“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy… ‘Libertarians’… had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over…”
-Murray Rothbard, Betrayal of the American Right
“The word ‘libertarian’ has long been associated with anarchism [sic]… It came however to be applied to anyone who approved of liberty in general. In anarchist circles, it was first used by Joseph Déjacque as the title of his anarchist journal Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social published in New York in 1858. At the end of the last century, the anarchist Sebastien Faure took up the word, to stress the difference between anarchists and authoritarian socialists.”
-Peter Marshall, Defending the Impossible
The philosophy of libertarianism is quite like the mushroom’s mycelium system; the fruit which stem from it are multiplicitous, but regardless of their differences belong to the same species. Unlike mushrooms however, libertarians will try to define certain sub-species out because of such differences, making what a system of mutuality into a system of constant tension and conflict. Liberty is and perhaps will always be seen differently by those who wish reap its rewards, and thus calls on us to have conversations on how to approximate closer to it. But to disregard sub-species simply because of the differences they have cuts us all off from the mycelium needed for our survival. A liberty ruled by a libertarianism is no liberty at all; the scythe we use to cut off other sub-species will in turn cut us off. In other words, we will reap what we sow.
This is the main problem of the libertarian qua libertarian in our education of libertarianism to the world. We are so convinced that our project within the scope of libety is the one that will bring us closer to the liberty we dream of that different projects are regarded as not libertarian or not relevant to the libertarian of the here and now. Instead of defining a libertarian as “someone who holds that liberty is essential for human flourishing provided that said person holds with equal value the liberty of others”, a libertarian is defined as “someone who believes that liberty is important for human flourishing and also holds close to the project that I may be a part of.”
Let us use the example of American libertarianism to illustrate this problem (note: they are not the only ones who try to define others out of libertarianism). The American libertarian concept is one which holds that liberty is best attained through a pro-property, pro-market, and individualist standpoint. While systems of gift-economies, mutual aid, and community projects can exist within this system, the freed market must be the over-arching factor in there project of liberty. Those who might hold true to the idea of a libertarian communism of sorts do not hold claim to libertarianism in the American sense. This is because their system abolishes property and an over-arching market allowing no one to try their hand at a market-friendly approach. This creates a totalizing system, the antithesis to liberty, and therefore libertarian communists cannot be defined as libertarians in the American meaning of the word. The conversation of libertarian ideas in America then is only limited to conversation of post-classical, individualist economics (Austrian, Chicago School, Public Choice Theory, etc.) and classical liberal philosophies which either get close or fully attain anarchism. Mentions of social libertarian and anarchist philosophies and economics are made to either show that they are not libertarian or that their systems of production, consumption, and organization can better be done in a market setting based on individualist economics. If they are too skeptical of property and markets, they cannot be a libertarian by any relevant meaning of the word to the American libertarian.
This is where confusion and conflict start to kick in for the American libertarian and those having a conversation with them. For starters, many libertarian communists retort back showing the genuine nature of their libertarian standpoint and how they do allow for individualism in a full communist setting (i.e.- the Spanish Anarchists in Catalonia). They will also be quick to point out the two quotes by Murray Rothbard and Peter Marshall shown above, that the word “libertarian” was appropriated by the American side, and that the word was used to signify difference between the two sides of socialism, anarchists and authoritarian socialists. They will question the American libertarian’s credibility in libertarianism and perhaps doubt any good intentions the American libertarian may have. All the while, those on the outside of libertarianism become confused about what anything means to a libertarian because no one will show them the full spectrum of what libertarianism is. Thrown into the worlds of our ideologies, we become wrapped up in what is the most relevant libertarianism, or who is promoting “tr00 liberty”.
It is not that in-fighting has caused this (balance is found by conversation), but blind devotion to whatever specific project may be preferred in our quest to liberty. We do not take the time to sit down with people and explain to them the different flavors of libertarianism. Instead, we give them our biased preference to what a good or relevant libertarianism may be and then leave the other libertarians as an aside or fodder for a take-down. This in turn creates more libertarians of a biased nature rather than libertarians who think creatively to give us something more than just either a market or communalist alternative to liberty. Our biases create the scythe which cut the heads off of libertarians, leaving us a body to constantly fight but without a head to question if our fights are always useful.
This is what has been wrong with libertarian’s education of libertarianism to other people. It teaches within its comfort zone, making favored positions more respectable and others seem illogical or anti-liberty. Instead of a majority of thinkers, it unfortunately creates a majority of reactionaries (i.e. internet trolls) who repeat cliché arguments and spout rhetoric that they were given to them by us without considering other possibilities. If we want to create a world of liberty, then we need to stop being limited in our definition of libertarian. We need to always answer uncomfortable questions with which (re)broadening makes, such us “how do we define our anti-capitalist commitments” and “can property/communist systems be totalizing and create an ideological authority?”
We must take heed of the words of Emile Janvion in our goals of educating others on libertarianism:
“It is not at all a question of compelling the [student] to think and act as an anarchist, of weighing, in a word, on their determinations. That would be contrary to our conception of liberty and by doing so we would wound ourselves with our own weapons.
But we will teach them to conduct themselves; we will not constrain their independence and initiative, by confining them to the narrow mold of programs; we will teach them to answer only to their conscience, without desire for reward or fear of punishment, without the dire effects of discipline, source of dissembling and lies, and of grading, generator of rivalries, jealousies and hatreds.
Far from wishing to cast the child, ignorant of the reigning theories, disarmed into life, we will impartially show them the pro and the con. It will be up to them to make their own resolutions later. The simple truth will be the remains.” (“Our Free Education”, Emile Janvion, l’Aurore 3 no. 637 (July 17, 1899): 2)