Libertarianism has lost sight of its soul.
This has grown clearer and clearer since Donald Trump announced his improbable campaign for President a little over two years ago. His particular brand of politics – right-wing, but not neoconservative, anti-trade, but not socialistic – had become as unusual in serious contenders for the office as his personality. For the last several decades we have been fighting very different fights, and that has left us unprepared.
The radical wing of libertarianism immediately erupted into chaos. Some were so taken in by Trump’s disruption of the status quo that they overlooked (or worse, welcomed) the direction of that disruption. When Hillary Clinton publicly named and denounced the “Alt-Right,” this led some contrarians to drop all libertarian pretense for the chance to walk in line with a potent boogeyman.
Those with enough decency to reject racism and xenophobia met with their own temptations. In the face of a throwback threat like the 1930s fashions of Trump and the Alt-Right, some found libertarianism lacking. Non-aggression is a good rule of thumb, thought many concerned libertarians, but this is a state of exception, where drastic times require drastic measures. Sometimes that hole ripped wider, and this exceptional case became a reason to discard the whole theory and don the red-starred helmets of a different interwar wardrobe.
The liberal wing of libertarianism didn’t have any of those problems. They felt a different reactionary impulse – not to the Ancien Régime, but to the Fairly Recent Regime. Their strange form of resistance came as a doubling-down on the legitimacy of the very process that brought us Trump.
We must defend Our Democratic System, they pled, or something worse will take its place. That process of simulating self-governance bent the arc of history towards imperfect but greater trade and imperfect but greater peace. There are occasional wars, occasional atrocities, and occasional Trumps, but those are deviations. That is as good an end as we can hope for, so we should quit while we are ahead. The traditional establishment, from intelligence agencies to party leaders, deserves our full support in these trying times.
They attacked the 30s not in defense of the future, but in defense of the 90s.
This chaos is a new development, but the confusion is not. The Trump era is not what made us forget our movement’s soul. It only exposed those holes in our memory.
That it even makes sense to speak of libertarianism having a “radical” wing and a “liberal” wing is the real problem. A working sense of self-knowledge would render this divide impossible. For that divide requires forgetting that what defines libertarianism also sets it apart from any theory with a liberal-radical distinction.
Because libertarianism is radical liberalism.
The Liberal Vision: Prosocial Individualism
“Radical liberalism” kind of sounds like a joke. In many circles “radical” and “liberal” are direct antonyms.
To be a “liberal” is to be a gradualist and a reformist, moderating what political values one has and favoring the immediately feasible over the far-off and principled. To be a “radical” is to accept what is to be done, caring more about the omelette than the broken eggs. Or so the story goes.
To call libertarianism a radicalized liberalism sounds especially confused. “Liberals,” in the complaints of individualist anarchists and other libertarians, are managerially-minded, paternalistic, soft authoritarians. They are the ones shackling the poor for their own good, with cigarette taxes and Big Gulp bans. The ones saying, “no one should have to sleep under a bridge” to defend a ban on sleeping under the bridge. Smith and Bastiat might have been called “liberals,” but their enemies succeeded in stealing the name. Or so the story goes.
Most of today’s self-described “liberals” are decidedly non-radical reformists, and most of them are managerially-minded elitists who’ve made peace with power. Yet this is because their liberalism sits uncomfortably wedded to antithetical doctrines like progressivism and social democracy.
They are moderates because their liberalism, to varying degrees, does moderate their authoritarianism.
They are unlikely to become enamored with eugenics or pass new Sedition Acts like their more fully progressive ancestors. Their liberalism serves as a check on those excesses. That liberalism also means they are more likely to be found in the ACLU or Amnesty International, support legalizing drugs, be (relatively-speaking) less nationalistic, at least care about problems like mass-incarceration, and, much to the chagrin of illiberal radicals, favor (relatively speaking) market-oriented economies.
What is good about those colloquially called “liberals” in American politics is the result of some genuine liberalism seeping through. What is bad about them is the result of that liberalism serving only as a mediating force, rather than a motivating principle of its own.
The essence of “liberalism,” in the sense driving individualist anarchists and taming today’s progressives, is hard to pin down. Partisans of different factions will give different answers – such as natural rights, an emphasis on the economic way of thinking, or pluralism about the good life. Each of these framings has its strengths and weaknesses, but more important is what’s common to all of them.
