Mar 31, 2020
A History of Libertarian Utopianism
A history of how libertarians have thought about utopias and how utopian thinking has influenced libertarianism.
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war,
No one knows what will happen next, such portents fill the days and nights;
Years prophetical! The space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it, is full of phantoms,
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me,
This incredible rush and heat, this strange ecstatic fever of dreams
Your dreams O years, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake;)
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance, advance upon me.
—Walt Whitman, “Years of the Modern”
History—while always the result of human actions—is never the product of human design. For at least four centuries, generation upon generation of individuals in search of greater personal liberty have encountered their world, revolted against its limitations, and charted countless paths to a better future. In some sense, we have always been there: everywhere, in all societies across time, surelyat least one person has favored liberty over slavery, one individual who preferred to make it on his or her own rather than take sustenance from his or her neighbors. Surely every strongman has had his detractors; surely history is never truly devoid of people who despise tyranny and resist tyrants.
Nonetheless, many libertarians and historians alike will probably locate the origins of libertarianism in the English tradition of dissenting religion, specifically that country’s intensely violent civil wars in the 1640s and 1650s. Much of modernity as we know it spawned during the 17th century as part of a long-unfolding set of processes. On the one end was the eroding basis of feudal kingship highlighted by a constant dearth of royal funds and a steady march toward bureaucracy, corporatism, and wider ruling classes. On the other end was the explosion of popular print culture, global commercialism, transoceanic travel, and a growing recognition among the populace that commoners, too, had great power. As kings raised taxes, armies, navies, and corporations the world over, awakened and rebellious minds responded with their own programs.
During two decades of cyclical warfare between elite factions, England’s common people did all they could to avoid the conflict and live as freely as possible in the power vacuum. While Cavaliers and Cromwellians murdered each other on the battlefield, antinomians, Ranters, Seekers, Levelers, Diggers, Familists, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians, Quakers, and many, many more flooded the land with new ideas and new possibilities.
Some radicals tried to rant their way out of modernity’s ugly side by shouting at all who would listen in endless, fiery torrents about the evils of the world. Some took a slightly softer approach, preferring to seek for honest souls among London’s working poor. Others formed what some historians have considered the first proper political party, the Levelers, and tried to use political reform to even out those great iniquities history had produced. Perhaps the most radical of all were the “True Levelers,” who tried to dig their way out of it all—if the great lords would not relinquish the common lands only recently fenced in by statute, then the True Levelers would simply occupy it themselves and put it to productive use. Neither king nor Cromwell could tolerate this kind of threat to constituted property rights, and a combination of military and judicial force crushed the Diggers, dispersing them to somewhat less action-oriented religious movements like the Society of Friends, called the Quakers. Between these main strands of dissent, English men and women wove dozens more, each tradition with its own distinctive philosophy and style.
Different as they could be, many dissenters shared a broad agreement with antinomianism. Most Christians consider antinomianism a heresy. From the Greek words for “against laws,” antinomians took the Protestant doctrine of “salvation by faith alone” to its logical extreme. They believed that literally the only thing necessary for eternal salvation of the soul was a genuine faith connection to God; because only this connection mattered, anything with a tendency to distort, obscure, or contradict one’s revelation of God should be rejected. Therefore, any human-made laws—including the basic laws of interpersonal ethics—can and should be ignored when they pose a challenge to one’s personal experience of God’s will. It made for an intensely radical set of beliefs, perhaps best illustrated in the life and trial of Anne Hutchinson in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Hutchinson hosted mixed-sex Bible study sessions in her home in the mid-1630s, driven by the conviction that God commanded women to instruct one another in religion. What’s more, she preached in her meetings that the colony’s young men did not really have to sign up for militia service to kill Indians and steal their land. Sure, the law said service was compulsory and the government pronounced the Indians enemies; but those were mere human legislations, no contest for the divine revelation present in every awakened soul. Governor John Winthrop knew the colony’s manpower could not withstand Hutchinson’s assault, so he cooked up a trial for violating the Ten Commandments, banished her from the colony, and prosecuted a miniature reign of terror to root out her followers. For the moment, at least, the most radical elements of modern English life were at least contained.
