Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’

There is an extensive article about Murray Rothbard and anarchism — from the AFAQ blog: Rothbard: “We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists”. He writes that, An Anarchist FAQ spends some time explaining, probably in far too much detail given their small size and corresponding importance, why “anarcho”-capitalism is not a form of anarchism. Ironically, its founder Murray Rothbard once agreed!” Maybe unsurprisingly, this not-so-minor detail has not received any attention among right-wing liberarians.

The author made an interesting comment where he offered a juicy quote from Rothbard: “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83). It’s rare to come across such honesty about an act of dishonesty, an act of ideological deception and rhetorical sleight of hand.

Chomsky has explained the origins of libertarianism in the European workers movement that included anarchists, Marxists, communists, etc. He went so far as to argue that, “a consistent libertarian must oppose private ownership of the means of production and wage slavery, which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer.” Libertarianism, by original definition and identity, meant left-wing. There is no way around that simple historical fact. Even Rothbard felt compelled to admit to it, even as he took pride in the right-wing’s co-opting the label — not the first nor last time this would happen (The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind).

Consider Wikipedia, which is not known for promoting radical thought, where the article on this ideology, Libertarianism, states rather bluntly that, “Libertarianism originated as a form of left-wing politics such as anti-authoritarian and anti-state socialists like anarchists,[6] especially social anarchists,[7] but more generally libertarian communists/Marxists and libertarian socialists.[8][9] Interestingly, one of the citations is the same Rothbard source. One of the other references confirms Rothbard’s admission. It is Roderick T. Long’s essay “Anarchism” (Gerald F. Gaus & Fred D’Agostino, eds.; The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy; p. 223):

“In the meantime, anarchist theories of a more communist or collectivist character had been developing as well. One important pioneer is French anarcho-communists Joseph Déjacque (1821–1864), who argued, against Proudhorn and the individualists, that what workers have a right to is not the product of their labor but, rather, the satisfaction of their needs. Déjacque appears to have been the first thinker to adopt the term “libertarian” for this position; hence “libertarianism” initially denoted a communist rather than a free-market ideology.”

Speaking of Rothbard’s piece, someone going simply as Anarcho wrote, “Nice to know that we are part of “the enemy” and the acknowledgment that our use of the term had been “long” – nearly 100 years when the laissez-faire right decided to appropriate it from its users. It is somewhat ironic, then, that amongst the first acts of the propertarians with their “absolute” property-rights was to steal their name! Ah, it may be objected, anarchists think “property is theft” so why should we complain? Well, because we believe in possession and use-rights and we were still using the term then! And we still are (the AFAQ blog marked the 150th anniversary of our use of the term back in 2008). While difficult given the funding the propertarians get from the wealthy, I do hope that anarchists and other radicals combat this appropriation of “libertarian” by people whose ideology is the exact opposite of what it traditionally means” (Mutual Aid, Parecon and the right stealing “libertarian”).

None of this is a secret, as this info is easy to find if one is looking for it. Yet few Americans, left or right, are aware of this ideological history. American libertarians, in particular, are disinformed or willfully ignorant about the origins of their professed ideology. It would appear this was an intentional strategy to undermine leftist ideologies by co-opting them and creating bastardized versions that betray their original inspiration and principles. Obfuscation is a well established tactic of the reactionary mind. The point isn’t merely to steal a powerful label from the left like counting coup in battle but ultimately to make such words meaningless so that public debate is made impossible. If libertarianism can mean authoritarianism as is inevitable with propetarianism, then the ideal of liberty can be made impotent as a threat to capitalist systems of power.

Ownership & Citizenship, Economic & Social Justice

Here is a nice analysis from a more anarchist viewpoint:

Alternative View: The Just Third Way
by Norman G. Kurland, President, Center for Economic and Social Justice

“Power exists in society whether or not particular individuals own property.  If we accept Lord Action’s insight that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” our best safeguard against the corruptibility of concentrated power is decentralized power.  If Daniel Webster is also correct that “power naturally and necessarily follows property,” then democratizing ownership is essential for democratizing power.

“In the economic world, property performs the same power-diffusion function that the ballot does in politics. It does more. It makes the ballot-holder economically independent of those who wield political power.

“Both socialism and capitalism concentrate economic power at the top. It makes little difference that under capitalism the concentration is in private hands and under socialism the concentration is in the hands of the state. Both systems are excessively materialistic in their basic principles and overall vision. Both, in their own ways, degrade the individual worker. Both bring forth economic systems that ignore and hinder the intellectual and spiritual development of every member of society.”

