Libertarian Utopias I: Being a New Liberal, Research Time, 27/02/2015

This week, I’ve talked a lot about Marxism because it’s been in the news. And I’ve talked a little bit about how I originally thought Marxist politics would play a fairly large role in the arguments of the Utopias project. But over the last year, I’ve realized that Marxism isn’t going to be a major subject of that book because it’s no longer the most influential utopian social movement of my generation. That would be libertarianism.

When I talk about the influence of a social movement and its philosophy, I’m literally talking about practical influence, the power of those ideas and of the people who believe in them to shape the world. Marxism was definitely the political ideology and philosophy that played the single most profound role in shaping the politics of the early and middle 20th century. But the world we live in now has overcome those Marxist politics.

Our dreams strain against the ropes of bureaucracy.
Often, this new philosophy is called neoliberalism. That’s the shorthand that the people who oppose it use. I do like the term itself as a word, but it’s too frequently used as a shorthand for any form of capitalism that the speaker dislikes. This isn’t so in the more thoughtful political and philosophical discussions of the idea, but how it emerges in its populist form, from the man in the message board, so to speak.

Instead, I’ve taken to using the term new liberal when I talk about Friedrich Hayek’s work on the blog lately, because it doesn’t provoke the same fiery response as neoliberalism. They refer to the same thing, but when I want my reader to consider the philosophy objectively, as a concept and not a headline, I’ll call it new liberal political philosophy.

See, left-leaning internet bubbles tend to think of Hayek and the other progenitors of neoliberal and libertarian thought (I’m thinking of Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, and the insufferable Ayn Rand) as little more than devils. But they were people with their own lives and perspectives just as legitimate as the rest of us. Even if we remain opposed to many of their ideas (and we really should), we should still read their works and understand their philosophies if we want to develop a genuine alternative.

Because, when I read Hayek, I agree with a lot of his basic ideas. Nowhere in Road to Serfdom (at least so far) does Hayek describe a just world as anything like our current global society of massively powerful oligarchs, beyond-anemic state social services, and a population barely hanging on to stability in the face of wars over natural resource control, ecological disasters, and a finance industry that profits from the collapse of thousands of people’s economic stability.

Instead, he talks about the freedom to make personal and employment contracts without state economic planning authorities telling you that you are to work only in a particular industry or live only in a particular kind of housing establishment. Now, I’ll take Hayek at his word when he says that the notion of totally planning every aspect of a country’s economy and nationalizing all its industries, even in a democracy, was mainstream in Europe and much of the Americas. At least it was in the 1930s and 40s.

It was probably the global conflict of the Western democracies with the Soviet Union that seriously doomed this political idea, since by the 1950s, the CIA was helping overthrow world leaders (like Iran’s Mohammad Mossadeq) who nationalized major industries. Nationalization of industry stank too much of Soviet communism, and I’m not sure whether the popular explosion of Hayek’s ideas through Road to Serfdom was a cause, a condition, or a boost to this political trend away from the totally planned economy. Probably all three.

Having every aspect of your personal material economic existence controlled by a state bureaucracy (along with its attendant security and police functions) is a vision of society that should be fought to preserve individual liberty. Some of the greatest works of political fiction in the 20th century were written dramatizing this conflict and its immense stakes: Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Terry Gilliam.

But somewhere between the liberal idealism of Road to Serfdom and the end of Hayek’s life (and especially the full descent into oligarchy that Western politics kicked into high gear in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan), the defence of individual liberty against the bureaucratic power of the state became a political and economic program that fought all kinds of collective action and self-consciousness, even vilifying the value of community itself.

The bulwarks of ordinary people against the immense corporate power of oligarchic private ownership of a society’s wealth were shattered in the name of defending the freedom of the individual to live his life according to his own choices. Where did it go wrong? To be continued . . . 

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