Jan 4, 2019

Who Are the Radicals: Libertarians or Socialists?

The socialists, who would further regiment human social relations, are reactionaries; libertarians are the radicals.


Don Lavoie’s modern libertarian classic, National Economic Planning: What is Left?, is his attempt to claim radicalism for libertarians, to show that socialism, particularly as practiced in the twentieth century, runs contrary to radicalism. Socialists are now and were then1 regarded as radicals, as dedicated to a project of deep social transformation. Lavoie challenged this easy notion; he argued that the planned economies of the socialists were actually inherently reactionary—that the truly radical, revolutionary ideas belonged to libertarians.

Lavoie distinguishes “the primary goals of radicalism”—its “fundamental ends”—from the “appropriate means to attain these goals,” arguing that central economic planning has been mis-prescribed, simply taken for granted as the solution by political radicals. Our project as radicals is to demonstrate to state socialists of all kinds not that their goals are unworthy, but that the path they have chosen leads away from these goals as articulated rather than toward them. Ludwig von Mises had advanced a similar argument in Liberalism, arguing that liberals distinguish themselves from socialists not by striving toward different goals, but because they choose different means to attain the same goals. The abolition of poverty and material deprivation, Mises says, is always the goal; the fundamental disagreement is about what more effectively accomplishes this in the real world.

Today’s libertarian project must re-embrace Don Lavoie’s “nonconservative critique” of national economic planning, his idea that we should ground our defenses of free market mechanisms not in a conservative rejection of putatively radical socialist politics, but in a “more scientifically sound radicalism.” But what does this mean? Is it all just semantics?

In National Economic Planning, Lavoie offers today’s libertarians an important lesson—that framing free market solutions as a form of conservatism fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between free markets and radical social change. Framing economic freedom as conservative treats it as consistent with a political philosophy that seeks to conserve existing power structures, social institutions, and distributions of wealth. For Lavoie, in contrast, the implementation of free-market libertarianism would radically change society for the better, necessarily unseating many of today’s social, political, and economic practices and institutions. Libertarians, therefore, are radicals.

Libertarians contemplate a world in which large, powerful companies are more accountable, in which monopoly is prevented not by arbitrary, positive law (which would be futile, regardless), but through economic law, that is, through competition. In fact, we might say that free markets are the most tightly and exactingly regulated markets of all, for it is the freedom to move easily into and out of economic relationships and institutions that holds self-seeking actors in the marketplace to account. The argument in favor of markets as against monocentrism, bureaucracy, and planning should not be framed as endorsing (or even being neutral toward) exploitative conduct, cupidity, or the kind of antisocial atomism with which libertarianism is unfortunately and erroneously sometimes associated. As we shall see, socialists throughout the history of ideas have relied on a series of mistakes about how practically to achieve accountability and economic equity. Thus have they been led to embrace what boils down to economic militarism—economic relationships and organizational models predicated on a near obsession with military discipline. Indeed, some of the earliest and most interesting (if terrifying) socialist blueprints are decidedly militaristic in orientation. To better understand this view, we might begin with an examination of the French socialist Charles Fourier, whose utopia exalted a military ideal, at the center of which was the idea of the Greek phalanx. We will also consider socialist economic militarism as presented in the work of the American socialist Edward Bellamy, whose famous novel Looking Backward was influenced in part by Fourier.