Then, the English Civil Wars turned the world upside down and twisted it inside out. And some of the earliest direct ancestors of modern libertarianism diligently worked to make them history’s turning point toward a more antinomian future. The king was already dead, but they could also level the great estates, strip the lords of their powers and privileges, and smash the armies of corporate creatures who pioneered new forms of enslavement on the oceans and the American plantations. The war years had shown common people everywhere that they did not have to live this way—we human beings are not condemned to serve a powerful few at the expense of ourselves, our families, and our very souls.
Modern libertarianism—the full package of ideas as we know it—grew from this tradition of English antinomianism, or moral opposition to human-made laws, and a dozen different strands of fever-brained, radical, left-wing utopianisms.1 During the civil wars in the 1640s and 1650s, but especially after the monarchy returned to England in the 1660s, antinomians dispersed all over the world. From the lines of Cromwell’s New Model Army, they were dispatched to Ireland and West Africa, or banished by the king to be indentured servants in Virginia. From Ranting or Seeking in London’s most troubled boroughs, dissenters filtered across the ocean to Philadelphia, New York, or Barbados. England was a frontier of possibilities during the wars, but to flourish under the Restoration, dissenters would have to build their own worlds out there, somewhere—anywhere—else.
On the New World frontiers, indentured servants joined hands with black slaves; “red” Indians accepted “white Indians” into their own societies and families; Quakers led the world’s first movement to abolish slavery; and average people everywhere teased out innumerable new intellectual threads for themselves.2 Over the next 200 years, people with liberated hearts and minds pioneered feminism, vegetarianism, abolitionism, Spiritualism, individualism, and ultimately the package of political and social ideals we call libertarianism.
At every step of the way, powerful people with personal stakes in maintaining the status quo thwarted reform, squelched challengers, co-opted movements, corrupted popular education, stifled dissent, quashed rebellions, smashed revolutions, systematically destroyed alternative lifestyles, and even exterminated whole peoples. If you were so inclined, it would be easy enough to read modern history as one gloomy triumph of power over liberty after another, with only relatively brief moments of libertarianism peeping through.
Viewed from above, modernity has been the rise of modern states, global empires, constituted governments, and the great and powerful statesmen who lead the rest of us into a designed and controlled future. Viewed from below, modernity has given us history’s greatest murder machines, industrial exploitation, the most inhumane and abject forms of slavery ever devised, and death and destruction beyond reckoning. Yet always, people did their best to live freely under the worst of conditions; and no matter what the new megastates did, they could not stop new ideas and their agents from changing the world in spontaneous, unplanned, chaotic, and disruptive ways. Humanity has indeed enjoyed great material and intellectual progress in the past 200 years, but every scrap of it has been fought for, labored for, and made manifest through deliberate and determined action. To the extent that we have crept our way toward true utopia, we owe thanks to the nameless, faceless, and historically voiceless rogues and radicals who have kept liberty alive in an age of otherwise devastating statism.
The 19th century was the world’s greatest era of reform.3 Changes of all sorts tore through the world, shaping and remaking society in ways few at the time could understand and no one could predict. After two centuries of modernity in politics, production, and consumption, common people established a permanent place for themselves in decisionmaking and changemaking. When once a medieval chronicler could write the history of entire decades with a few lines about a single king, now countless millions made microscopic contributions to create the future. Governments did what they could to aggrandize power throughout the period, and many did so successfully. Successful states became more powerful than ever before, and empires like Great Britain reached their historical peaks after the 1884 Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa.
Steam engines, quinine, steel hulls, railroads, and especially the telegraph all opened new opportunities for empire, new frontiers for exploitation and slavery around the planet. But they also empowered average people in new and exciting ways. Transportation technology allowed people to move about the planet with increasing liberty and ease; it opened new markets while expanding and intensifying the extent of others. Communications advances like telegraphy revolutionized political ideas and figuratively shrank continents to the size of cities. And the unending stream of new scientific knowledge inspired countless new philosophies bubbling up from below like what happened long before in London gutters during the civil wars. The unimaginably brilliant burst of new technologies, new productive possibilities, and new methods of social organization all inspired novel thinking about average people’s effects on their world and its future.
