The political path of a freethinker

The end of the path along Redhill/Storeton
Image by jimmedia via Flickr

I’ve written in the past on what the obvious trend for freethinker’s political orientation is but the more I talk and interact with libertarians online, the more I notice a second, more passive trend which seems to be present in the political history of those people. The Libertarian Socialist Pull.

This means the general tendency to move towards the left or, to put it a bit more practically, start giving more weight to concepts of justice, mutual aid and equality, as well as the tendency to move towards liberty which means to start demanding the right to manage all aspects of your own life without a higher authority and prioritize direct action. The first part then expresses the empathy all humans possess for others, while the second expresses the individualism which allows each human to naturally distinguish themselves.

It is no wonder then that the more someone experiences, the more they start to notice all the aspects of our current existence which limit those expressions and if this is coupled with thinking freely about them, that is, when someone does not have any irrational beliefs which would prevent them from looking at and judging the underlying causes, (eg “Goddidit”) then it is only natural that the truth will be found and lead to some uncomfortable conclusions about all the things we’ve considered normal until now.

This is by no means an easy process and can be as difficult as a deconversion if one is to start from a point of heavy indoctrination1. As such, it is a gradual progression, with people slowly discovering the puzzle pieces which just don’t seem to fit right, no matter how you turn them and then discarding them, only to discover that a whole chunk of the puzzle has now become disconnected and can be discarded as well.

From what I’ve observed, it seems that there are generally two paths towards Libertarian Socialism, one from Socialism and one from Libertarianism and which one people start walking depends on their upbringing and general circumstances and experiences. But in broad strokes, I would say that we can talk about two types of human personality which are more susceptible to either pull: Empathetic¬† – which is positive towards Socialism and Individualist which prioritizes Libertarianism. Why? Because the personality one has will define which difficult questions the freethinker will choose to investigate first.

Where one starts in the current political spectrum is not so important but it generally also correlates to one’s personality as well (although of course irrational beliefs one has not yet discarded play a large role). However as one asks the pointed questions and discovers that the easy answers are unfulfilling or just do not stand the light of reason so do the answers one discovers pull them more towards the Libertarian or Socialist pathways. You’ll notice I’ve split these two for now because it may very well be the case that one may initially move away from the other side as the initial answers which make sense, feel like a breath of cool air among stagnating fumes, and as a result are accepted with less rigor as one strives to investigate the whole spectrum of thought these ideas originate. In fact, I would say it’s rare for one to move simultaneously towards socialism and libertarianism at the same time.

EDIT: I realize that there is something I probably should have mentioned2 as it is quite important: What is it that causes some people to be empathetic while others to be individualistic? The answer to this is the material conditions one lives in. For example, wage-workers are quite unlikely to be individualists as the constant interaction with fellow human workers and the actual experience of the dreadfulness of wage-slavery is sure to fan the flames of empathy and mutual aid as they seek to collectively improve their lot and resist against the bosses. On the other hand, those lucky few who get to be entrepreneurs have the uncommon chance to experience liberty of action and control of one’s own destiny which make all interventions by a state seem as a horrible violation of rights. For them then, individualism becomes the primary basis of ethics. It is in fact for this reason that the individualists are always so outnumbered compared to socialists as there’s far more wage-slaves than there’s entrepreneurs or rich people.

As a general observation, the Socialist path will usually lead one towards Social Democracy while the Libertarian path will lead someone towards Liberalism (“Liberalism” and “Libertarianism” respectively for all you Yanks) but sooner or later one will discover the inability of the state apparatus to perform the tasks one expects from it (Protect public interests or Protect private property respectively for each path) and will take anti-reformist turn to revolution or anti-statism.

Thus we end up with something like this (Where “|>” symbolizes the break with reformism) :

Empathetic: Apolitical > Social Democrat |> Socialist > Vulgar Marxist (eg Stalinist, Maoist etc).

Individualistic: Apolitical >¬† Free Market Minarchist |> Liberal > Vulgar Libertarian (eg “Anarcho”-Capitalist).

Now it is very possible that someone will progress all the way to the far side of this path and stay there, or be brought up with such a ideology in the first place and just stay there3. But what I’ve noticed happening more often than not, is that after the break with reformism, freethinkers reach a dead-end and start noticing the impassable barrier posed by the following fact:

You can’t have equality without liberty and you can’t have liberty without equality.

The reasons for this have been explained many times by lots of anarchists so I won’t go into much detail other than to say that the practical implications of it make themselves known by the actual experience of everyone who has had their rights trampled by the state (even the “worker’s state) or their lives disrupted or ruined by the capitalist bosses.

Once this is noticed, then the second part of the freethinker’s journey begins as Libertarians and Socialists move towards their converging point. Anarchism.

