Exodus and Counter-Economics, Part 3.2: From Class Theory to Hegemony


Bellum omnium contra omnes

In many models of the body politic, a threefold division of ‘domains’ often suggested as a means of parsing out the distinctive way that power operates in accordance with the different functions that mark post-Enlightenment society. These are, of course, the public sector (the apparatuses and agencies of government), the private sector (business), and civil society (the portions of society outside the public and private sector, consisting of organizations, associations, churches, unions, so on and so forth). In liberalism’s managerial discourse the social itself is approached in a manner akin to a ‘three-legged stool’, where each leg is one of these divisions; for liberals, equal strength in each form a sound and stable structure.

The process of stabilization pursued by the agents of power must push back constantly at a foaming sea of conflicts that rip through each of these domains. Tension is constant: we can tensions between elements in the public sector (examples ranging from the clash of political parties to the competition between agencies for funding), tensions between elements in the private sector (the ruthless competition between capitalists within and outside their given industries), and tensions between elements in civil society. The tensions, more often than not, cut across all through: we see alignments and alliances form between certain elements in the public and private sectors (such as Domhoff’s classic schema of different capitalist interests propping up different divisions within the state). Similarly, we see alignments and alliances between elements in the public sector and civil society (a Koch brother at the Cato Institute or a Soros at the Center for American Progress, for examples) and alliances between civil society and the public sector (the close-knit relationship between, say, a religious organization or a labor union between one party or another). Quite often even those mutual tensions will cut deeper across another still.

In other words, we’re left with a complex picture in which the public and private sectors and civil society descend into a battlefield of competing interests. This messes with the Rothbardian image of the state, which positions that state, encompassing both formal governance and special interests on one side, and free capitalism on the other. If we take the unfolding of relations to be operating in such a way and extrapolate Rothbard’s treatment, then the entity of the “state” encompasses a multitude of vectors, frequently with elements that are operating in contradiction to one another. Thus Rothbard’s state comes to merely mirror that of Marx: a plateau on which tension-wrecked relationships play themselves out. The durability of a Rothbardian analysis needs to equip itself with the real complexity that comes quickly into focus when analyzing the dynamics of power.

A more interesting thing to do would be to look at what promotes stability within what at first glance appears as a Hobbesian war of all against all. How does stability insert itself, despite the cascading factionless tearing through the corridors of power? More importantly, how does such a fragmented system maintain, despite its embattled nature, its basic form, and maintain the veneer of legitimacy over “truths” such as the sanctity of the state’s territorial claim, the ontological doctrine of capitalism, and the legal frameworks of private property rights? In other words, if the state is the tableau on which these relations play out, how does this tableau not simply disintegrate? To answer this, we can turn to the theory of hegemony, as posed by the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci.


The term “hegemony” was commonly understood as the domination of one group by another – most specifically, the colonial domination of one state or region by an external power. Through Gramsci’s analysis, however, that common understanding shifted to the one with which we are more familiar with today: the pervasive and often imperceptible way in which consent is organized. The power of hegemony, writes Rebecca Fisher,

results from the ability to limit or repress the imagination of the possible or even conceivable, thereby facilitating the implementation of policies and systems which may otherwise be deeply unpopular, and the incorporation, recuperation, and neutralisation of forms of politics which might otherwise have remained fundamentally oppositional… collective internalisation of the ‘truth’ of the ‘democratic’ nature of capitalism and its destiny to engender the best possible life for all, can limit [anti-capitalist] struggles, and heavily circumscribe their political intent, when they do emerge. (Fisher, Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Organisation of Consent, pgs. 4-5)

This articulation of “hegemony” first appeared in Gramsci’s so-called Prison Notebooks, written during an imprisonment by fascist forces in the 1920s. From his cell he looked out across the Atlantic, to America, where radical transformations were taking place inside the walls of the factory. During the 1910s Fordism had become the defining characteristic of production. The younger cousin of Taylorist ‘scientific management’, Fordism relied on a stark division of labor between intrusive shop-floor managers and radically de-skilled workers, whose labor was no longer one of interaction within general purpose tools ala craft production; it was now specialized tools to be wielded in a site-specific context – the context, of course, being a fixed point on the assembly line. Under Fordism production expanded rapidly, necessitating wider transformations in society itself: higher wages, advertising, certain regimes dedicated to the management of sexuality, indulgences and leisure by way of moralizing, psychoanalysis, so on and so forth.

On one hand, Fordism appears a new form of control and domination by the capitalist class. On the other hand, it aims to ‘manipulate and rationalize’ society itself (Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, pg. 561). Fordism engenders a whole new approach to the world, seeking to collapse together the orientation of civil society with that of the dominant class, and by way of this veritable world-building secure consent for their activities.

