreement about the content of libertarianism (its thin core) and its implications (its thick perimeter) can show those outside the many and varied ways libertarianism can address problems. If someone is a fan of non-interventionism and open borders but not intellectual property abolition, seeing some libertarians defend copyrights and patents can draw them into the movement (hopefully, investigating the internal debate, they will find the evils of IP).

According to the article, SDS fell apart because they passed from being radicals to revolutionaries. By “radicalism” Ruper means getting to the root of problems and pushing for change in their fundamental causes. In his own words about revolution:

Revolutionary thinking goes a step further than radicalism by assuming the entire structure of society or a movement is corrupt and that it has to be torn down and started fresh. It posits that revolutionaries know what is best for all and that they can rationally design something better. In practice, it leads to massive upheaval and destruction, as can be seen from the blood-soaked streets of the French Revolution to the bomb-shattered legacy of Students for a Democratic Society.

His first sentence is accurate. There is no way to have true revolution without complete overhaul. This is why perpetual revolution is the activist’s dream. There can never be complacency, never stagnation, never degradation. The whole of society is in an unending state of flux toward social equilibrium. However, after that, Ruper’s claims are strange, even in the most charitable reading. Anarchists, for example, are revolutionaries in part because a better society cannot be rationally designed (at least not centrally). If revolutionaries don’t know how a better a society could function, even using a form of spontaneous order like Hayek or Proudhon imagine, then radicals certainly don’t either. The necessity of revolution is a conclusion arrived at from the same kind of reasoning “mere” radicals use, not an epistemic block that prevents revolutionaries from seeing the faults they supposedly have due to hubris. The idea that revolution leads to destruction and upheaval is accurate, but this is desirable in its nonviolent form. Assuming Ruper means violent revolution, even that is often desirable. When a people rise up against a tyrant who oppresses them, violence will result but it is still a just struggle.

There is a deeper problem with the radical-revolutionary split Ruper suggests. Today, one cannot be a consistent radical without being a revolutionary. With all the problems endemic to government from public choice issues to rights violations, it is fanciful to believe that anything short of complete overhaul is needed. As all the work at C4SS strives to show, there is no way to see the fundamental causes of the myriad social problems facing humanity today and not call for the abolition of government domination, institutionalized violence and social hierarchy. To be truly radical requires being totally revolutionary. The radical must be an activist, and the activist must pursue the aforementioned dream – perpetual revolution.

To more accurately draw the distinction, Ruper is probably reaching for, a successful movement can pass from advocating radicalism and, consequently today, revolution to advocating violent, isolating fanaticism. When SDS began planning aggressive efforts to change their society, they ceased using the means libertarians accept as justifiable. At the same time, they began to use means that isolate a movement and lock it into the socially unacceptable space of fanaticism. Libertarians, if they are to be consistent, should be radicals and revolutionaries but not fanatics.

So what is a libertarian to do? Ruper asks for a movement devoid of “revolutionary thinking” whose members waste no time infighting. This leaves libertarians with a milquetoast ideology, poorly defined and lacking passionate defenders or rigorous introspectors. This is far from what makes a highly successful movement. However, incivility and isolating extremism can destroy a movement. Fanaticism is a death sentence for any growing ideological minority. It seems that libertarianism needs a movement based on pursuit of common goals, with the varying ideological camps willing to put aside differences until their relevance is immediate, and able to discuss their differences within the larger groups they organize. The libertarian movement needs to become a fractal of nested associations between individuals. The left libertarian market anarchist and the paleolibertarian minarchist both belong in a big tent libertarian organization, but perhaps not at the same table. Together they can push for the ideals of nonviolent social cooperation, but on specific issues of social hierarchy they can take opposite sides. Within the big tent they can discuss the issue, and outside they can spread their ideals independently, but within the big tent no camp should try to push its particular ideals as though it represented the majority.

To implement this vision of activism, every organization needs a statement defining what its members aim to accomplish. For C4SS, it is a leftist vision of anarchy. For SFL (from their website, emphasis added):

Students For Liberty is an organization that supports liberty. SFL does not dictate the foundations upon which individuals justify their belief in liberty. Rather, Students For Liberty embraces the diversity of justifications for liberty and encourages debate and discourse on the differing philosophies that underlie liberty. What Students For Liberty endorses are the principles that comprise liberty:

  • Economic freedom to choose how to provide for one’s life;
  • Social freedom to choose how to live one’s life; and
  • Intellectual and academic freedom.

Ruper has forgotten the mission of the very organization he supports. The call for a libertarianism including many groups, debating their differences and celebrating their likenesses is precisely the ideal SFL represents. In calling for an end to infighting in favor of ideological simplicity and purity, he has, ironically, come back to bite himself. He is pushing for a particular form of libertarianism and advocacy. In his own words:

There has been far too much “we would be better off if” and “this is why we can’t have nice things” rhetoric in the movement. Internal debates are healthy and good. We should study fringe ideas and be critical of our own beliefs, but not to the point where we devolve into tribal elitism over those differences… We need to be radical champions and unifiers, not dividers, of liberty.

To restate, Ruper is claiming to believe we would be better off with fewer “we would be better offs.” It is entirely unclear what a movement looks like without recommendations for the direction to move in, but it is true that “tribal elitism” is unhelpful. This is the crux of the fractal movement model. With each sub-group having a place in the big tent, no one group gets to dictate to the rest, and all get the benefits of working together. This makes perpetual revolution a kind of endless zooming in on the fractal. As the biggest tent achieves its goal, it can disband and the next largest set of groups can continue their work on their relevant differences.

In a sense, this fractal structure is seen in nature. No species is genetically pure, and for good reason. With variation in traits comes the ability to adapt to future, unforeseen problems and leave offspring. Evolution takes advantage of internal differences when they are adaptive or gets rid of them as maladaptive traits are explored. In the same way, social movements can take advantage of variation and internal discussion while discarding ideas as they are found inaccurate or other movements achieve their goals.

Ruper is right to caution against libertarianism going the way of SDS, and he is right to call for a united, championing libertarian movement, but he misdiagnoses the source of SDS’s ills, and is unduly alarmist about libertarianism, and especially SFL. Infighting is a libertarian pastime, and there cannot be a movement without rigorous self-analysis and recommendations about how best to work together. Ruper knows this, or he would not have written his article. What he should have called for is a libertarianism united under the common banner of freedom, with passionate, friendly discussion on the issues therein, and a fractal nesting of smaller, more specialized groups. Libertarianism needs deeper specialization with less incivility, not sterilized homogeneity with self-congratulatory discussion.

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