Understanding Shallow Libertarianism



When the moderator of a recent event held by the Socialists Students at the University of Cincinnati opened the floor for discussion, a libertarian in the audience was the first to raise a comment from the crowd. Though the evening’s main presentation focused on problems of war, exploitation and austerity, recent eruptions of radical activism and what political formations and openings for exist inside and outside bourgeois electoral politics, the man took aim at philosophical concepts of socialism itself. His points were made in an attempt to draw out contradictions, logical fallacies, and philosophical bankruptcy from socialists and deserve a response. Even if these comments were shallow and evoked laughter from the audience, we should put the commenter’s political and historical naivety aside and be prepared to answer to claims such as these. The statements, which were directed more at the rest of the event’s audience than its speakers in the front of the room, meant to draw the attention to apparent drawbacks of socialist ideas and towards right-libertarianism, and had three main points:

First, he referred to the work of Jerry Cohen, a late philosopher and socialist. Cohen, the man claimed, said that in a socialist society, an “eye lottery” would subject the citizens to randomly give up an eye in case another member of that society was lacking sight.

Second, he warned the students in the room that in a socialist society, the government (or some ruling body—I can’t remember the specific organ) would decide what they would study and what work they would do, resulting in the summary dismantling of any freedom we might enjoy today.

After a response from the speaker, the man’s third claim was that those in the room misunderstood the system we live under. He insisted that he too had reservations about the economy we live under, but that we misidentified this system and socialism wasn’t the correct alternative. He called the broken system “crony capitalism,” under which a small group of wealthy people have managed to gain political power and control of the state and it’s tools, especially the IRS, and were able to direct great pools of money and resources away from where individual citizens might spend it given fuller control over their wealth and profits. A “pure” stateless capitalism would be much superior, he insisted, and in these pure conditions state functions, such as welfare and laws about a minimum wage, would take the form of charitable donations.

These points display both a lack of understanding of  what constitutes socialism and a questionably analysis of the capitalist system both as it exists today and as it functions theoretically. They also come straight from the Mises Institute, which is a right-wing think tank advocating libertarian capitalism. A cursory search of Google for “G.A. Cohen eye lottery” returns a 1998 review of Cohen from the Institute itself and countless blogs that reference this review. Read the piece if you wish, but I wish less to engage with this review than to pivot to the nature of the night’s discussion and what can be drawn from the points made and pose some suggestions for responses for comrades.

Cohen and The Marxist Method

The comment about the “eye lottery” was preceded by a question about whether we know who Cohen is. I’m not sure if this intended to make the speaker or others in the audience appear to have inadequate knowledge of socialism, but if this is the case he himself failed to give an accurate description of Cohen’s scenario. Furthermore, the expectation that young Marxists know Cohen is questionable.

Though Cohen was a force within late 20th century academia, his work is perhaps less familiar to those who are new to socialist organizing. Additionally, Cohen is part of a school of marxist called Analytical Marxism which, though not insignificant, is largely academic and definitely outside of the mainstream. Cohen and his colleagues reject some ideas typically seen as fundamental to Marxism such as Hegel’s dialectic (a topic far too complex to get into here) in favor of (especially in Cohen’s case) formal logic which is not common to Marxist works in history, economics or sociology. (I would also like to say that my own entry into Cohen was his work as an entertainer and impressionist.) The outsider nature of Cohen is especially true of the referenced piece—Cohen wasn’t writing for us in describing the “eye lottery.” Indeed, his importance to libertarians comes largely from his direct engagement with the emerging classical liberal philosophy in the 1980’s and 1990’s and, I think, a way of demonstrating his points in a raising of hypothetical scenarios that is similar to methods of liberal philosophy.

What wasn’t offered by the libertarian audience member was the full scope of Cohen’s proposal: of the three scenarios Cohen puts forward for an “eye lottery”, the most fully fleshed out is that of a reality in which the government controls an “eye bank” and each citizen is born blind but given two proto-eyes at birth which develop with the individual. Were another citizen to lose their sight, a lottery would be held so that a random citizen is forced to give her eye to the blind comrade. This description by Cohen is entirely hypothetical and is not an attempt to describe a socialist society, but rather to make a point that our visceral rejection of this scheme lies in the right to bodily integrity and not the conception of “self-ownership” that is so central to libertarian thought.