Liberals are united in their belief that there is a natural harmony of real interests and in their concern with the mutually-destructive capacities of power.
This “natural harmony” is not always respected in actual fact, and one’s “real interests” are not always recognized as being in tune with those of other people. Paths to personal betterment paved by aggression and domination often seem to stand right in front of us. Liberals are well-aware of this. They are also aware, though, that those roads are dead-ends. Part of what it means to live a good life, for political animals like us, is to treat others with respect. When people are living well and acting rightly, they have no genuinely irresolvable conflicts of interest. Under normal conditions, that right-functioning further results in a greater supply of everything that makes life worth living. Failures to see this often multiply, and each injustice makes another look appealing, slowly whittling away at any progress that’s been made.
This is why natural rights theorists don’t see their side-constraints as constraints on human potential, why liberal utilitarians don’t take utilitarianism to require constant sacrifice, and why those focused on pluralism don’t see that as a recipe for chaos and disorder.
It is also why natural rights theorists guard so forcefully against violations of those rights, why liberal utilitarians take as obvious the utility of the harm principle, and why public reason types are so wary of imposing any one comprehensive doctrine.
Liberalism is committed to both a staggering confidence and a sobering fear.
Its confidence is in the free association of individuals through markets, civil society, and the spaces in between – ways in which each act in accordance with their own dreams and aspirations and each benefit from the existence of each. Its fear is in the disruption of those dreams and aspirations by some against others, in service of apparent interests, to the detriment of all.
Liberalism is the fearless embrace of the positive-sum, and the terrified rejection of the zero-sum. It is the view of life where both predatory forms of egoism and a cooperation requiring systemic self-sacrifice are incoherent.
At its most radical, liberalism insists that an injury to one is an injury to all, and proposes an oath of “I swear to never live for the sake of another, nor to ask another to live for mine.” It holds that those two principles are not only compatible, but complementary.
The Illiberal Vision: Antisocial Collectivism
Liberalism is made clearer by exposing its opposite.
For the most comprehensively illiberal political figure in recent American history, we need look no further than President Trump. If we peer through his eyes, both predatory forms of egoism and a cooperation built on sacrifice look all too coherent.
In trade and migration, one side always “wins” and the other “loses.” This is a binary choice; there is no win-win. Those sides almost always take the form of nations. When the United States admits refugees, it benefits those refugees, but this corresponds with a proportionate harm to native-born Americans. The enormous benefits of immigration to every individual irrespective of nationality are irrelevant. Implicit in this judgment is the premise that individuals are not real – only those grand abstractions in which they find themselves are real.
To become Great, we must have (or fall under the direction of) a single will. Since the nation’s existence is higher than that of the individual, those individuals with divergent wills are a kind of autoimmune disease. In a case like flag-burning, severe treatments, like loss of citizenship or a year in jail, must be seriously considered.
Reason, argument, and dialogue are not methods of conversation with which two or more parties can find ways to mutually further their own ends. They are weapons in the arsenal of one party to bludgeon all the others into submission. Correspondence to reality is irrelevant, political convenience is the real criterion for truth. Robbed of that significance, persuasive speech and direct acts of violence do not differ in kind, but exist on a spectrum. The latter, to illiberals, is always more efficacious, but they might use the former if they’re trying to be subtle.
The illiberal mind is one with no patience for some spooky, supposed harmony of “real” interests. It worships power – especially in the form of physical force – as the source of all good things.
Liberalism, as I have described it here, is more than just a view of the state. It is an attitude toward human life itself and our status as social animals. A lack of liberalism, then, corrupts much more than the way one sees governance. It perverts social relationships altogether.
Trump illustrates illiberalism just as strongly in his personal finances as in his public policies.
His preferred business model is simple predation. Sometimes he uses force, as in his history of eminent domain and its foreign equivalents, and sometimes fraud, as in his infamous Trump University scam. Those times he actually tries to provide value for value, as with Trump Steaks, have ended up colossal failures. Of course they do – that’s unfamiliar territory.
For him, the true art of the deal is in understanding that there are no actual “deals.” As he sees it, the idea of two parties coming together with distinct aims and both leaving those negotiations better off is nothing more than a myth.
Trump’s model of market society is The Apprentice on a massive scale. There are temporary alliances, but the competition really is competition in its most naïve sense. At the end of each season, there is only one winner.
