How Libertarians Should — And Should Not — Approach Millennials

In recent weeks both Thoughts on Liberty and Reason have published articles on the Millennial generation’s social and political attitudes, as they relate to libertarianism. One is a good example of how libertarians should approach Millennials. The other most decidedly is not.

Let’s start with how to. Rachel Burger, at Thoughts on Liberty (“Millennials And Left-Libertarianism Part 1: They Need Community,” May 29), does a great job of understanding the Millennials on their own terms. She starts out from the communitarian, cooperative values of the Millennial generation, and asks libertarians to tailor our vision of a free society to that value system. And that entails incorporating left-wing sensibilities into libertarianism.

Millennials, she says, form online communities and social networks at far higher rates than the previous generation, and see cooperation with their peers as a normal way of getting things done. They are not only more cooperative and community-oriented, but more tolerant and concerned about social justice issues like “race, gender, sexual identity and class.” So libertarians need to emphasize the values of community, cooperation, and social justice. That probably means a public face of libertarianism that’s not a white guy in Silicon Valley reflexively dismissing the “statism” of feminists and people of color.

I would add that the Millennial generation is far more open than its predecessors to the sharing of information, cooperative/peer production, horizontal or networked forms of organization, and prefigurative politics.

Unlike us older folks who adhere to the slogan “information wants to be free” as an ideological proposition that we at some point consciously adopted, most Millennials grew up accepting it as a fact of nature. For them Web filters and firewalls are something installed by clueless education bureaucrats, that they can circumvent in a matter of minutes. They’ve been sharing music files as long as they can remember, and laugh at RIAA “anti-songlifting” classes the way stoners of my generation laugh at Reefer Madness. Chelsea Manning, Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden were Millennials, and members of that generation just assume that full transparency should be the norm and anything short of it serves corrupt power interests of some sort.

Millennials are used to networked collaboration. In the workplace they view such collaboration with their peers as the way to get things done, and see traditional corporate managerial hierarchies as a form of damage to be routed around.  The same ethos is reflected in the political models that have emerged in recent years — the Arab Spring, M15, Syntagma, Occupy — all reflect this.

Millennials favor horizontal, prefigurative politics over older models of working within the system for good reason. In the economic realm, they took out student loans and got good grades — followed all the rules for advancement under the old “meritocratic” system — and wound up working part-time for temp agencies (if at all) after moving back in with their parents.  In the political realm, enthusiastic 20-somethings turned out in record numbers to vote for Obama. And Obama, elected with the most left-sounding rhetoric, and the largest electoral and Congressional majorities in a generation, turned out to be every bit as much of a tool of the banks and the warfare and surveillance state as Bush had been.

As a result, Millennials have low levels of faith in old-style vertical hierarchies like the corporation or the state to mediate their vision of the good life. Instead, they see direct collaboration with each other to create the kind of life and counter-institutions they want, here and now, as the way to realize their ideals.

Because 20-somethings came of age during the Great Recession, they are unemployed or underemployed to a degree comparable to the Lost Generation in Japan, and consequently live in very large numbers in multi-generational households and meet a major share of subsistence needs through cooperation, bartering skills and self-provisioning outside the wage system and cash economy. James O’Connor, in Accumulation Crisis, argued thirty years ago, that in severe cyclical downturns it’s common for unemployed and underemployed workers to meet as many of their needs as possible outside the wage system, through self-provisioning and production for use within the household and informal sectors. As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation observed, Web 2.0 was largely the creation of tech workers unemployed by the Dotcom bust.

What we’re in now is not a cyclical downturn. It’s a secular downturn resulting from cheap, ephemeral production technologies that make increasing portions of labor and investment capital superfluous, but in which corporate dinosaurs — with the help of the state — are attempting to survive by enclosing technologies of abundance as a source of rent. So this generation is shifting the meeting of its subsistence needs from the cash nexus and wage labor to the social economy — not on a cyclical basis, but as the characteristic form of the new epoch.

