Reading “A Strategic Green-Libertarian Alliance” II: The Eleventh-Hour Concept Review

I’m going to go ahead and use the Green-Libertarian platform I discussed in the last post as an occasion for one last serious review of the critical tools we have been assembling for talking about “great ideas.”

The most difficult thing about maintaining discussion in the class (aside from some infelicities of the interface) has been finding means of defining “greatness” that helped keep us all talking in the same terms, or at least at the same rung on the ladder of abstraction. We’ve taken as out working definition that “great ideas” are those which we (collectively) can’t seem to stop thinking, and thinking about. But that, as we know, still leaves a lot of room to wander. Let’s see if we can pull together some thoughts from various discussions, and improve the tool kit a bit as we finish assignments.

Up at the really abstract end of the ladder of abstraction, we have contenders for the distinction of being innate ideas: mathematical principles, basic formal notions, the “self,” etc. I’m not very concerned with whether or not these notions are, in fact, innate. What interests us is that there are some ideas which we find very difficult to think about, simply because they are the ideas we use to think about pretty much everything else. “Unity” has to be one of those very high-level ideas. As readers—here, as readers of a proposed political platform—we’re likely to be concerned with unity in the form of consistency. Is Carson’s platform “all of a piece”? Is it consistent? What about the difficulties of unifying the various constituencies to which the program is offered? We can’t answer these questions without tackling some questions of a bit less abstract character. We won’t, for instance, be able to judge the consistency of the program without analyzing its contents.

We can bet that, in a “green-libertarian” program, “liberty” is going to be another of our key ideas. Can we put an idea like “liberty” into relation with the idea of “unity”? Let’s try something like this: “Unity” is one of the ways we think about “one-ness,” but we also think about “the one” in terms of what it is not. That which is united is separate from everything else. “I” am not “you”—although, at another level of abstraction, we may decide that you and I are indeed united, as part of “humanity,” for example. Separateness or “individuality” is another of the ways we think about one-ness, and the move from the united to the individual may be little more than a change of perspective. Now, liberty takes us clearly into the realm of relations. We want to be able to talk about how the various individual ones related to one another, as well as to any collective ones that we might be tempted to posit. “Relation” is another of those very high level abstractions that structure so much else.

“The environment” is similarly a way of thinking about relations between things—so that we know we have at least two different-but-structurally-similar elements to tackle in our green-libertarian synthesis. And we know we may have some conflicts, as libertarian thought tends to emphasize the freedom of individuals (a movement in the direction of separateness), while ecological thinking frequently emphasizes interconnectedness (and a complex sort of unity.) The difference is not necessarily a source of stark incompatability. I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that William B. Greene (to take one pertinent example) began by focusing on the individual, but, because he saw the development of the individual as inextricably tied to that individual’s environment, follows his individualistic impulses straight to an invocation of solidarity and the collective destiny of humanity. The resulting philosophy is dialectical—in the sense that two apparently opposing notions must be synthesized or balanced—and, in this case, the tension is deemed to be one which can never be entirely resolved. Each concerns throws us back into a consideration of the other.

So where are we, where Carson’s program is concerned?

  • Key ideas: Liberty, Ecology
  • Really abstract ideas to tackle the key terms: individuality, unity, relation

So far, so good. Now, we’re looking at a primarily economic platform, by a self-proclaimed “free-market anti-capitalist.” We can add “market” to our list of key-terms, and, down a rung or so on the ladder, “capitalism.” We know that “capitalism” is a bit less abstract than “market” in this discussion, because the (ironic) power of the “free-market anti-capitalist” label comes from contending definitions of “capitalism,” and the contention comes from an argument over whether capitalism is defined by free markets or whether it is the (historical) system by which free markets have been frustrated at every turn.