That illiberalism breeds both hive-mind collectivism and predatory egoism is no accident. The standard illiberal desires some civilization, and to them, civilization must be built on repression and domination. Since the illiberal denies any natural harmony of interests, they must construct such a harmony artificially. What was once “me against the world” becomes “me and my Friends against the world,” or more conservatively, “me and my Friends against the Enemy.”
To be a “Friend” here is more than just sharing a personal bond, and to be an “Enemy” is more than just reciprocating personal disgust. Here these terms take on the political meaning given by arch-illiberal and Nazi collaborator Carl Schmitt, which is one of life and death. “Friends” and “Enemies,” for Schmitt, are your allies and adversaries in a conflict (actual or potential) that defines your political existence. “Enemies” (and they are primary in this context) are those you seek to destroy, and “Friends” are the ones who help you do it.
For true illiberals, the choice of Friends and Enemies is ultimately arbitrary.
Consistent, self-aware Leninists openly admit they have no moral justifications for their revolt against market society and the managerial capitalism they think it fosters. They have simply found themselves thrown into one class rather than another, and that gives them their Friends and their Enemies – simple as that.
When pressed, Richard Spencer has no real argument for why race, rather than other features of our identities, should take precedence. He has just found himself thrown into one race rather than another, and that gives him his Friends and his Enemies – simple as that.
Natural law, for the liberal, demands moral equality and respect for rights. Nothing could sound more absurd to the illiberal. To them, such “natural laws” are little more than tricks used by one side of a conflict to tie the hands of the other. The only real “natural law” in the illiberal worldview is that of survival, and surviving a zero-sum world requires militaristic discipline.
At the bottom of the illiberal barrel, there are no moral facts. There is only the battle. Pick your team accordingly.
To prepare for war, the illiberal submerges their individual identity entirely into a collective project. Richard Spencer is no longer Richard Spencer. He just is the White Race seeking racial autarky. Leon Trotsky is no longer Leon Trotsky. He just is the International Proletariat seeking a Worker’s State. Donald Trump is no longer Donald Trump. He just is America seeking to become Great Again.
After this transformation, the illiberal embraces hive-mind collectivism not as an alternative to predatory egoism but as a manifestation of it. It is not just America becoming Great Again. It is America becoming Great Again at the expense of everyone else.
The illiberal vision of social order is one in which we may build civilization, but only on the ruins of a conquered Enemy. We may not enjoy this civilization as ourselves, but only as one or another fictive identity, built from endless compromises with our Friends of circumstance. To the extent that you are yourself, that you forsake the collective project for your own, society is in danger. In a world where it is everyone for themselves against everyone else, a larger fictive self of the Nation, the Class, or the Race, will soon swallow you whole.
Anathema to that vision is the liberal one, requiring no compromise of individual identity, no lockstep submission to a careful collective plan. It requires the freedom to plan one’s own life and the freedom of others to plan their own lives. Without any one plan giving way to any other, they link together through open exchanges in which one satisfies their own particular needs by creating a better way to satisfy the particular needs of another, who in turn satisfies those of yet another, ad infinitum. Zooming out, we see a civilization more robust and complex than any conqueror could ever build, than any collective project could ever even imagine.
The fatal flaw of Trump and other illiberals is in their failure to see an art of the deal that believes in the reality of deals.
Radicalizing the Liberal Vision
To say that libertarians are radical liberals is to say more than just that we are more extreme.
“Radicalism” is not about being louder, angrier, or more willing to take on unusual views. It can and does often result in those things, but it should not be mistaken for them.
Radicalism is about taking an idea to its roots, and applying that idea consistently. It is not at odds with “common sense.” In fact, it is often a stubborn insistence on holding on to common sense and refusing to accept common excuses for denying the obvious.
Common sense tells us that if you were to grab someone off the street and put them in a cage for trading plants, that would be a rotten way to treat another person – even if they had a whole lot of those plants. Illusions of political authority prevent many people from properly applying that judgment when the offender holds a certain badge, but the radical stays unmoved.
Radicalism is also about acknowledging the way our society is disfigured and broken by problems that become the rule, not the exception. Radical variants of feminism expose the way our society is shaped, from the ground up, by patriarchy. While Marxist analysis is deeply misguided, it is radical in that it not only condemns “the anarchy of production,” but argues that such an anarchy is the source of almost every social ill. Even fascists are radicals in that their hatred for individualism and complexity colors their entire way of seeing the world. Staring into a future where that variation is bound to increase without end, they paint themselves as men among the ruins.