So based on all this, it stands to reason this generation would be heavily involved in building all the major components of the successor society that’s emerging from the decaying ruins of the corporate-state nexus. There are 20-somethings in the hackerspace, open hardware and micromanufacturing movements, in Permaculture and community gardens, organizing squats into coherent, cooperative communities, developing encrypted counter-currencies and mutual credit systems, creating scholarly communities around open courseware and academic journals liberated from behind paywalls, and developing open meshworks the state can’t shut down and anonymizing darknets the state can’t penetrate.

The main shortcoming of Burger’s article is not her understanding of the Millennials, but her understanding of left-libertarianism. Left-libertarianism is not synonymous with “liberaltarianism.” As Jeff Ricketson has argued (“A Left-Libertarianism I Don’t Recognize,” Center for a Stateless Society, July 12), liberaltarians or bleeding heart libertarians start out with the center-left’s managerialist assumptions about the naturalness and inevitability of hierarchical institutions. We don’t. My comrade Roderick Long at Center for a Stateless Society (“Left-Libertarianism: Its Past, Its Present, Its Prospects,” C4SS, June 17) contrasts the bleeding heart libertarian approach with our version of left-libertarianism:

left-libertarians tend to be more radical, in both their leftism and their libertarianism, than the majority of those self-identifying as BHL proponents…. Most BHL proponents appear to see their libertarian commitments and their left-wing commitments as at least to some extent moderating each other; left-libertarians, by contrast, tend to see their libertarian and leftist commitments as mainly reinforcing each other.

We at C4SS don’t split the difference between liberty and economic or social justice, or look for some “moderate” midpoint between them. We are extremists in both our libertarian absolutism and our commitment to economic and social justice. We see the state as the keystone of economic exploitation, as well as a heavily interlocking component of other forms of domination like racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. And we see a society without relationships of hierarchy and subordination in the social and economic arena, without hierarchical workplace authority within the wage economy, as a major component of real individual liberty. The maximization of individual freedom and pursuit of happiness in every aspect of life is our goal, and we see the destruction of authority and coercion in one aspect of life as furthering their destruction in every other aspect.

Now for how not to appeal to Millennials. In two articles at Reason (“Millennials Opt for Meritocracy Over Egalitarian Society” and “64 Percent of Millennials Favor a Free Market Over a Government-Managed Economy,” July 10) on a Reason-Rupe poll of Millennials, Emily Ekins — rather than approaching the Millennials’ ideology on its own terms — tries to shoehorn their views, in about the most tone-deaf manner possible, into the conceptual categories of mainstream American libertarianism as it’s prevailed in recent decades. The very framing of the questions — I became much more irritated when I realized Ekins wasn’t just reporting on a poll someone else had done, but was actually involved in its design — includes unstated assumptions big enough to drive a truck through.

Take the alternatives one question presents, of a society where “wealth is distributed according to achievement” versus one “where the gap between rich and poor is small regardless of achievement.” The term “meritocracy” itself is meaningless. Every society in human history has been a meritocracy, with “merit” and “achievement” defined in terms of how well one serves the interests of the structure of power.

Under American corporate capitalism, arguably, most “merit” and “achievement” are defined according to how well people perform functions that serve the extractive interests of corporate capitalists. We, and most of the rest of the world, live under a form of capitalism in which the state for the several centuries has actively promoted — through subsidies, monopolies, and outright robbery like the land enclosures in early modern England, under Hastings in Bengal and the rest of the colonial world in the 19th century — the concentration of enormous amounts of property in a few hands, and monopoly returns on such concentrations of property. The highest “achievers” in the United States and most of the world — hundred millionaires and billionaires like Bill Gates — are parasites living off the rent from enclosure. Holders of patents, copyrights and trademarks, landlords whose titles trace back to the enclosure of vacant and unimproved land, incumbents protected by regulatory cartels and extracting super-profits through oligopoly markup, and untold other beneficiaries of entry barriers and monopolies, all get rich through the moral equivalent of a protection racket.