Let me refer again to the recent issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies where Carson’s book, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, has been debated. One of the review essays, “
Freedom Is Slavery: Laissez-Faire Capitalism Is Government Intervention,” by George Reisman, opens with the following summary:

KEVIN CARSON’S NEW BOOK Studies in Mutualist Political Economy centers on the incredible claim, self-contradictory on its face, that capitalism, including laissez-faire capitalism, is a system based on state intervention, in violation of the free market: “It is state intervention that distinguishes capitalism from the free market,” declares the book’s preface.” Capitalism, writes Carson, is “a system of privilege in which the State enable[s] the owners of capital to draw monopoly returns on it, in the same sense that the feudal ruling class was able to draw monopoly returns on land; or, as the left-Rothbardian Samuel Konkin put it, ‘Capitalism is state rule by and for those who own large amounts of capital’” (p. 92). Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of his description of capitalism, Carson hopes his book will provide a foundation for “free market socialist economics” (p. 10).

The indignation is as palpable as it is (arguably) misdirected. What we’ve got here, at at least once level, is a failure to communicate. Carson and Reisman begin with radically different understandings of the meaning of “capitalism.” Reisman, invoking the “newspeak” of Orwell’s 1984, suggests that “free market socialist economics” can only be a clear contradiction in terms—an absurdity, or a bit or rhetorical “snake oil.” Notice how Reisman goes right after the unity and consistency of Carson’s thought. If his key ideas are essentially contradictory, then his critics really don’t have to say much more. But Reisman needs to show that “capitalism” doesn’t—in fact, can’t—mean “government intervention” in the market. Rhetorically, this seems like a good way to “preach to the choir,” and convince folks who already share your definitions and convictions, but it’s less satisfactory if you really want to critique the ideas presented. Reisman knows, more or less, what Carson means by “capitalism.” He cites part of his definition—and goes on to cite another, Samuel Konkin, who shares the definition. But things still go wrong. . .

Reisman says, “For the most part Carson is a Marxist.” He makes this claim on the basis of Carson’s defense of a modified “labor theory of value”—and not a whole lot else—ignoring the complex tradition out of which Carson’s “individualist anarchism” has developed. [Make some notes here: “Labor theory of value” is important, and related to “marxism.” What’s “anarchism” again?] An important part of Carson’s book is an historical account of the rise of “historical” or “actually-existing” capitalism. “Historical capitalism” is a term used to distinguish the actual development of market economies from ideal or theoretical forms of capitalism, generally ones in which more genuinely “free market” conditions would exist. It’s the sort of term you would expect from a “free-market anti-capitalist”—that if, from someone who identifies “capitalism” with the “historical” form and contrasts it with “free markets”—but it is also used (as here) by some pro-capitalist critics who equate “capitalism” with “free markets,” but acknowledge that we haven’t had much of either yet. All of this gets complicated, because our pro-capitalist is likely to equate the forces that prevent free markets with “socialism” (meaning government intervention), while Carson thinks of socialism in other terms.

We have a lot of “great ideas” in play now, and we can observe a number of things:

  • Some ideas, such as “free markets, “capitalism” or “socialism,” are of equal importance to all the players in the game, but their meanings are frequently completely incompatible.
  • Carson is approaching the question of “capitalism” primarily from a historical perspective, while Reisman is dealing with concepts which seem to him to be sufficiently clear without historical analysis (and, indeed, to be immune to the sort of historical analysis Carson is engaged in.)
  • It’s tough to have a conversation when you’re occupying radically different rungs on the ladder of abstraction.

We’ve spent a lot of time working through Foner’s Story of American Freedom, and ought to have some sensitivity to the ways in which the (arguably) greatest of “great ideas” can go through a lot of strange and non-trivial changes. Should we be surprised if “capitalism” and “socialism” have also changed? It appears that “capitalism” was a term coined by one of its opponents. For a real intellectual roller-coaster ride through the histories of the terms related to “socialism,” you can’t do much better than Arthur E Bestor’s “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary.” In the JLS issue, you will not find anyone interested in tackling Carson’s historical account, but you will find a couple of reviews that understand the implications of it for Carson’s economics. Unsurprisingly, my favorite of the bunch comes from Roderick T. Long, who is no slouch in the history department himself.

