Sounds like nonsense

There is, it turns out, more than one “conflation conflict” that we need to deal with. Before we can even begin to wrestle with the relation of the current economic situation to various understandings of “capitalism” and/or a “free (or freed) market,” we apparently have to pick our way through a rhetorical minefield of widely used terms and phrases which “sound like” something no real anarchist or libertarian would (presumably) ever say. For right libertarians, the primary concern seems to be contamination by “Marxism,” which embodies, apparently, pretty much everything that is or could be wrong with the world. Now, it’s strangely touching to see somebody credit marxism with so much importance, at a time when most anarchists have pretty well written off the bulk of that tradition as something less than a cause for concern. I’m sure there are plenty of folks in left-libertarian circles who have read Marx and learned some things from the tradition. I certainly have. But my primary influences are all either Marx’s intellectual antagonists, like Proudhon, or libertarians who worked on the margins of marxian socialism for specific historical and theoretical reasons, and drew out the most libertarian threads in marxist theory. I’m sure the folks at would be as appalled by Bataille, or by Lafargue’s more libertarian work, as they are by Marx himself (assuming they have any direct knowledge of Marx’s work), but, presumably at least, “Marxist” means something other, among serious debaters, than “stuff that appalls me.” Presumably. Then I find Stephan Kinsella saying: “The notion of ‘bargaining power’ is leftist to the core.”

There’s plenty of debate concerning this assertion—too much, really, given the shameful sloppiness of the charge—over on Kevin Carson’s blog. But it’s of a very familiar sort. A libertarian who objects to the very notion of a “left” libertarianism proceeds to “read” a left-libertarian writer as if they were a Stalinist or Maoist (or what they imagine a doctrinaire Marxist of this sort would say.) In the process, they limit the field to a couple of rhetorical possibilities: their own vocabulary, which they take to be standard usage, and various forms of Diamat or its stealthy proxies. Real intellectual history is erased. Real marxist usage, in all its dizzying variety, is erased. The left anarchist tradition is erased. Indeed, most of the tradition of classical political economy is erased. The baby, the bathroom, and most of the new addition go out with the bathwater, while there are pompous declamations about what true libertarians do and do not say, etc. Bring on the right-lib Diamat. Except that it isn’t clear that there is anything, except the conflations, to advance and defend.

Those who “argue” in this way, it seems to me, have to be working from a position of either extreme bad faith (the “fraud” half of what all good libertarians presumably avoid) or willful ignorance. Either way, this can only be a matter of preaching to the choir. So be it. People who make a big production of their commitment to truth and liberty, and then respond to others who are committed to truth and liberty with silly “sounds like” retorts and ideological name-calling trivialize some things we probably can’t afford to take lightly. Sometimes it is necessary to engage with this sort of nonsense, but let’s try to keep our eyes on the prize, and not waste too much time.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. I agree that a lot of this is very muddled by semantic nitpicking by the right-libertarians to erect a straw man.

  2. “it seems to me, have to working from a position”

    you seem to have missed out a “be” here.

    Not a bad summary of the problem. I suppose the best that can be done is to keep working on the rehabilitation of the left-anarchist tradition into a wider body of libertarian thought. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to take the debate over terminology to a certain point, but after a while it gets very tedious where people are trying to “lock down” libertarianism into a “correct” set of principles, being extremely stubborn in the process.

  3. Speaking of “extreme bad faith” and “preaching to the choir,” how about this?

    Here’s my response, in the comment thread he lifted his post from:

    Stephan: I can understand your disagreeing with P.M. Lawrence on the corporate income tax.

    What I can’t understand is your making such misleading use of material from a comment thread, elevating it to a post in its own right in a venue where commenting is not allowed.

    The title of your post (“Left-Libertarians: Pro-Corporate Tax”) is utterly misleading, and somehow I suspect you’re not entirely oblivious to that fact. Your title suggests that PML displays some sort of hypocrisy as a “left-libertarian,” or inadvertently gives away some sort of esoteric doctrine that’s supposed to be kept safely hidden away by us adepts. In fact PML has never claimed to be a left-libertarian, left-Rothbardian, or mutualist–or anything else but a person with an economics background and MBA who has wide-ranging historical interests. He is guilty of absolutely no hypocrisy or inconsistency with his stated principles.

    Furthermore, I explicitly stated in the same thread (a remark which PML quoted in the remarks you excerpted) that I considered the main effect of the corporate income tax to be the concentration of capital among a small number of large corporations, and that I favored its immediate abolition or (as second-best expedient) the closing of all corporate tax loopholes and lowering the overall rate enough to be revenue-neutral. So it should be clear, despite your misleading title, that PML’s statement is not some sort of defining doctrinal statement for left-libertarianism.

    Your grasping at such material for continued sniping in a venue where readers are not allowed to talk back suggests you’re running out of ammo.

  4. “The left anarchist tradition is erased.”

    Well, is that not the aim? To totally appropriate “Libertarian” and “anarchist” to describe their particularly hierarchical system?

    I should also note that Proudhon was well aware of the issue of bargaining power. Writing in What is Property? in 1840:

    “But it is superior strength also which enables the manufacturer to reduce the wages of his employees, and the rich merchant and well-stocked proprietor to sell their products for what they please. The manufacturer says to the laborer, ‘You are as free to go elsewhere with your services as I am to receive them. I offer you so much.’ The merchant says to the customer, ‘Take it or leave it; you are master of your money, as I am of my goods. I want so much.’ Who will yield? The weaker.”

    That was before Marxism was invented… And I should also note that Adam Smith made similar comments in 1776 (but, then, Smith is disliked by the “Austrians” as well — obviously too much in touch with the realities of this world!).

    And, surely, the fact that the state adjusts unemployment higher when “wage pressure” complains from business increase should say it all?

    An Anarchist FAQ

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