Fordism is but one example of hegemony in action. The relations that produce hegemony are organic – for example, “Industrial technicians and managers are ‘organically’ bound to capitalist entrepreneurs.” (Peter Ives, Language and Hegemony in Gramsci, pg. 76) By want of the way production is organized in a certain stage of development, the existence of industrial technicians, managers, technocrats, whatever, is unavoidable. These figures in turn play the role of intellectuals, not in the sense they are bookish and inclined to philosophy, but because “they all organize ideas and present ways of understanding the world that are adopted by others.” Hegemony, thus, can take on the character of a sort of ‘common sense’, even if it is malleable, plastic, and the result of certain relations of power.

In Gramsci’s extrapolation, hegemony is what links the state and civil society through the web of tensions. Like Rothbard, Gramsci’s notion of the state extends past the mere structures of government itself – yet the theory is precisely the opposite of the libertarian, who as recounted earlier located the state in the junction of the state and certain private interests. The Gramscian state is the overlapping unity of two spheres: civil society and political society. We can relegate Rothbard’s understanding of the state to the Gramscian notion of political society, and in doing so open up “libertarian class theory” to a wider set of concerns and functions.

It is also clear that hegemonic shifts occur periodically, following in the wake of economic restructuring and with an implicit shifting of intellectual attitudes towards the system itself. The sort of managerial class that formed in the core of industrial production, for example, found its external compliment in the greater drive to manage society, particularly under the guise of “progressivism”. The so-called ‘New Class’ of progressive technocrats took on many forms, ranging from Thorstein Veblen’s “soviet of engineers” to President Herbert Hoover’s own emphasis on engineering to various intertwined social crusades that occurred throughout early 1900s, such as the “social hygiene”, “efficiency” and Taylorist movements. In the wake of World War 2, the archetype of the engineer morphed into that of the technician and was complimented by the social scientist and the policy scientist. During the Kennedy administration these aspects came together to fully shape the contours of domestic and international governing structures; everything from welfare programs to budgetary planning to the Vietnam War itself came dressed in the language of “systems analysis”, developed in the halls of the RAND Corporation and other think-tanks. (For an exploration of this turn in managerialism, S.M. Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism and Paul Edward’s The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America are both excellent and complimentary reads)

The hegemonic function engineer, the technician, the social scientist, and the policy scientist all underwent a transformation as the ‘developed world’ moved from the mass production paradigm to one of post-industrialization and (partial) de-industrialization. Daniel Bell, himself one of the most esteemed social scientists of the 1950s and 60s, was among the first to identify the changing identity of the New Class by looking towards the way that technological changes in the field of occupations led a transformation in the field of education. Writing as the radically left-wing students movements exploded across not only the United States but the world, Bell suggested that the university itself would come to take the position formerly occupied by the factory as the center of social relations. Taking their cue from theorists like Bell, later thinkers and actors operating in the Autonomist tradition would turn their focus to the university the same way that they had earlier approached the factory (see, for example, Gerald Raunig’s Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity).

Hegemony and the Cycles of Struggle

The Autonomist’s presentation of the “cycle of struggles” fits quite snuggly into the Gramscian theory of hegemony, and can provide a good perspective on how hegemony is reconfigured as sweeping transformations in the productive sectors (and by extension, the social) take place from time to time. In their analysis, the workerists and Autonomists began to dissect the nuances of worker’s struggles. When organizing into a collectivity, the autonomous workers carry out a composition of class that was capable of challenging capitalism’s organizations of production and labor. Capitalism, in turn, must re-act by carrying out a process of decomposition: since it requires labor, the system “cannot entirely destroy its antagonist” and so it must put into play new organizational forms, new technologies, and new techniques that disrupt the possibilities of this composition. At the same time, these new organizations, technologies, and techniques open up new ‘possibility spaces’ for struggle, leading the worker’s movement to undergo recomposition and thus restart the process. This movement of composition to decomposition to recomposition and back again is the cycle of worker’s struggles – an ever-shifting borderland of autonomy and control.

A brilliant example of this is that stage of capitalist development already identified by Gramsci as embodying a certain hegemonic formation – Fordism. Prior to Fordism was the era of what the Autonomists referred to as the “professional worker”, that is, the era of craftsmen who generally controlled their means of production (even though this reality was shrinking away). In the United States the radical nature of the professional worker’s struggle through institutions like the Knights of Labor and later the Industrial Workers of the World led to a close relationship between labor unions and the Socialist Party, with the purpose of this unity being “built around the concept of the worker’s management of industrial production.” (Nick Dyer-Witherford Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism, pg. 147) Fordism, with its partial automation and the enclosing of the worker’s agency by a rote process overseen by Taylorist-style technocrats, amounted to a profound blockage to the organized strength of that particular class composition.

The “Early Fordist” decomposition, of course, led directly to a recomposition – that of the “mass worker”, capable of disrupting the mass production process and organizing in large-scale unions such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). This new composition revealed its power with events like the Flint, Michigan sit-down strikes of 1936-1937 – but the resultant forces of restructuring ushered in the “Late Fordist” hegemon, exemplified by the New Deal “class compact” between labor and management. This is the form that would persist until the crises of the late 60s and the polymorphous forms of revolt and insurrection they engendered, themselves setting the stage for the global restructuring under the neoliberal paradigm.