A tremendous amount of what passes for “political dialogue” doesn’t go much further than name-calling, in large part because it refuses to climb down from its high perch on the ladder of abstractions and deal with the complication of specific details and divergent values and opinions. (Alternately, it takes the form of “fundamentalism” (which has more than just religious forms) and selects only a few details to associate with its higher-level values, effectively cutting off further enquiry. If “truth” is something revealed from an authoritative source, such as a diety, then perhaps this isn’t the shortcut that it appears from a more rationalistic point of view. If these questions interest you from a religious perspective, and particularly if you are a Christian, perhaps the important distinction to keep in mind is that between faith and knowledge. Some of you will undoubtedly attempt to incorporate theistic elements into your “Short Treatise on the Greatness of Ideas.” You are absolutely welcome to do so, but be careful to clarify some of these issues if you do.)

OK. Things keep getting more complicated, but a little additional complexity in our approach lets us get past the level of mutual misunderstanding and begin to grapple with what’s at stake in the work we’re trying to address.

Let’s leave the question of the “labor theory of value” for another day. (Look it up if you’re curious.) We’ve got far enough in our analysis of “A Strategic Green-Libertarian Alliance” to know that Carson is:

  • contrasting “historical capitalism” and “free markets” (and in favor of the latter)
  • endorsing both “libertarian” and “ecological” understandings of human (and human-environmental) relations
  • proposing a practical and “transitional” plan

I noted the third point in my earlier post, but it bears looking at. One of the students in the honors section refered to the platform as “utopian” and another understood Carson’s concern about “put[ting readers] off of individualist anarchism” as a reflection of the radical nature of the proposal. Knowing radicals as I do, however, I’m inclined to think many of Carson’s (and my) usual readers might well see the “Alliance” platform as an objectionably “reformist” effort. The word “radical” has ties to the word “root,” and one way of understanding radicalism is that it is an attempt to get to the roots of things, to address the root causes of social problems, so that things can be transformed root and branch (top to bottom.) The word “utopia” means “no place,” and refers to the unrealized or theoretical nature of “utopian” proposals. But, again, history and politics don’t always exactly respect dictionary definitions. Things are always messier down towards the foot of the ladder. For example, when Marx and Engels labelled their competitors “utopian socialists,” the irony was that a number of these “utopians” were very directly engaged in actual social experiments, while Marx was spending his time in the library studying patterns in political economy and theorizing about the proletarian revolution. I’m fairly certain Carson would own up to the term radical (perhaps proudly), while, if he is a “utopian,” it is of the sort that seem willing to put their blueprints to the test.

I’m hoping for some student comments before I wrap up discussion of this piece, and of “great ideas” for the semester, but I want to address one more issue in some detail.

Supporters of “markets,” however they may think of “capitalism,” tend to attribute efficiency, and something more, a kind of ethical efficacy, to their function. “Markets” are understood to be more than simply a collection of individual acts—they are the means by which a multitude of individual, self-interested acts are harmonized into an essentially equitable whole. For their boosters, properly functioning markets are their own justification. Many of us buy into this view of markets as a bit magical to one extent or another—in part because there seems to be more than just a morsel of truth to the attractive myth. One of the most powerful invocations of market efficacy is the notion of the “invisible hand,” associated with Adam Smith. The Wikipedia entry for “Invisible Hand” is quite useful for our purposes. It shows how the notion of “unintended consequences” and the notions of public and private goods were turned this way and that in the theories of the early political economists (and ethical philosophers.) Turned one way, (and not quite, I think, Smith’s way) they make “the market” the engine and arbitrator of “good,” and make a virtue of self-interest. (We might be approaching Orwellian territory again, so play close attention to the twists and turns.)

