Saturday, November 04, 2006


(A shorter, different version of this article was delivered as an
address at the fourth annual convocation of the Eris Society in Aspen,
Colorado in August 1984.)

I agreed to come here today to speak on some such subject as "The
Libertarian as Conservative." To me this is so obvious that I am hard
put to find something to say to people who still think libertarianism
has something to do with liberty. A libertarian is just a Republican who
takes drugs. I'd have preferred a more controversial topic like "The
Myth of the Penile Orgasm." But since my attendance here is subsidized
by the esteemed distributor of a veritable reference library on mayhem
and dirty tricks, I can't just take the conch and go rogue. I will
indeed mutilate the sacred cow which is libertarianism, as ordered, but
I'll administer a few hard lefts to the right in my own way. And I don't
mean the easy way. I could just point to the laissez-faire Trilateralism
of the Libertarian Party, then leave and go look for a party. It doesn't
take long to say that if you fight fire with fire, you'll get burned.

If that were all I came up with, somebody would up and say that the LP
has lapsed from the libertarian faith, just as Christians have insisted
that their behavior over the last 1900 years or so shouldn't be held
against Christianity. There are libertarians who try to retrieve
libertarianism from the Libertarian Party just as there are Christians
who try to reclaim Christianity from Christendom and communists (I've
tried to myself) who try to save communism from the Communist parties
and states. They (and I) meant well but we lost. Libertarianism _is_
party-archist fringe-rightism just as socialism really is what Eastern
European dissidents call "real socialism," _i.e._, the real-life
state-socialism of queues, quotas, corruption and coercion. But I choose
not to knock down this libertarian strawman-_qua_-man who's blowing over
anyway. A wing of the Reaganist Right has obviously appropriated, with
suspect selectivity, such libertarian themes as deregulation and
voluntarism. Ideologues indignate that Reagan has travestied their
principles. Tough shit! I notice that it's _their_ principles, not mine,
that he found suitable to travesty. This kind of quarrel doesn't
interest me. My reasons for regarding libertarianism as conservative run
deeper than that.

My target is what most libertarians have in common -- with each other,
and with their ostensible enemies. Libertarians serve the state all the
better because they declaim against it. At bottom, they want what it
wants. But you can't want what the state wants without wanting the
state, for what the state wants is the conditions in which it
flourishes. My (unfriendly) approach to modern society is to regard it
as an integrated totality. Silly doctrinaire theories which regard the
state as a parasitic excrescence on society cannot explain its
centuries-long persistence, its ongoing encroachment upon what was
previously market terrain, or its acceptance by the overwhelming
majority of people including its demonstrable victims.

A far more plausible theory is that the state and (at least) _this_ form
of society have a symbiotic (however sordid) interdependence, that the
state and such institutions as the market and the nuclear family are, in
several ways, modes of hierarchy and control. Their articulation is not
always harmonious (herein of turf-fights) but they share a common
interest in consigning their conflicts to elite or expert resolution. To
demonize state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit
contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale
corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst.
And yet (to quote the most vociferous of radical libertarians, Professor
Murray Rothbard) there is nothing un-libertarian about "organization,
hierarchy, wage-work, granting of funds by libertarian millionaires, and
a libertarian party." Indeed. That is why libertarianism is just
conservatism with a rationalist/positivist veneer.

Libertarians render a service to the state which only they can provide.
For all their complaints about its illicit extensions they concede, in
their lucid moments, that the state rules far more by consent than by
coercion -- which is to say, on present-state "libertarian" terms the
state doesn't rule at all, it merely carries out the tacit or explicit
terms of its contracts. If it seems contradictory to say that coercion
is consensual, the contradiction is in the world, not in the expression,
and can't adequately be rendered except by dialectical discourse.
One-dimensional syllogistics can't do justice to a world largely lacking
in the virtue. If your language lacks poetry and paradox, it's unequal
to the task of accounting for actuality. Otherwise anything radically
new is literally unspeakable. The scholastic "A = A" logic created by
the Catholic Church which the libertarians inherited, unquestioned, from
the Randites is just as constrictively conservative as the Newspeak of
_1984_. The state commands, for the most part, only because it commands
popular support. It is (and should be) an embarrassment to libertarians
that the state rules with mass support -- including, for all practical
purposes, theirs.

Libertarians reinforce acquiescent attitudes by diverting discontents
which are generalized (or tending that way) and focusing them on
particular features and functions of the state which they are the first
to insist are expendable! Thus they turn potential revolutionaries into
repairmen. Constructive criticism is really the subtlest sort of praise.
If the libertarians succeed in relieving the state of its exiguous
activities, they just might be its salvation. No longer will reverence
for authority be eroded by the prevalent official ineptitude. The more
the state does, the more it does badly. Surely one reason for the common
man's aversion to Communism is his reluctance to see the entire economy
run like the Post Office. The state tries to turn its soldiers and
policemen into objects of veneration and respect, but uniforms lose a
lot of their mystique when you see them on park rangers and garbage men.