Charles Fourier

Fourier was born in the French town of Besançon, southeast of Paris, near the Swiss border—the very same place as another one-of-a-kind socialist thinker, his younger contemporary Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Fourier’s socialist thought belongs to a tradition of comprehensive utopianism that responded to the tumults of the French Revolution and its aftermath, a tradition that includes notable philosophers like Henri de Saint-Simon and his foremost disciple Auguste Comte. As Lewis Mumford points out, “What imperious social reformers like Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte had learned from the Napoleonic era was the efficacy with which military technique can be applied to social behavior.” Fourier, too, emerged as an important thinker within this context; he (and later Bellamy) quite explicitly envisioned “industrial armies,” closely watched and rigorously ordered. Fourier sought a holistic restructuring of society, from top to bottom, and in this way, perhaps, he is a radical. But as Lavoie would quickly point out, Fourier’s program is profoundly authoritarian and reactionary. In it, even the household—and really the existence of separate families itself—is to be obliterated, dissolved in the whole, an impediment to the comprehensive unity at which Fourier aimed. Commerce and trade are treated as profound evils, associated in Fourier with a Jewish religion that he says furthers “the encouragement of deceit” and “gives its adherents a dangerously immoral character.”

Fourier was trenchant in his criticisms of “the birth of a commercial Feudalism,” by which “privileged Corporations” monopolize industry. But he confusedly articulates the error advanced so often by the progressives and socialists of today, the idea that competition leads ineluctably to “the Monopoly of Commerce and Industry by large joint-stock companies.” He writes that “the greater the extent to which anarchical competition is carried, the nearer is the approach to universal monopoly, which is the opposite excess.” We might think Fourier would perceive the problem with this claim, given he recognizes that competition and monopoly are indeed opposites. Why it is that the former ought to lead to the latter is not explained. Here, on the subject of trade and markets, is Fourier at his most baffling and incoherent: laissez-faire competition, he tells us, leads to the most unwanted condition of monopoly, so we had better cut a straight path to monopoly in order that it might be prevented. This blind spot is attributable to Fourier’s intense, irrational hatred of commerce and all things related thereto, which hatred prevents him from thinking seriously about incentives and, relatedly, how power operates through people. As we shall see, Bellamy’s socialism rests on an identical mistake.

Edward BellamyEdward Bellamy

Bellamy’s Looking Backward was really a look forward. Published in 1888, the novel’s sketch of a future America precipitated a popular movement devoted to its ideas. Afflicted with insomnia, Bellamy’s protagonist is regularly visited by a “Professor of Animal Magnetism” who manipulates him into deep mesmeric sleep. It is from one of these slumbers that he awakens to find himself in the year 2000, i.e., 113 years after he fell asleep in his own home. In Bellamy’s year 2000, American political and economic life is planned and almost perfected, each citizen slotting neatly into a well-run machine, an industrial army. Appealing to Bellamy are the perceived military practices of equality among soldiers and organizational efficiency.2 As Adam Gopnik explains, the sensation around Bellamy’s utopia is at least partly attributable to “post-Civil War nostalgia for the purity of wartime regimentation,” whereby Americans actually longed for “what William James later called ‘the moral equivalent of war.’” Political sociologist Arthur Lipow notes the closeness with which Bellamy’s industrial army “mirrored the organization of a modern nineteenth-century army,” concentrating power at the top of a hierarchical structure and deliberately precluding “democratically elected represented bodies, political parties, trade unions, or any other mechanisms by which the people could directly participate in or affect the politics of the state.”3 As in any military dictatorship, in Bellamy’s utopia, the officers of the industrial army would also constitute the political rulership. Here, Fourier’s influence is clearly in evidence, conspicuous in Bellamy’s fascination with military discipline and organizational models, with parades and pageantry, and even with certain aesthetic details of Fourier’s utopia.4

As with so many of literature’s most thoroughgoing authoritarian regimes, Bellamy’s, if we trust the testimony of his characters, requires no direct compulsion, servitude being regarded as “absolutely natural and reasonable.” Bellamy’s antagonist inquires about the functioning of the economic system:

“That is,” I suggested, “you have simply applied the principle of universal military service, as it was understood in our day, to the labor question.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Leete, “that was something which followed as a matter of course as soon as the nation has become the sole capitalist. The people were already accustomed to the idea that the obligation of every citizen, not physically disabled, to contribute his military services to the defence of the nation, was equal and absolute. That it was equally the duty of every citizen to contribute his quota of industrial or intellectual services to the maintenance of the nation, was equally evident … .

