The truth is, I’ve seen this bumper sticker before (figure 1). But I’m just as truly losing my patience with it. The Amazon seller who offers it warrants that it is “guaranteed to piss of [sic] a liberal.”
I don’t consider myself a liberal. But I am an anarchist and I’ve also had my fill of capitalists who call themselves “capitalist libertarians.” I explained the mentality in an early draft (I’m still at that stage) of my dissertation proposal, quoted here at length:
At this writing, Romney’s last apparently viable competitor for the Republican nomination, Santorum, has suspended his campaign (Shear & Rutenberg, April 10, 2012) and attention has turned to whom Romney, the presumptive nominee, may choose as a running mate. Ron Paul, who remains in the race despite steep odds (Fox, March 23, 2012; Murphy, April 9, 2012), is the one possibility who, because of his stances against the wars and against alleged diminishments of civil liberties since 9/11, might draw some votes from progressives fed up with incumbent President Barack Obama’s record. Representing the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, he seeks the abolition of the Federal Reserve, would repeal the Civil Rights Act, wants to return to the gold standard, apparently does not recognize privacy as a right (the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution notwithstanding, it is not an enumerated right), and advocates the legalization of marijuana (Epstein, June 23, 2011; Greenwald, December 31, 2011; Lind, January 3, 2012; Sheppard, February 14, 2012; Sullivan, December 19, 2011; Tomasky, December 14, 2011; Weiss, December 22, 2011). The brand of libertarianism that Paul advocates, however, should be distinguished from libertarian socialism, and this study will accordingly refer to it as capitalist libertarism. Libertarianism is at the opposite end of a scale from authoritarianism in both economic and political forms, and socialist libertarians accordingly seek to diminish coercive hierarchy in all its forms. In contrast, capitalist libertarians imagine
that market exchange was just, and they were altogether supposed to enable justice to triumph over force. Such an autonomy of private people, founded on the right to property and in a sense also realized in the participation in a market economy. (Habermas, 1962/1991, p. 46)
Habermas’ (1962/1991) purpose in the passages quoted here is in fact to describe classical liberalism, which appears indistinct from what is now called neoliberalism, and is quite a different thing from liberalism as it is currently understood—and frequently demonized—in the context of Lyndon Baines Johnson, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale. Yet it is precisely these tenets that remain foundational for capitalist libertarians:
Only on the presupposition that no extra-economic agency interfered with the transactions in the market did the latter promise to function in a fashion that ensured everyone’s welfare and justice in accord with the standard of individual’s capacity to perform. The society solely governed by the laws of the free market presented itself not only as a sphere free from domination but as one free from any kind of coercion; the economic power of each commodity owner was conceived quantitatively to be of an order precluding it from having an influence upon the price mechanism, and thus from ever providing direct power over other owners of commodities. Such a society remained subordinate to the market’s nonviolent decisions, being the anonymous and, in a certain way, autonomous outcome of the exchange process. (Habermas, 1962/1991, p. 79)
As Habermas (1962/1991) observes, this rationalization for the social order, which enabled the rich to attribute their position to the Protestant values of faith and hard work and enabled them to sustain a pretense of a fair society narrowly based on a presumption of equal opportunity, was comprehensively refuted by Karl Marx (1848/2010), who pointed to the rise of industrial capitalism as entirely upsetting any grounds for the presumption of equality in the marketplace. Capitalist libertarians respond to Marx by insisting that bourgeois advantages stem from government regulation, but also generally refuse to address the power relations that Max Weber (2010) saw as an “the most elemental economic fact” (p. 120), that an economic system of exchange inherently privileges whomever is most able to say no, that the resulting advantages and disadvantages accumulate, and lead to a coercive condition in which workers, “being propertyless, have nothing to offer but their labor or the resulting products, and . . . are compelled to get rid of these products in order to subsist at all” (p. 120).
In a nutshell, that is the theory—such as it is—and the weakness of the theory that underlies the bumper sticker. But more than that, the bumper sticker is self-righteous in its selfishness, denying any responsibility or need for concern about one’s fellow human beings. The author of that bumper sticker and the drivers of vehicles which display it imagine themselves as potentially entirely self-sufficient—except for that damned government—and they imagine their freedom in a society without government.
But as I alluded to in my proposal, capitalist libertarians rarely—if ever—come to grips with the reality of any exchange system of economics, that it is inherently hierarchical, that domination stems from that hierarchy by virtue of people’s dependency upon the economic system for their survival, and that such domination inherently contradicts the definition of libertarianism, which is that no one should dominate anyone else. If one insists upon an exchange economic system, then one must also have a force within the society that restrains that system from excess. We generally know that restraining force as being that which government is supposed to supply.
