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.

Exodus and Counter-Economics, Part 1: Escape Routes


“Capital’s continual restructuration is its response to working class sabotage,” wrote Antonio Negri in Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage (1977). This is the clearest elucidation of the autonomist proposition: that capitalism’s development, from the introduction of new technologies that shape production to the dynamics of the core-periphery relationship, emerges from the ability of the working class to successfully confound – up to a certain degree, at least – the operations that restrain them. He continues:

…restructuration of the system is a precondition – the stabilisation of the regime, and vice-versa. The tactical problems arise within the relative rigidity of this relationship, and not outside it – at least, ever since capitalist development has rendered undesirable the option of operating force and duress (in the sense of mere physical force against the working class and the proletariat.) For capital the solution of the crisis consists in a restructuring of the system that will defeat and reintegrate the antagonistic components of the proletariat within the project of political stabilisation.

As Negri notes, the question then becomes one of strategy and tactics – which itself becomes yet another confounding proposition. All attempts to forge new tactics and strategies are reflected, albeit in a neutered way, in the following deployment of a new stage of development. When the neoliberal regime began to speak of militarized interventionism and expansion of markets in the terms of “democratic peace theory”, were they not responding to the demands for a ‘real democracy’ that emerged towards the tail-end of the global Keynesian order? That the intellectuals tangled up in the state’s bureaucracies, once so committed to modernization theory, turned to the anti-colonialist and post-colonialist theorists emerging from the New Left, speaks to this, just as the shifting of interest from top-down management of social relations to the shaping of civil society by way of the grassroots does as well.

On a less esoteric level, we can see the simultaneous dual “horizontalization” of the modern corporation by way of post-industrialization and the “precariatization” of the working class by way of deindustrialization as both part of a singular program that transforms the entire conditions of class power, a restructuring that unleashes both certain progressive dynamics (horizontalism, though for only members of select classes) and restraining dynamics (the hollowing out of the means to subsistence, setting off a race towards the bottom for many).

Antonio Negri, in his post-autonomist collaborations with Michael Hardt, introduces the concept of exodus, which while operating as a productive concept, also has certain drawbacks (namely, that it remains more metaphysical than concrete – a charge that can be levelled against much of post-autonomist discourse). To understand what is meant by exodus, we have to unpack what Hardt and Negri mean when they write that capitalism is “not simply… a social relationship but… an open social relation.” That capital operates as a social relationship is the core of Marxian theory, which looks at the way socially-necessary labor time is transformed into variable capital in order to ensure the extraction of surplus value. Thus, in the capitalism diagnosed by Marx, capital framed social relations in a sort of closed system, determined only by the value of the commodity itself. Hardt and Negri’s capital-as-open social relation, by contrast, speaks to the capitalism of now, and more specifically, to the forms of capital that prevail in post-industrialization – the so-called “creative industries” and things of that nature.

Hardt and Negri suggest that variable capital (human labor) is becoming detached from constant capital (machines) and is beginning to achieve autonomy of its own. The question stands why they believe this detachment is taking place, and they see the answer as twofold. The first is due to the “newly central or intensified role of the common in economic production”; and because “productivity of labor-power increasingly exceeds the bounds set in its employment by capital.” (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pg. 151). By commons they mean the increased role of teamwork, cooperation, shared language, and communication that is necessitated by post-industrialization. By “exceeding the bounds”, on the other hand, they refer to the way in which skills learned on the job-site can be easily transferred outside of the workplace. Their example of in-bound productivity is the “auto worker” whose “extraordinary mechanical and technological skills… can be actualized only in the factory and thus in the relation with capital” (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pgs. 151-152). The bound-exceeding productivity, by contrast, would be the interpersonal and communicative skills learned in the so-called ‘new economy’.

Obviously there are incredible problems with these sets of assumptions. Hardt and Negri’s discourse can only be articulated in a narrow field of visions, one that is clearly focused on white collar labor – or as they call it, “immaterial labor”. In other words, they look to post-industrialization, and appear as neglecting the reality of de-industrialization, and the spatial restructuring of production that took place on a global level. As such, the reality of the special economic zone doesn’t appear readily in their discourse. How are we to take seriously the idea that labor is becoming immaterial when it rests entirely upon the uneven development between the core and periphery, both at home and abroad? How can we take it seriously when even in the immediate environment of ‘immaterial labor’ itself entails a vast and global material network, one larger than the world has ever seen? And finally, it is clear that the biases explode through on Hardt and Negri’s rather offensive posing of the auto workers, whose skills have little applicability outside of the factory. Anyone who has ever worked with tools in the workplace one knows the vast applicability of the skills that have been learned. This is not some privileged status of the white collar laborer.

Viewed from this angle, Hardt and Negri’s post-autonomism is something wholly detached from its workerist roots. Nonethless, their idea of “exodus”, regardless of the defaults of its foundational propositions, is a concept with potency:

Class struggle… takes the form of exodus. By exodus here we mean, at least initially, a process of subtraction from the relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power. Exodus is thus not a refusal of productivity of biopolitical labor-power but rather a refusal of the increasingly restrictive fetters placed on its productive capacities by capital. (Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pg. 152)

The notion of “biopolitics” was first introduced by Foucault, who in the first volume of his The History of Sexuality detailed the emergence of a new form of “power over life”, one focused on the whole of society and inflected through “an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.” (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, pg. 139, emphasis in the original) Hardt and Negri pursue biopolitics through a slightly different register, as itself a terrain of struggle in which the population (or as they configure it, the “multitude”) can strike back against the organizations of power. Because it is a social phenomenon, they suggest, immaterial labor is itself a biopolitical plateau – thus producing a rather confusing image. Proponents of the ‘biopolitical turn’ would do well, perhaps to analyze Hardt and Negri’s depiction of post-industrial labor from the vantage point of Foucault’s own analysis in The Birth of Biopolitics, which articulates the rise of neoliberalism (from which post-industrial labor is indistinguishable) as a biopolitical program initially developed as a program to guide the state’s approach to its internal population. Indeed, can one even talk about a “population” before a state is there to make such an abstraction legible?

If we remove the questionable reference to “biopolitical labor-power” and open it to the explosive productivity of labor-power in general, we get a much more dynamic picture, one in which the capacity to do, to build (or rebuild) outside the purview of capital becomes a possibility. It also allows us to re-connect the post-autonomist discourse with the workerist tendency from which it springs. But the question still remains: what would exodus, in terms of a strategical move to deflect away from recuperation and cooptation by capitalism and the state, look like? How can the productivity of labor-power be put to use in a way that confounds the system?

I would like to bring into play here an important concept from the market anarchist tendency – that of agorism. Developed by the left-libertarian thinker Samuel Edward Konkin III (known as SEK3), agorism is a practice of engaging in counter-economics. As SEK3 defines it:

The Counter-Economy is the sum of all non-aggressive Human Action which is forbidden by the State. Counter-economics is the study of the Counter-Economy and its practices. The Counter-Economy includes the free market, the Black Market, the “underground economy,” all acts of civil and social disobedience, all acts of forbidden association (sexual, racial, cross-religious), and anything else the State, at any place or time, chooses to prohibit, control, regulate, tax, or tariff. The Counter-Economy excludes all State-approved action (the “White Market”) and the Red Market (violence and theft not approved by the State).

There are a number of ways in which the notions of agorism and counter-economics can shed light on forms that exodus could take or ways in which an exodus could be carried out. A series of posts will examine this more in depth, but first, a little background information on left-libertarianism and SEK3 is required.