The ideals and institutions of authority tend to cluster together, both
subjectively and objectively. You may recall Edward Gibbon's remark
about the eternal alliance of Throne and Altar. Disaffection from
received dogmas has a tendency to spread. If there is any future for
freedom, it depends on this. Unless and until alienation recognizes
itself, all the guns the libertarians cherish will be useless against
the state. You might object that what I've said may apply to the
minarchist majority of libertarians, but not to the self-styled
anarchists among them. Not so. To my mind a rightwing anarchist is just
a minarchist who'd abolish the state to his own satisfaction by calling
it something else. But this incestuous family squabble is no affair of
mine. Both camps call for partial or complete privatization of state
functions but neither questions the functions themselves. They don't
denounce what the state does, they just object to who's doing it. This
is why the people most victimized by the state display the least
interest in libertarianism. Those on the receiving end of coercion don't
quibble over their coercers' credentials. If you can't pay or don't want
to, you don't much care if your deprivation is called larceny or
taxation or restitution or rent. If you like to control your own time,
you distinguish employment from enslavement only in degree and duration.
An ideology which outdoes all others (with the possible exception of
Marxism) in its exaltation of the work ethic can only be a brake on
anti-authoritarian orientations, even if it does make the trains run on
time. My second argument, related to the first, is that the libertarian
phobia as to the state reflects and reproduces a profound
misunderstanding of the operative forces which make for social control
in the modern world. If -- and this is a big "if," especially where
bourgeois libertarians are concerned -- what you want is to maximize
individual autonomy, then it is quite clear that the state is the least
of the phenomena which stands in your way.

Imagine that you are a Martian anthropologist specializing in Terran
studies and equipped with the finest in telescopes and video equipment.
You have not yet deciphered any Terran language and so you can only
record what Earthlings do, not their shared misconceptions as to what
they're doing and why. However, you can gauge roughly when they're doing
what they want and when they're doing something else. Your first
important discovery is that Earthlings devote nearly all their time to
unwelcome activities. The only important exception is a dwindling set of
hunter-gatherer groups unperturbed by governments, churches and schools
who devote some four hours a day to subsistence activities which so
closely resemble the leisure activities of the privileged classes in
industrial capitalist countries that you are uncertain whether to
describe what they do as work or play. But the state and the market are
eradicating these holdouts and you very properly concentrate on the
almost all-inclusive world-system which, for all its evident internal
antagonisms as epitomized in war, is much the same everywhere. The
Terran young, you further observe, are almost wholly subject to the
impositions of the family and the school, sometimes seconded by the
church and occasionally the state. The adults often assemble in families
too, but the place where they pass the most time and submit to the
closest control is at work. Thus, without even entering into the
question of the world economy's ultimate dictation within narrow limits
of everybody's productive activity, it's apparent that the source of the
greatest direct duress experienced by the ordinary adult is _not_ the
state but rather the business that employs him. Your foreman or
supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in
a decade. If one looks at the world without prejudice but with an eye to
maximizing freedom, the major coercive institution is not the state,
it's _work_. Libertarians who with a straight face call for the
abolition of the state nonetheless look on anti-work attitudes with
horror. The idea of abolishing work is, of course, an affront to common
sense. But then so is the idea of abolishing the state. If a referendum
were held among libertarians which posed as options the abolition of
work with retention of the state, or abolition of the state with
retention of work, does anyone doubt the outcome?

Libertarians are into linear reasoning and quantitative analysis. If
they applied these methods to test their own prescriptions they'd be in
for a shock. That's the point of my Martian thought experiment. This is
not to say that the state isn't just as unsavory as the libertarians say
it is. But it does suggest that the state is important, not so much for
the direct duress it inflicts on convicts and conscripts, for instance,
as for its indirect back-up of employers who regiment employees,
shopkeepers who arrest shoplifters, and parents who paternalize
children. In these classrooms, the lesson of submission is learned. Of
course, there are always a few freaks like anarcho-capitalists or
Catholic anarchists, but they're just exceptions to the rule of rule.