Processes similar to the cycle of struggles can be traced through ideological lens that blur the division between the state and the university. Take “modernization theory”, that framework for global development that appeared in the 1950s and 60s as the mirror-image of the preoccupations of Late Fordism. Modernization theory posed that if one was to set into motion certain variables in a given society, that society would experience a ‘take-off’ resulting in an evolution towards a Westernized affluent society. Developed by the technocratic social and political scientists in the halls of the universities and think-tanks linked to the Cold War establishment, modernization theory became the justification for neo-colonialism spanning the globe, from interventions in Latin and South America and the military excursions in Southeast Asia.

As the New Left pushed back against the Cold War establishment in the 1960s and 70s, modernization theory came under fire from radicals in the universities. Inspired by elements in Marxism and anti-colonial struggles, this assault came under the guise of “dependency theory”, which itself can be divided into two strands:

The first is the American-Marxist tradition developed by Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and André Gunder Frank, with important ramifications in the works of Theotônio Dos Santos, Marini, Anibal Quijano, and Bambirra. The second dependency tradition is the Latin American structuralist school that builds on the work of Raúl Prebisch, Celso Furtado, and Anibal Pinto at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC,or CEPAL), and also on Marxist historian ssuch as Sergio Bagú and Caio Prado Júnior; this structuralist approach is best represented by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, Maria da Conceição Tavares, José Serra,J. M. Cardoso de Mello, Osvaldo Sunkel, and Francisco Oliveira. One should note that the American-Marxist and Latin-American-structuralist dichotomy does not mean that only American Marxists contributed to the former because, as it is clear, Latin Americans did as well, or that only Latin American structuralists contributed to the latter because Marxists also participated. (Matias Vernegro “Technology, Finance, and Dependency Theory: Latin American Radical Political Economy in Retrospect”)

Unpacking the differences between each strand is beyond our focus here, but it is important to note that each set emphasized the “core” and “periphery” relationship in the world system, highlighting in tow the way that the developed world systematically exploits the underdeveloped world. This exploitation can be traced out in movements of elements in this system: technology and capitalist developmental paradigms flow from the developed world to the underdeveloped, for example, while capital (or in the more Marxian register, surplus value) flows back to developed world. Under colonial, neo-colonial, and modernization-based practices and discourses, the core and periphery relationship becomes a permanently uneven playing field; if development occurs, it is simply ‘the development of underdevelopment’.

Nicholas Guilhot has demonstrated how dependency theory, during the great period of global restructuring that was the 1970s, came to be recuperated by former adherents to modernization theory. A picture-perfect example of this capture was the Ford Foundation administrator who insisted that by funding and working with scholars who are “socialist in their political orientation”, Washington bureaucrats might be able to “diagnose what went wrong with reforms grounded in the liberal worldview, a perspective that by definition avoids recognition of power and conflict and is thus unable to explain its failure.” (Quoted in Guilhot The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order, pg. 126) The result was the study of ‘democratic transitions’ and a corollary ‘democratic peace theory’, which unlike modernization theory, opened up a way towards political and economic intervention that appeared as egalitarian and humanitarian.

For scholars like William Robinson, this transition from modernization to democracy marks a shift in how control operates on the transnational stage. Just as how Gramsci’s theory of hegemony emphasized how linkages would be formed between actors in different positions of power to provide a ‘concrete’ model for consent, Robinson has suggested that the foreign policy of “democracy promotion” is, in fact, the promotion of “polyarchy” – the fostering of elite rule by way of democratic mechanisms in the targeted country. Linkages between these domestic elites and those on the international stage would, in turn, produce a harmonious set of relations equitable to the expansion of capital. To quote Robinson:

In the past, the US state promoted authoritarianism as the political system judged most appropriate for the free operation of international capital, and in this way functioned as what sociologists James Petras and Morris Morley refer to as the “imperial state”, promoting and protecting the expansion of capital across state boundaries by the multi-national corporate community. Under globalization the “imperial state” still plays the same role of promoting and protecting the activity of transnational capital, but globalizing pressures have inverted the positive correlation between the investment climate and authoritarianism. Now, a country’s investment climate is positively related to the maintenance of a “democratic” order, and the “imperial state” promotes polyarchy in place of authoritarianism. But this shift required a corresponding reconceptualization of the principle target in intervened countries, from political to civil society, as the site of social control. (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, pg. 68)

Exodus and Counter-Economics, Part 3.1: Libertarian Class Theory


The Roots of Libertarian Class Theory

“The theory of class conflict as a key to political history did not begin with Karl Marx,” wrote Rothbard in “James Mill and Libertarian Class Analysis”. “It began… with two leading French libertarians inspired by J.B. Say, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, in the 1810s after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.” How was it that Comte and Dunoyer, the former a journalist and the latter an economist, came to hold the title of originator of class conflict?

Both Comte and Dunoyer were radicals of their time and place. Le Censur, the journal they founded together in 1814, was an organ of pro-liberal, anti-Bourbon and anti-Bonaparist rabble-rousing. The influence of this time of uprising and turmoil, the era of revolutions, is the foundation upon which their class theory is built. Like the dialectical opposition between the bourgeoisie and proletariat offered by Marx (who indeed took turns praising – and criticizing – both Comte and Dunoyer), there are two classes locked into political struggle:

  • The rulers, the group that has seized state power
  • The ruled, the group subordinated by the rulers, “taxed and regulated by those in command”

It’s easy to see how this would dovetail precisely the sort of political line that Rothbard held for the majority of his life: that the state was a vehicle of domination that did little than oppress others. At the same time, it allowed him to create a juxtaposition: on one side, the class struggle, and on others, the free market. In Comte and Dunoyer, “class interest… is defined in relation to the state” – itself a foreshadow of Marxist conceptions of the state that present it as a battleground for class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Drawing on J.B. Say, Comte and Dunoyer, by contrast, pose an opposition between the ‘natural state’ of relations between producers (encompassing both employers and workers), and the “conflict between interest [that emerges] between producers and non-producers, including those members of the producing class when they choose to exploite government-granted privilege.” (Ralph Raico Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, pgs. 192-193)

Thus for Rothbard, the elimination of the state would entail the obliteration of class conflict – precisely the reverse of the Marxist (in particular the Marxist-Lenisit) suggestion that the elimination of class conflict would entail the “withering away of the state”.

Another vital piece of Rothbard’s class theory was pulled from the writings of political economist and sociologist Franz Oppenheimer. Despite being a self-described “liberal socialist” (that is, a free market anti-capitalist, in today’s parlance), Oppenheimer’s writings bestowed a large influence not only on Rothbard, but two of the major Old Right luminaries discussed in the last post: Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov. Key was his book The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically (published in German in 1908, but not translated until 1922), which was a resounding rejection of the “social contract” theories of the state; the state, Oppenheimer countered to Rousseau and his fellow thinkers, was founded in the first instance by one group defeating and subordinating another. In this respect, Oppenheimer’s theory hews closer to that of Comte and Dunoyer.

Oppenheimer drew a contradistinction between two different forms of obtaining wealth: on one hand, we have the “economic means”, which is achieved by way production and trade, and on the other the “political means”, which entails coercive action and the “forcible appropriation of the labor of others.” (Oppenheimer, The State, pg. 24) If the state has a distinct form, it is “an organization of the[se] political means. No state, therefore, can come into being until the economic means has created a definite number of objects for the satisfaction of needs, which objects may be taken or appropriated by warlike robbery.” (Oppenheimer, The State, pg. 27)

Taken together, a unified picture emerges: the state as a parasitic entity, founded upon violence, and shaped by its sole intention of appropriating the wealth generated by the relationship between owners and workers. Thus for libertarians like Rothbard, the state and capitalist were forces fundamentally opposed to one another. This would also entail a shifting of focus on what the state is structurally (i.e., the juridical order upon which it is founded) to what it does systematically, a move that effectively broadens the definition of the state beyond what most people would define it as. To quote Chris Sciabarra,

In his class theory, Rothbard operates with an expansive concept of the state. The state is not merely the governmental apparatuses and its fulltime bureaucracy. It is also constituted by the groups that have gained privilege through state action. The excluded groups constitute the ruled. The state provides legal, legitimized, systematic channels for the violent appropriation of the ruled to the benefit of a parasitic class. (Sciabarra Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, pg. 270)

Radical Libertarian Class Theory

Across the 1950s and 1960s, the intertwined sociological study of the relations between the economic and political elite and the “revisionist” school of American history emerged in syncopation with the burgeoning New Left. In 1956, C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite, a powerful exploration of the way that the top layer of American society, consisting of the corporate, political, and military elite, was not only detached from the everyday conditions of the rest of society, but in fact served as the actual basis of power in the country. As he wrote in the opening of the work,

As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women… Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy. (C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite pg. 4)

Amongst the historical revisionists we can count William Appleman Williams, who identified the rise of what he dubbed “corporate liberalism” – an approach to the population by those who power that saw individuals not only as passive actors, but groups who could be steered towards certain ends. A similar mode of analysis was offered by Gabriel Kolko; as was touched on in the previous post, Kolko had identified the Progressive Era not as some period of egalitarian reformism, but a period in which corporations utilized reformism as a means to protect their monopoly status from the threat of competition. This had ushered in, Kolko argued, a regime of what he called “political capitalism”, which would be exemplified by structures like Woodrow Wilson’s merger of state and economic power during World War I (as identified by Williams as the exemplar of his corporate liberalism) and the later New Deal. In the specific instance of the World War I, relations between classes had to be harmonized and variables eliminated so planning for production could continue as smoothly as possible, but this was also the more general condition of a society steered by industrialized mass production:

Political capitalism is the utilization of political outlets to attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security—to attain rationaIization –in the economy. Stability is the elimination of internecine competition and erratic fluctuations in the economy. Predictability is the ability, on the basis of politically stabilized and secured means, to plan future economic action on the basis of fairly calculable expectations. By security I mean protection from the political attacks latent in any formally democratic political structure… not that all of these objectives were attained by World War I, but that important and significant legislative steps in these directions were taken, and that these steps include most of the distinctive legislative measures of what has commonly been called the Progressive Period. (Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, pg. 3; emphasis in original)

The approaches of Mills, Williams, and Kolko were synthesized by G. William Domhoff, who posed the study of elites as not a cohesive group, but as a disparate class with factions who regularly compete with one another. This competition, in turn, could be traced through the way that philanthropic foundations, think-tanks, academia, inter-governmental commissions and non-governmental organizations operate with regards to the population and towards one another. One key conflict identified by Domhoff, for example was between international-minded capitalists, more traditionally aligned with finance interests, and economic nationalists, who generally came from manufacturing (keep in mind that this was prior to the era of globalization). Cohesive political legislation often emerged, in this pre-global era, when one sided one out against the other and concessions had to be made.

During his overtures towards the New Left, Rothbard readily adopted these various theories and integrated them into his libertarian class theory, which he in turn propagated throughout the pages of Left and Right. Often it became impossible to differentiate from the words written by Rothbard and, say, the neo-Marxist analyses offered by people like Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in the pages of Monthly Review  – or indeed, in the journals of the original Italian Autonomists. Consider the following words, for example, used to describe the Fordist era:

[It was] a new order marked by strong government, and extensive and pervasive government intervention and planning, for the purpose of providing a network of subsidies and monopolistic privileges to business, and especially to large business, interests. In particular, the economy could be cartelized under the aegis of government, with prices raised and production fixed and restricted, in the classic pattern of monopoly; and military and other government contracts could be channeled into the hands of favored corporate producers. Labor, which had been becoming increasingly rambunctious, could be tamed and bridled into the service of this new, state monopoly-capitalist order, through the device of promoting a suitably cooperative trade unionism, and by bringing the willing union leaders into the planning system as junior partners. (Murray Rothbard and Ronald Radosh New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State, pgs. 66-67)

and again:

For their part, the liberal intellectuals acquired not only prestige and a modicum of power in the new order, they also achieved the satisfaction of believing that this new system of government intervention was able to transcend the weaknesses and the social conflicts that they saw in the two major alternatives: laissez-faire capitalism or proletarian, Marxian socialism. The intellectuals saw the new order as bringing harmony and cooperation to all classes on behalf of the general welfare, under the aegis of big government. In the liberal view, the new order provided a middle way, a “vital center” for the nation, as contrasted to the divisive “extremes” of left and right. (Rothbard and Radosh New History of Leviathan, pg. 68)

Rothbard would carry these ideas with him as he drifted towards the right (unsurprising, given his tussles with the Koch brothers), and by the 80s and 90s attacked economic globalization on the same grounds as the paleoconservatives and Buchananites he was now acquainted with, finger ‘left-leaning’ institutions such as the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. SEK3 would note this by observing that “only rightist kooks and commies talk about ruling classes and class structures” – an observation that seems all too pertinent when we consider that with a decade there would be an unspoken – and very unfortunate – alliance between the far-left and the far-right when it came to the issue of globalization. But as Wally Conger later retorted,

Konkin was neither a rightist kook nor a commie. But his theory of ruling classes and class structures remains today a brilliant libertarian alternative to tired Marxist theories of class struggle. And that theory may serve as the foundation upon which to build a strong, revitalized libertarian movement.

It’s hard to say how much Konkin’s class theory truly deviated or enhanced Rothbard’s own bricolage of classical liberalism, Oppenheimer’s state theory, and the “elite theory” and historical revisionism of the New Left intellectuals. Nonetheless, libertarian class theory forms the center of SEK3’s agorist revolutionary practice by striking a distinctive parallel with leftist critiques of cooptation and recuperation: if the state is an organ of institutionalized violence and appropriation, how, then, could libertarians seek to utilize the state to their own ends? If philanthropic foundations, think-tanks and commissions were the functionaries of this order, how could libertarians receive funding from them, or enter into strategic alliances, while maintaining an ostensibly revolutionary position?

Next post, libertarian class theory will be compared with theories of hegemony and the Autonomist concept of the “cycle of struggles” to adapt and augment certain drawbacks of Rothbard’s problematic juxtaposition of capitalism and the state.

Exodus and Counter-Economics, Part 2: The Rise and Fall of the Left-Right Alliance


The Proto-Libertarian Networks

SEK3’s agorist philosophy emerges from the left-libertarian tendency that has snaked through the conventional history of American libertarianism, often just outside of view. American libertarianism, of course, brings to mind instantly the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, John Stossel, Reason Magazine, the Cato Institute – that tangled network of big business apologists and their corporate backers. From this perspective, the notion of a “left-libertarianism” might seem to be a contradictory, or even possible one – especially when one considers that many people affiliated with ‘right-libertarian’ (and its leaner and meaner cousin, anarcho-capitalism) have cycled through the left-libertarian camp.

In his own history of left-libertarianism, SEK3 traces it back to four figures and the institutions with which they intertwined. The first of these individuals was Albert Jay Nock, the noted anti-war activist, Georgist, and editor of The Freeman between 1920 and 1924. A “philosophical anarchist”, Nock would become a staunch critic of the New Deal in the 1930s and a figurehead in the Old Right coalition. He also was the mentor to the second figure, Frank Chodorov; like Nock, Chodorov was a Georgist, and an anti-war and anti-New Deal Old Right icon. Also like Nock, he became the editor of a magazine called The Freeman, though this second one was not a direct descendent of the first. Chodorov’s The Freeman became the fertile soil from which a proto-libertarianism had begun to emerge, one that was tentatively linked to the Old Right coalition but increasingly seen as separate. In 1953 Chodorov launched the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), an education and outright organization. William F. Buckley Jr., who within two years would launch the infamous conservative journal National Review, was tapped as ISI’s first president. If the line running from Nock to Chodorov would be the thread linking the Old Right to American libertarianism, it was Buckley who would be the thread running outward to the New Right.

The third figure is Murray Rothbard, who at the time these networks were being developed was an economics student at Columbia University. Across the 1940s he was closely aligned with the proto-libertarians, blending their leanings towards ‘philosophical anarchism’, their anti-war perspectives and general anti-government rhetoric with the Austrian School approach to economics. Existing only on the fringe margins of academia, Rothbard attracted the attention of the William Volker Fund (which was subsidizing the ISI and the Foundation for Economic Education, a New York-based educational organization that employed Ludwig von Mises and published Chodorov’s The Freeman); the organization would become one of his primary benefactors until its controversy-induced collapse in 1964. During this time period Rothbard would develop his own close-knit intellectual community, dubbed the “Cercle Bastiat”, the name a reference to the French economist and classical liberal Claude-Frédéric Bastiat.

The fourth and final figure in SEK3’s pantheon is Robert Lefebvre, a businessman and early proponent of what the more contemporary understanding of American libertarianism. Like Rothbard, he embraced the Austrian School’s economic doctrines, and like Nock he considered himself something of an anarchist. Anarchism, however, did not fully sit well with Lefebvre, as he felt that there was a tension between anarchism and Austrian-inspired individualism. His synthesis of the two became known as “autarchism”, Greek for “belief in self-rule”. In 1957 he established the Freedom School in Colorado to help propagate autarchism; in 1963, this would be followed with the Rampart Institute.

Towards the Left

The turn from the Old Right to the New Right came with the arrival on the political stage of Barry Goldwater. Like the Old Right, Goldwater espoused an anti-New Deal platform, but unlike his predecessors he supported an interventionist politics aimed at rolling back the influence of communism worldwide. This hardline stance on the Soviet system of government and communism as a philosophical system attracted post-Old Left proto-libertarians like William Buckley, who in 1960 organized a youth-oriented grassroots movements for Goldwater – the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The creation of the organization would be a watershed moment in American political history, as evidenced by the organization’s famed 1962 Madison Square Gardens rally that has become subsequently known as the “birthplace of the conservative movement.”

Others were less inclined to follow the drive towards the New Right. Notably, Rothbard himself was amongst these ranks, and he subsequently began drifting towards the burgeoning New Left Movement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in particular. SDS has its origin in the youth-wing of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), a notable Old Left institution closely intertwined with the big labor bureaucracies that had come to domination the New Deal coalition (in this case, the AFL-CIO, an alliance that would lay much of the foundation for modern neoconservativism, as I have laid out elsewhere). In 1960 the SDS broke from the LID and repudiated the Old Left as whole. The bureaucracy of organized labor itself came under fire, with SDSers drawing heavily on the ‘revisionist histories’ presented by C. Wright Mills and Gabriel Kolko, both of whom had presented sociological and historical analyses of how class power operated in the United States. Kolko was of particular interest to the SDS: his 1963 book The Triumph of Conservatism, for example, provided a detailed tracing of the way corporate moderates had shaped the allegedly left-leaning social policies of the “Progressive Era”. Rothbard began to assimilate these works into his own projects, giving rise to the “libertarian class analysis” that I’ll cover shortly. Much of this new trajectory was fleshed out in Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian thought, launched in 1965 with the explicit intent of bringing together the anti-New Right libertarians with the New Left.

Joining Rothbard in launching Left and Right was Karl Hess, who at the outset of the 1960s been a rising star in the New Right, a firm believer in the integration of Old Right concerns with anti-communist militarism. He had even become Goldwater’s chief speechwriter, but an encounter with the writings of the SDS sent him down a different path, as he would later recount in a 1976 interview:

I’m still holding out for the same old values I always supported. The only difference is that I’ve changed my mind about the identity of the good guys and the bad guys. The New Left now seems to me to be espousing the causes that the Old Right once stood up for: individual responsibility and self-determination.

Hess would join the SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World, and later in the 1960s could be found associating with far-left icons like Murray Bookchin, one of the earliest proponents of ecological anarchism, the Black Panthers, and those associated with the Whole Earth Catalog.

Hess was not the only figure to circulate between Goldwater-style republicanism and the New Left. In the early part of the 1960s, students at Robert Lefebvre’s Freedom School had founded a journal called The Innovator with one Kerry Thornley serving as editor; Thornley, later known for his travels on the wilder-and-woollier end of the countercultural spectrum, pushed for a libertarian-New Left alliances. Recruiting took place within the Goldwater camp and the YAF, leading to an internal left-wing inside the New Right. There was movement between the subaltern movement and the libertarian tendency that was forming in the New Left across the 1960s, but the two paths would ultimately cross at the dawn of the 1970s when the YAF carried out a membership purge. This, in turn, had been precipated by an encounter with the “Anarchist Caucus” (AC) in 1969, which had resulted in a physical altercation between the leftists who sided with the AC and the rights who attacked them.

The AC itself had emerged from the Radical Libertarian Alliance (RLA), an organization set-up by Rothbard and Hess with the goal of bringing together the left-libertarians with the New Left. As John L. Kelly recounts, the RLA arrived on the scene just in time to observe the breakdown of the SDS:

RLA members from New York and Virginia attended the June 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago, hoping to attract allies from the left. Unfortunately, they arrived just when the SDS was imploding into fratricidal combat between its Revolutionary Youth Movement and the Progressive Labor Party elements. In the chaos of that climactic the RLA did, however, manage to attract several SDS chapters, including [the] Lysander Spooner SDS chapter. These groups joined with dissident Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapters to form an Anarchist Caucus. (Kelly, Bringing the Market Back In, pgs. 99-100)

Janet Biehl’s biography of Murray Bookchin paints the anarchist as front and center to the formation of the caucus, writing that as the Revolutionary Youth Movement and the Progressive Labor Party traded blows and fought for control of the SDS, “Bookchin had found enough sympathizers, alienated by posturing, to form an anarchist caucus. About 250 met in the old IWW hall nearby and voted to endorse ‘The Radical Decentralist Project’ as their program.” (Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe, pg. 124)

As the 60s faded into the 1970s, attempts to organize a revolutionary force from these myriad of interwoven strands abounded. In February of 1970, Lefebvre’s Rampart Institute hosted the California Libertarian Alliance conference, organized by former members of the YAF who had been purged and aimed at networking together the left and right. Amongst the attendees was SEK3, who at this point enters into the story as someone who took up the cumbersome task of trying to organize a left-libertarian – or, more explicitly, a left-Rothbardian – alliance.

Up through the 1980s SEK3 produced a slew of interrelated organizations, all furnished with similar names and acronyms. These included the New Libertarian Alliance (NLA), founded in 1974 as an underground society committed to spreading the use of agorism, and the Movement of the Libertarian Left in 1978. This latter organization was, as Kevin Carson describes, “as an above-ground counterpart to the NLA.” Through both groups and through a slew of journals, the theory of agorism and SEK3’s Rothbard-inspired “radical libertarian class analysis” trickled through the libertarian sphere. In 1974, the Libertarian Party, led by Edward H. Crane, had conducted a purge of its left-libertarian “radical caucus”; many of these individuals, in turn, became the foundation of the left-libertarian network.

Not all affiliated with the broader libertarian movement were impressed, much less Rothbard himself. SEK3’s style of left-libertarian resolutely rejected interacting with the levers of state power, while Rothbard was firmly committed to furthering the goals of the libertarian movement through electoral politics. In his response to SEK3’s New Libertarian Manifesto, Rothbard slashed out at his colleague-turned-opponent:

It is good to have the New Libertarian Manifesto in more or less systematic form for assessment and criticism.  Until now, the Konkinian vision has only been expressed in scattered pot-shots at his opponents, often me…  In this particular case, Konkin is trying to cope with the challenge I laid down years ago to the anti-party libertarians: O.K., what is your strategy for the victory of liberty?  I believe Konkin’s agorism to be a total failure, but at least he has tried, which is to his credit, and puts him in a class ahead of his anti-party confreres, who usually fall back on fasting, prayer, or each one finding ways to become a better and more peaceful person, none of which even begins to answer the problem of State power, and what to do about it.

Back to the Right

The networks established by SEK3’s network have persisted right into the modern era. Carson writes that

In 1999, Konkin founded the LeftLibertarian yahoogroup, the venue through which I first came into contact with him, his ideas, and his wide circle of friends. I had several years of stiulating discussion there that influenced my development to no end. In 2007, three years after Konkin’s death, the list imploded over a political dispute between J. Neil Schulman and just about everybody else, and most of the important figures in Konkin’s circle migrated to the Left-Libertarian2 group. Konkin’s old yahoogroup is pretty much an empty shell, although Neil Schulman and Kent Hastings stayed with it (and the archives are well worth digging into). Because of a similar dispute with Neil over the rights to the name “Movement of the Libertarian Left”, several members of LeftLibertarian2 collaborated to form a successor organization, the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. Again, just about all the leading figures in the old MLL migrated to the ALL and left the old body as an empty shell owned by Schulman…. Just by looking at the links on the Alliance of the Libertarian Left site, or clicking the movement’s associated blog ring, the Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left, you can find a wide range of sites hosted by Konkin’s old fightin’ comrades from the St. Louis days, more recent disciples of left-Rothbardianism and Counter-economics, and some even newer left-wing friends like me, who–despite never having considered ourselves followers of Rothbard or Konkin–have been strongly influenced by their thought.

