Saturday, January 08, 2005

Barrier to left/liberty alliance: Semantics

Given the increasingly troublesome nature of what is known as the right wing of the political spectrum, many libertarians have recently pondered the idea of opening up to the left. A recent example of this is Anthony Gregory's column on titled Libertarianism and the Left. For the most part, I'd agree that the left seems like a more appropriate target for potential outreach and alliance. Lefties are generally anti-war and are more concerned about civil liberties then most who are on the flip side of the statist coin.

A major roadblock to such outreach is the realm of semantics. The primary example that comes to mind concerns the issue of "free trade" and "free markets". There was a post on the Portland Indymedia website the other day that provided a critique of libertarianism. The critique itself laments the fact that many libertarians fail to acknowledge "the tyranny of the corporation", but what caught my attention was one of the comments below. Someone named StevetheGreen wrote the following:
While coalition building is an essential part of any winning strategy, I can not in good faith align myself with people who refuse to "recognize the tyranny of the corporation."

Today's Liberatarian believes in the magic of the "free market" to solve all ills!
As if giving corporations more power and holding them less accountable is something we should be working towards!

If the Libs want to work with Greens on the legalization of industrial hemp or implementing IRV, let's do it! Beyond that, their refusal to address the world in a viable realistic way makes their approach one that I not only can not support, but detest.

While many libertarians are quick to dismiss such criticism by correctly stating that such people are lacking in economic literacy, something needs to be done aside from just telling people to go read some Mises or Rothbard. There needs to be an attempt to forge dialogue that is sensitive to the language used by different groups. What people like StevetheGreen refer to as "free trade" is not what most libertarians would call "free trade". Simply clearing up the confusion here can go a long way toward possibly turning someone of a left orientation on to libertarian ideas. Providing links while engaging in online discussion will certainly help as well, such as this one which explains how free trade is the genuine form of fair trade (fair trade being a popular buzzword in leftie circles these days).

Regarding corporations, there is no doubt that the perception of the left is not very accurate since many libertarians do rail against the very state privledges that allow corporations to do many of the things that lefties object to. There are some libertarians who will always defend any corporation simply because they view critics as being anti-capitalists who wish to regulate the market to death. A far better approach would be to explain what the root of the problem is (government privledge and intervention) and apply it to the criticisms that lefties may have. Simply saying that "corporations don't worry me" or "what's wrong with corporations?" is only going to fuel the misperception amongst the left that we're nothing but shills for corporatism who only depart from the likes of George Bush on issues like war and drug policy. There are a number of writings out there on the interweb that we could point lefties toward to help break the various misperceptions. Here are just a few:
James Ostrowski's Same As It Ever Was: Libertarians Battle The Corporate State
bk Marcus's Straw Men and Ham Sandwiches
Anthony Gregory's Corporate State Socialism
Roy Childs's Big Business and the Rise of Statism (there are some libertarians who should read this one as well, since some of them buy into the conventional nonsense about government regulations being the enemy of big business)

While the typical claim that lefties need to learn more about economics is true, I place more blame for the current semantic problem on the right wing. No matter how removed their actual policies are from promoting free enterprise, conservatives continue to use free market rhetoric. This seems to serve two functions: it dupes conservative minded people into supporting Republicans who use such rhetoric, and it serves to villify the notion of free enterprise amongst the left. This is why people like StevetheGreen consider libertarians to be corporate shills who don't deserve respect. This is why columns appearing on sites like Common Dreams lash out at any call for market-based reforms or increased free trade. Caroline Arnold had a column published on there earlier this week called "Bush Should Take Heed, FDR Had It Right" that equates Bush's economic agenda with notions of economic freedom. She provides a definition of economic freedom from the Fraser Institute that equates it with "personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete, and protection of the person and property". How in the world could anyone with an accurate grasp of Bush's agenda equate it with such a definition?

The fact that the modern right uses such rhetorical deception of an Orwellian nature is yet another reason why libertarians need to look leftward if they want the message of liberty to blossom in the future. The right needs to be condemned for their rhetorical blasphemy along with their rejection of limited government by latching on to Bush's militaristic and nationalistic brand of corporate socialism. The swastika is a symbol that used to have a universally positive meaning, rooted in spirituality and found in many different cultures. The Nazis latched on to this symbol and tarnished it. As far as I'm concerned, those who falsely equate corporate socialism with "free markets" are tarnishing that term in a similar manner. For those of us who advocate genuine free enterprise, we need to recognize this and do something about it.

There are others out there who have recognized this semantic roadblock between libertarians and the left. BK Marcus blogged on this issue last month, while Cat Farmer wrote a piece awhile back where she addresses this issue in relation to a book written by Arundhati Roy. Farmer seemed to notice that Roy's conception of "democracy" is different than the one that libertarians often criticize, and that it seemed somewhat compatible with free markets. This makes me think that the rhetorical confusion may exist on both sides and that certain leftie ideas like "participatory democracy" may be at least compatible with our vision of voluntary free enterprise, as long as this form of democracy isn't forcibly rammed down all of our throats. I think it could co-exist with other forms of organization in a genuinely free market, which Cat Farmer eloquently defines as:
The "free market" (as I define it) is the ebb and flow of transactions that occur peacefully between people who have choices, and voices. It does not mean freedom for monstrous people-eating corporations to prey freely on a captive workforce; it means freedom for people to interact without coercion.

Now there's a definition that could make lefties reconsider free market ideas.

Cat Farmer also quoted George Orwell in her column. He once stated that "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". While statists of every variety do this on a regular basis, the continued perversion of free market language by right wing statists is particularly troublesome, and will also serve as a barrier between libertarians and the left.


Blogger Isis said...

Thanks for this post, which is on the money. I am one of the economically illiterate lefties you discuss in the post, and I am very intrigued by your points about semantics, the manipulation of language by the right, and the possibilities of dialogue between lefties and libertarians, once what is being discussed is cleared up. Say more.

10:24 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

Thanks for the response.

That post was the result of the culmination of frustration that has brewing within me for some time now. I'll definitely elaborate on this and related subjects in the future while I juggle my hectic schedule with work and school to take care of.

In the meantime, I've been collecting links to essays of a libertarian bent that would be of interest to open-minded lefties that I will soon add to the margin of my blog, alongside the site links and blogroll. Some of the links I provided in this past post are only a small sampling of the links I've collected over the past few months.

By the way, I used to be a leftie myself (I voted for Nader in '00).

10:49 PM  
Blogger MDM said...

I appreciate your post and I'm very glad to see discussion of the possibility of dialogue between libertarians and the left. I'm a former Chomsky/Znet style leftie who "converted" to libertarianism in the last year or so. But my libertarinism is still of the very left-leaning variety. For those anti-authoritarians on the left who are interested in libertarian ideas, I'd strongly recommend Roderick Long's work. It's had an enormous impact on my thinking about these issues and it takes very seriously the traditional concerns of the left.

I recently "came out" as a libertarian to some leftie friends I hadn't seen for a while (some of whom became lefties under my influence) and they were horrified. The immediate response was "Did you vote for Bush?!!" I can't say I convinced them in the short time we talked, but I was able to make a few points. 1) Libertarians are not insane, selfish pigs who hate community. 2) The libertarian analysis of the ruling class is sophisticated and radical. 3) "progessive" statist policies are often harmful to those the left is concerned about. 4) It's problematic to use legal force to ban capitalist acts between consenting adults.

There is hope.

10:39 AM  
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