But as C. Wright Mills recognized, elites are pretty much elites. They are interchangeable with each other, have similar interests, and direct their hierarchies to similar ends. Hence regulatory capture, in which regulatory agencies are complicit with the industries they are supposed to be regulating, hence a “revolving door” in which people who work at regulatory agencies often leave those agencies to accept lucrative jobs with the industries they were supposed to have regulated, and hence a corrupt political class that serves the very wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
Yet the people who display that bumper sticker imagine that their guns offer them power over others that they imagine they would use only in self-defense. But self-defense of what, from whom? It seems that a great deal of the sort of crime we normally pay attention to (as opposed to white collar crime, including the hijinks of the financial crisis) stems from deprivation and desperation. By dominating others, the rich induce much of the very crime they need police and guns to defend themselves against. So it is the notion that some people should have the authority to dominate others, coded as “social order,” that is inherently flawed and, in fact, inherently dangerous.
This train of thinking leads to distinctly different conclusions about how society should be organized. Instead of valorizing competition, which produces “winners” judged superior to “losers,” we should valorize cooperation. Instead of treating the poor as “undeserving,” committing structural violence against them, stigmatizing them, and using them as an implicit threat against challenging the social order, we should guarantee them not just their survival, but an opportunity to develop their talents and interests.
Our social ideology, the ideology which rationalizes our social order, however, insists that this is unworkable, that humans are naturally violent, that left to our own devices, life would, in the words famously attributed to Thomas Hobbes, be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But in fact, most of us in commercial society, living on land stolen from others, have very little experience of human existence in non-coercive settings. For the vast majority of human existence, over half a million years, we mostly lived in cooperative societies, with comparable longevity, apparently mostly peacefully, albeit with much smaller populations in much lower densities, that trod lightly upon our ecosystems.
Even if Hobbes was right, it only stands to reason that humans at the top of the social order should be just as self-serving and violent as the rest of us. There is no reason to trust them any more than we trust ourselves. In fact, it turns out that there is less reason, that the competition that underlies a purported meritocracy actually serves to entrench a privileged elite who imagine themselves superior, entitled to their positions, and entitled to the use of any means, no matter how violent, to preserve their positions. And we have seen all too recently, in the brutal suppression of the Occupy movement, how very violent agents of the elite can be in preserving their privileges. It is indeed as Max Weber observed, “Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.” So even in its rationalization, our social order produces the very thing it purports to suppress.
This is why I am an anarchist. It’s not merely that the elite are incompetent, reckless, and violent, though they are, but that I believe that a dominator system of social organization inherently produces the ills that beset us, and that the solution to these ills rests not in more of the same.
- Sticker Hog, “I’ll Keep My Freedom, My Guns and My Money. You Keep The Change!” Amazon.com, n.d., http://www.amazon.com/Ill-Keep-Guns-Freedom-Money/dp/B00276KNQG/ref=sr_1_2?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1343885312&sr=1-2↩
- David Benfell, “Research Proposal: Deconstructing Conservatism,” Parts-Unknown.org, April 20, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/?p=478↩
- C. Wright Mills, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed., Thomas M. Shapiro, ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 139-145.↩
- Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).↩
- Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).↩
- David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002); Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed., Thomas M. Shapiro, ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.↩
- Maria Pia Lara, Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere (Berkeley: University of California, 1998); Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2003).↩
- Thomas Hobbes, quoted in John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Famous Quotations, 17th ed., Justin Kaplan, ed. (New York: Little, Brown, 2002).↩
- John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2005); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).↩
- Hayes, Twilight of the Elites.↩
- Chitrangada Choudhury, “NYPD ‘consistently violated basic rights’ during Occupy protests – study,” Guardian, July 25, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/25/nypd-occupy-protests-report; Jens Erik Gould, “A Sleepy Campus in Crisis: Pepper Spray at UC Davis Sparks Online Uproar, Calls for a Chancellor’s Resignation,” Time, November 21, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2099919,00.html; Ted Mann, “The Occupy Movement Adds Volume to Police Brutality Complaints,” Atlantic, October 23, 2011, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2011/10/occupy-movement-adds-volume-police-brutality-complaints/44012/; Mary Slosson, “Oakland police may face sanctions over handling of Occupy protests,” Reuters, May 2, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/02/us-usa-occupy-may1-oakland-idUSBRE84104T20120502↩
- Max Weber, “What Is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th. ed., ed. Charles Lemert (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114.↩