The radical liberal sees that although our interests are naturally aligned, they are wildly at odds in the world around us. This unnatural disharmony comes from the imposition of power and the way aggression feeds upon aggression.
Radical liberalism sees aggression and its far-reaching effects even where others are blind to it. It is liberalism freed from the illusions of political authority.
Murray Rothbard sometimes said the main thing for libertarians to get across was that “we are being robbed.” Much is contained in that simple statement.
First, the obvious: taxation is theft. To the seasoned libertarian, this can seem like a boring cliché, but it really is a crucial realization. The state, justifying itself through security from crime, is actually a highly-successful criminal organization. Its plunder has just become legal plunder, so closely woven into the fabric of society that it becomes unrecognizable.
Second, we are not only being robbed by taxation but by the forces taxation puts in place. As radical liberal economist Frederic Bastiat observed, there are always seen and unseen effects from state action. Seen are the streets, schools, and security from invading armies. Unseen are the heightened risks of blowback, more ennobling forms of education artificially made unfeasible, and the singularity of innovation being held back.
We are not only being robbed of resources in the present, we are being robbed of a better future. That robbery rationalizes itself by presenting the ill-effects of forgotten past robberies as the failures of a free society. The state is not just a highwayman but a highwayman eternal.
Third, there is a robber doing the robbing and a society being robbed. While the radical liberal sees no classes in nature, they do see society fractured into them by aggression. There are those who seek to live by voluntary cooperation and those who seek to live by systemic predation. Individualist anarchists, the most radical of radical liberals, take that analysis further, showing how the state further cuts up society into classes by enabling its similarly-structured cousins.
Large centralizations of wealth, structural poverty, and the rigid authoritarianism of our workplaces are not the natural product of market society. They are the result of endless interventions so normalized that they do not look like interventions.
White supremacy, patriarchy, and transphobia are not biologically encoded into us and exacerbated by free exchange. They are the culmination of slavery, conquest, racialized zoning, immigration restrictions, marriage laws that enshrined subjection and tolerated rape, gendered property laws, webs of gendered administrative law, and countless other aggressions so regular that they do not look like aggression.
More than anyone else, we love peace and safeguard cooperation. Yet we cannot ignore the war around us. There is little adrenaline behind the legislator’s vote, the bureaucrat’s checklist, or the policeman’s casual stroll, but they are acts of war all the same. Throughout that monotonous charge, the unknowing infantry’s supreme objective is always the protection of political authority.
The Fall from Radicalism to Illiberalism
Radical liberalism’s rejection of political authority is not just a rejection of the current government or the current elite.
While the imposition of power has thrown us against one another, creating classes of exploiters and exploited, those antagonisms are not natural, but artificial. Despite how deeply bruised and broken our world is, we are all still human, and real human interests are still aligned.
We ought to hate the state, and that hatred can serve as a muse. But that hatred is a hatred against practices of submission and subordination, and it is a hatred against the institutional arrangements that give those practices the force of law. When we forget that, it is easy for radical liberalism to slip into one or another deranged form of illiberal radicalism.
Living and breathing, not in the ideal world of natural harmony, but the real one of brutal disharmony, the radical liberal finds plenty of Enemies. Those Enemies are very real, even if artificial.
Fighting the existing order, day in and day out, it is easy to lose sight of one’s differences with others who do the same. It is easy to forget that your only natural Enemy is not the particular person in power, it is power itself. One finds Friends of convenience, who also hate the current state, and seem to see the Enemy’s crimes for what they are.
To speak more concretely, we can return to the fact that countless radical liberals have defected to the far-right.
A proper explanation of this phenomenon cannot reduce to “they were secret Nazis the whole time.” This fails to fully explain their previous libertarianism. It also fails to explain those who’ve veered “leftward” rather than “rightward” – market anarchists who first dropped the market portion, and then the anarchism, moving slowly but surely from black and gold to solid red.
Part of the explanation for both of those exoduses, to fascism and to Bolshevism, is that certain personalities are attracted to extreme views, but it’s also more than that.
After putting our contingent battles front-and-center, we find ourselves forgetting that those battles are merely the product of current circumstances.
In 2012, the central, ever-present Enemy of American libertarians was a relatively liberal progressive government, at least vaguely aware of the economic benefits to trade and at least vaguely uncomfortable in public with the brutality it committed on a regular basis. This Enemy was slightly to the cultural left of the average American and supported a regulated, welfare-state capitalism over both laissez-faire and outright socialism.
