Left Wing Individualism

Perhaps because I live in Chicago, perhaps because I work with other attorneys, in my day-to-day life I’m surrounded almost exclusively by people who identify with the mainstream, American left, centrist Democrats for whom mere mention of the word “libertarian” calls forth nightmarish imaginings of the Tea Party right. Regrettably, identifying myself as a libertarian stops any meaningful dialogue with this set before it starts; for them, libertarianism is associated with the extreme right wing of a one-dimensional American political spectrum that they have been successfully trained never to question. They often know just enough about Ayn Rand to regard libertarianism as an oversimplified and merciless case for corporate greed, for an economic status quo that finds the one percent growing ever richer while the “middle class” contracts and the poor suffer in sheer destitution. Ironically, this kind of centrist Democrat probably understands capitalism and its effects better than many libertarians, seeing economic predation for what it is and looking (however unsystematically) for something to step in and pull back on the reins. What they haven’t taken the time to understand, however, is either libertarianism as a real philosophy or the cavernous gulf that separates the economic system of the present moment from real free markets.

Because of this reflex revulsion at the mere mention of libertarianism, experience has inclined me to describing my politics as “left wing individualism.” This characterization, I have found, invites questions rather than angry diatribes, preparing the ground for a fruitful conversation as opposed to a futile debate. I borrow the phrasing “left wing individualism” from Eunice Minette Schuster, who made “A Study of Left-Wing American Individualism” the subtitle of her dissertation, Native American Anarchism. Schuster’s book follows Native American Anarchism from its nascent, prototypical forms to its blossoming as a distinct and fully realized philosophical system and movement. Her study is important insofar as it illumes a strain of political philosophy that can seem confusing and oxymoronic within the context of today’s mainstream political debates.

The individualist anarchists that Schuster discusses in the section of her book that treats anarchism in its “mature” state were both extreme individualists and socialists, architects of a project which we at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) undertake to continue today. As advocates of unhampered freedom of competition, property rights, and the sovereignty of the individual, individualist anarchists are a part of the history of the contemporary libertarian movement. At the same time, like C4SS today, this group opposed capitalism and regarded socialism as, in the words of radical reformer Ezra Heywood, “the great anti-theft movement” of their day. Unlike today’s free market libertarians, who often demonize the poor as welfare receiving “takers,” thinkers like Benjamin Tucker, Ezra Heywood, and Josiah Warren (just to name a few) saw the rich as the true idle, freeloading class, the beneficiaries of privileges that allowed them to game the system and put a stop to real market competition.

These early libertarians saw that freedom and competition work for all the reasons that are familiar to us today: division and specialization of labor, the massive amounts of information distilled in prices, and accordingly the folly of attempting to plan the economy through the greatest monopoly of them all, the state. They argued that genuine competition in a free market is the best, surest way to ensure that labor is paid with its full product, that is, to solve what was then often called the Labor Question; this made them socialists, even if they fit uncomfortably with much of the socialist movement. Their fit with the liberal advocates of free trade and competition — the political economists — was no less uncomfortable, finding the individualist anarchists constantly compelled to school the economists in their own doctrine, to point out the errors and inconsistencies that characterized so much of what passed as defenses of free trade.

The individualist anarchists were sticklers about consistency; if labor was made to come under the law of competition, of supply and demand, then so too should capital. As Schuster points out, the “scientific anarchism” of people like Benjamin Tucker thus “did not appeal to the Capitalist because it demanded not ‘rugged individualism’ but universal individualism” (emphasis added). Because the individualists regarded them as the proximate results of coercive privilege, rent, interest, and profit — the “trinity of usury” — were treated as akin to taxes, allowing the owners of capital the stolen difference between prices under a regime of privilege and prices as they would be under true, open competition. Market competition, therefore, was not the enemy but the friend of the workingman. The argument of market anarchism is simple: If we are to insist that everyone is entitled to whatever he can obtain in a free market, then at least we ought to try having a free market. And a free market cannot tolerate some of the most common historical features of capitalism: aggressive land theft on a massive scale, arbitrary regulatory and licensure systems that function as high cost barriers to market entry and preclude opportunities for self-employment, various direct and indirect subsidies that redistribute wealth to connected firms, and a government-created system of financial laws and institutions which produces the Wall Street cartel we have today. It turns out, then, that capitalism doesn’t quite square with what libertarians really want when we endorse free markets. We’re not as close to a free market system as even many libertarians like to pretend. It is not a matter of making a few tweaks and free market reforms here and there, of privatizing a few governmental monopolies and deregulating a few industries. Rather to get there from here would mean a thoroughgoing, systematic departure from the capitalistic tyranny we have and have had for a long time, a system which indeed is the direct successor of statist systems before from feudalism to mercantilism.

Anarchists such as Warren and Tucker understood this and spent their lives declaiming against an inequitable, capitalistic status quo that systematically disadvantages working people. And notwithstanding the all too eager efforts to consign them to the political right — even to write them out of the anarchist tradition — they belong (if anywhere) on the left, as Schuster understood. Epitomizing the gross misunderstanding of individualist anarchism among left wing academics, historian David DeLeon, in his book The American as Anarchist, labels Benjamin Tucker a “right libertarian” and amazingly names Ronald Reagan and George Wallace as ideological successors. Elsewhere in the book, DeLeon offhandedly classifies Voltairine de Cleyre, whose escapades in anarchism do not lend themselves to any easy pigeonholing, as simply an “Anarcho-Communist.” No less concerning is his incredible claim that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were all right libertarians. If one dedicated to the professional study of these figures and their movements can so deeply misinterpret the picture, it is no wonder that individualist anarchism should confuse the mainstream layperson’s political mind.

Calling myself a “left wing individualist” is one of the things I do to help reintroduce the individualist anarchism of the nineteenth century, a tradition that balances the individual and community in a way that is desperately needed in a world dominated by centralized power. The libertarian movement itself, moreover, ought not be so quick to dismiss anarchists such as Tucker as economically illiterate relics of a bygone age. After all, any consideration of how economic relationships would look in a genuine free market is in the nature of pure speculation. Libertarians who believe those relationships would look very much like they do today are seriously lacking in imagination and cannot fathom the depth of the change that real respect for individual sovereignty would bring about.

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