It reminds me somewhat of Chomsky’s thinking about anarcho-syndicalism. In that light, I would add a criticism from a Chomskyan perspective. Not all socialism is statism. I would even go as far as to say that, these days, most socialists aren’t statists. Most socialists I’ve come across tend toward either anarchism or localized social democracy.

However, it might be true that capitalism, if left unregulated by government or if it gains too much influence/power over government, will always lead to concentration. Monopoly does seem, according to the observations of history, to be the natural endpoint of capitalism… until some external force intervenes (government, labor unions, revolution, etc).

Despite that minor critcism, I see great merit in the above quoted analysis. Many earlier American thinkers realized that the concept of  property needed to be remade according to the principles of freedom (both negative freedom and positive freedom). Our present laws about property are counter-productive to and undermining of democracy and hence destructive to our society.

So, what is property anyway? Property is to own, i.e., to be invested in. I think this too often misses out on the human aspect of property. Human nature isn’t objectively neutral. To invest is to be invested in a very personal way. We all are invested in society, in the environment, in our communities, in our families, in our neighbors, in our sense of place, in our children and the future. We are invested in that which impacts us and that which we impact. This is what gets lost in the numbers.

We all are effecting one another all the time. Our actions aren’t isolated. Even what one does on one’s property effects those around one and effects future generations. What right do we have to use up resources and destroy the environment that future generations will depend upon? Those future generations have equal ownership as we do. What right do wealthy nations have to use up resources and destroy the environment of poor nations? Those poor people have equal ownership as we do.

We don’t simply own. We are owned by the world. Even our bodies are merely borrowed materials. When we die, our bodies and our property will return to the collective bio-system that we call earth.

I don’t know the answer to the perplexing issues. All that I know is that our present beliefs are false to the point of disconnecting us from reality.

Re: The Roaming Noam by R.M. Price

Come on, Mr. Price. I expect more from you. I normally respect your ability to analyze, but this is weak sauce. The problem with this essay is that it’s obvious that you know almost nothing about either anarchism or Chomsky. Your arguments here are so simplistic as to almost be entirely meaningless.

“Yet I can’t help thinking he is seeing a conspiracy where none exists. He is an anarcho-syndicalist and therefore despises any form of government (and all give plenty of reasons to do so!), and this is inevitably going to mean he is going to barrage them with criticism no matter what they do, for existing at all.”

Chomsky backs every single fucking claim with endless cited facts. That is the precise reason he is so impressive. The same reason that impresses me about you in terms of biblical criticism is what impresses me about Chomsky’s views on politics. The guy knows in vast detail what he is talking about. Chomsky never theorizes in the abstract. He is almost boring in his absolute dependence on often tediously careful explanation of facts. Chomsky’s brain is a virtual library of historical and political facts.

No, he won’t criticize the government no matter what they do. Only someone completely ignorant of Chomsky’s political views could make that statement. He isn’t an anti-statist in the way some anarchists are, especially anarchists on the right. In fact, I’ve heard anarchists on the right claim he isn’t an anarchist because he doesn’t advocate the absolute and immediate revolutionary abolishment of the state. Chomsky is a gradualist. He believes the government is necessary in our present situation. He thinks that social democracy, especially democratic processes and institutions, needs to be strengthened first. After that happens, he thinks people can begin to experiment with alternatives. The more our government can be made into a democracy then the closer we as a people can move toward implementing direct democracy. Ultimately, that is all that anarchism means: direct democracy, i.e., active civic participation of all citizens within their communities (and workers within their places of work).

“He aims his thunderbolts from an empty heaven of pure theory that is never sullied by no-win situations and lesser evils. He does not propose an alternative type of government, but merely wishes there were a vacuum, and he would try to prevent human nature from filling it, as it did in the beginning and would do again.”

It’s almost as if you are describing someone who is the complete opposite of Chomsky. It’s true that Chomsky doesn’t propose a single alternative to our present government. If he did so, he wouldn’t be an anarchist. The very core idea of anarchism (or, at least, anarchism at its best) is that there is no single solution for all people in all situations. Instead, he proposes many possible alternatives. Read more of or listen more to Chomsky and you’ll learn about some of these alternatives he has proposed. He talks, for example, about anarcho-syndicalism and worker-controlled factories which is an alternative that has been successfully implemented in different places.