Such a government was, like all governments, criminal. It produced disorder across the globe and disregarded the dignity of its citizenry at home. It deserved much more hatred than it got – and certainly much more than it is receiving now.
But there is no shortage of bad reasons to hate that Enemy.
Plenty of illiberal radicals on the Right are sincerely outraged by flying robots slaughtering children across the Middle East. They are also sincerely outraged, though, in the “importing” of Middle-Eastern children who survive. The “globalism” these illiberals hate is not just the “globalism” of empire but also the “globalism” of cosmopolitanism. They hate modern elites, not because those elites owe their position to an ingrained ideology of fraud, but because that fraud lacks the right cultural signifiers.
Plenty of illiberal radicals on the Left are sincerely outraged about the racialized police brutality and mass-incarceration in modern America. Many of them are also sincerely outraged, though, by attempts to shed light on the crimes of Communist regimes, past and present. The “capitalism” these illiberals hate is not just the “capitalism” of managerial domination and structural poverty but also the “capitalism” of free exchange. They hate the modern state, not because it is dedicated to criminal aggression, but because that criminal aggression lacks the right class character.
Focused in an oppositional stance, the radical liberal can come to hate not only the bad in an existing order but also the good. Aiming to disrupt that order, they cheer on even those who seek to disrupt its liberalism.
Moreover, engaging with illiberals furthest from one’s own specific subcultural crowd can intensify that process. After many frustrating encounters, your liberalism starts to give way, and you make do with whomever promises to hit your Enemies hardest.
This is how perfectly normal people can slip from the radical liberalism of libertarianism to the radical illiberalism of fascism or Bolshevism. It starts with hyperbolic jokes about helicopters or gulags, and ends with actively LARPing for mass-murder.
The Fall from Liberalism to Complacency
A weakened radicalism is no less dangerous than a weakened liberalism. This is harder for many libertarians to see in 2017, but it is worth making clear.
When things are more normal, the terror of government does not mock disabled reporters and egg on its supporters to attack protesters. It lights up its imperial palace with the colors of a rainbow, and takes time to honor the people it once brutalized for breaking its laws.
On calmer days, the terror does not suddenly install the closest thing it thinks it can legally muster to a Muslim ban. It roams the skies of the same seven countries facing that ban, extinguishing life and destabilizing society from above – with the ever-crucial caveat that its fight is not with Islam.
In less interesting times, the terror does not yell at critical media representatives that they “are fake news” or threaten to expand libel laws accordingly. It builds a massive surveillance apparatus in a secrecy broken only by the whistleblowers they demand come home to “face justice.”
Typically, the terror does not look like terror. It looks like the name we give for the things we do together.
Forgetting our radicalism, and allowing illusions of legitimate political authority to take hold, leaves us defenseless against the terror of government. Staring at artificial disharmonies that stay stable long enough, we can mistake them for natural harmonies.
Libertarians with better memories will remember that many of the prominent libertarians who now stand firmest against Trump fell hardest under Bush, some even supporting the Iraq War. Many of the prominent libertarians who stood firmest against Bush have now fallen hardest under Trump, cackling at his brutal power plays.
This is not some bizarre coincidence. Those who focus on their radicalism will see the terror even when it hides behind a liberal disguise. Those who focus on their liberalism will see the terror even when it comes out of nowhere, repulsing elites and promising to drain the swamp.
I say this not to participate in useless, intra-libertarian squabbling, but to remind us that our radicalism and liberalism are inseparable. Just as there is a foolishness in rooting for Trump because neoconservatives hate him, there is a foolishness in rooting for neoconservatives because they hate Trump.
We should, in many ways, want a return to normalcy. A world where Trump’s form of politics is unthinkable is clearly superior, all other things being equal, to one where it is not. Yet we should not take a return to normalcy as victory, nor should we make it a goal in itself.
A world where presidents surround themselves with editors of The Weekly Standard is not wonderful simply because one where the President surrounds himself with editors of Breitbart is horrible. Any world with presidents is deeply lacking, whether those presidents emphasize deporting foreigners or bombing them.
We must refuse to normalize Trump. His coarse brand of nationalist populism cannot become a recurring contender for political power. Anything like his immigration order must always provoke shutdowns of enforcement. Yet we cannot lose sight of the horrors that are already normalized.
