[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
An old joke has an alcoholic asking a priest, “Is it okay for me to drink while I’m praying?”
“Certainly not!” says the priest.
“Well, is it okay for me to pray while I’m drinking?” the alcoholic inquires.
The priest responds: “Absolutely!”
I’m reminded of this joke by the disagreement among libertarians over the role of the LP. (See, for example, the exchange between Brad Spangler and Less Antman in the comments section of this post. In fact the present post started as a contribution to that discussion until I decided it merited a post unto itself.) Just as it’s good to pray while you’re drinking, but bad to drink while you’re praying, so it’s good for the libertarian movement that radicals leave the LP, but also good for the movement that the LP have radicals in it.
Let me explain both sides of the paradox. Why is it good for the movement that radicals leave the LP? Because if the best way to achieve a libertarian society is to encourage the populace (via education and counter-economics) to withdraw consent and render themselves ungovernable, thus leaving the state apparatus to collapse – as opposed to seeking liberation through the state apparatus – then electoral politics is a counter-productive form of education, since it instead encourages people to continue looking to electoral politics as the natural venue for political change.
Why is it good for the movement that the LP have radicals in it? Because although electoral politics should never be the primary focus of libertarian education, so long as there is a self-proclaimed libertarian political party, whatever it says or does is going to have an impact on people’s perception of libertarianism, thus making the job of education easier or harder as the case may be. A libertarian party that puts forward relatively radical/leftish candidates like Ruwart thus helps the cause of radical libertarian education more (or, if you prefer, hinders it less) – in that respect, at least – than a libertarian party that puts forward relatively moderate/conservative/statist candidates like Barr. (No, I don’t think the adjectives “moderate,” “conservative,” and “statist” are interchangeable, exactly, but that’s another story. They’re all bad anyway.)
The paradox isn’t a contradiction. There is a respect in which radicals help the cause of agorist education by participating in the LP. There is a different respect in which radicals help the cause of agorist education by repudiating the LP. The question is how to weigh these two respects against each other. Most participants in the dispute seem to think it’s obvious how to weigh them (though their answers differ), but I don’t find it nearly so obvious.
To most people, the word “libertarian” means the Libertarian Party. One might react to this fact by feeling that it is vitally important for radicals to steer the LP in a radical direction so as to project the right image. One might instead react by feeling that it is vitally important for radicals to repudiate the LP loudly and forcefully so as to undermine the mistaken identification. I myself feel the pull of both considerations fairly strongly.
A repudiationist will argue that even if what the LP says does influence the success of agorist education, the solution is simply to abolish the LP. Maybe so, but there’s no magic button that will abolish it. In any case, there are also some strategic reasons for wanting such a party around come the revolution, for reasons I’ve discussed before. So I don’t think the case for repudiation is ironclad.
On the other hand, I certainly don’t think the case for participation is ironclad either. For one thing, there’s a strong case to be made for its being impossible – or at least bloody difficult – for radicals to work effectively in the party. Whatever we do in the party will either succeed or fail in making the LP more popular. If it fails, then obviously whatever we’re doing is not effective. If it succeeds, then more people will join the party, but the likely result of that is watering down the party and moving it in a moderate direction. Arguably this is already happening.
Less sees reason for optimism in the fact that “after 6 ballots 45% of the delegates still wanted an openly anarchist candidate.” Yes, that is some reason for optimism. But is the party likely to get more radical or less radical after the Barr-Root campaign? What kind of people is that campaign likely to bring into the party – people more likely to swell that 45% or more likely to diminish it? Surely the latter. Are there enough radicals to offset that trend if they got involved in droves? It’s not obvious.
I’m not arguing for any particular conclusion here. I’m through with the LP for this election (it’ll be the first since ’88 that I haven’t supported the presidential nominee), but I’m not committed to abandoning it forever. Though I’m not committed to going back either. (I let my membership lapse years ago, so I can’t have the satisfaction of formally quitting to protest the Barr-Root nomination.)
The good news is that in the end I don’t think that much turns on this issue. I think the pro-LP side tends to exaggerate the benefits of a libertarian political party, but I also think the agorist side tends to exaggerate the extent of harm that it does. Electoral politics is in the end peripheral to the central tasks of libertarian education and building alternative institutions.
Agorist Demerit Count: 4.5