My own experience of course has not been much different. I started profoundly apolitical but very empathetic. As soon as I linked the huge societal and environmental issues of our time to the economic system we live in I started moving towards a State Socialist direction, taking a break with reformism once I read the arguments against the failure of the parliamentary process and finally rejecting the need for a state in socialism as something counter-productive.

On the other side, I’ve seen and heard of many examples of Individualists, even at the extreme end of “Anarcho”-Capitalism coming to reject that ideology and start espousing more leftist concepts to the point of passing into the anti-capitalist camp altogether. The best historical example of this is of course Voltairine de Cleyre while in own online circles I’ve noticed (among others) Francois Tremblay and just yesterday Sean from the Skeptical Eye, both of which started from Objectivism no less.

In fact, the latter was what triggered me to write this post as it’s something that I seem to notice almost monthly lately. This was because we had quite clash a while back when both of us were more in our respective polar ends so when he explained that he’s almost abandoned his pro-capitalist ideas, it was just a very powerful real-world example of what I was thinking already.

None of this of course is meant to imply that one is not a freethinker unless the progress towards Libertarian Socialism anymore than one can expect a freethinker is always right. Of course I think people who have not yet embraced Anarchism are wrong but this is only logical, this does not mean that they are close minded. However I do have the impression, backed by experience, that the Libertarian Socialist Pull is in fact real for freethought.

And that is a cause for hope.

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  1. In fact, deconverting from a patriarchal or otherwise authoritarian religion would be rightly considered just one step in the greater process of the Libertarian Socialist Pull as the causes of such a deconversion are most likely the free thinking about the differences between the theory of faith and the experience of reality []
  2. h/t to redditr commernie []
  3. Which I attribute to them investing too much of their life to accept that they might be wrong, or on groupthink []
  • http://chadmacspeaks.blogspot.com CHADMAC

    I recently discovered your blog and have found it quite interesting to read.

    I am a freethinker and was pretty much raised as a Social Democrat….. which tends to happen when you grow up in Northern Manitoba. I would say that I am currently in the middle of my "break with reformism" towards the Libertarian Socialist view. I think I just need to take some time to read/think some more and wrap my head around practical logistics and such before I completely make the transition…… and that won't really happen until school is finished.

    Keep up the good work. I shall keep reading and may actually comment more if I find some of that "time" thing I've been hearing about.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

      I'm glad to hear that and I hope I'm helping you flesh out your ideology in many exciting ways :)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/FrancoisT Francois Tremblay

    I fully agree with what you said. Furthermore, I now realize that the "anarcho"-capitalist ideology is quite vacuous. However, I realize that I was attracted to it mainly for its anarchist component, not its capitalist component.

  • http://dbzer0.com db0

    That is basically what I was saying already Francois. Most people who navigate towards the AnCap side generally start from a pro-capitalist outlook and simply increase its libertarian aspects to fulfil their individualism. In a similar way, most people who navigate towards State Socialism, start from a pro-state outlook and simply increase its socialist aspects to fulfil their empathy.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/FrancoisT Francois Tremblay

      That makes a lot of sense. I don't know about libsoc in general, but pretty much all left-libertarians followed the individualistic path (we do have a couple of people who came through the other route). I think this really hits on the fundamental truth that equality and freedom are two sides of the same coin.

  • http://twitter.com/noor91 @noor91

    Great insight. Count me in with Franc and Sean (except that I was never a full Objectivist) as another that arrived from individualist anarcho-capitalism.

    • Yosef

      Count me in as well. Though oddly enough, my own journey started in high school with embracing an odd mash of anarchism and State Socialism (though always leaning towards anti-government), doing a complete flip and joining the Libertarian Party, then once again shaking off the state all together into ancap… and evolving to libsoc. It's been an odd but enlightening journey.

  • John Weathers

    I recently discovered your blog through your excellent post distinguishing between private property and possession. I'm enjoying reading your writing.

    My own journey was from conservative Republican (raised as one) to Libertarian (in the US sense) to borderline anarcho-capitalist to libertarian socialist. Unlike I suspect most people commenting here, I happen to be a Christian and my wrestling with my faith and its call for social justice and community played a significant part in my political journey in addition to various writings I came across in print and online including the wonderful Anarchist FAQ.

    While I came primarily via the individualistic path that you described, empathy played a large role in breaking through some of my boundaries once I started examining the destructive and authoritarian nature of private property and began to question its basis.

    I look forward to reading more of your site. Keep up the good work!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

      That is really good news and an excellent story of personal change to boot. If you are a Christian I cannot recommend Tolstoy enough in case you haven't read him.

      I also understand that empathy must have played a role. If it didn't you would have probably stayed as an AnCap. However I'm interested in a bit more detail on this. What kind of employment did you have while this change occurred? Were you self-employed or a wage-worker? If the latter, under what kind of position?

      • John Weathers

        I love Tolstoy! His "What I Believe" and "The Kingdom of God is Within You" were quite instrumental in my process of coming to see anarchism as the logical political philosophy for a Christian. Like Tolstoy, I also practice non-violence.

