Reflections on Carsonian Mutualism: Vulgar Libertarian Revisionism

As I continue to move forward with Carson's Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, I'm struck by a point that sums up the last decade of my exploration of libertarianism. From the moment I picked up Charles Murray's What It Means to be a Libertarian, I became effectively brainwashed in the same myopic revisionist history that infects so much of the libertarian movement. Chief among the historical errors of the "vulgar libertarians" is the idea that the political and economic conditions of 19th century America represented an ideal (or at least adequate) free market environment, and the we should somehow aspire to return to this lost Eden. While we have undoubtedly descended further into statist domination over the course of the last century, we should recognize that much of the current state socialist agenda was a reaction to state capitalist exploitation - an expedient coziness and mutual back-scratching between big business and government that is never really looked at in mainstream libertarianism. Carson, however, will not ignore it:

Unlike mainstream libertarians of the right, who typically depict twentieth century state capitalism as a departure from a largely "laissez-faire" nineteenth century idyll, Hodgskin, Tucker et al. were much more thorough-going. It was precisely the capitalism of the nineteenth century that Hodgskin and Tucker described as a statist system of privilege. Although the United States was well into the corporate revolution, and "internal improvements" and railroad subsidies were a large part of national economic life, at the time Tucker wrote, he dealt with these matters almost not at all. The four privileges he attacked--the money and land monopolies, tariffs, and patents--had been an integral part of capitalism from its beginnings. The last-named privileges, tariffs and patents, indeed played a large part in the cartelizing and concentration of the corporate economy during the latter part of the nineteenth century. But Tucker largely neglected their effects on the overall structure of capitalism. So Tucker's critique of capitalism as fundamentally statist was almost completely abstracted from the nascent capitalism of the Gilded Age. The capitalism which Tucker denounced for its statism was, rather, the very capitalism that conventional right-libertarians today point to as a "free market" utopia.

Establishing a consistent terminology seems to be a left libertarian priority (see Adem's post on it for another perspective on "the Zaxlebax problem"). If I am to have any impact whatsoever in my left libertarian writing and activism, I hope it includes a fierce focus on convincing other libertarians to abandon demonstrably false premises. They only serve to distort our perspective, discredit us among the historically literate, and further marginalize our movement.

Written on Friday, April 21, 2006