Further down the pyramid, the most lucrative salaried positions, and a major portion of all wage labor, amount to what anarchist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” (“On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” Strike! Magazine, August 2013). Some of them are simply waste production for the basically Hamiltonian purposes of utilizing surplus production capacity and employing surplus investment capital, in order to prevent the collapse of capital asset value: the Military-Industrial complex, replacement of goods designed for planned obsolescence, producing for the automobile-highway-suburban real estate complex, etc. But the majority probably involve “guard labor” (a term coined by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis) — jobs that exist only because of the concentration of wealth in a small ownership class, and because of the basic conflicts of interest that result from absentee ownership, managerialism and hierarchy.

Compared to these things, the “merit” entailed in actually producing things people want to eat, wear or live in, or cutting their hair and emptying their bedpans, is small potatoes indeed.

And the Reason-Rupe poll’s framing of the questions implicitly assume that wide disparities of income and wealth are the normal result of “competitive markets,” and can only be reduced by state intervention to “redistribute wealth.”

Other questions apparently presuppose a pot-smoking Republican understanding of what “the free market system” is, using language that suggests “the free market system” and “government programs” are just the two major components of our present economy, and the “free market system” itself is basically just contemporary American corporate capitalism, but with the parts officially labelled “government” removed. Of course there may be a bit of hat-tipping toward “crony capitalism” or even “corporatism” (depending on what kind of mood Stossel’s in today), but then again he’s just as likely to defend Halliburton and Blackwater as “free market defense.” At one point she suggests the Millennials’ views on capitalism and socialism reflect the fact that they came of age in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and have never yet had an opportunity to observe “market-driven success” — implying that something in fairly recent memory is a reasonable proxy for the kind of “market economy” that creates opportunity.

Worse yet, Ekins tries to read Millennial political attitudes through a right-leaning libertarian framework in which capitalism equals “free enterprise” and “markets,” and “socialism” equals “government ownership. Consider this howler:

Millennials are free marketeers. When asked to choose which is the better system, 64 percent of millennials say a free market system and 32 percent favor an economy managed by the government. By a narrower margin, 52 percent favor capitalism and 42 percent choose socialism.

Millennials appear to be more favorable toward socialism than a government-managed economy, even though the latter is arguably less interventionist. This raises the question: Do millennials know what socialism means?

Perhaps not. A 2010 CBS/New York Times survey found that when Americans were asked to use their own words to define the word “socialism” millennials were the least able to do so. Accord to the survey, only 16 percent of millennials could define socialism as government ownership, or some variation thereof, compared to 30 percent of Americans over 30 (and 57% of tea partiers, incidentally).

This may explain why socialism garners greater support than a government-managed economy.

I’d like to raise a question of my own: Does Ekins know what socialism means? The equation of “socialism” to state-owned, centrally planned command economies in popular consciousness, and the equation of corporate capitalism to “free enterprise” and “free markets,” was certainly a propaganda coup for corporate capitalism in its ideological war to shape the perception of alternatives.

But in fact the definition of socialism as “government ownership” didn’t achieve predominance until after WWI. Even Friedrich Engels, who saw nationalization of the trusts by the workers’ state as the proper path to socialism, didn’t regard state ownership alone as a sufficient criterion of socialism. According to Engels in Anti-Duhring, if the state was controlled by capitalists then the nationalization of major transportation and communications infrastructure, heavy industry, etc., would simply be a higher form of monopoly capitalism in which the capitalists acted through their state to manage their economy. Even Engels, who favored a socialist model based on state control of the economy, believed it would only be socialism if the state was politically controlled by the working class.

For the socialist movement as a whole, including state socialists like Engels, the one essential characteristic of socialism was not state ownership or control of the economy, but the political and economic power of the working class, and an end to economic exploitation. If one thing has defined socialism, then and now, it is a desire for the “euthanasia of the rentiers.” And if one thing has defined American capitalism — and the entire capitalist epoch — from its beginning, it is the control of the state by rentiers. In fact one wing of the socialist movement — anarchism — explicitly calls for abolition of the state. Individualists and other market anarchists like Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker and Franz Oppenheimer — and me — see state enforcement of artificial property rights and artificial scarcities as the main source of the rentier classes’ income, and want to “euthanize” the rentiers by abolishing all state-enforced monopolies and privileges so competition can destroy their rents.