Unlike side issues like unemployment, unions, and minimum-wage laws, the
subject of work itself is almost entirely absent from libertarian
literature. Most of what little there is consists of Randite rantings
against parasites, barely distinguishable from the invective inflicted
on dissidents by the Soviet press, and Sunday-school platitudinizing
that there is no free lunch -- this from fat cats who have usually
ingested a lot of them. In 1980 a rare exception appeared in a book
review published in the _Libertarian Review_ by Professor John Hospers,
the Libertarian Party elder state's-man who flunked out of the Electoral
College in 1972. Here was a spirited defense of work by a college
professor who didn't have to do any. To demonstrate that his arguments
were thoroughly conservative, it is enough to show that they agreed in
all essentials with Marxism-Leninism. Hospers thought he could justify
wage-labor, factory discipline and hierarchic management by noting that
they're imposed in Leninist regimes as well as under capitalism. Would
he accept the same argument for the necessity of repressive sex and drug
laws? Like other libertarians, Hospers is uneasy -- hence his gratuitous
red-baiting -- because libertarianism and Leninism are as different as
Coke and Pepsi when it comes to consecrating class society and the
source of its power, work. Only upon the firm foundation of factory
fascism and office oligarchy do libertarians and Leninists dare to
debate the trivial issues dividing them. Toss in the mainstream
conservatives who feel just the same and we end up with a veritable
trilateralism of pro-work ideology seasoned to taste.

Hospers, who never has to, sees nothing demeaning in taking orders from
bosses, for "how else could a large scale factory be organized?" In
other words, "wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is
tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself." Hospers again? No,
Frederick Engels! Marx agreed: "Go and run one of the Barcelona
factories without direction, that is to say, without authority!" (Which
is just what the Catalan workers did in 1936, while their
anarcho-syndicalist leaders temporized and cut deals with the
government.) "_Someone_," says Hospers, "has to make decisions and" --
here's the kicker -- "someone _else_ has to implement them." _Why?_ His
precursor Lenin likewise endorsed "individual dictatorial powers" to
assure "absolute and strict _unity of will_." "But how can strict unity
of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of
one." What's needed to make industrialism work is "iron discipline while
at work, with _unquestioning obedience_ to the will of a single person,
the soviet leader, while at work." _Arbeit macht frei!_ Some people
giving orders and others obeying them: this is the essence of servitude.
Of course, as Hospers smugly observes, "one can at least change jobs,"
but you can't avoid having a job -- just as under statism one can at
least change nationalities but you can't avoid subjection to one
nation-state or another. But freedom means more than the right to change

Hospers and other libertarians are wrong to assume, with Manchester
industrialist Engels, that technology imposes its division of labor
"independent of social organization." Rather, the factory _is_ an
instrument of social control, the most effective ever devised to enforce
the class chasm between the few who "make decisions" and the many who
"implement them." Industrial technology is much more the product than
the source of workplace totalitarianism. Thus the revolt against work --
reflected in absenteeism, sabotage, turnover, embezzlement, wildcat
strikes, and goldbricking -- has far more liberatory promise than the
machinations of "libertarian" politicos and propagandists. Most work
serves the predatory purposes of commerce and coercion and can be
abolished outright. The rest can be automated away and/or transformed --
by the experts, the workers who do it -- into creative, playlike
pastimes whose variety and conviviality will make extrinsic inducements
like the capitalist carrot and the Communist stick equally obsolete. In
the hopefully impending meta-industrial revolution, libertarian
communists revolting against work will settle accounts with
"libertarians" and "Communists" working against revolt. And then we can
go for the gusto!

Even if you think everything I've said about work, such as the
possibility of its abolition, is visionary nonsense, the anti-liberty
implications of its prevalence would still hold good. The time of your
life is the one commodity you can sell but never buy back. Murray
Rothbard thinks egalitarianism is a revolt against nature, but his day
is 24 hours long, just like everybody else's. If you spend most of your
waking life taking orders or kissing ass, if you get habituated to
hierarchy, you will become passive-aggressive, sado-masochistic, servile
and stupefied, and you will carry that load into every aspect of the
balance of your life. Incapable of living a life of liberty, you'll
settle for one of its ideological representations, like libertarianism.
You can't treat values like workers, hiring and firing them at will and
assigning each a place in an imposed division of labor. The taste for
freedom and pleasure can't be compartmentalized.

Libertarians complain that the state is parasitic, an excrescence on
society. They think it's like a tumor you could cut out, leaving the
patient just as he was, only healthier. They've been mystified by their
own metaphors. Like the market, the state is an activity, not an entity.
The only way to abolish the state is to change the way of life it forms
a part of. That way of life, if you call that living, revolves around
work and takes in bureaucracy, moralism, schooling, money, and more.
Libertarians are conservatives because they avowedly want to maintain
most of this mess and so unwittingly perpetuate the rest of the racket.
But they're bad conservatives because they've forgotten the reality of
institutional and ideological interconnection which was the original
insight of the historical conservatives. Entirely out of touch with the
real currents of contemporary resistance, they denounce _practical_
opposition to the system as "nihilism," "Luddism," and other big words
they don't understand. A glance at the world confirms that their utopian
capitalism just _can't compete_ with the state. With enemies like
libertarians, the state doesn't need friends.
- By Bob Black (1984)

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