        When I was a Republican, I was a teenager living with my lower middle-class parents and attending a public magnet school for advanced students. I didn't have a job back then as my parents provided me with an allowance for doing household chores.

        As I went on to go to college to study mathematics, my attraction to logic, structured, principle-based reasoning as well as my individualism led me to shift towards the Libertarian party. I ran into Ayn Rand's Objectivism, but found it more like a repugnant cult and a school of thought for people who wish to feel superior to others and justified in selfish behavior rather than a group truly dedicated to logic and rational thought.

        After college, I went to work for a software company as a programmer (not a large corporation, but not a small startup either). At some point, I began to study the Bible more closely and found my studies pulling me ever closer to the anarcho-capitalist edge of Libertarianism. Around the same time, the US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent invasion of Iraq pushed me to examine my position on war and violence and its relationship to my faith. My understanding of the figure of Christ in New Testament pushed me towards rejecting violence and led me to seek out writings on the subject of non-violent resistance. At the church that I attended at the time, a sermon on community referenced the book of Acts where I found an account of the early church that struck me as a clear example of a primitive form of communism. Meanwhile, my studies of the Bible were really driving home the Christian teachings about social justice and concern for the poor and oppressed.

        All of the above things sort of came together and pushed me to a place where my mind was opened to different possibilities. Before then I had kind of shut myself to considering that the left had any serious or logical political ideas. This was because my experience with many "liberals" (US terminology) during my formative years had left me with an impression that their ideology was rooted in emotionalism rather than logic and facts. When I questioned this view, I immediately saw it collapse as I found many examples of logical and rational discourse from the left readily available online.

        At some point, I ran across Noam Chomsky and when I saw that he considered himself a libertarian socialist, I was immediately curious because it sounded like a contradiction to me. Soon I found myself devouring the Anarchist FAQ and reading the writings of Tolstoy. That was back in 2003 or so.

        I would definitely say that my job environment during the time when I found the Anarchist FAQ helped contribute to my openness to its ideas. I've always been a wage-worker (if a privileged one in that my wage puts me into the upper middle class), and my company was purchased by a large corporation that made its presence felt with lots of decrees that pissed many employees off and that did not even take their opinions into consideration. People would receive privileges just for holding places in an arbitrary spot in the hierarchy. There was also the sickening fact that when one's company is sold, you are essentially sold right along with it – as though you were a commodity. This environment really made it easy to see the authoritarian nature of the work place all around me while I read about it in anarchist writings.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

          Thanks for the long reply John. That's a very interesting story of personal change. If you don't mind, I may write about this in the future.

          • John Weathers

            I'm glad you found it interesting. Please do feel free to write about it in the future if you see the seed of a post in it.

          • Anon73

            While the story is commendable the reality is that most Christians throughout history have been motivated to enable rulers and exploiters. Although it is laudable that some can take Jesus teachings to anarchist conclusions, most people have not. I agree with the AFAQ that while religion has had some great figures and thinkers like Aquinas, Tolstoy, and others, most of the time religion is enlisted in favor of oppressors and misery and not in favor of freedom. It sounds ironic but that's how people are.

          • John Weathers

            I think that, rather than religion itself (with some exceptions/qualifications), the real problem is hierarchical religious institutions. Hierarchy naturally allies with other hierarchy to preserve and re-enforce privilege. The early Christian church was a very different phenomenon than the hierarchical institutions that evolved from it and later mated with the State.

          • Anon73

            That is a valid point, and I certainly wouldn't say that all religious settings were authoritarian. Nevertheless, if you look at all of human history it seems religion has been that way most of the time, whether you account for it as good intentioned acolytes being led astray by worldly power or as an inevitable result from worshiping divine beings and putting humans into a "divine hierarchy".

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  • http://twitter.com/noor91 @noor91

    Oh, another historical one– I'd count in Konkin (founder of agorism and Movement of the Libertarian Left, which evolved into the ALL). Originally affiliated with the "anarcho-"capitalist movement, he also moved leftist/'post-capitalist':

    "This is Konkin’s astonishing view that working for wages is somehow non-market or anti-libertarian, and would disappear in a free society. Konkin claims to be an Austrian free-market economist, and how he can say that a voluntary sale of one’s labor for money is somehow illegitimate or unlibertarian passeth understanding." (Rothbard, http://www.anthonyflood.com/rothbardkonkin.htm)

    Oh, and my favorite part from that piece by Rothbard:

    "Furthermore, Konkin is clearly unfamiliar with the fact that the emergence of wage-labor was an enormous boon for many thousands of poor workers and saved them from starvation."

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  • TehHawt

    This article is turning several definitions on their head for me. You've given me so much to think about. Thanks for a though provoking post!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/db0 db0

      glad to be of interest :)