Combat Illiberalism

Today marks the 80th anniversary of then-aspiring tyrant Mao Tse-tung’s “Combat Liberalism.” In that short pamphlet Mao outlines eleven ways that liberal attitudes might manifest themselves within an anti-liberal revolutionary movement like his. Broadly, Mao characterizes the liberal attitude as an orientation towards “unprincipled peace” and petty egotism. The pamphlet’s recurring theme is one of instilling party discipline both internally in oneself and externally in others.

There is a lot to say about “Combat Liberalism.” One startling feature is the way it exemplifies the illiberal fear of freedom. Economically, illiberals fear that free trade and laissez-faire will inevitably result in monopoly. Socially, illiberals fear that free speech and toleration will inevitably result in repression by their enemies. Accordingly, when building movements, illiberals fear that anything less than total regimentation will inevitably result in total disintegration.

Beyond remarking on those undercurrents in Mao’s pamphlet, we can also consider the inverse of his worry; political movements of all kinds can fall into attitudes opposed to their values. Libertarianism, especially individualist anarchism, is a kind of radical liberalism. Yet there are several ways that petty movement politics can push us into very illiberal behaviors.

Here I’ll be considering ten ways this can happen. Since I, unlike Mao, am a liberal, I will not just bark them at you. I will also give some brief explanation with each as to why it strikes me as illiberal and why it is a problem. With most of these, there are clear exceptions – times where the behavior is perfectly beneficial or even necessary. However, I would wager that we’re, at least, experiencing a crisis of overproduction in each of the following.

  1. The use of loud, public call-outs, especially when used to secure preferred distributions of social capital.[1]

Loud, public call-outs accompanied with damning screenshots have become unfortunately ubiquitous parts of political culture on the internet. This is not to suggest that everyone on the receiving end of these attacks is innocent. Innocence isn’t necessary for this practice to have its problems – just as the fact that most people in prison are guilty of actual rights-violating crimes doesn’t make mass incarceration acceptable.

These acts of shaming are dangerous in their power to socially isolate. They also give incentives towards cruelty, as those engaged in shaming elevate themselves socially through contrast with the person being shamed. This has an illiberal effect in that it pushes people apart into increasingly tribalistic subgroups, which then reproduce call-outs as a way of settling social scores instead of resolving problems.

To combat this illiberalism you should reserve public call-outs of this kind for truly serious cases where nothing else will work. 99 times out of 100, you should instead privately contact the person with your concern. If that does not work, you should privately contact mutual friends who are more likely to be receptive. This should be common practice even towards people you strongly dislike.

You can also combat this illiberalism by accepting the unenviable role of That Person in the comments of these call-outs. Often, it is easy to tell when someone is being unfairly construed to mean something much worse than what they actually mean. Take the time to make clear what this person is actually saying, especially when this person is from your outgroup and, especially, when what they are actually saying is still something with which you disagree.

  1. The drawing of hard social lines which must not be crossed.

Illiberal internet warfare that has its genesis in the last point can often become cemented by publicly calling out others for bare association, no matter how tenuous. This usually takes the form of insinuating or explicitly stating that if Person X retains some vague association with Person Y – coexistence within an organization, mere Facebook “friendship,” or whatever – then Person X must harbor some sympathies with Person Y’s problems. Incidentally, acquiescing to these demands can make them more effective. For if you accepted a demand to disassociate with Person Y but don’t do so with Person Z, it looks more plausible that you don’t take Person Z’s problems seriously.

  1. The drawing of hard ideological lines which must not be crossed.

This problem is often combined with the last one. In combination, they have the under-discussed effect of shielding people from critique. Much of the libertarian movement’s problems are born in mirrored dodges like “You can’t take their anti-war stuff seriously, they associate with people who are bad on immigration” and “You can’t take their pro-immigration stuff seriously, they associate with people who are bad on war.”

This point is also a bit more complicated than the others. Libertarians should unambiguously declare that shams like pro-war “libertarianism” and anti-immigration “libertarianism” are shams. In no way should those declarations be tamed – this would be a kind of “unprincipled peace.” Instead, we should reserve these kinds of statements for the cases where they are absolutely necessary. Moreover, even when drawing lines becomes necessary, we must stand guard against the abuse of those lines to keep out critics.

