(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges)
The meanings of words often shift with time. The term “fulsome” is a prime example. My 1940 edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “1. Offensive, disgusting; esp. offensively excessive or insincere. 2. Rare. Lustful, wanton.” And that’s it. Today, the term’s meaning has shifted: it’s still occasionally used in sense 1 of the Webster’s definition (never in sense 2), but it’s usually used as a synonym for “plentiful,” “ample,” or “generous.”
“Libertarian” has undergone a similar extreme shift. P.J. Proudhon used the term as a synonym for “anarchist” as early as the 1840s, and the term is still almost universally used in that sense in the rest of the world, notably in Europe and Latin America—in other words, “libertarian” still means “anarchist,” an advocate of stateless, egalitarian communism or socialism, everywhere except the U.S.
To cite a few of the almost innumerable examples of this usage, in 1895 Sebastien Faure and Louise Michel founded the most important French anarchist periodical, Le Monde Libertaire (Libertarian World), which is still publishing today. The primary Cuban anarchist group group of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s (with thousands of members), was the Asociación de Libertarios Cubanos (Cuban Libertarian Association), and its youth wing was the Juventud Libertaria de Cuba (Libertarian Youth of Cuba). The Spanish anarchists of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (with over a million members in the 1930s) routinely used the words “anarchist” and “libertarian” as synonyms, as in the influential 1932 pamphlet, El comunismo libertario, by Isaac Puente. The great Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón also routinely used the terms as synonyms in the pages of Regeneración a century ago. And there exist to this day anarchist/libertarian publications titled El Libertario in both Venezuela and Uruguay.
Here in the U.S., the term “libertarian” was also commonly used as a synonym for an advocate of free, stateless socialism in the 19th century, but was also used extensively in a somewhat different sense by individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Josiah Warren, who advocated mutualism rather than socialism. These usages remained relatively constant through the middle of the 20th century. Whatever their minor differences, though, essentially all libertarians considered the abolition of the state absolutely necessary. And essentially all rejected capitalism.
Ignoring this historical context, and recognizing the usefulness of the term, advocates of laissez-faire capitalism began using “libertarian” self-referentially in the 1960s. (At the time, one of the main U.S. anarchist groups was the Libertarian League.) But even then, most of them—including, arguably, their two leading spokesmen, Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess—advocated abolition of the state, and tended to be absolutists on civil liberties. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that in place of the state Rothbard argued for a privatized repressive apparatus—though of course he didn’t use that term—including private prisons.)
Unfortunately, given the weakness of the U.S. anarchist movement at the time and the abysmal state of the mass media (some things don’t change), almost no one challenged the laissez-faire capitalists on their appropriation of the term “libertarian.”
Things turned dramatically for the worse in 1971 with the founding of the Libertarian Party, which nominated its first presidential candidate in 1972. With this move, this “Libertarian” party abandoned the most fundamental principle of all actual libertarians: abolition of the state.
Since then, U.S. “libertarians” have drifted steadily to the right. They now embrace the discredited, misnamed theory of social Darwinism (which has nothing to do with Darwin’s scientific theory) and advocate abolishing the social welfare functions of the state while retaining its repressive apparatus (the police, prisons, the military).
In their early days, U.S. “libertarians” were, by and large, reliable advocates of individual liberties. No more. Their two current leading lights, Ron Paul and Rand Paul, are outspoken opponents of reproductive rights. They advocate government interference, enforced through the threat of violence (arrest, imprisonment), in what should be private medical matters.
In sum, the term “libertarian” has now degenerated to the point where, in the U.S., it refers to laissez-faire capitalists who embrace social Darwinism (notably as expounded by cult figure Ayn Rand), who embrace the repressive functions of the state, and who advocate state intrusion into the most intimate aspects of our private lives.
Comparing anarchists and laissez-faire “libertarians” on a few specifics is instructive.
First, the similarities:
- Anarchists tend to be civil liberties absolutists.
- “Libertarians” tend to be civil liberties absolutists. As “libertarians” drift further to the right, though, one expects this commitment to lessen.
- Anarchists almost invariably oppose military adventurism.
- “Libertarians” by and large oppose military adventurism.
- Anarchists almost invariably support reproductive rights.
- “Libertarians” are divided on the issue; some advocate state intrusion into private medical matters, though one suspects that most “libertarians” still favor reproductive rights.
Now the differences:
- Anarchists reject the state, especially its repressive functions. By and large they don’t object to its social welfare functions, which they see as ameliorating the worst effects of a grossly unfair distribution of wealth and income.
- “Libertarians” support the state, especially its repressive functions, and reject its social welfare functions. Many of them have social Darwinist views, see the misery of the poor as a good thing, and want to increase it by destroying what’s left of the social safety net.
- Anarchists believe that the world’s natural resources should be shared equally. (Who created those resources? And why should only a few benefit from them?)
- “Libertarians” believe that the world’s natural resources should be in the hands of those ruthless enough to seize them, and their heirs.
- Anarchists believe that wages should be equal, with perhaps additional pay for those doing dangerous or distasteful work.
- “Libertarians” believe that grossly unequal income is not only acceptable, but desirable—again due to social Darwinist views—and they have no problem with those doing no useful work receiving the highest incomes and those doing dirty, dangerous work receiving the lowest.
- Anarchists believe that workers should democratically control their workplaces, their working conditions, and what they produce.
- “Libertarians” believe that workers should live under a workplace dictatorship (their employer’s) and have no say in either their working conditions or what they produce.
- Anarchists by and large accept scientific theories and conclusions.
- “Libertarians,” more and more, deny them.
This denialism is especially noticeable in the climate change debate. Anarchists almost universally accept the scientific conclusion (backed by an overwhelming majority of scientists) that climate change, global warming, is real and is a terrible threat to the planet. More and more “libertarians” deny it. Some go further. Two of the leading funders of the climate-change-denial industry are the “libertarian” Koch brothers (heirs, whose money comes largely from fossil fuels).
Michael Shermer, editor/publisher of Skeptic and a leading and consistent “libertarian” intellectual, provides further testimony of “libertarian” climate change denial:
[A]t the 2013 FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas—the largest gathering of libertarians in the world—…I participated in two debates, one on gun control and the other on climate change… [T]his year I was so discouraged by the rampant denial of science that I wanted to turn in my libertarian membership card. At the gun-control debate… proposing even modest measures that would have almost no effect on freedom—such as background checks–brought on opprobrium as if I had burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution on stage. In the climate debate, when I showed that between 90 and 98 percent of climate scientists accept anthropogenic global warming, someone shouted, ‘LIAR’ and stormed out of the room. (Scientific American, October 2013, p. 95)
“Libertarian” climate change denial is hardly surprising. Climate change denial has absolutely nothing to do with libertarianism in its traditional, leftist sense. What it does have to do with is capitalism. If the predominant conclusion of climate change science, that climate change is largely man made, is correct (and it almost certainly is), that means that the laissez-faire “invisible hand” article of faith is spectacularly wrong on perhaps the most important issue of our times. For that article of faith to be correct, the unbridled pursuit of profit by the fossil-fuel energy companies could not lead to disastrous results the world over. Science indicates that it does, so out goes science. All of this is evidence that “libertarian” ideology in the U.S. is nothing but a minor variant of laissez-faire capitalist ideology, and one that grows increasingly indistinguishable from it with every passing day.
Since the 1960s, American laissez-faire capitalists have turned the meaning of the once useful word “libertarian” on its head. And, still, virtually no one challenges them on their gross misuse of the term.