If “socialism” is defined by the level of state involvement in the economy, regardless of whose interests are served, then American corporate capitalism is the world’s bastion of socialism. Virtually every penny of the profits of the Fortune 500, and of the billionaires’ fortunes, results from state intervention.

My intent here is not to counterpoise alternative dogmatic definitions of “socialism” and “capitalism” to Ekins’, but to point out that definitions don’t come from Mount Sinai. The definitions that currently appear in the dictionary are historically conditioned, and reflect older ideological victories by power structures that are far from disinterested. There are generational differences in usage, and usage has changed significantly over time — and these are nuances that can’t be captured by a dictionary definition.

As David Graeber suggests, it is the fact that the Millennials didn’t grow up during the Cold War, and weren’t exposed to the US corporate state’s propaganda machine, that accounts for their failure to absorb a definition of “socialism” that serves the interests of the monopolists and rentiers who control the US government. They favor “socialism” while distrusting the bureaucracy and regulations of a corrupt state, and favor “free markets” while distrusting a corporate capitalism that has been statist to the core since its very origins. When Millennials say they favor “socialism” over “capitalism,” they don’t mean they want an economy controlled by the government. And when they say they favor “free markets” over government programs, they don’t mean they want a world organized through the cash nexus and owned by McDonalds and Walmart. The form of socialism they want is based on horizontalism, face-to-face democracy, and the organization of a large part of economic life through the commons and peer-production. This is the form of socialism advocated by the most interesting and innovative currents today — the Italian autonomists, Graeber and the horizontalists, and the producing classes’ exodus to commons-based peer production advocated by Hardt and Negri. It’s also a form of socialism fully compatible with freed market exchange, and desired by many of us left-wing market anarchists at Center for a Stateless Society.

This kind of “socialism,” and this kind of “free enterprise,” doesn’t fit in well to a traditional right-libertarian intellectual framework where everything is either a capitalist corporation or a government agency. And unfortunately the questions in the Reason-Rupe poll, and Ekins’ narrative about the significance of the Millennials’ response, all presuppose this outdated industrial age framework. The Millennials’ understanding of “markets” and “socialism” are arguably more relevant to the age we live in than are conceptual categories like Ekins’, which date back to an ideological struggle between the Soviet bureaucratic oligarchy (posing as “socialism”) and the American corporate state (posing as “free enterprise”).

We left-libertarians favor a society, as Kropotkin phrased it in his Britannica article on “Anarchism,” in which harmony is achieved, “not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption,” a society arrived at by a process in which “voluntary associations” grow to “cover all the fields of human activity” and eventually “substitute themselves for the state in all its functions.” This is fully compatible with everything from money exchange to peer-production, to commons governance of natural resources, to mutuals, friendly societies, and other solidaristic institutions for pooling risk and income, to moneyless communism and production for use in favelas, squats and cohousing associations.  This is our free market. This is our socialism. Everything voluntary is compatible with this vision. Institutions based on robbery, force and authority — like the state and the large corporation — are not.

My purpose here has not been to argue that the political attitudes of Millennials coincide perfectly with what we on the libertarian left believe. But I do think there are some fundamentally different ideas prevalent among Millennials that set them off from previous generations. The acceptance of horizontal forms of collaboration and sharing as a fact of life, their instinct to bypass irrational constraints from authority figures, the approach to politics reflected by large-scale disillusionment with Obama and the rise of Occupy, etc., don’t necessarily overlap a whole lot with conventionally libertarian positions on specific policy issues, but I think they reflect an existentially libertarian reaction to authority in their everyday lives. They also prefigure basic organizational paradigms of a successor society structured on fundamentally different lines from the Weberian/Fordist assumptions of the 20th century. Millennials may not be ideologically hostile to the state as an entity, but they are naturally suspicious of authority and direction from the top, and are much more accustomed to problem-solving approaches that involve direct collaboration with their peers to get things done rather than trying to persuade institutions to change their policies.

So Ekins and the people at Reason need to stop worrying about teaching Millennials the “correct” definitions, or pigeonholing their beliefs into industrial age conceptual categories — and start listening to them instead.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist