Libertarian “Democracy Skepticism” and the Pathological Self

I’ve been following with interest Will Wilkinson’s writing about libertarian democracy skepticism and the reach of its influence on the Republican party today. Wilkinson believes, I think correctly, that many of the pathological features of the contemporary right have their closest origin in the libertarian movement.

If I understand him correctly, Wilkinson’s central idea seems to be that libertarian hostility to majoritarianism is a relict of the rise of Communism and the Cold War, and that without its functional role in defending against the Red Menace any longer, libertarian democracy skepticism become a sort of inflamed appendix of American political discourse—it doesn’t really do anything positive anymore and it’s now threatening the whole body politic.

One way of reading Wilkinson is that he’s saying, “Okay, now it’s time to wind down the reaction, it’s already done it’s work.” This notion of reaction that’s outlived its use is particularly interesting to read in conjunction with Corey Robin’s belief that the Right in the United States has been largely successful, and that Trump represents the decadence of a conservative movement without vigorous opposition from the Left.

I don’t believe that libertarian hostility to democracy is the result of the historical contingency of the Cold War. There are, of course, other historical moments that one could use to situate the libertarian reaction: One has to be the Civil Rights movement and Rothbard, who Wilkinson and I agree is a central figure to understanding the Trump phenomenon, saw his own politics as a continuation of the Old Right’s reaction to the New Deal. But I want to bracket for a moment the empirical question of what events triggered this discourse and try to look at the structure of the underlying thought.

In my article on the connections between the Alt-Right and libertarianism for the Washington Post, I sketched, insufficiently, a theory about the affinity between the far right and libertarianism:

The problem is that libertarian principles, which revolve the abstract notion of self-interest, are really not principles at all; they have no content and allow anything to be attached to them. Abstract self-interest alone can provide no instructive rule of thought and can disqualify no particular course of action, because each person is free to concoct what is in their best interest, and because “aggression” can be and has been defined in a variety of spurious ways.

It was the very bareness of the idea of self-interest and liberty as such that allowed Chris Cantwell, the weeping neo-Nazi made infamous in Vice’s coverage of Charlottesville (and avid reader of Hoppe and Rothbard) to make conceptual space for racism: “People should be free to exercise complete control over their own person and property. If blacks are committing crimes, or Jews are spreading communism, discriminating against them is the right of any property owner.”

It’s a quick step from here to full-on white nationalism, which interprets history and politics as the story of different races pursuing their collective self-interest. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that enshrining self-interest as the core of morality would lead to a cynical worldview that takes all action to be struggle or manipulation. The “liberty” of libertarianism is merely negative; and a mind guided with the mere concept of its own interest can be led to anything or to nothing. For this reason, the intellectual wasteland of libertarianism continues to provide a safe space for fascists: It simply has philosophical room for them, and no particular injunctions to turn them away.

What I’m trying to get at here is that there is something in the very conception of the individual and his relationship to society in the radical libertarian tradition that is amiss. I believe that libertarian discourse strips away the communal in favor of a conflictual and competitive conception of life. In this process, certain forms of rationality and communication lose their legitimacy and become mere manipulation. The result is that the human organism is fundamentally alone, trying to accomplish its self-interest in a hostile world; its voluntary associations and obedience to principles are merely strategic and provisional, they do not penetrate into the heart of the self. (How this matches the psychological picture of an isolated person in society is something to think about.) Instead the heart of the self is a self-will that cannot be rationally disclosed or interrogated. (On this picture, no one can really argue with your notions of your own self-interest, because that would in some sense, be a loss of self or a violation.)The human drama as a story of essentially-guided Will and mutual hostility is, of course, the same in the discourse of racism; these are analogous notions.

I have two primary influences in mind with this reading: Axel Honneth’s reading of the pathology of negative liberty in Freedom’s Right (“The result is that humans are assumed to be isolated beings whose primary interest consists in acting according to their own preferences with as few hindrances as possible.”) and Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Hobbes as opening the door for the discourse of racial conflict in Origins of Totalitarianism:

Hobbes..provided political thought with the prerequisite for all race doctrines, that is, the exclusion in principle of the idea of humanity which constitutes the sole regulating idea of international law. With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world.

It’s this conception of a “solidarity of mankind” that Arendt mentions that I believe is fundamentally lacking in libertarianism, and this is what makes it hostile to democracy. I’m not sure if one say this problem pervades the entire classical liberal tradition, but I believe it’s an underlying potential of an individualist approach to society.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store