Separating Out: Nihilistic Libertarianism Since 1990
Separating Out: Nihilistic Libertarianism Since 1990
Movement Libertarianism has always faced the problem of libertarians who care about little in the grand scheme of things; only the size or presence of the state commands their attention.
Our announcement of a shift from Austro Libertarian to Bastion Magazine was met with two general reactions: 1) enthusiasm at the prospects for a wider audience and subject scope; and 2) concern that we were abandoning our Misesian-Rothbardianism. Those still in camp two can stop worrying—this was the last thing on our minds. As noted, marketing strategy and a broader audience were important to us.
One of the more obvious themes in that piece, as well, was the failure of libertarianism as a movement, as a brand, and as an entire persona. The criticism we made toward libertarianism in this sense should not be construed as a criticism of the logical propositions that make up the doctrine itself. And this isn’t the first time the entire movement is being called into question by those who assent to (agree with) the propositions of the libertarian doctrine itself.
In 1990, frustrated with the libertarian movement as a whole, and the typical libertarian as a person, Lew Rockwell wrote an essay in Liberty Magazine: “The Case for Paleo-Libertarianism.” This effort was an attempt, as Rothbard later commented, by those Rockwell-Rothbard libertarians to “separate out” from the libertarian movement in general. It was an attempt to preserve the libertarian doctrine from the libertarian world. This essay sparked the beginning of the now-controversial paleo-years; a coalition between the Rothbardian libertarians and paleoconservatives— those opposed to the Movement Conservatism that had dominated conservatism since Bill Buckley.
While the coalition itself failed, it is worth reflecting on the precise complaints of the paleo-libertarians during these years, as I think they quite accurately reflect the disillusionment of so many present dissenters from mainstream libertarianism.
First, Rockwell pointed out that “political freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the good society…. Neither is it sufficient for the free society. We also need social institutions and standards that encourage public virtue, and protect the individual from the state.” Not only did most libertarians completely ignore this, but there was also a pronounced emphasis in libertarian circles (“especially those in the Libertarian Party”) on “equating freedom from State oppression with freedom from cultural norms, religion, bourgeois morality, and social authority.”
That is, at that time, there were those libertarians (the paleos) who agreed with the paleo-conservative stance on the importance of social institutions, traditions, virtue, and cultural normalcy… and there were those libertarians who rejected these as not worth cherishing. Here, Rockwell argued, was an area in which conservatism should be completely agreeable if libertarians are to have a more robust social outlook to contextualize their “thin” libertarianism.
Rockwell’s frustration was that it was far and away the minority position to be in the former camp and the libertarian movement was completely overrun by the latter group such that when one refers to the typical or run-of-the-mill libertarian, it is safe to say he was either against or apathetic toward the things the conservatives esteemed.
Thus, unfortunately libertarians were primarily marked and characterized by “cultural anti-norms.” It was not enough to say that “libertarianism per se” does not necessitate the libertine culture often associated with libertarianism, the fact of the matter, in an observable empirical sense, was that libertarianism as a movement was in fact dominated by this type of counter-cultural individual. Rockwell writes:
The Libertarian Party is probably irreformable-and irrelevant even if it weren't. Libertarianism is neither. But unless we cleanse libertarianism of its cultural image, our movement will fail as miserably as the LP has. We will continue to be seen as a sect that "resists authority" and not just statism, that endorses the behaviors it would legalize, and that rejects the standards of Western civilization.
Of course, while Rockwell was critiquing those libertarians associated with the Libertarian Party, he also stated that the general movement would need a deep-rooted cleansing, lest it fail like the LP. This was his prediction. And here we are.
Unfortunately, the trend has gone in the opposite direction. The libertarian world has become more like the LP, there has been increased rejection of the standards of an older Western civilization and social institutions; a heightened embrace of cultural leftism.
Dominated by "Nihilo-Libertarians"
While the above may not appeal to all libertarians in our time, as they feel they are neither libertine nor culturally traditionalist, the deeper problem lies in what Murray Rothbard referred to as nihilo-libertarianism. It is here that many of us find the primary object of our own disillusionment with the “movement,” with libertarianism as a socio-political identity.
Few libertarians have taken the initiative to understand that libertarianism in our time is being plagued by a nihilistic disease; that is, the typical libertarian is so consumed by his emphasis on being against the state that he has no regard or interest in the broader social battle being waged not merely by the state, formally speaking, but by a leftist cultural narrative that pervades entertainment, the arts, education, corporate branding, and the media. As will be elaborated in a future article, this is a result of the lack of libertarian interest in subjects such as sociology, the dynamics of the movement of history, the analysis of society's institutions and social frameworks, and the making of culture.