  1. The replacement of principles with alliances.

Construed broadly, most of this list could fit under this one point. What I mean more specifically, though, is the practice of downplaying problems that crop up within one’s own particular subgroup. People who have no actual affinities with war or borders will treat those issues as insignificant when it is their comrades who are hawks or nationalists. This is also true of less directly political problems.

In exceptions to points 2 & 3, this problem often motivates resistance to necessary action. More interesting, however, is the way these points feed off each other. Cases of opportunistic line-drawing can often be used to present problems within a movement as being necessarily a product of one’s intra-movement outgroups. This produces a tendency to see one’s own subgroup as definitionally the solution, never the problem. When individuals within that subgroup do create problems, these blinders prevent responsible action.

  1. The insincerity of shaping your positions according to your political identity, not what you think is true.

The subgroup tribalism discussed here can also develop commitment mechanisms in the form of strange beliefs. One way that you show affinity with a group is by having their back on their most bizarre beliefs. The illiberal effect here is in channeling your reasons for a belief away from reason and towards collective identity. It is also dangerous in that progressively wilder beliefs become necessary to show you’re really down. Stepping away from libertarianism for a second, this is one of the many ways perfectly normal young people in the illiberal left start joyously treating plans for mass-murder like a roleplaying game.

  1. The insincerity of shaping your positions according to shock value, not what you think is true.

Another death spiral comes in taking on views because they repulse people you dislike. This produces a kind of catharsis, where raising the blood pressure of your enemies gives you relief. As Jeffrey Tucker outlined in “Against Libertarian Brutalism,” this is a deeply illiberal impulse. It is also an addiction. Like many drugs, one can develop a tolerance and require deadlier doses for a high. Today, an edgy argument about the compatibility of libertarianism and immigration restrictions might be enough. A few years down the line, though, you might find yourself screaming about Jews in a Vice documentary without really knowing how you got there.

  1. The insincerity of treating ideas like a game.

Marxists take ideas to be largely impotent, with history moved instead by “material” economic relations. Fascists also laugh at claims that ideas rule the world, convinced that everything boils down to brute impositions of will through violence. It is liberals who afford ideas a central place in explaining history’s path.

Hence why treating ideas like a game does not make sense for libertarians. Before perpetuating the idea that killing political opponents is fine, with helicopter, gulag, or guillotine memes, you should consider the corpses that could follow. This is not hypothetical, as shown by Heather Heyer’s murder, which followed far-right repetitions of “run them down.” Returning to point 4, you should also be willing to be the killjoy who refuses to join your friends’ bloodlust. A commitment to open discourse does not require treating evil trivially, and those who do so should be held accountable.

  1. The molding of your views to moderation for moderation’s sake.

Since radical views have an aesthetic pull, this can facilitate the last three points. One solution might be, then, to consciously adopt a policy of moderation for moderation’s sake. I myself was deeply tempted by this in the days immediately following Trump’s election. What pulled me out of it was a friend noting that this is itself an aesthetic pull, making it deceptively illiberal. Comfortably simulating sincerity and smart opinions will not push you towards truth, it will push you towards complacency.

Karl Hess’s words, spoken by Barry Goldwater, that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” have become a libertarian cliché. We should still revisit them frequently. They are a healthy reminder that an open movement for the open society cannot silence its logical conclusions for the sake of PR.

  1. The use of equivocal language that distorts the topic being discussed.

Unlike Mao’s regimented Communist movement, liberalism thrives on open debate. That ebb and flow of ideas, however, can be disrupted through bad faith argumentation. One such virus is the deployment of ambiguous phrases. These can sneak one indefensible premise in on the backs of a defensible one. They can also create false dichotomies, where those who disagree sound much more ridiculous than they actually are.

One case is when immigration restrictionists say they favor “private property borders.” Taken literally, this position is identical to advocating for open borders. Implicitly, this is actually building in the illiberal – in fact, very progressive-sounding – premise that We the People own the U.S.-Mexico border and public roads. It further sneaks in the illiberal – in fact, majoritarian-democratic – premise that the will of a xenophobic majority must be favored over the individual preferences of people who would gladly welcome immigrants.