An earlier conception of the “eye lottery” is a jumping off point for Cohen to adopt, tentatively, a form of self-ownership in which he shows that property rights generally do not flow from the self-ownership principle. Breaking this connection, he goes on to disconnect the ownership of internal (bodily) and external (what we might call personal and private) property—conditions libertarians do not separate out. Libertarians would typically not differentiate between the two types of ownership (and as I imagine the audience member wouldn’t). The final example, that of a slim majority of the population gaining sight randomly is left up to the libertarians to resolve, not the Marxists. Cohen’s point is completely missed by the audience member who read Cohen to describing an actually possible socialist future.

Though there are definite differences, none of this is to say that Cohen’s work is unwelcome in Marxism. His methods are, broadly, quite similar—using examples to draw out broader conclusions—but, in contrast to much of the Marxist tradition, Cohen attempts to appeal directly to the libertarian right in making his argument.

We can learn much from contrasting Cohen’s hypothetical scenario with the explication of the capitalist mode of production that Marx undertakes in his treatise on political economy, Capital. Published in 1867, Capital is a critique of bourgeois economics and an analysis of material conditions that were arising in the 18th century under industrial capitalism. Taking aim at the assumptions of bourgeois economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx set out to describe the inner dynamisms of the capitalist mode of production and to demonstrate the historical specificity of its economic laws. Capitalism, according to Marx, is not natural or inevitable, but rooted in historical development and the outcomes of the class struggle. It is a system that we can not only understand, but through the revolutionary actions of the proletariat, someday overcome.

Throughout Capital, Marx proceeds by way of abstraction, in which he simplifies the complexities of reality to focus on what is most essential to the system; for example, he zooms in from a panorama of the entire economy with all workers producing all kinds of commodities to case of the single worker making a single coat from a small quantity of linen. Unlike Cohen’s scenarios, Marx’s work describes our own world.

A similar, more contemporary, example is the work of Jodi Dean in trying to describe a novel communicative capital and digital labor. Like Marx’s abstractions, Dean does not engage with libertarians in the way that Cohen did directly, but draws on points from political movements, economic developments like the internet and where those places intersect. Her hypotheticals, especially in the recent Crowds and Party, are more counterfactuals, and meant to be testable in the reality we live in.

Put concretely, Cohen’s engagement with the philosophy of libertarianism differs from the broader Marxist thought in areas like history and economics in that scholarship in those areas are attempts to describe material conditions and offer a tentative scientific understanding of the mechanisms at work, where Cohen’s speaks more to the validity of the foundation of the Marxist method. He has other writings on how Marxists do history and economics that don’t engage directly with libertarian thought. But in this case Cohen’s work is meant to evoke questions about methods and philosophies and to challenge libertarians to show how self-ownership in the libertarian sense wouldn’t place property rights above freedom—not to model an actual alternative vision of society itself.

Marx’s insistence that the point is not simply to understand the world, but to change it is, again, lacking in the libertarian’s arguments. The invocation of Cohen at a talk mostly on the recent history of social movements displays this gap in understanding that I think is demonstrated by the commenter’s second point which addressed self-ownership more directly. Cohen does have a lot to say about economic determinism in the historical process, but that work was left unmentioned.

Self-Ownership and Charity

Libertarians root a subject’s right to complete control over her own body and an uninhibited freedom to engage in self interested activities above all else (usually provided this does not infringe on the expression of another’s rights)—what they call “self-ownership” and “liberty.” They locate the right to property (landed property being a common example) in the natural right to own of one’s self and one’s talents, having finder’s rights. Furthermore, they say that work put into property, for example, grants the owner rights over improvements, the produced goods and any ensuing property down the chain. In this sense, since advantages of talent and timing would prevent level access and abilities, equality and liberty cannot coexist, though extreme inequality may be limited by the charitable activity of the rich, but must not be coerced.

In Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, which contains the “eye lottery,” he evades a complete rejection of self-ownership, instead advocating autonomy as a replacement of much of what the self-ownership principle entails. In some ways, as marxists and materialists conducting an analysis of such a scheme, we may be inclined to reject self-ownership outright. For marxists, the obvious jumping off point to challenge these ideas is the reliance on property relations to determine rights, both in the positive and negative sense.

