[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
I’ve argued, some would say ad nauseam, that the libertarian struggle against statist oppression needs to be integrated (or re-integrated) with traditionally left-wing struggles against various sorts of non-state oppression such as patriarchy, racism, bossism, etc.
My position finds support, albeit in a less than straightforward way, in Rothbard’s article “Contempt for the Usual” in the May 1971 issue of Libertarian Forum.
This might seem an odd article for me to cite on behalf of my leftist heresy, since the article is a sustained attack on cultural leftism generally and feminism in particular. But I maintain that Rothbard’s arguments, no doubt malgré lui, actually support my position.
Here are some crucial excerpts:
For apart from the tendency on the Left to employ coercion, the Left seems to be constitutionally incapable of leaving people alone in the most fundamental sense; it seems incapable of refraining from a continual pestering, haranguing and harassment of everyone in sight or earshot. … The Left is incapable of recognizing the legitimacy of the average person’s peaceful pursuit of his own goals and his own values in his quietly sensible life. Many libertarians who are enamoured of the principles of Maoism point out that, in theory at least, the decentralized communes and eternal self-and-mutual-criticism sessions are supposed to be voluntary and not imposed by violence. Even granting this point, Maoism at its best, forswearing violence, would be well-nigh intolerable to most of us, and certainly to anyone wishing to pursue a truly individualist life. For Maoism depends on a continual badgering, harassing, and pestering of every person in one’s purview to bring him into the full scale of values, attitudes, and convictions held by the rest of his neighbors. … The point is that in the Maoist world, even at its most civilized, the propaganda barrage is everywhere.
To put it another way: one crucial and permanent difference between libertarians and the Left is in their vision of a future society. Libertarians want the end of politics; they wish to abolish politics forever, so that each individual may live his life unmolested and as he sees fit. But the Left, in contrast, wants to politicize everything; for the Left, every individual action, no matter how trivial or picayune, becomes a “political” act, to be examined, criticized, denounced, and rehabilitated in accordance with the Left’s standards. … The Women’s Lib movement, of course, has been in the forefront of this elevating of hectoring and pestering into a universal moral obligation. …
One would hope that the free society of the future would be free, not only of aggressive violence, but also of self-righteous and arrogant nagging and harassment. “Mind your own business” implies that each person attend well to his own affairs, and allow every other man the same privilege. It is a morality of basic civility, of courtesy, of civilized life, of respect for the dignity of every individual. It does not encompass all of morality, but by God it is a necessary ingredient to a truly rational and civilized social ethic. …
The crucial point here is that those libertarians whose only philosophy is to oppose coercive violence are missing a great deal of the essence of the ideological struggles of our time. The trouble with the Left is not simply its propensity for coercion; it is also, and in some sense more fundamentally, its hatred of excellence and individuality, its hostility to the division of labor, its itch for total uniformity, and its dedication to the Universal and Permanent Pester. And as it looks around the world, it finds that the main object of its hatred is the Middle American, the man who quietly holds all of the values which it cannot tolerate. … [O]ne of the great and unfilled tasks of the rationalist intellectual, the true intellectual if you will, is to come to the aid of the bourgeoisie, to rescue the Middle American from his triumphant tormentors. … In the name of truth and reason, we must rise up as the shield and the hammer of the average American.
So how does all this support my position? Well, notice that Rothbard here treats the principle of minding one’s own business as broader than the non-aggression principle; he criticises “those libertarians whose only philosophy is to oppose coercive violence” for not recognising that minding one’s own business implies a rejection “not only of aggressive violence, but also of self-righteous and arrogant nagging and harassment,” even when such nagging and harassment involve no use of force against person or property.
In short, then, Rothbard in effect agrees that a pervasive attitude of such “intolerable” Maoist-style criticism, even if peaceful, would be a form of oppression, and one that libertarians should be concerned to combat just as much as they combat actual aggression. And this is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been saying too. Restrictive cultural attitudes and practices can be oppressive even if nonviolent, and should be combated (albeit, of course, nonviolently) by libertarians for some of the same sorts of reasons that violent oppression should be combated.
Of course, Rothbard’s point might seem to support mine only generically, not specifically – since he identifies feminism, rather than patriarchy, as an instance of the form of oppression he’s concerned to combat. As Rothbard sees it, “the Middle American, the man who quietly holds all of the values which [the Left] cannot tolerate,” is inoffensively minding his own business, while feminists and other leftists who attack his values are refusing to mind their own business, and are instead subjecting the ordinary mainstream American to “a continual badgering, harassing, and pestering … to bring him into the full scale of values, attitudes, and convictions held by the rest of his neighbors.”
I think this is the wrong way to understand the nature of the complaints that feminists and other leftists are bringing. That’s not to say, of course, that we feminists et al. are never guilty of the sort of thing Rothbard is referring to; any ideology can be, and every ideology surely has been, defended in obnoxious, officious, and intrusive ways, and feminism is no exception. But the question is whether that’s the whole story, or even the main story, with the feminist criticisms that Rothbard is talking about, and I claim it isn’t. The way to understand the criticisms that we feminists bring is to see that from our point of view it is patriarchy that refuses to leave people alone – that the process by which patriarchal attitudes are promoted, inculcated, and reinforced amounts precisely to “a continual badgering, harassing, and pestering of every person [especially women] in one’s purview to bring [her] into the full scale of [patriarchal] values, attitudes, and convictions held by the rest of [her] neighbors.”
The point of feminist criticism is thus not to politicise the reproduction of male supremacy but rather to identify the political character it already possesses, and the aim of a feminist political movement (understanding “political” here to denote any organised movement for social change, whether peaceful or violent) is to defend women against such oppression, to serve as their “shield and hammer.” And ditto, mutatis mutandis, for the defence of workers, gays, ethnic minorities, etc., against various forms of oppression which, while indeed often supported by violent means (statist or otherwise), are by no means confined to such means. To whatever extent Rothbard’s “Middle Americans” are complicit in such oppression, they are to that extent not minding their own business – and leftist attempts to correct their attitudes are then strictly defensive, in service rather than violation of “a morality of basic civility, of courtesy, of civilized life, of respect for the dignity of every individual.”