Carson’s platform focuses over and over again on measures providing equitable access to “the market,” and applies “free market” principles fairly broadly. Let’s return, for a moment, to the notion of “consistency,” and also consider the differences between the approaches of Carson and Reisman. It seems likely to me that Reisman invests more moral efficacy to the market than Carson, although he might object to that term (as any attempt to address “morals” is considered a bit gauche by many good libertarian types.) But it is obvious that Carson invests the notion of “free markets” (however cautiously) with considerable (and more than just economic) importance. It is the guiding principle in the platform. It’s impossible to read Carson’s piece without coming to some terms with what powers he recognizes in “the market.” An anti-capitalist “social anarchist”—one of the authors of An Anarchist FAQ—recently objected to the broad application of market principles on grounds, which many of us can probably sympathize with, that people don’t want to think about many aspects of their lives in market terms, and that the “common sense” most of us bring to current markets (an emphasis on short-term profit, self-interest, etc) is downright destructive in the more “human” elements of our personal, community and family lives. We don’t want to tie love and friendship and family to contract and negotiation, etc. The point is well worth considering. . .

Ask yourself: what is manifested in a “market,” if not the weirdly synergetic sum of our values and desires, and, if the markets we have, and the logics we bring to them, are radically different from what we consider the “better” parts our lives, why is that? what does it say about the way we have organized present markets?

Ask yourself: what are the relations between the (presumably) non-market aspects of our lives (where the “great ideas” are love, democracy, truth, justice, . . .) and the world of contract, negotiation, competition and the like. If, by some chance, those worlds are already closer than we (like to) think, perhaps you might ask yourself which of the approaches to the related questions (messy, specific, and historical vs. clear-cut, abstract and formal) is most consistent with the relationship as you see it. (That’s a lot of negotiating different definitions, levels of abstraction, etc., but you should be getting pretty good at this stuff by now.)

Finally, to finish for the day, let’s look at one model of the extension of the market into the realm of one of your more recent assignments. What follows is part of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissenting opinion in the case of Abrams v. United States (1919). This oft-quoted opinion is the source of the notion of the “marketplace of ideas.” Dissenting on an appeal against wartime expressions by radicals for in violation of the 1918 Sedition Act, Holmes famously observed that “the principle of the right to free speech is always the same. It is only the present danger of immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned.” The passage most closely related to our present concerns continues:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care whole-heartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. Now I have a lot better idea of the ladder of abstraction! It all makes sense, and a lot has to do with what I learned in critical thinking last semester–we discussed basic controversial ideas, such as abortion, and most of the time people can’t agree, not because of the ideas like sanctity of life or freedom of choice (because their values are radically different) but because there is a bigger chasm that separates them. If they get down to the basic ideas, or the question of when life begins. Shawn statement that got me thinking was: “We can’t answer these questions without tackling some questions of a bit less abstract character. We won’t, for instance, be able to judge the consistency of the program without analyzing its content”. I have been having troubles lately discovering the basic great ideas in the pieces i chose for my canon. Some pieces have dozens, such as The frontier, leadership, freedom, ideology, atomic war… but i guess i’ve been looking for a broader idea higher on the ladder of abstraction, such as unity, or dichotomy, or self… but the more I think about it, you need some of these smaller ideas to justify the larger one, and so its okay for some pieces to cover numerous ideas! Thats my thoughts…
    Heather Bergseth

  2. That provided an intresting light on abstract yet “great ideas”. I would also that emotions could be abstract great idea’s or ideal’s. Not just being happy or said. But the Idea of being happy or sad. Those i think might be the greatest idea’s of all. Because most great idea’s are considered great because
    1) As you’ve said we can’t stop thinking about them.
    2)They have great implications.

    Well let’s take happiness we strive to do things to make us happy. And a good number of people are thinking about things they could,will, or wish they could to make them happy. this probably isn’t well thought out. But i think a emotion such as happiness could be a good example of an abstract and really great idea.

    -David Wells

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