Anyway, as another commenter pointed out, arguments based on ‘human nature’ tend just to be projections and rationalizations. I would, however, not dismiss all such arguments. It’s just I would only trust arguments about human nature that are based on a very detailed analysis of all available research on psychology, sociology and anthropology (such as Fukuyama’s ‘The Origins of Political Order’). Anarchists’ argument against state governments is based on the fact that humans have spent most of their evolution in conditions that didn’t involve state governments, i.e., state governments aren’t the natural environment in which human nature evolved. Just because humans can be forced to submit to state governments by destroying all other alternatives isn’t a very good argument for it being ‘human nature’.

“I found it remarkable that Chomsky admitted both that this is the freest society in the world and that it had been necessary to sacrifice that freedom temporarily to survive during WW2. Doesn’t that tell him anything? Like maybe that government isn’t necessarily so bad? And that occasional control over human behavior (which is what any government is, after all) isn’t necessary only when Hitler looms?”

You’re setting up a very strange double standard. If you perceive Chomsky as having not considered the complexity of human society, he is righteously judging from an attitude of abstract theory. And if you perceive him as admitting to the complexity of human society, he is wrong because you perceive he has hypocritically betrayed his supposedly pure theory position. Chomsky can’t win for losing.

As I said, Chomsky is a gradualist. He accepts that our present society isn’t perfect. So, he understands that imperfect solutions are required as we move toward better solutions. If someone attacks you, then sure defend yourself. But once the immediate threat is taken care of, then try to change the situation that created and/or allowed the threat to happen. The problems caused by state governments sometimes have to be taken care of by state governments, but that isn’t in anyway a justification for why state governments are supposedly a good thing and why they should continue indefinitely.

“I loved what Chomsky said about the Superbowl and other popular idiotic entertainments, how they are mere distractions to give the cows some cud to chew on instead of thinking about anything important. And yet I think Dostoyevsky rings truer: people want such bread and circuses, because they shun the burden of real thought, responsibility, and decision. There is not some secret cabal that keeps them hypnotized. No such thing is necessary (alas!).”

You didn’t present any real argument here. I suppose from an anarchist view that a society is healthier when people play sports rather than watch others play. This is similar to how anarchists think it’s better to democratically make our own decisions than to watch other people make decisions for us, better to participate in politics than watch politics as if it were a spectator sport. All societies have sports, but not all societies have spectator sports. Most societies throughout history, in fact, had participatory sports rather than spectator sports.

So, it’s not about bread and circus. The theory of bread and circus was invented by the Romans. The Romans only needed to do that because they had an oppressive military empire which required a submissive population. Societies that don’t require submissive populations also don’t require bread and circus. This isn’t an issue about people shunning burdens. If you give people freedom to make their own choices, most people are glad to make their own choices. But if you oppress and propagandize people enough (along with bread and circus), you can make them passively accept your making decisions for them. It comes down to a choice of authoritarian rule of an elite or democratic participation of all. You apparently prefer the former and Chomsky the latter. I agree with Chomsky’s preference.

“My guess is rather that the choice of news has more to do with the Family Feud model–what do the average viewers want to hear about? Surely that is the reason there is time wasted with sports “news” daily. In other words, I suspect a lot of what Chomsky attacks comes from the ground up, from the grassroots, not from the top down. And that is far more depressing.”

Your argument fails because it is based on a guess rather than on evidence. Anyone who has studied the mainstream media in any detail knows that it doesn’t operate on grassroots bottom-up model. All you have to do is compare public opinion to what is seen on mainstream media.

“Conspiracy theories are the most optimistic theories around! They centralize and simplify our problems. They are demythologized versions of the Christian belief in Satan. […} The problem is much more complex than that, and so is any possible solution. Same thing with secular conspiracy theories. They are imaginative schemes to find a scapegoat with a single face. They tend to absolve us of collective guilt and the complicity of our institutions as a whole. If you blame the Ku Klux Klan for our race problems, you are avoiding the much, much larger problems of institutional racism. (Not that the KKK deserves any mercy or even patience!)”

The problem is you haven’t even begun to understand the complexity of Chomsky’s position. You criticized him for not having a simple alternative solution and now you criticize him because you think he does have a simple answer. It’s that strange double standard again.

Chomsky doesn’t need to imagine any schemes or scapegoats. Everything he talks about is backed up with facts which is more than can be said about your arguments here. Chomsky is doing the complete opposite of trying to absolve us of collective guilt and complicity of our institutions as a whole. It’s you who have defended such institutions against Chomsky’s criticisms. As for collective guilt, you’ve proposed that society always is or should be run by a ruling elite. How can there be collective guilt if the average person is just a sheep going with the herd? Dealing with collective guilt would require individuals to take responsibility in their participation in society, a possibility that you consider impossible or undesirable.

