What does it mean to be a libertarian leftist?

A leftist is someone who is anti-capitalist. There are libertarian anti-capitalists, that is, libertarian socialists. This includes anarchists and syndicalists and libertarian Marxists.

But this is the older meaning of “libertarian” which refers to the advocacy of a politics that places great emphasis on positive liberty, controlling your life, struggle against oppression. A key aspect of positive liberty is self-management…having control over decisions to the extent you are affected by them. So this implies for example that workers should be able to collective self-manage the industries where they work, and people should self-manage the neighborhoods and urban regions where they live, as far as public affairs is concerned.

But this has nothing to do with the right wing form of libertarianism that derives from 19th century laissez faire liberalism, which defines liberty more narrowly as negative liberty, that is, absence of coercion or physical constraint.

There are some anarchists or libertarian socialists who are market socialists. But the majority are anti-market. So “libertarian left” does not mean advocate of the socalled “free market”.

To me it means three things, which are kind of distinct, but also kind of intertwingled with each other :

1) I am a traditional leftist in that I

  • a) believe in the need for social justice and social welfare,
  • b) believe that the capitalism we have today is not simply neutral but actively corrosive towards those virtues.

However, I also recognise that traditional left-wing responses have had real problems. They have tended towards / been predicated on an authoritarianism that has led to nightmare societies that are far worse than the ills they were intended to cure. I believe that the left needs to face this fact honestly. And recognise that it’s not simply an unfortunate accident or something that was imposed from outside, but was rooted in fundamental flaws with our understanding of the problem, our assumptions and our invented solutions.

I believe that any new left project has to build, into its very core, the principle of individual liberty. We need to make valorization of liberty and individual rights fundamental to our thinking and our project, so that whatever we propose now, doesn’t have the same flaws or lead to the same dire consequences as the failed leftist projects of the past. We owe the world a plausible plan of how we will avoid our leftist projects collapsing into authoritarianism if we want to be taken seriously.

2) At a more abstract level, I recognise there are several virtues we want : social welfare, human dignity, freedom, equality and justice. I’m neither naive enough to believe that these are all easily compatible. Nor am I so pessimistic as to accept that they are irreconcilable opposites. Instead I’m a pragmatist. I believe that, as with in any situation where we pursue multiple goals, we need to satisfice ie. find the best balance we can between these different ends. They’re not poles on a simple linear spectrum where moving towards one moves away from the other, instead they’re in a higher dimensional space, and we can and should try to find some kind of local maxima for each.

3) Finally, I see that the world is undergoing profound changes due to our technologies. From the open communication afforded by the internet; to blockchains that promise a kind of autonomous capitalism that requires almost no governmental support; to incredibly open global electronic markets and “ridiculously easy” ways to create new groups or movements; to powerful AIs that can infer more about us than we know about ourselves; to, on the one hand, super-empowered individual terrorists able to cause systems disruption with minimal resources, and on the other, robotic security systems and ubiquitous surveillance. All these are adding up to an entirely new political mode that Bard and Soderqvist call Netocracy. You can learn more about netocracy in some of my other answers via that link, but think of it as what happens when “networking” becomes more important than “trading”. Or when “crony capitalism” becomes all cronyism and hardly any capitalism.

In this world, nation states and their governments are rapidly ceding power to more fluid network organizations. Governments find it increasingly difficult to protect their citizens from terrorism, to protect their democratic process against fake-news and corporate lobbyists, to manage their economies in the face of ultra-mobile capital, or buy their citizens’ loyalty by providing the best services.

In other words, whether we on the left like it or not, this century is de facto becoming a Libertarian one. One where all institutional authorities, including government, are profoundly weaker. As Moisés Naím puts it “power is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose”.

In short, there is no use anyone on the left harking back to old strategies from old times. The nation state is not what it was. The machinery that could have been applied 100, 50 or even 20 years ago is no longer available. And the challenges are of new and increasingly diverse kinds. Whatever programs and agendas we on the left come up with, they need to be addressed to this world in these times.

In one sense, this is freeing. We don’t need to feel bound to what earlier generations did. At the same time, it risks us falling into accepting a kind of “capitalist realism” (the belief that there is no alternative to the capitalist market). I think “third-wayism” of the Clinton / Blair variety is a classic example of applying this correct intuition and getting the wrong answer. And obviously there’s a lot of scope for argument about what is doing it correctly and what isn’t.

For me, I think we obviously need to look back to the rich left-anarchist tradition for ideas. More controversially, I personally, believe that we need to embrace a dialogue with right-Libertarianism. I’m very critical of right-Libertarianism. And spend a lot of my time arguing against it here on Quora. But that’s partly out of deep interest and respect. I think we on the left need to understand and learn from how they see the world. There are obviously groups like C4SS (“free market anti-capitalists”) and “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” we can find sympathy with. Even more controversially, I’m interested in seeing the results of experimental ideas such as charter cities and am open to learn from them.

This, then, is what left-libertarianism or libertarian-socialism means to me :

  • a strong, radical, left-wing commitment, accompanied by a recognition of the dangers of authoritarianism, and our obligation not to fall into it
  • a belief that we can (and should) meaningfully pursue both social justice and individual freedom, rather than accept that we are forced to choose between them
  • a recognition that the institutional landscape of the 21st century is profoundly different from the 20th, and that proposals for a left-wing order must be addressed to it. In particular noting the changing / reduced role of nation-states and their governments.

In my experience, as I can’t speak for everyone, libertarian socialists such as I want a society in which the society actively works to create a good standard of living for all its citizens, encourages equity, and guarantees personal freedoms. We see government as being the tool that is instituted to achieve the end goals of society as a whole, chiefly to achieve those three things.

Labels, however, are inherently flawed when it comes to political ideologies because everyone is different, and therefore is imperfectly described by any label. Thus, I can’t effectively speak for every person who calls hirself a libertarian socialist.

Personally I’d like to see devolution and decentralization of political and economic power. In short, every person and the community they voluntarily participate in should be independent.

Under current conditions, localities are regularly subject to the whims of the central government and officials they did not elect as well as to foriegn companies. These conditions have led to things like Brexit and Trump as rejections of the status quo, however the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn show that this rejection is not just a right-wing thing.

People yearn for self-determination and for a sustaining livelihood. Libertarian socialism fulfils these goals by letting people govern their own communities and workplaces. That’s about all there is to it.