In America, at least, no futuristic visions surpassed the dazzling glimpses perceived by one of the nation’s many new religious communities: the Spiritualists. They are a strange bunch to our present-day ears, but their somewhat brief and rather niche history deserves consideration, especially when embarking on a volume like this. Spiritualism has never been so clearly defined as its more ancient or dogmatic counterparts. But from its birth and in its very conception, it was a sort of world religion open to all peoples without regard to class, race, gender, or any other considerations of identity.
Broadly speaking, Spiritualists believed that souls or spirits existed as real parts of the material world and were, therefore, open to communication with living beings. They believed in a spiritual existence beyond one’s instantiation in a physical body and drew upon the new Victorian science to reinforce and inspire their faith. Spiritualists observed experiments with electricity and corpses, concluding that if it was possible to induce animation of the body, it may be possible to reanimate the mind or soul. They witnessed the energizing powers of batteries and concluded that they could be used to charge one’s aura—a concept imported from Asia—for communication with the dead. And they invested in the burgeoning field of telegraphy by purchasing their own machines, becoming expert in their use, and converting them for modern necromancy.
Spiritualists were practically addicted to reform movements. Most of their prominent figures were active in a wide variety of them, from the workingman’s movement to feminism and abolitionism; and many drew inspiration directly from their supposed communications with the spirit world. Spiritualists were not necessarily antinomians. Many of them were not Christians of any description.
Like agnostics and atheists, Spiritualists were in a sense beyond heretical—to violate fundamental doctrine, they would first have to fit cleanly into a preexisting religious tradition. But this was the electrified, magnetized new faith of the industrial era, and it did not require submission even to the will or revelation of God. Spiritualists were less interested in “salvation by faith alone”; they were more concerned with just reviving the dead already. In fact, this was the core belief Spiritualists erected for themselves on 200 years of antinomian prehistory: when the powerful stand aside, human beings have limitless potential.4
And they were not without their reasons. Their era was America’s first great “singularity,” when so much technological change was crammed into so short a period with so many revolutionary implications and consequences that virtually everything about life changed from the beginning of the period to the end. Steam-driven presses, iron and steel ships, railroads, and innumerable other inventions transformed the way people related and linked to one another first across the country, then the entire planet, transforming societies in ways no one could possibly predict.
But the greatest of all 19th-century innovations was Samuel Morse’s magnetic telegraph, which practically collapsed time and space with a few taps. Spiritualists imbibed the new Victorian science, the electrified and magnetized laws of nature unfolding all around them, and joined the never-ending chorus of reform movements intent on perfecting the world.
Technological change sparked new thinking across the intellectual board: shifts from pop homeopathy to more systematic nutritionism, from Christian cosmologies to occultist metaphysics, from laissez faire to “scientific management” of firms and bureaucratic regulation, and from belief in a limited republic to mystical reverence for the great national state, bound together by telegraph wires, the electrified new “cords of Union.”
At the very pinnacle of radical thought from the era was the Spiritualist’s conviction that human knowledge applied in service of human needs could even conquer death itself. Proof positive: spirits spoke to them with electricity, and electricity reanimated corpses. If only we could find a way to unify the two processes, to sort of smush the soul back into the body, history would finally be over.
Perhaps they were wrong, and perhaps you see no reason to identify your own libertarianism with their inveterate reformism (or the English antinomians’, for that matter). But these early strands of libertarian history have much to suggest to those of us charting the future today. Dissenters and Spiritualists alike knew that history was more than they had been told, more than the product of kings, queens, great battles, and great thinkers. They understood that history was made by deliberate and distributed human action from below, that no one person controlled its course, but that all of us contribute to its flow. What’s more, they saw that a liberated humanity could actually accomplish our grandest desires, fulfill our wildest visions, and create a world more like utopia than the one we were born into. They knew that if utopia ever did exist, we would have to build it ourselves, bit by bit, with humility, goodwill, and cheer.
- Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1972). ↩
- John Frantz, ed., Bacon’s Rebellion: Prologue to the Revolution? (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1969); Joseph Kelly, Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin(New York and London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018); Sidney Lens, Radicalism in America: Great Rebels and the Causes for Which They Fought from 1620 to the Present (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1969); Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968); Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black: The People of Early North America, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2006); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). ↩
- C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004); Craig Calhoun, The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973). ↩
- Sarah C. O’Dowd, A Rhode Island Original: Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2004). ↩