While always a minor tendency in the wider libertarian movement, the detailed history of this strand has remained largely unknown, even after the term “libertarian” became once again everyday language in the wake of the Tea Party. In a time when libertarian pundits pointed fingers at people with ties to former 60s radicals as some sort of way to discredit opponents, the idea that a movement emerging from the Old Right moved in the same waters of the Old Left seems incomprehensible. It has been in the Libertarian Party’s best interest to relegate these parts of its heritage to the dustbins of history.

One might note that Crane’s purge of the radical caucus corresponds, in time, roughly to the rise of neoliberalism as a figure binding together the New Right. Crane’s goal was to ‘legitimize’ the Libertarian Party, to craft it into a potent political force for his own ambitions. When these fail through, Crane turned to some very familiar figures and landed himself a position as the Cato Institute’s first president:

After the Libertarian Party candidate was predictably crushed in his 1976 presidential quest, Crane, who had been instrumental in the campaign, was ready to go back to the private sector. Instead, Charles [Koch], whom he’d met during the campaign, took him aside and asked him what it would take to keep him in the libertarian movement. “I said my bank account is empty,” Crane later recalled. “He said ‘how much do you need?’” “A libertarian think-tank might be nice,” Crane answered… Crane became Cato’s president, but early employees at Cato describe Charles as single-handedly exerting iron control.” (Jane Mayer, Dark Money)

On hand to assist the setting up of the Cato Institute was Rothbard. Whatever misgivings the he had had with SEK3 and the left-libertarians, they were exacerbated in this time period. SEK3 would recall that

Relations between [Murray Rothbard] and SEK3 were maximally strained during 1977 when Rothbard joined the Kochtopus and moved to San Francisco. Rothbard was described as the “Darth Vader” of the Movement (Star Wars had just been released). Rothbard lashed back with his attack on the “space cadets” of science-fiction oriented libertarians, and was attacked himself within the [Libertarian Party] by “space cadets” who labeled his faction “grubeaters.” But Rothbard had a falling out during the 1980 Clark for President campaign with Crane who controlled the campaign, and his “shares” in Cato were confiscated by the other Board members. NL promptly supported Rothbard in his cry, “They stole my shares” and relations were largely repaired.

As Jane Mayer has noted “Some suspected Rothbard… was fired for criticizing [Charles] Koch… Rothbard accused Charles of dictating everything from the office décor to the design of Cato’s stationary… Rothbard also accused Charles of using nonprofit organizations to ‘acquire access to, and respect from, influential people in the government.’” (Mayer, Dark Money) By this time, however, Rothbard would be drifting toward a very non-neoliberal position on the right: that of the paleoconservatives (for more on paleoconservativism, see my essay here). In 1982, alongside Llewellyn Rockwell, Rothbard launched the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and within a few years they sought a political alliance with right-wing populism, labeling their own position as that of “paleolibertarianism”. Self-described “bleeding-heart libertarian” Steve Horowitz has given a succinct run-down of this transformation:

By the mid-80s though, conservatism was hot, thanks to Reagan, and the internal strife of the movement pitted Murray Rothbard against the Koch Brothers, with the accusation by Rothbard that the liberal libertarians were undermining the movement’s ability to appeal to a broader audience thanks to their supposed libertinism.  Murray wanted the hippies out… This led to the paleolibertarian strategy by the end of the decade after Rothbard broke with the Kochs and helped Lew Rockwell found the Mises Institute… It was about appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism:  one built on cultural issues… The paleo strategy was a horrific mistake, both strategically and theoretically, though it apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists.

Thus the cleavage was complete. Between the two poles of the Koch-driven libertarian variant of neoliberalism and the paleolibertarianism promoted by the Rothbard and Rockwell, the synthesis was set for the conditions of libertarian discourse across the 1990s and 2000s. This synthesis itself would come to pass in the Tea Party, which saw the Koch interests attempting to appeal to the populist grassroots that the paleolibertarian movement had galvanized – and also saw the ultimate failure of this strategy. With mainstream libertarianism becoming increasing indistinguishable from neoliberalism itself, and the eclipsing of paleolibertarianism by the alt-right, it seems more pertinent than ever that the broader, fractured left rekindle its dialogue with the libertarian-left, itself now witnessing growth.

In the next post, I’ll take up the “libertarian class analysis” as it was developed by Rothbard and SEK3, and compare and contrast it with more traditionally socialist and anarchist modes of class analysis.