Here, we might underscore the fact that Bellamy’s character Dr. Leete acknowledges an obvious truth that few state socialists of any kind have been willing to concede: capitalism, whatever it is, has not been swept away. Instead, one capitalist has replaced many. Of course, Dr. Leete fails to recognize the implications of this admission, among them, the fact that gathering all economic power into the hands of one body, the nation as sole capitalist, actually aggravates the problem it purports to solve. It apparently did not occur to Fourier, Bellamy, and other such utopian socialists that trade and competition abolished and monopoly perfected, labor has much less bargaining power, not more. Dr. Leete’s statement furthermore points out, also inadvertently, the practical inadequacy—really meaninglessness—of terms like capitalism and socialism. For if perfect socialism, as envisioned by its utopian apostles, is just the consummation of monopoly capitalism, then on what grounds do the proponents of the two -isms disagree?

Means and Ends

Utopians like Fourier and Bellamy want to imagine a better world with better people, and this may be admirable, as far as it goes. Yet their lack of seriousness and rigor shows in their failure to address even the most obvious questions presented by their preferred systems: why are economic centralization and monopoly undesirable when perpetrated by people called capitalists, but tantamount to paradise when administered by people called socialists? Utopian socialists have ever been enamored of the words and aesthetics they like (collectivization, cooperation, the abolition of greed and individualism), inflamed by those associated with trade, competition, and markets. But they stop short of thinking through the implications of their utopian schemes. “If the good life could be perpetrated by a junta of busybodies,” writes Mumford, then such schemes may actually inaugurate heaven on earth. Again, the question is the one with which Lavoie was concerned, the question of the practical alignment between means and ends. Of Bellamy in particular, Mumford writes, “I do not question [his] fine motives; I question only the outlets he imagined for them. There is a breach between Bellamy’s conception of the good life and the structure he erected to shelter it.” Lavoie was right: most left-wing radicals the world over are, in supporting an ever more powerful modern state, acting as their own worst enemies.

The stark disconnect between the socialist utopians’ sunny perceptions of military functioning and the nightmarish daily realities of actual military organizations offers us a revealing glimpse into their thinking and its shortcomings. As a matter of fact, military organizations breed constant abuses of power, the ugliest kinds of exploitative inequality, waste and inefficiency. Only in the imaginations of authoritarians are militaries the well-functioning instruments of social progress and prosperity. If at the time of Lavoie’s writing the advocates of socialist central planning seemed to be winning the contest of ideas, then today few any longer make the case for such comprehensive planning. We might pause here to observe just how quickly the tide turned in that contest of ideas, from the acceptance of socialism and planning being practically de rigueur to the neoliberal consensus that emerged after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Still, weakened and less ambitious though they may be, the arguments for economic interventionism persist, carried forward by technocratic progressives who see the economy as a mechanism we can calibrate and plan. And war and planning have always been married to one another just as a matter of course, for what but war can bend the entire economic life of a nation to its will?5 To socialism as actually practiced, just as to socialism as imagined by its best minds, military regimentation has been integral. It is difficult to imagine a social order more deleterious to human potential than one that makes military conscription the universal model for all human relationships, yet that is precisely the model after which the socialist left sought, both in theory and in practice. “The libertarian Left,” on the other hand, “was opposed to the intervention by any government into the lives of anyone, domestic or foreign.”6 Thus have libertarians always have been the only true champions of radical change, determined to abolish political absolutism rather merely reshaping or reincarnating it.

  1. The book was originally published in 1985.
  2. Robert Brownstein, Environment and Utopia: A Synthesis (Springer 1977).
  3. Arthur Lipow, Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement (University of California Press 1982), page 201.
  4. Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell University Press 1991), page 402.
  5. See Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (Little, Brown and Company 1937).
  6. Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What is Left? (Ballinger Publishing Company 1985), page 215.