But what kind of stateless society?: Calling the question on market anarchism and C4SS

It's been almost two years since mutualist Shawn Wilbur left the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. While I hated to see him go, his stated reason for the departure was unimpeachable to my mind. Wilbur felt he could neither articulate what brought the Alliance together nor see any way in which the disagreements within the Alliance were able to be overcome. How could the Alliance accomplish real work without real consensus? In what sense are we allies if we have fundamental disagreements that merely get glossed over?

At the time, Allies were debating the proper reaction to an inflammatory essay that had been written by a non-left libertarian. This debate turned into a crisis: one left libertarian denouncing the other as out of bounds and beyond the pale. As all parties stood their ground, things digressed into nasty insults and accusations that mainly exhausted us. It got to be surprisingly ridiculous, but what surprised me the most was the fact that, of all people, Wilbur - the one who likely understands the historic trajectory of this movement more than anybody else, and therefore would have the most to say about where all this is headed - was the one to leave.

Among Wilbur's arguments, as I understand them, was the absence of any way to resolve the dispute to everybody's satisfaction. The Alliance had always been a vague and inarticulable one, grounded in shared tendencies but no shared principles that had ever been made clear, let alone binding. Add to that the concept of ALL being a place where "we all agree to disagree" and you have the basis for neither ideological commitment nor ideological boundaries. Personal attacks were all anybody had, because there was no shared premise of alliance, and I imagine Wilbur couldn't see the point of continuing to associate with such a meaningless brand. If all we were going to do was be an online club of likeminded malcontents, why bother winning this fight?

Fast forward to earlier this year: the Center for a Stateless Society had been building momentum with a new funding model and a solid record of publishing op-eds for a year or so. However, Wilbur left the advisory board because he was increasingly uncomfortable with the term "market anarchist" as a description of his beliefs. Read his blog and you'll feel a yearning expressed over and over: to get beyond the ideological factions and locate the common principle that impels us to use fancy terms like "individualism" and "market". Where C4SS offered a brand, Wilbur sought substance.

It appears the same concerns that led to Wilbur's departure from the Alliance contributed to his departure from the Center. In the comments for a recent C4SS op-ed that caused many of us discomfort, Wilbur persistently argued not just against the article but against the nebulous constellation of ideas and tendencies that comprise the Center's mission:

I've gradually distanced myself from left-libertarianism, market anarchism, the ALLiance and the Center, largely because the sorts of "agreement" that seem most common look more like disagreement to me -- and because they seem to open the door more often to those who elevate "private property" over individual liberty (despite their rhetoric) much more often than they admit those whose concern for individual liberty makes them resistant to "private property." I'm not being stubborn about disagreement. The ALLiance was initially built around a certain amount of active disagreement. The notion that we "really agree" really just seems dismissive to me, given the obvious gulf between our positions.

Now, I've been an enthusiastic supporter of the Center for a year or so. It is not everyday that you get a chance to push op-eds promoting anarchism to mainstream media sources. Given the people involved in the project - Brad Spangler, Gary Chartier, Kevin Carson, Darian Worden - I felt like the left libertarian credentials of this organization needed no vetting whatsoever. The biggest motivator for me was being able to support those writers whom I appreciate and whom I think are as potentially convincing to others as one was to me. Kevin Carson is probably the reason I ever considered anarchism in the first place.

However, I do have reservations. For one, I do not consider myself a "market anarchist", for many of the reasons Wilbur articulates. For another thing, the Center has a tendency to extend its language beyond what I would consider the left libertarian consensus into narrow agorist or market fundamentalist language, where all we seek to advocate is expressed in pure economic terms. I don't want to single out specific articles or authors; it suffices to say that these misgivings are shared by more than a couple of supporters, so it's not just me.

In fact I don't think it's the authors' fault - they do what they can to further the work of the Center as they understand it, and none of them understand it any worse than the rest of us. Without a clear consensus on the Center's mission, why shouldn't they just write about whatever they feel like? The problem is not their understanding of the C4SS consensus so much as ours.

What vision and principles do we share? When we support the Center, what are we saying with that support? How do we judge the efficacy of the Center when there's no clear statement of the advocated "stateless society"? Why stop at "market anarchism" as the only articulation of statelessness - why not be more ecumenical towards the variety in the anarchist movement?

All of the articles that bother me are perfectly consonant with market anarchism, broadly constructed. We can say, "So what? We disagree on certain points. Big deal." But I don't consider that a sustainable situation, any more than it was in the Alliance. It's even more urgent because the Center is not merely a debate club, affinity group, or online brand; it's an outreach organization designed to generate real results: new anarchists. What is at stake here is bigger than competing visions and ideological formulations of market anarchism; this agitprop will influence future left libertarians and market anarchists who will expand upon our work for years to come. Little in our corner of the universe could demand more accountability.

Until we take the difficult leap towards defining the positive goals, values, and dreams that unite us, as well as the outcomes we mutually reject as unacceptable even in a stateless society, it will be difficult for people to feel they understand exactly what they are funding. Every time a member reads an article that strays from their personal vision, they will question the Center's mission. The Center's success cannot be judged by its supporters if there is no sense of our common approach and aspirations, or at least an understanding of the contested areas that are likely to divide us. Remember: this is not about all of us agreeing so much as all of us deciding how to package and sell this "market anarchism" to which we all supposedly adhere (and yes, that alone gives me pause).

I don't know how to go about organizing the discussion that would articulate or ratify such a consensus. But if this Center for a Stateless Society is going to advocate for us, especially when capably and admirably run by such steadfast organizers and generous writers on a shoestring budget, the least we can do is give them guidance and not just criticism. Wilbur's departure was an indication that we cannot simply rally around a black flag; revolutionary consensus requires us to be honest about the change we seek, and to ally on the basis of that honesty. It might be painful, but if we could find such a consensus that all sides of the market anarchist / left libertarian milieu could get behind, we would have the basis for a powerful advocacy and outreach group, indeed.

Written on Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | Tags: c4ss, anarchism, market-anarchism, libertarianism, activism