Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Curse of Political Dogmatism

"The world is far too lovely a place to walk through it along a party line." -Bill Kauffman

As someone who is active as both a libertarian and a radical leftist, I have encountered my fair share of political dogmatists. Rather than honestly engaging their ideological opponents, they seem steadfastly convinced that the opposing party is either morally repugnant, intellectually vacuous, or both. To many of my comrades on the left, libertarians are selfish sociopaths and anyone ever influenced by Ayn Rand has zero moral credibility. This is not to say my libertarian allies are necessarily more tolerant. A common sentiment, especially among voluntaryists and anarcho-capitalists, is that anyone who supports any sort of statism is supporting the initiation of force, and is therefore not merely wrong but evil.

Such petty partisanship risks dooming our movements to the epistemic closure which plagues the mainstream American right. Seemingly immune to facts, right wingers pontificate about the evils of liberalism, progressivism, Marxism, and socialism. The truth or falsehood of statements comes second to whether those statements fit a particular conservative orthodoxy, an orthodoxy confirmed through the echo chambers of talk radio and FOX News, while contrary information is seen as mere propaganda either from the "radical left" or the "liberal media."

But even if we don't sink to such intellectual lows, leftists and libertarians both rob themselves of key insights if they refuse to look outside their inner circles.

What do leftists stand to lose if we demonize libertarians and "the right"? Well, anti-war activists find many allies among paleoconservatives, particularly Ron Paul, who popularized the concept of "blowback" in his 2008 presidential campaign. More paleoconservative anti-war commentary may be found in The American Conservative magazine. When we wish to discuss police militarization and the disgusting, often racist violence of the drug war, we would be foolish to ignore the work of Radley Balko. The fact that he began his research on police misconduct at the Cato Institute and continues it at Reason Magazine, both libertarian outfits funded by Koch Industries, does not detract from his insights one iota. Any opponent of corporate power would be well served by reading Timothy Carney, a free market libertarian who primarily writes about government collusion with big business. Even those who are clearly our opponents can provide useful material. For instance, Ayn Rand was in many respects my antithesis, as she loved big business, defended misogyny and homophobia, supported imperialism, and denigrated anarchists, leftists, and libertarians. But her notion of the anti-concept, a cognitive package deal which conflates distinct ideas under one definition to obscure thought, is incredibly useful to understanding political language, even if you disagree with the examples she gives. Likewise, her critique of "states' rights" is excellent for addressing the theocratic tendencies of paleoconservatives, and I can't count how often I have quoted her defenses of individual rights and rational ethics when I debate homophobes. Some leftists may never expose themselves to the quality libertarian, Objectivist, and conservative writings I just referenced. Instead, they'll buy into straw men, perceiving libertarians and conservatives as merely bigots, selfish curmudgeons, and apologists for the status quo.  And they'll have fewer allies and fewer strong arguments as a result.

Libertarians would lose just as immensely if they refused the intellectual output of the left. It's no accident that Lew Rockwell, easily one of the leaders of the libertarian movement, has referred to Howard Zinn, a known socialist, as among his favorite historians. Zinn's skepticism of war and the state exudes from every essay and book he has written. Like radical libertarians, he has some choice words for the war crimes of historical sacred cows such as FDR and Abraham Lincoln. Left wing activists like Jeremy Scahill, Cindy Sheehan, Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Wolf, and Amy Goodman have popularity in some libertarian circles for this same style of principled opposition to the growing national security state. But even leftist writing which libertarians may find harder to stomach often contains points that are quite useful for expanding liberty. Noam Chomsky's attacks on free market economics primarily consist of pointing out the prevalence of protectionism and corporate welfare under capitalism, and can thus be valuable reading for those who wish to genuinely free markets. Similarly, despite its smears against free market economists, Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" describes some very real cases of authoritarian corporatism masquerading as free market privatization. Furthermore, Klein's documentary "The Take" shows worker cooperatives that are far more libertarian than capitalist firms ever have been.  Tim Wise may be often condescending and hostile towards libertarians, but his writings on racial privilege can help us counter the inequities that result from a history of enslavement and state assaults on people of color. And don't let Marxism automatically turn you off. The influence of Marx makes Rosa Luxemburg's case for free speech no less powerful, it makes Angela Davis's critique of the prison system no less valid, and it makes Paulo Freire's arguments for critical pedagogy no less eloquent.

Why does it matter that we pursue the truth without regard for these ideological boundaries? Because, to quote Freire, "apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other."


  1. I definitely agree.

    I should note that it also helps to read these people's arguments against your own belief's and values. The people who only partially agree with us often provide the best criticism.

    I don't get e-mails when you reply to my comments, which is annoying. I'll try to see if you respond anyway though.

  2. Your point about the importance of disagreement is very important. One of the main points in JS Mill's argument for free speech is that it offers the opportunity of exchanging error for truth by exposure to dissenting opinions, and that these dissenting opinions have value even if false for making truth more stark by its collision with error. And I would agree that criticisms are much better from someone with whom you partially agree. For instance, a post I just read by Chris George (A libertarian anarchist author I usually agree with) on his gripes with anti-racist rhetoric has caused me to think about changing my rhetoric in a way the same article by a right winger would not.

  3. Agreed.

    Who is Chris George? Link?

  4. Just a market anarchist who writes at Libertarian Minds.