Chomsky is the type of person who sees there is plenty of blame to go around. He would blame the KKK, institutional racism, and all the rest of society as well (including himself and everyone else). But he would make sure that any blame given is based on actual evidence of responsibility. Chomsky has absolutely no desire to blame just for the sake of seeking a scapegoat.

“You might wonder what Noam Chomsky thinks about 9/11. Surprisingly, he does not believe there is anything to the conspiracy theories. But this turns out to be the exception that proves the rule, since he suspects the Bush administration purposely fueled such conspiracy theories in order to distract the public from other nefarious actions the administration was performing! Nevertheless, the “Truther” movement seems Chomsky-esque to me.”

It would seem you are being paranoid in seeing conspiracy theories where there are none. Presidential administrations that use conflict to distract the public, you don’t say!?! Surprise, surprise. That isn’t exactly a conspiracy. I think it’s what is called commonsense. Politicians like to distract and manipulate people with rhetoric and emotional persuasion. Why does this common everyday political behavior seem like a conspiracy theory to you?

Chomsky-esque, huh? WTF! You’d first have to know what Chomsky stands for before you could make intelligent claims about what is ‘Chomsky-esque’.

“And it reveals the peculiar perversity of hate-America conspiracy theories. This is one of those rare instances where we do have an actual sinister conspiracy: Al Qaida”

Well, I’d say that your comment reveals the peculiar perversity of love-America ignorance. This demonstrates how simple your political understanding is compared to Chomsky. Chomsky knows more about Al Qaida and the history behind it than you will ever know in your entire life.

“I was interested to hear from Chomsky, in answer to a simple question, that he gets his information about what is really going on in the world, not from the sold-out propaganda mills of the American news media, but rather from newspapers in other countries—which, presumably, are as objective as the day is long. Somehow, though working within societies that are anything but free, whose newspapers are not just de facto but de jure propaganda arms of the controlling juntas, these papers and broadcasts tell the unvarnished truth.”

Now that is just plain beyond stupid. I’ve nearly lost all respect for you at this point. Maybe you should stick to biblical criticism, Lovecraft and comic books.

You really just don’t get it.

Chomsky reads a little bit of everything. He checks out the mainstream media and the alternative media, US media and foreign media. He obsesses over the diversity of journalism in a way that verges on obsessive-compulsive behavior. The reason he reads so much from so many diverse sources is because no single source or single country can be trusted to present the whole truth. That is the fucking point. If you only read US newspapers, you are no better than the French person who only reads French newspapers. It is true, as I understand it, that Chomsky ignores tv reporting because it is so mindlessly superficial and usually empty of information. He prefers reading newspapers and other sources of articles that present more detailed and factual views.

Also, he doesn’t just read all of this. He cuts out the important articles and he files them. He does this every single day and has been doing it for decades, endless files of categorized facts. This is why the guy is able to back up his arguments with so many facts.

“It reminds me of the college freshman who learns just enough anthropology to become convinced of Cultural Relativism, which he construes to mean: everybody is right except for the United States. “My country, wrong or wrong.””

My God, you didn’t actually just compare Chomsky to a college freshman. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Anyway, Chomsky has never *NEVER* claimed that America is always wrong. That is why I appreciate and respect Chomsky. He doesn’t make black/white arguments based on empty speculation and simplistic analysis.

“Don’t get me wrong: I am far from trying to pretend everything is right with America, especially with her government and her policies. Far from it! I am by now pretty cynical. But nobody (e.g., Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan) is going to get me to believe that theocratic, nuke-toting Iran is harmless and that America ought to be spelled with a “k.””

That is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Chomsky doesn’t argue that Iran is harmless any more than he argues America is always wrong. Did you actually listen to Chomsky or did you just make up all this bullshit after smoking a bunch of pot?

You are free to have your own opinion. However, as I’m fond of saying, you aren’t free to have your own facts. If you’re going to criticize someone like Chomsky who has been writing detailed analyses for decades, you should at least try to understand his basic position before dismissing him.

Chomsky: Anarchism, Socialism, Libertarianism

Noam Chomsky

Libertarian socialism

Who’s Afraid of Noam Chomsky?

Noam Chomsky, Libertarian Socialist

Libertarians Against Capitalism

The Real Threat: Dialogue between the Left and Right

Transcript of Noam Chomsky on Ron Paul

Chomsky on libertarianism and Murray Rothbard

Edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel