The political path of a freethinker

Freethinkers tend to progress in 2 distinct political directions as a rule of thumb. Socialism and Libertarianism. But nobody notices how they are part of a bigger picture.

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 indoctrination ((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)). 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 mentioned ((h/t to redditr commernie)) 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 there ((Which I attribute to them investing too much of their life to accept that they might be wrong, or on groupthink)). 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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Is Anarchism Utopian?

Anarchism is more often than not accused of being a utopian ideology with no basis in the real world, but if anything, it’s the only non-utopian system. Here’s why.

Collectivist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin opposed...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s amusing when Anarchists are accused of being too ideological or outright Utopian, it is especially so when such an accusation comes from liberals or state socialists (i.e. mainstream Marxists). Why is it amusing? Because of all political perspectives, Anarchism (i.e. Libertarian Socialism) is the only one whose theories have not been refuted by history itself!

This “Utopian” accusation generally comes from two general sources. First there are those who support the current Capitalist system as is (in the 1st world countries of course) and only propose mild changes, such as more or less regulation of the economy. These would generally be the Social Democrats (or “Liberals” in US politics) or Conservatives in most political systems.

They would argue from the perspective that the Capitalist/State combination is not only “the way things are” but also the only way things can be. They would then raise such arguments as the common appeal to human nature, that Capitalism is the “end of history” – in that its superiority has been proven from an societal evolutionary perspective, that the state is necessary to ensure control from the people (i.e. representative democracy), that Capitalism provides the best benefit for all etc.

But one has to ask: who is really the ideologue here? Who is assuming an expertise of human nature in order to have some kind of unshakable base? Who is ignoring the historical forms of human societies (hint: communal) and the considerable amount of coercion required by the state in order to jump-start Capitalism? Who is absolutely oblivious the true role of the state and the real impotence of elections and government to change life for the better through normal channels, even when there is considerable popular request for social reform?

Worst of all, it’s the more than ironic result of this superior system, Capitalism, that the vast majority of people live in worse situations than they lived in pre-capitalist societies. One only has to look at the situation in the lost continent, Africa, and compare it with the pre-capitalist tribal societies, which while not great by any measure of the word, were never as bad as today. One only has to look at the current environmental obliteration, the sheer scale of unending conflict and even the relative worsening conditions of people in all nations to ask: Who is really the ideologue here?

The other great accuser of utopianism is none other than the mainstream Marxist movements of Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism and the like. The younger (who somehow think itself more mature) and patronizing cousin of Anarchism.

As revolutionary anti-capitalist movements, they at least share some of the correct critical perspective on the current Capitalist system but they lose the ball when they turn around and accuse libertarian socialists of being naive for not promoting centralization, hierarchy structures and movements from above, that is, leadership from a minority of enlightened few.

The saddest thing is not that they have to misrepresent the arguments of Anarchism in order to attack their favorite straw-men (“Anarchists will not defend the revolution” being a crowd favorite), nor that they ignore what some of their own have written that basically parrots the libertarian perspective, but that they dare claim historical proof, when empirical facts have shown that their theories put in practice failed in exactly the manner that Anarchists had predicted!

Is the federalist libertarian perspective Utopian, or is the centralized authoritarian one when it fails both in theory (power corrupts, requires inhuman knowledge, leads to bureaucracy etc) and in practice? Is a bottom-up democratic society Utopian or the top-down hierarchical one who expects leaders to be practically flawless and that “real power” will somehow still remain at the hands of the people? Is the “similar means as the ends” anarchist position Utopian or is the Leninist “ends justify the means” which expects a revolution where people just passively followed orders from the enlightened few can somehow lead to a society or politically active and empowered individuals?

In the end, who is the ideologue? The one who looks at how humans currently and historically acted and interacted and makes a revolutionary theory to describe and lead to something better, or one who makes a theory which proves to be a failure in practice and then refuse to discard it? Oh, the authoritarian socialists will say that “Of course we will learn from the mistakes our historical leaders made, we of course don’t want to repeat them. Terrible tragedy” and all that, but that is no more different than the Liberals who after every Capitalist crisis declared that they will learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure a future with no Crises and depressions. And when the next disaster comes, they are always oh so surprised.

This convinces few for it’s the theory’s core of hierarchy and authority that is flawed and by refusing to review that they only doom themselves to similar results and suffering of scale.

And finally, there’s also the right-“libertarian”, pro-capitalist, free market “anarchist” camp. But those don’t generally accuse others of utopianism for they’ve probably learned that those living in glass houses don’t throw ideological stone around.

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What is Socialism?

Did you know that there is more than one type of Socialism? The welfare state is just one (popular form). The revolutionary from-below socialism is another.

If there’s one thing that has been as misunderstood and misrepresented as Communism, that must certainly be Socialism. What it means to be a socialist nowadays, for most people, has very little to do with how the term was used in its origins of the 19th century. There’s not much point in rehashing the history of why this happened but I do want to point a few things about it.

First a very basic definition. At the very core, Socialism means the public or collective ownership of the means of production and a general attempt towards egalitarianism.

There have certainly been a quite a few currents towards Socialism, each attempting to bring it about in a different way. From escapism to revolution and, the most popular one, through reformation of Capitalism. The latest one is how most people today understand Socialism indeed, and that is in the form of a Big Government of “enlightened leaders”.

But just because one current is popular does not mean that it’s the only one and this is why it is disconcerning when I see otherwise smart people writing about Socialism in general as if it conflates with Social Democracy and then attacking flaws of Social Democracy as flaws of Socialism. This denotes either ignorance or laziness and in either case it promotes misinformation.

Certainly, there are enough flaws in Social Democracy or Fabianism to make the whole system fail in regards to Socialism (that is, to achieving collective ownership of the means of production and egalitarianism). What Social Democracy does manage to achieve is rather to alleviate some of the most obvious suffering (mainly by offshoring it or displacing it in time through debt) and thus serves as a palliative to the disease that is Capitalism, preventing societies from ever actually progressing towards Socialism. The fact that many Social Democratic ((The obvious exceptions are the US American parties where the MacCarthian era has hopelessly screwed the usual names. Social Democrats are ‘Liberals’, Liberals are ‘Libertarians’ and Far Right Imperialist Theocrats are ‘Conservatives’ )) parties call themselves ‘Socialist’ is simply the insult to the injury.

But there is another much more important distinction between currents of Socialism which neatly separates the way each tries to achieve it. It’s the distrinction between ‘Socialism from Above’ and ‘Socialism from below’ ((For more information on this, I wholeheartedly suggest you read Hald Drapers “Two Souls of Socialism” which explains it much better than I ever could and I consider it one of the most important pieces on this subject)). The former is the classic kind of “Socialism” where the few enlightened leaders at the top try to bring about and sustain Socialism without needing any action from the general populace either than their unconditional support and submission to their ideas. This is the way that both USSR, and Social Democrats work and it suffers many of the problems that the Atheist Ethicist mentions.

The later way, which incidentally is the one I propose as well, is supposed to be achieved through the acts of the vast majority of people themselves (and not through some form of government).¬† The most popular currents of this type is Marxism and Anarchism and these methods have none of the same failing as ‘Socialism from Above’. It is because of this distinction, that talking of Socialism as if it only means Social Democracy is plain insulting to quite a few Socialists.

So please, if you’re going to talk about Socialism, either criticize what Socialism itself is trying to achieve, or criticize a particular method of achieving it (as in Marxism or Social Democracy). Those two are not the one and the same.

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