Note: this was written for the occasion of Black Awareness Day in Brazil.
In the 1960s, notable names from the American libertarian movement established contact with mobilizations of the New Left, which was characterized, as opposed to the Old Left, by a mistrust of centralized and big government strategies, and by their emphasis on the inclusion of segregated minorities. For the New Left, addressing issues of gender and race were as paramount as ending military aggression.
New Left tactics included mass civil disobedience, direct action, and community and neighborhood self-organizing through civil institutions outside the state. These methods sprouted from their aforementioned mistrust of institutionalized politics: As Brazilian libertarian socialist Mario Ferreira dos Santos put it, in democratic politics, “as it always seems to be, the means become more important than the ends, and tend to replace them, and the freedom struggle ends up deifying these means.” The New Left attempted to avoid these missteps.
Murray Rothbard attempted to establish a conversation between libertarianism and the New Left through the periodical Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought. Among the articles published, one of the best certainly is Rothbard’s own “The New Left and Liberty,” which showed how the freedom philosophy was ingrained in the methods of the New Left.
Rothbard argued that the participatory democracy the New Left championed was actually an anti-authoritarian and anti-state philosophy: Every individual, even the poorest and most marginalized, has to have the same right of control over her own life. As Kevin Carson recently wrote, this is an economic and organizational paradigm based on horizontal and stigmergic networks where everything is done by the interest individuals or groups, who are most motivated and qualified to perform a given job and do not need to seek permission. This allows activists to decide by themselves which goals are important for the communities they work with and to establish which issues are related and most pressing to them.
Given the Black Awareness Day on November 20th in Brazil, we can also highlight the characterization Rothbard gave of the black movement in the United States: Essentially libertarian in method and reasons. That was a time for civil rights struggles against segregating legislation in the USA. Rothbard claimed that in that scenario the New and the Old Left were like oil and water.
The Old Left wanted political reform, subsidized housing for black people, federal subsidies to education, state welfare legislation. Political lobbying was the proposed tactic.
The New Left, by contrast, championed a militant activism that orbited around subjects that could be dealt with by mass civil disobedience: Racial segregation, voting restrictions, police brutality toward blacks. On this last issue, especially, police violence was a main concern for the black population in the South and even in other states of the US. It was a much more pressing matter than the lack of playgrounds in their housing projects or the conditions of their neighborhoods.
Rothbard concluded that, in focusing on areas in which a state governed by whites oppressed black people, the New Left had transformed the black movement into an authentically libertarian movement.
The same was true in the economic sphere. The New Left correctly distrusted government efforts toward “urban renewal”: Instead of accepting the pretext that it this would benefit the whole public, the New Leftists saw projects to remove black people from their houses to benefit construction contractors and real estate developers. Programs to “fight poverty” were seen as a way for bureaucrats to manipulate black people’s economic prospects.
Distrusting the state, Rothbard shows that New Left activists worked within black communities, helping them get out of apathy and organizing them into mutual aid associations, which would be able to help the impoverished black communities, much like what is being done by multi-stakeholder cooperatives. And its practical applications brought about the establishment of the freedom schools, an alternative to government public schools.
Moreover, opposing the uncritical acceptance of old labor unions by the Old Left, the New Left accused them of pitting white against black workers, of using their influence with businesses to restrict the participation of black workers in the labor force and reinforcing their exclusion. But that naturally does not mean the the New Left was opposed to union freedom: In Mississippi, an alternative labor union was set up to register black workers, challenging the monopoly of racist unions in collective bargaining.
Brazil’s black movement faces similar challenges, though in different contexts, where many of the causes relate both to black people and to the general poor population who live in peripheral neighborhoods: Police brutality, evictions, housing programs that actually increase the housing deficit and segregation, non-recognition of the collective land rights of the quilombola communities (traditional settlements of descendants of fugitive slaves), non-recognition of the property rights of “irregular” houses, such as favelas and other tenements. We also have a tax burden that falls heavily on the shoulders of the poor instead of the rich, and is footed especially by women and black people in comparison to males and whites. Also, there is the war on drugs which increases insecurity and murders among blacks, not to mention the persecution of African-Brazilian religions.
Here, black people have to worry about the state breaking familial and community bonds, transferring the responsibility for people’s well being to the government, and, doubly troublesome, about corporate welfare and middle class subsidies, which lower even more the value of their labor.
Black people need to face all of these challenges. They can do this if they are equipped with a libertarian awareness, inspired by the work of the New Left.
Translated by Erick Vasconcelos.
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