Our rejection of property rights stems from the power it gives owners over others, especially bosses and workers, and the tendency for this power to be voluntary only for the boss. The necessity for a worker to take whatever work she can find severely limits her freedom in a capitalist society, where private ownership of means of production entails the operation of these means by people who are not its owners. Furthermore ownership over one’s body might have eminently disturbing results in terms of the question of slavery. Marxist notions of property are wide ranging but typically refer to means of production, and humans are themselves brought into this relation as workers selling their labor power, not their bodies directly.

Contrary to libertarians, we do should not see equality and freedom to be opposed to one another. The clearest example of freedom that the audience member cited was the ability for students to choose their own majors and their own careers. Such freedoms would not exist, according to him, in a drab, uniform, socialist society. This is correct, I think, insofar as a number of professions would be simply removed altogether: marketing professions, entrepreneurs, police officers, and a countless number of occupations involved in buying and selling of commodities for profit; all replaced by socially useful careers that may be unimaginable to us today. Then again, even today we have a limited offering of available majors and requisite career paths at any given college, the ones deemed “profitable” being more and more important.

But the commenter went further, saying that instead the choice would be made for the students by an a force outside their control. Putting aside the fact that this is, more or less, what the end result of libertarians tyranny of the talented would likely amount to, where the range of jobs would be determined by what owners of capital need, it’s also an extremely cynical and naive conception of socialism, and further communism. While marxists have been reticent to put on paper descriptions the future socialist society, Marx himself dreamed of a world where “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all,” a world people would not be bound by their starting point, especially as proletarians in a capitalist society (where most would start out, even if a handful could claw their way into a higher rank). Instead, we would be able to attain a greater level of personal fulfillment and dignity in their lives both public and private once the constraints of being forced to engage in commodity production and living-making are loosened.

Marxists actually advocate a much more liberal (using the libertarian definition, that is the freedom of an individual to proceed unimpeded in her plans) conception of one’s life work. In particular, we state that, by a process of eliminating various unnecessary labor, automating as much as possible, sharing these gains in productivity among the whole of society, and promoting various kinds of mutual aid and community structures, that people would be much more free to pursue those things they actually want to do. For students, this means that, rather than pursuing a degree for the sole purpose of buying their way into a more comfortable life (a guarantee that is more and more fleeting), they would be able to study something interesting and meaningful. We might all share in the work of the more mundane tasks, but the freetime might also mean swaths of individuals obsessed developing new labor saving technology for everyone. Capitalism does this by virtue of it’s constant revolutionizing of the means of production, but it shares the gains only to the owners of those means and those that may afford newly and better produced things.

Thus, this aspect of libertarian self-ownership pales in comparison to the freedom that would be guaranteed, in units quantifiable in spans of time and full bellies and the like, to an individual under communism. But, like Cohen, we should question the libertarian definition of self ownership for other reasons as well. For one, the principle turns us into property, that, even though we may own, still subjects us to vulgar economic relations we already face as workers forced to sell our labor. This becomes especially grotesque in our relationships with the people we are closest to, which instead of being predicated on shared beliefs (unless the belief is self-ownership), hobbies, love, friendship, work partnerships, sexual attraction, or agape, is reduced to an economic relation. Cohen speaks to parent-child relationships in particular, and he and other critics highlight how a right to liberty (absence of compelling force by others) and self-ownership (controlling oneself) reduces the relationship to an economic one.

Furthermore, this conception makes broad assumptions about the way that the individual has turned her natural talents into something that she can effectively exploit for personal gain. Countless others—such as her family, neighborhood, school, and more—bequeathed knowledge, helped train, feed and clothe her before she could even understand what a contract was. The development of the individual is a social endeavour in the same way that the complicated system of commodity production is a social endeavour. As Marx demonstrates at the end of Chapter 1 of Capital, in the famous section on Commodity Fetishism, what appears to be a relationship between things under capitalism is really a relationship between people. Just as the capitalist wouldn’t be able to produce without his workers, the child would not be able to grow without her parents and mentors.

The charity caveat may cover parts of this, but in the speaker’s example, the charity is completely voluntary, contrariwise to the actual functioning of any society which, without resorting to frou-frou cliches about villages, requires input from countless individuals just to reproduce the next generation of people to run that society.

Posing an alternative to the societal guarantees of welfare, libertarians today point to the apparent abundance of charity on the part of Individuals like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but don’t pursue the actual nature of these actions. Both capitalists, among the most “philanthropic” in history, make it very clear that they are doing this not simply because it is the right thing, but because they are making a long-term wager that their charitable works will result in later profits and bolster their positions at the top rungs of society.

