On Statism, Socialism, Libertarianism, and the Greens

by Steve Welzer
Green Party of New Jersey

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Undoubtedly, Greens, Libertarians, and socialists should cooperate in regard to our common effort to open up the electoral system to “more voices and more choices.” Beyond that, it is sometimes proposed that we jointly run candidates under the banner of “big tent” third party coalitions. Or we might hear entreaties from progressives who feel that it’s sectarian to have left-oriented electoralism split between socialists, social democrats, and Greens. The problem with these types of ideas is the fact that the ideological distinctions among the movements are more significant than is often acknowledged.

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Green politics emerged during the 1970s due to a dissatisfaction with the extant left electoral alternatives and a desire to distance progressivism from the increasingly discredited socialist movement. A “post-socialist” perspective was based on the idea that socialism was the last great historical liberatory movement and Green politics represents the next.

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Socialism is a 19th century ideology in many respects. At its inception it posited that the abominations of early industrialism could be attributed to the private ownership of the means of production. The argument was straightforward: An industrial-scale enterprise might employ tens of thousands of workers, affect millions of customers, and be a factor in the prosperity and well-being of hundreds of communities. It’s scandalous, then, that such a socially significant enterprise could be treated as a private interest, with decisionmaking dependent upon the limited judgments, prejudices, and whims of a single individual or a small clique of controlling owners. And the socialist prescription was straightforward: For any enterprise beyond a certain scale of social impact, ownership should be public (collective) — for the sake of accountability and democratic control.

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emma-goldman-disillusionmentThese ideas became popular during the decades of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The first attempt at implementation followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. But the result was disappointing. The collectivism of the Soviet Union turned out to be abhorrent. It was bureaucratic, oppressive, and gray . . . and almost as ridden with power elitism as its corporate capitalist counterpart. Emma Goldman recognized this with a year of living there (1920) and was motivated to write. My Disillusionment with Russia. Other attempts at socialist implementation took many forms during the ensuing decades, but none came close to fulfilling the original liberatory aspirations of the movement, nor did they provide the basis for a “next higher stage of human history.”

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It was on this basis that, by the latter decades of the 20th century, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan proclaimed: the evidence is in and the conclusion is unavoidable — There Is No Alternative to capitalism (the “TINA” assertion). The only significant debate then seemed to be between the advocates of “pure” capitalism (laissez-faire) and the advocates of managed capitalism (managed by governments and central banks to smooth out the business cycle, provide a social safety net, and countervail tendencies toward monopoly). The former camp included anti-statist conservatives (reference: William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman), Austrian economists (Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek), and Objectivists (Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan) — all of whom made the case that collectivism inevitably results in a complex of horrors: oppressive statist centralization, economic inefficiency, and bureaucratic constraint. The most radical strain of this line of thinking spawned a whole new ideological movement, Libertarianism, whose chief early theorist was Murray Rothbard. His seminal works (Man, Economy, and State, 1962; For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 1973) argued: Freedom requires free enterprise (meaning: private ownership of enterprises, from the smallest to the largest) and minimalist government.

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Anti-statism has a long and commendable heritage. But the anti-statism of the extreme conservatives and the Libertarians does not have much in common with that of left-wing anarchists, decentralists, and communitarians. Libertarianism, in particular, is a hyper-individualistic form of anti-statism.

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Libertarians fetishize private property rights and private enterprise. According to Wikipedia, Murray Rothbard “asserted that all services provided by monopoly governments could be provided more efficiently by the private sector. [He] said that many laws ostensibly promulgated for the ‘public interest’ were power grabs by government employees motivated by self-aggrandizement. Rothbard held that government services were inefficient and that they would be better provided by the private sector.” So he advocated full-scale, near-total privatization . . . even of schools, roads, fire protection, welfare services, and the judicial system.

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Rothbard asserted that individuals possess the right of absolute “self-ownership.” His value system prioritized the right to exchange property with others. Economic relations between individuals should be strictly contractual. Government should be limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. It should be funded voluntarily (taxation is robbery; government is a racket; government employees are thieves).

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This ideology has very little resonance worldwide, but America is, and always has been, a hyper-individualistic country. So it makes sense that Libertarianism developed here and has some resonance here, where bumperstickers expound: “Get Goverment Off My Back.”

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Greens are in a unique position to point out the key element that is missing in the Libertarian perspective: the issue of scale. It’s simplistic and misleading, for example, to conflate the oppression of huge modern centralized governments with government-in-general; or to apply the critique of industrial-scale bureaucratic collectivism to local public enterprise.

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small-is-beautifulBoth Libertarianism and socialism have been deficient in this respect. Green politics had the advantage of being influenced in its early development by the work of E. F. Schumacher. In Small is Beautiful (1973) Schumacher wrote about scale in relation to polity, economy, and technology. He made a distinction between a critique of Big Government and a critique of governmentalism in general. In regard to economics, the Introduction to Small Is Beautiful (written by Theodore Roszak) says this:

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“Schumacher’s work belongs to that subterranean tradition of organic and decentralist economics whose major spokesmen include Prince Kropotkin, Gustav Landauer, Tolstoy, William Morris, Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, and Murray Bookchin . . . [It] distinguishes itself from orthodox socialism and capitalism by insisting that the scale of organization must be treated as an independent and primary problem. This tradition, while closely affiliated with socialist values, nonetheless prefers mixed to ‘pure’ economic systems. It is therefore hospitable to many forms of free enterprise and private ownership, provided always that the size of private enterprise is not so large as to divorce ownership from personal involvement, which is, of course, now the rule in most of the world’s administered capitalisms. Bigness is its nemesis, whether the bigness is that of public or private bureaucracies, because from bigness comes impersonality, insensitivity, and a lust to concentrate abstract power. Hence, it’s title, Small Is Beautiful. He might just as well have said ‘small is free, efficient, creative, enjoyable, enduring’ . . . Reaching backward, this tradition embraces communal, handicraft, tribal, gild, and village lifestyles as old as the neolithic cultures. In that sense, it is not an ideology at all, but a wisdom gathered from historical experience. In our own time [1973], it has reemerged spontaneously in the communitarian experiments of the counterculture.”

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So: Government at an appropriate scale need not be antithetical to freedom. When close enough to those whom it serves, local government can be transparent, accountable, and subject to a participatory form of grassroots democracy. Private enterprise at an appropriate scale can be regulated so as to play a “good citizen” role in the social fabric. And public (collective) enterprise does not inevitably result in statist centralization, economic inefficiency, or bureaucratic encumbrance . . . as long as it is “community-based.”

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Humans are social beings who need and prefer to live in collectives. For most of our species-existence the vast majority of people were nurtured by local, personal, human-scale collectives: extended families, tribes, clans, village communities. A problem of the modern world is that the state — an impersonal, remote, irresponsible collective — has become conflated with the idea of community. For example, nation-state patriots feel that they are standing up for “the people;” the army is out there fighting for “us.” But this sensibility is based on a delusory perspective. A distinction needs to be made between local/regional community and the hypertrophied collective that constitutes the nation-state.

Both pro-state patriots and anti-state Libertarians fail to acknowledge this distinction. Greens do — and, on that basis, advocate for a decentralist alternative which is both liberatory and common-sense-practical. Rather than a brave new world of utopian-ideal social relations based on some ideological model (as in the case of Libertarianism or Marxism), Greens offer an eco-communitarian model of relocalization that would simply restore our natural, organic, and sane human social heritage.

The state really is a horror and has been from Day One (5,000 years ago). The power elites who dominate the states try hard to promote patriotism. But the relationship of the people with the state is always love/hate. Sometimes the state is “we” and sometimes the state is “they”. Those more inclined toward the latter sentiment will say: “Damn how they tax us, conscript us, exploit us; damn how they act in our name.” Those people will be drawn to a boldly anti-statist vision. They will be attracted to Libertarianism if the Greens fail to embrace the radical consequences of our key value: Decentralization.

There has never been a human society looking anything like what the Libertarians advocate (based on pure market, contractual relations). The Green alternative has much more potential to resonate with the masses of people — who already comprehend the importance of “going green” when it comes to saving the environment. It may be a challenge for Greens to explicate the more radical aspects of our worldview and program: devolution of power, decentralization, simplification, regionalization, etc. But it can be done and it should be done . . . as part of our effort to convey the distinction between the individualistic anti-statism of the Libertarians and the communitarian anti-statism of the Greens.

6 thoughts on “On Statism, Socialism, Libertarianism, and the Greens”

  1. Good article, Steve. Thanks!

    While the progressive and liberal parties may not be able to unite, we must strive to cooperate on the urgent issues, before it is too late. Catastrophic climate disasters and proto-fascist governments are growing faster and stronger than we are. Without cooperation on these issues we, and our planet, are doomed.

    We must become more activist in supporting single-issue groups, worker-owned businesses, local cooperatives and radical protests and boycotts of big box stores…not just elections. If we do not have an impact on the important issues, why should people vote for us?

  2. Unfortunately about 98% of the 99% have no involvement with any third party effort, and the Greens and Socialists are too far left for the majority of people in the United States. The Libertarians are too far right on some issues. The solution is an independent coalition of citizen action groups and third parties that reach out and unite We the People!! There are too many single issue groups and left-wing radicals going in 1,000 different directions…

  3. Excellent explanation of what’s sensible about the Green Party way. One caveat: the implication that life was somehow better up until 5000 years ago needs some qualification. Jared Diamond in “The World Until Yesterday” makes a convincing case that generalizations can be misleading even when talking about what he calls “traditional” societies. Yes, people often (but not always) treated each other better within their extended families or small groups. But you were much more likely to die violently in clashes with “outsiders” – those with whom your group had only weak or hostile relations. Diamond shows that modern mass societies – even despotic ones – have a stake in keeping their subjects alive, if only to exploit them. So communitarianism yes, sectarianism no.