Not long before Trump entered electoral politics, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald lifted discussions about “the Deep State” into the realm of serious discussion. One of many unfortunate consequences of Trump’s Presidency is that those conversations have been driven back into Alex Jones territory. We must not allow our refusal to normalize Trump to come with a complacency to the re-normalization of older problems.
Softening up to the pre-Trump consensus is dangerous. Undeniably, the Trump administration is fundamentally illegitimate. Its actions are criminal – in fact, its guiding vision is much more brazenly criminal than that of recent predecessors. But it is not uniquely illegitimate.
When agents of U.S. Customs & Border Protection obey Trump’s orders to detain Syrians attempting to enter the country, their actions are roughly identical to illegal kidnapping. Because the United States government lacks legitimacy, CBP’s actions are in fact instances of kidnapping – and Trump is morally guilty for commanding it.
When CBP obeyed Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and any other President, in detaining paperless people attempting to enter the country, their actions were also roughly identical to illegal kidnapping. Because political legitimacy is impossible, CBP’s actions were in fact instances of kidnapping – and those presidents have been morally guilty as well.
It is all too easy to collapse and fold under the fear of Trump’s new, not-yet-normalized methods of criminal aggression. There are very different impulses leading people to comply with cruelty when it comes from the establishment and when it comes from something new and disruptive. Feeding one of those impulses is often an immediately apparent way to fight the other, but both must be resisted.
For liberalism to be worth anything in the long run, it must remain radical, and radicalism is a kind of stubborn virtue. Radicalism is when you affirm the truth staring you in the face without any regard, one way or the other, for the public acceptance of that truth. When you embrace the healthy contrarianism behind refusing to fry another person even when the experiment requires you to continue, and simultaneously reject the unhealthy contrarianism of doing it just for the shock.
Our Disembodied Enemy
These models of the current libertarian chaos and confusion might seem too convenient. There is still the sinking feeling of a simpler explanation.
Perhaps it’s just that the fascists were always fascists, the Bolsheviks were always Bolsheviks, and the technocrats were always technocrats. There is a cynical sense that the first two sets just saw the state as the repressive tool of an opposing tribe against theirs, and the third just wanted some excuse to tie the hands of would-be revolutionaries. None of them, in this picture, ever actually cared about individual liberty.
Here the illiberal smiles.
Politics, they argue, is always and everywhere tribal warfare of Friend against Enemy. Enemies, we’re told, must always be flesh and blood, and Friends must always build their bond in spilling that blood. In the liberal pretense of an escape from that conflict, the illiberal sees only that same conflict fought without honesty. Liberalism, they say, is always a lie, and libertarianism brings its contradictions to a breaking point. For any libertarian movement that crops up, the illiberal will tell you that this movement is just a misguided crowd of mutual Enemies. This is not changed by the fact these Enemies are unaware of their enmity, nor that they all happen to find “individual liberty” tactically useful at the same time. On the illiberal view, libertarianism is always set to disintegrate, and its victory is impossible.
Right now, this objection might feel particularly piercing.
It is right to suggest that even liberal politics must have an Enemy. It does not follow, however, that all politics must have a core Enemy with a skull to crack or that the end of all politics must be in the cracking of skulls.
For radical liberalism’s core Enemy is not Trump, it is not Obama, it is not the loudest Marxist, and it is not even Richard Spencer. It is not the cop on your street, nor the soldiers at war.
The core Enemy of radical liberalism is none of these people, nor is it even the whole of the people occupying and vying for positions of power at any given moment. The core Enemy of radical liberalism – its only natural Enemy – has no personal identity because it is not a person or even a group of persons.
It is a cluster of ideas, practices, institutions, behaviors, and dispositions. While certain flesh-and-blood persons become possessed by this Enemy, becoming our contingent Enemies and posing more proximate threats, it is not affixed to any face or mind. Certain material conditions are healthier for this Enemy than others, but it is ultimately immaterial.
Our Enemy is entirely abstract. It is a way that people relate to one another.
Radical Liberalism’s Love for Embodied Enemies
The abstract nature of our only natural Enemy is one reason that our fight is not just another illiberal war waged under liberal veneer. Another reason is that a libertarian victory will be different than other victories. It will be a universal victory, where both those with us and against us win.
We do not want to grind those possessed by the Enemy underneath our heels, we want to free them.
Radical liberalism fights for the positive-sum, and resistance to that fight is resistance to flourishing. For while we are being robbed, and that robbery creates class divisions, the robber is no better off for it. Radical liberals know that “a leash is just a rope with a noose at both ends,” and our robbery persists in part because the robber continues to mistake the relative benefits of dominance for the absolute benefits of prosperity.
Kings and Queens of the past lived in palaces of gold. Communist dictators oversee parades with banners of their face that stand fifty feet tall. Donald Trump moves back and forth between one of the most revered mansions in the world and a tower emblazoned with his name. History has yet to even forget a name like William Henry Harrison, whose thirty-one days in office earned him an indefinite place in the public memory.
Even still, they are worse off for all of it.
In purely material terms, they may have secured the shiniest things, but they have dug deep holes, putting greater rewards further and further out of reach. Buried deep into the earth, they snuff out the candles so no one can follow them to find what they’ve found, laughing unaware of the trap they’ve set for themselves.
The drug company executive rakes in rent from their protections and patents, holding on for dear life to those mechanisms of plunder. That hold becomes a vice-grip choking away their last signs of life when the time comes and there is no known cure for what they, their spouse, their child, or their closest friend faces in the end. There is no known cure, but there is a cure, kept unknown by their own suppression of competition.
It is in this way that if the radical liberal finds their own freedom and the freedom of others conceptually separable, they may well join Hayek in more highly valuing the latter. It is by ensuring respect for the rights of others that we survive and flourish, and that each harvest bears fruits unknown in the last.
Radical liberals know that our robbers wallow in an ignorance that is itself radical, leaving unknown even what it is they do not know, engaged in centuries of clueless self-destruction.
And that is only the material cost. By adopting a life fit for vultures and wolves, they lose their opportunity to be human. It is no wonder that they disbelieve in real human relationships, because they so rarely encounter one.
Donald Trump wanted to keep the rallies going after the campaign.
That’s because he needs them.
When he stands at the podium, he loses himself for a moment in the sea of red hats and adoring eyes. He speaks, and hears the ocean roar with chants and screams. Catching a wave, he chants it back – whatever they’re saying, it doesn’t matter – and hears it louder and louder, pouring over him and washing everything else away.
In that moment, he is fully distracted. He is fully distracted from the discomfort of just how poorly his skin fits above his muscle and bone. He is fully distracted from just how bad the taste of life in every breath really goes down for a soul like his. His submersion into an arbitrary collective – America, becoming Great Again – is complete, and he no longer has to be himself.
At night, when he closes his eyes, there is no one else. There is no crowd with which he can blend and fade. There is only him. There is only him and the knowledge that no matter his political success, he is not himself a political animal. The knowledge that he has trained himself to automatically fear the existence of others, to hold all reason in suspicion. That he owes his life – the food that builds his body, the water used to maintain that body’s functions – not to any value he has created, but to value he has stolen.
Where that value comes from, in his illiberal view of the world, is a terrifying mystery.
For the radical liberal, there is an answer. Value is born from the initiative of individuals, who labor tirelessly with others to multiply it through better and better combinations, reallocating resources into better and better arrangements. Without even consciously reflecting on it, those of radically liberal character instinctively know there is value in others even when we cannot see it, and take the process of reason as a continuing promise of better days.
Radical liberals might not always sleep softly themselves. After all, they are always aware of ongoing threats from power and those who seek it. Regardless, the radical liberal’s aversion to power helps them remain a self-generating source of energy, especially well-equipped to find freedom even in an unfree world.
That power of self-generation is one that we wish to expand. We do not want to rearrange nobility and serfdom, but to stand in universalized individual nobility. By dethroning our embodied Enemies, we seek to empower them.
We are against the world for the world.
For a New Liberty
By being against the world for the world, the near-universality of our embodied Enemies is overshadowed only by the actual universality of our potential Friends. It also means that every victory, by benefiting our Enemies, will be the necessary first step for potential loss.
This gives us every reason for intense short-term pessimism, but also every reason for unrestrained long-term optimism. No matter how dire things are now, the dynamics behind power spell its own defeat. Unless some nuclear tantrum eliminates everything, anarchy is inevitable. For in radical liberalism lies the principle of life itself, self-replicating and unafraid, and in power lies the principle of disease and death, unable to create anything on its own.