A few recent examples demonstrate the absurdity: Zuckerberg recently named a hotel after himself in San Francisco, a city severely impacted by the inequality and ensuing crises of rent and public health wrought by Silicon Valley. For years, Elizabeth Holmes sold Theranos’s minimally invasive blood testing as being in the public interest, that they were equipping people with knowledge that had previously been exponentially more time consuming and expensive to get. This project, back by billions of dollars in investments, was exposed as a fraud, though it hasn’t stopped Holmes from appearing on conference circuits. Perhaps more preposterous is the dispensing of charitable money to corporations themselves, such as the Gates Foundation’s recent payouts to Mastercard and others to foster “economic inclusion”, as opposed to helping food banks or giving to the needy directly. Zuckerberg’s obsession has been expanding internet access, which he has indicated will lead to more Facebook users and revenue for his organization.

The State, Capitalism and Alternatives

The naive conception of socialism as a large state taxing individuals, controlling parts of the financial system via regulatory bodies like the Federal Reserve, and directly or indirectly commanding citizens to conduct themselves a certain way presents a great roadblock to the notion of self-ownership. Even though most socialists wouldn’t identify this system of a regulated capitalism as socialism, Libertarians make an incredible leap from the inhibition of any given expression of self-interested activity to a form of slavery. Thus “socialism” is state-sanctioned slavery, perhaps most notably articulated in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It is also in Hayek that we get the most popular equation of Naziism with the USSR, which is now less generously broadened to socialism generally by the Austrian school.

In Hayek’s descriptions, totalitarianism flows out of government bodies who meddle in the economy and inhibit or take part in competition, warning that an excessive welfare state like those advocated by the Labour party and later implemented in other parts of Europe was a slippery slope (or road), though he didn’t go so far as to dismiss such programs outright as many of those inspired by him in the various classical and neo-liberal camps would in the second half of the 20th century. Likewise, for Hayek this unbalanced competition would lead to a small cabal running all of society’s institutions: the government, the press, schools, churches, businesses, regulatory boards and the like for their own benefit as opposed to that of the individual members, customers or owners of these institutions.This is also somewhat similar to the audience member’s description of “crony capitalism.”

Libertarians advocate an extreme form of Hayek’s thesis, seeking to abolish the state in favor of market relations as the sole arbiter of the economic conditions. It’s very important to bracket economic conditions off by themselves in this formulation because of the insistence by libertarians that their economic conservatism would not infringe on their social liberalism. And the embrace of the term “liberalism” by libertarians is a nod to both the “liberal”-free markets, and their liberal beliefs regarding issues such as gay rights, drug laws and racial bias. The “pure capitalism” advocated under by the speaker would remove state interference and, they claim, unleash the full innovative potential of free exchange in the marketplace.

There are two issues here. First, the speaker demonstrates an ignorance of the history of capitalist development and the system’s relationship with, and necessary reliance on, the state. The modern state arose with capitalism, as its protector and executor of its bidding. The British state was among the first to constitute itself as distinct from Europe’s absolute monarchies of the 15th and 16th centuries. Various small manufactories and the growth of cities supplanted feudal relations and helped lead to conflicts like the English Civil War as a direct challenge the power of the kings and landlords. The new system that was emerging sought to replace the traditional relations with a conflicting system to manage property relations, and introduced new kinds of property into the economy. Even when the king was restored, his power was severely diminished both legally and informally as the main benefactor of the economy. The base had begun to transform from feudal to capitalist relations, and the capitalist state enforced this new arrangement.

Looking at America, the emergent capitalist state apparatus was crucial in the settling and managing of the colonies. And after America formally constituted itself with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the state engaged in various activities as Europeans began to creep westward, treating, battling and removing Indians from the land they were keeping from being properly improved. From the beginning of the 19th century some of the most rugged capitalists relied on state intervention to protect land and resource claims, promote rail expansion and, significantly, to battle the growing workers movement against terrible conditions in the fields, cattle drives and factories. Likewise, the system of American slavery itself was an outgrowth of capital’s need for cheap, highly exploitative labor, and was codified in the law. Since these early developments, the state has ossified and changed with capitalism, each granting reforms only when their entangled power is challenged. Contrary to liberal views, Marxists do not separate the economy and society and make no such claims of being fiscally this and socially that.