  4. I just finished reading “All on Fire,” a biography of William Lloyd Garrison by Henry Mayer. This excellent book shows how Garrison succeeded in building the abolitionist movement over thirty years from nothing to the inspiration and public support behind the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth Amendment. Essential to the movement’s success was Garrison’s insistence on avoiding entanglement with party politics (though in the end he supported Lincoln). It’s a truism now that major reforms in the U.S. have come from the bottom up and not from our two-party system. Without an independent grass-roots movement, party politics seems never to get beyond a holding action at best. So, does the Green Party exhaust itself unnecessarily in a distracting effort to emulate the D’s and R’s?

  5. This is fascinating, but I’m left wanting more information on how “green politics” is decentralized and different from a more socialist ideology dependent upon a strong central govt. I think you mischaracterize libertarian thought in that it’s not at all “anti” government, but anti centralized govt. operating by force. Also, its emphasis on the individual does not suggest that groups are irrelevant. On the contrary, libs assume that cooperative groups will do what government cannot – or does not do efficient/effectively.
    While it’s true that there is no historical example of a “libertarian” government, I’m not sure it hasn’t existed, at least on a small scale.
    I’m not entirely clear on the differences between libertarian and communitarian as the author delineates it, except that libs emphasize the agency of the individual – and they’re “too right wing” for some.

    1. Well it seems like the author is hinting at libertarian socialism (the opposite of state socialism). He doesn’t go too much into the political theory of it all, but from what I know, the basis of anarcho-socialism is the collective gathering of members. They would have a one person-one vote policy and they would operate under an environment where people are free to associate and once all votes are in, the majority rules (obviously we have bill of rights to keep people’s decisions from getting out of hand, thus eliminating (or severely weakening) the possibility of mob rule if we adopted such in the U.S. Keep in mind that a constitutional government doesn’t necessarily go against anarcho-socialistic theory.) Each individual community would make their own laws and send delegates (not trustees) to cast their vote on decisions concerning the nation as a whole. More power should be granted to communities than to the state, therefore decisions will bubble up rather than flow down. There will be public oversight rather than congressional oversight. People would also have more control over their work environment because it becomes more democratic. You mentioned that cooperative groups will do what government can not. I’m going to assume you mean private groups, because there is a difference. In a private company, you don’t get a vote, therefore it’s not exactly “cooperative.” If anything, it’s a dictatorial entity (when it comes to decision making), but having a check and balance (appeasing consumers) to keep it in control. Someone can very easily disagree with an action a company is pursuing, yet still want their product. The real difference between libertarian capitalists and libertarian socialists is that lib-caps emphasize volunteerism while “communitarians” emphasize communal decision making. Anarcho-socialists will point out that the problem with volunteerism is that, unless there is a communal sharing of wealth, some will have more of say in what gets produced than others (the rich). The real argument comes in when discussing whether this is beneficial. It does make sense that those who put more into a society should get more in return, but only if society lets them. Let’s ignore if this is morally correct or not and instead focus on the efficiency of this system. One could argue that if most resources are going to the wealthy, the lower 50% will still have a worse time even if there is more efficiency(of course, I don’t know if this is true or not). One could also argue that capitalism is designed to yield short term solutions and leads to a throw away society (advertising gets people to make irrational choices by appealing to biological impulse, as resources become more scarce, while prices occasionally rise, usually technology just allows industry to dig up/mine/cut/ect. the resources quicker rather than looking for alternatives which maybe the truly profitable decision in the real long term- where i mean decades, hospitals look for quick cures (that are maybe unhealthy in the long run) while fast food restaurants keep serving food that are definitely unhealthy in the long run, ect.). People may say that these are all things that people want for themselves, but the truth is, if we had everyone sit down in a room and make the conscious effort to collectively decide where to put societies money, results would be different, simply because they would be making rational long term decisions rather than short ones on the spur of the moment. You use the term “operating by force.” The truth of the matter is that this is a relative term. You could consider taxes coercive, but if the public directly votes for them rather than politicians, and they are democratically decided upon, clearly the majority won’t find it coercive. However right winged libertarians can still find it coercive because it’s mob rule and they are taking the money by force. However, libertarian socialists can say that the way lib-caps force everyone to take part in a meritocracy without their consent is coercive, and the only way to rebel against the alleged coercion is to be a vigilante or a robin hood type figure and steal from the rich and give to the poor, which will be met with police force, and thus they are “operating by force.” This abstract concept of force is inevitable unless you want to live in total anarchy (no government at all). The least the government can do is go with force, that people agree with, and this has to do with whether people vote for a lib-soc or a lib-cap society, and that neither is fundamentally “libertarian,” both are relative. The “communitarian” society the author is describing in this article may not completely be anarcho-socialism, but it’s definitely staying in that direction with the “collective” and “community based” aspects of economics that it’s stressing while staying true to “anti-statism.”

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