Another such case is in the discourse surrounding “denying fascists a platform.” This is ambiguous between two separate positions. The first is a refusal to offer one’s own property to help fascists organize. This is obviously a correct approach, and someone who denies it misunderstands liberalism. However, the phrase “denying fascists a platform” binds that position together with the position that one should violently disrupt fascist speech and assembly. So too with “physically confront fascism” – which binds that violence against speech and assembly together with obviously good things like assertive protest and standing ready to defend against fascist violence.

As this point shows, open debate can be corrupted by equivocal language. It does not follow, though, as I have seen it recently claimed, that liberalism requires the flawed assumption that everyone is engaged in good faith. Liberalism – both in its vision of an open society and its open movement towards that open society – is perfectly well-equipped to deal with this problem.

The solution is nit-picking. When equivocal language is detected, it should be interrogated. People should be called on to specify what they mean and to make clear why they think one claim entails another. Forcefully drawing attention to implicit assumptions of this kind puts them into territory where they must be defended, and where their traps can be sidestepped by onlookers.

  1. The casual indifference between rational and sub-rational forms of communication.

There are many other things I could add to this list, but most of them fall under this final point. For example, it is easy to mock far-right internet trolls who are overweight, dressed poorly, or have “neckbeards” for those characteristics of their physical appearance. Much has already been said about the general sliminess of this behavior. It is also a discourse of self-destruction, if we take seriously the ideas of liberalism.

Sub-rational forms of communication, like mockery, are not the territory on which we will win. We will win through greater reliance on reason, where ideas rise and fall on their merits. Whenever we engage in sub-rational communication, then, we are in dangerous territory. Sometimes we must fight there, but it should always be to push things back onto our preferred turf. Our mockery should always show that those who stand against us are being ridiculous, not that they are unattractive. Those whose ideas are forged in un-reason are more familiar with un-reason and will, therefore, often be better in battles of un-reason.

I have already passed twice the size of Mao’s original pamphlet. There is much more to be said – and much of it already has been said, much better than I could. I recommend George Orwell’s “Politics & the English Language” and Emmi Bevensee’s “The Conversations We Can’t Have.” The first expands on the insidious dangers of imprecision in political discourse, and the second engages seriously with the noxious environment created by petty social games in activist communities.

Illiberalism, in whatever form, is extremely harmful to any emancipatory movement. It is a process of melting that first eats away openness, undermines cohesion, and causes apathy, and then it re-solidifies to create stagnation. It replaces robust and diverse orders with the weak ties of strict discipline. It kills the potential of meaningful action and spreads ignorance. It is a deeply destructive tendency.

Illiberalism stems from the yearning for identities based in conflict; it replaces self-actualization with slavish devotion to floating abstractions, and this gives rise to political, economic, and organizational illiberalism.

Illiberalism is a manifestation of opportunism and conflicts fundamentally with both libertarianism and anarchism. It is negative and has the effect of creating enmity where none previously existed; that is why pre-existing enemies welcome its preservation in our midst. Such being its nature, but it has no place in the process of liberation.

We must use liberalism, which is positive in spirit, to overcome illiberalism, which is negative. Individualist anarchists should have an activeness of mind, finding their own interests in harmony with others through the proper use of reason. This is what it means to be an individualist, and this is what it means to be an anarchist.


[1] A friend who studies social capital has voiced annoyance with the way that the term gets thrown around the internet in these discussions, especially among radical liberals. To be clear: “social capital” of the kind studied by sociologists and economists, taken on its own, is a good thing. It is better for people to have connections that allow them greater opportunities. However, the sharp centralization of social capital in a way that makes others reliant upon its monopolists is highly dangerous, and creates relational inequalities that are deeply destructive towards living a life worth calling “free.” The right analogy here is with economic capital. Economic capital, taken on its own, is a good thing. It is better for people to be able to have greater resources with which to create better goods. However, the sharp centralization of economic capital in a way that makes others reliant upon its monopolists – what free market anti-capitalists mean when they say “capitalism” – is highly dangerous. Our goal is not to destroy capital, of either the social or economic kind. Rather, we want to free it up by removing barriers and enabling contestation, so that it will be distributed widely and not create destructive relationships of power.

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