All this is shown in the radical liberal’s attraction to ideas like that of Étienne de La Boétie in The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Power is not justified by any normatively-significant consent of the governed, but it is always and everywhere obtained and sustained by a socially-descriptive consent of the governed.
It must be – for power is not self-generating, but entirely reliant on others for its actions. It exists only through the corruption of natural social harmonies. Just as the distortions of fraud and ideology exist only through the corruption of reason. Just as the dangerously combative fictive identities illiberals construct exist only through the corruption of individual identity. Individuals, the reason with which they operate, and their social harmony with other individuals, are primary and prior to power.
This gives us the radical liberal’s core philosophy of social change: whenever possible, refuse to submit, and enable others to do the same.
We must weaponize peace and instigate disruptive cooperation.
Radical liberalism rejects aggression, not violence. It requires obedience to natural law, not legislation. But it is also aware that even justified violence is one of our weakest weapons.
Because our only natural Enemy is not physically embodied, no matter the utility of insurrectionary violence for illiberals, that strategy is not feasible for us. No matter how helpful vanguardist revolutions and coups have been for those we oppose, they are useless for the change we want.
You cannot blow up a social relationship. You can only build something better that pulls it out of fashion.
Because of those same dynamics, we are not only horrified by the viciousness of those furthest falls to illiberal radicalisms, we are astounded at their short-sightedness.
If the source of the problem is abstract, you cannot just throw all the people with bad ideas out of helicopters or into gulags. They will keep coming. The Christians you toss to the lions will one day rule your empire.
And that shows us the path for eliminating empire.
Since our only natural Enemy is abstract, we cannot trust in the timelessness of our Friends and Enemies with faces and names. We cannot assume that those afflicted with illiberalism are forever lost, nor that those who fight it are forever free from it.
As we have seen, there exist within radical liberalism itself routes for falling to illiberal reaction or complacency with the lingering illiberalism of the existing order. There is both a Trump and an Obama resting in every libertarian.
Knowing this should not make you paranoid. It should instead help you better understand libertarians who have let those Trumps or Obamas take hold of them. Their falls are not inexplicable but admit of rational explanations. We are not fighting Cthulhu, we are fighting disease.
Learning the cause of their fall can help to build better fences for others in the future. It can help to trace their steps and lead them back up the mountain.
Properly radicalized, the principle of charity (like all other liberal principles) is a means of liberation, not a restraint. It is an invaluable tool for unpacking the root causes of illiberalism so that we may better disrupt it in the future.
If we are concerned with protecting the actual, flesh-and-blood victims of illiberal culture, and not just some illiberal thirst for expressively thrashing an embodied Enemy, rational argument is not optional.
Just as radical liberalism rejects Tolstoyan pacifism, it rejects attempts to avoid all subrational forms of communication. What it understands is that both are weak tools, which only have utility in bringing things back to territory we can better capture.
The purpose of legitimate violence is always to restore a genuine and just peace. The purpose of legitimate subrational communication is always to restore a genuine and reasoned discourse.
When an attacker is punched, it is to break through the physical threat they pose, so that natural harmony can once again take hold, removing the imbalances of their injustice. When a charlatan is reduced to mockery, it is to break through the distortions and duplicity they have created, so that reason can once again reign, giving lie to the baselessness of their position.
Useful applications of violence and subrational communication must always strictly serve cooperation and reason, for it is only through humans’ natural sociality and rationality that they hold any power.
A punch only lands because of the physical embodiment that gives its victim life. A lie is only believed because it has cognitive content that its victim understands. A thief only profits because of wealth its victim has produced.
Bolshevism’s strongest appeal is always the fear of fascism. Fascism’s strongest appeal is always the fear of Bolshevism. An immobile status quo’s strongest appeal is always the fear of both.
Cooperation is the necessary soil of violence, and reason is the necessary soil of unreason.
Liberalism is the necessary soil of illiberalism.
Our Enemy needs us. We do not need our Enemy.
This does mean that our increased capacity for production can give our Enemy an increased capacity for destruction. It also means, however, that we can win, and our Enemy cannot.
Against our repressive histories of illiberal force and fraud, not only is another world possible, but there is no alternative.
 In case it’s not obvious, I don’t think the Schmittian terminology here has much to do with genuine friendship, hence the capitalization.
 For those who think this is a strawman, consider Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin’s self-description of the Alt-Right: “We lust after power. We want to be part of a group, which will give us power. A group that will confirm our worth as men. We do not have identities. We want identities. … We want a war.”