Likewise, we compare welfare states with socialism primarily to explain why Hayek’s followers were wrong to call nations like Sweden socialist. Even Chile of the early 1970’s, which was ruled by a communist party (who won elections to gain power) had not advanced from capitalism. Indeed, like Venezuela today, the power of the owners of capital to use their power to grind the country to a halt was on full display in the crisis that was exploited by General Pinochet and supported by the United state government (and notably Hayek supporter Milton Friedman). When factory owners shut down their plants and shipping industries stalled their trucks in opposition to apparent meddling by regulators and state competition, the socialist government itself could do very little since the society was still dominated by the rule of capital Capital led the way in the September 11th coup that would result in President Allende’s death and the disappearing of tens of thousands of others.

Today’s crisis in Venezuela has similar roots, and shortages of certain food and personal items can be directly traced to owners closing their factories, fully willing to lose profits in order to see the so-called socialist government fall allowing a greater freedom to exploit their workers. Heroically, Chavez and his successor Maduro have stood up to the capitalists, trying to introduce a system of public ownership over the closed factories. But these factories would still need to compete with the firms of the avowed capitalists. And this all says nothing to the degree that Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, and others smaller countries were at first integrated into the global economy, but then had sanctions imposed when they began to make simple demands of the self-determination and dignity. Finally, these countries must exist in a world of global finance, where the decentering of capital and its mobility have made it difficult for even the more advanced capitalist states to adequately control the system.

The Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, have not faced this level of political instability, but have also enjoyed a much greater degree of wealth predicated on oil discovery and a steady flow of necessary resources into the country from abroad, often at the cost of the economic conditions of the exporting nations of the global south, the result of globalization as much as the legacy of colonialism.

Though not identical, these capitalisms all constitute “pure capitalism” because capitalism requires a state to function properly, to defend the claims of the owning class, and effectively manage the divisive relationship between workers and bosses. The condition of “crony capitalism” in our case is the result of hundreds of years of capitalist development and implicit in the contradictions of the system itself. And among the tendencies that can be observed is the consolidation of capital as a results of competitive process into smaller and smaller hands. More money in capitalist society means more power, and that capitalists would develop a system that included a state to bolster their legitimacy isn’t foreign to capitalism, but central to it.  It’s telling that some of the largest coercive institutions of the modern era are private mercenary and security firms like Xe and G4S.

But if these countries aren’t socialist, what is? As Leninists and Trotskyists, we typically put forward a positive description of socialism that rests on a basic litmus test: Do the workers collectively determine the amount of work they do and how what they produce is distributed (do they own the means of production)? Is society run by the workers themselves (through a combination of direct democracy and councils representing certain by constituencies)? Is commodity production conducted primarily to fulfill needs as opposed to produce profit? If the answer to any of those question is no, few on the left would call such a system socialism.

Only by abolishing private ownership of the means of production and building a new system based on workers’ control,, we claim, can the internal contradictions of capitalism be overcome and can production be directed to the benefit of all rather than the profits of the few. Our analysis, beginning with Marx, has demonstrated how various disruptions, crises and wars have occurred because of the unaddressed issues of the capitalist system. We especially highlight the drive to increase profits above all else, the necessity of endless growth, private management of capital, exploitation of the working class for more value than they produce as central issues.

Our contention is that an economy that removes competition, greed and undirected growth that all lead overproduction (and the requisite unprofitability of such conditions) is the only one that can deliver on a promise of general freedom and liberty. The earlier notion of production being a social endeavor is important here, as capitalism has relied on the exploitation of the majority of people in the society it dominates in order to reproduce itself day after day. The majority are responsible for these social conditions, and we believe the majority should exercise collective control over our shared destinies. In this sense, socialism is the reversal of the current condition of the few subjugating the masses and, just like under capitalism (crony, pure, corporate and any other form), the state is wielded as a tool to enforce these new relations. When such a force is no longer necessary, then the class system fades away, and so does the state. This is what we call communism.

This discussion has largely ignored democracy until now, but I’ll end by noting that it is democracy that makes the difference when mediating forces to guarantee an optimal degree of liberty and equality. A democratic society derives its morals from collective decision making, as opposed to a libertarian one that relies on claims of “natural” rights. In this democratic society, interactions between individuals become interactions among a group, contracts are supplanted by a constant, shifting discussion and, importantly, voting (which will mean there will be people who lose the vote) to decide how we want to collectively run society. We have never lived in such a system. And it is the system we are fighting for.