While it's not demanded by libertarianism as a doctrine, the plain fact of the matter is that real life libertarians have a myopic view of the social affairs and they desperately need to expand their horizons and look into other disciplines to better understand civilization and the dynamics of the real world around them. The reason most libertarians in terms of the movement have not looked deeply into these areas is that, quite frankly, they just don't care.
Moreover and even more fundamental, the social nihilism has so infected the movement that most libertarians can hardly think about any issue except in terms of coercion and non-coercion; he moves from topic to topic applying the non-aggression principle to every step of the conversation without realizing that there is much to learn, and care about, from sociological analysis in a variety of other disciplines. This doesn't make the NAP "wrong." But are we so consumed by libertarian doctrine that it is the only thing we can think about, the only quality that can define our social preferences?
As one critic of our shift observed (paraphrase): who cares if the West, and all its memories and lessons, is whisked away from our minds forever. My own commitment to freedom has little to do with that.
The nihilist libertarian has this as his mantra: “as long as it's voluntary, I offer no judgement;” his reaction to every topic of social decay and civil strife is: “we can’t force other people to live as we want.” There is no motivation on the part of the nihilistic libertarian to make socio-ethical judgements, to argue on behalf of a certain culture, to long for the preservation of anything from over a thousand years of Western history, to renounce elements of social degradation. After all, these do not concern him; they are outside the purview of his narrow interest.
Libertarian-onlyism is the idea that everything else is but a shadow behind the pre-eminent role our stance on the state should have in our socio-political identity. They are nihilist libertarians because all is meaningless and inconsequential as compared to the ultimate quest to shrink or eliminate the state. Any conversation about the collapse of the traditional family, the inability for graduates to read or write, the rising phenomenon of loneliness and meaninglessness in our era of the crisis of modernity; all these are just dismissed as irrelevant aspects of historical development. If we could just shrink the state, the argument goes, we could solve all other problems.
To the typical libertarian, everything outside the singular issue of the growth and activity of the state is a sideshow; it is in the voluntary sector and is therefore of lesser importance. And therefore, since coercion vs. non-coercion is the particular struggle of the age, libertarians should reject coalition and unity with all those except libertarians. Under this framework, what matters chiefly in our time is libertarians grouping together, independent of all other convictions and sentiments, on the mere basis of our opposition to the state.
Our move to Bastion Magazine is a revolt against libertarian nihilism. That is, we are rejecting the tendency to adopt a libertarian-onlyist mentality. Paleo-conservative critics of modernity, of progressivism, of social decay, and the loss of meaning in the world overtaken by leftism are to be considered allies in the civilizational struggle. Even if their technical disagreements with the rigid and rational libertarianism of Rothbard and Hoppe are forever present. Or as Jeff Deist recently stated, “I don't care whether someone has libertarians views or not. I care if they lack the courage or simple common sense to see the Left for what it is.” This is an echo of the spirit of Bastion Magazine.
On the subject of working together with other libertarians solely on the basis of their libertarianism, at the exclusion of all other values, Rockwell quoted two conservatives who stand in opposition to libertarians: Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. Rockwell starts with Kirk:
Russell Kirk is the conservative critic libertarians find most offensive. He claims that the libertarian, "like Satan, can bear no authority, temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics" as a matter of principle. As a result, there "is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism."
And then Nisbet:
A conservative critic libertarians find more congenial is Robert Nisbet. But he too worries that "a state of mind is developing among libertarians in which the coercions of family, church, local community, and school will seem almost as inimical to freedom as those of the political government. If so, this will most certainly widen the gulf between libertarians and conservatives."
One of the things about the conservative mind that libertarian sympathizers often miss is that conservatives talk in terms of what is observed, not what is logically derived. This is because conservatism operates more at the sociological level rather than the rationalistic constructivist one (we should consider leveraging both for different uses). Thus, the two quoted arguments are not that libertarianism necessitates this culture, but rather that, in the real libertarian world, this is what is to be observed.
If this is true, Lew Rockwell lamented, if Nisbet and Kirk are correct in their observations, why should we embrace this libertarian movement even if specifically on the nature and logic of statism, we agree with their libertarian doctrine? Rockwell pointed out that even if the formal doctrine of libertarianism is true, which we all believe it is, we should not make this the single object of our coalition.
So then, we are not the first libertarians to express frustration with the libertarian movement. A supporter of our shift offered his enthusiasm on the basis that "libertarianism has gotten tired. I've left all the groups. It's the same memes, the same taxation is theft jokes, the same hot takes on every issue. And yet, I feel like I don't know much at all about larger social narratives. It's just emptying."
If our goal is to understand and interpret the world, we need to branch out. And since libertarianism is such a narrow topic of norms about the rules governing human interaction (with implications about current state activity), it doesn't get us very far. So we need to learn from other areas. One of these is economics. Another is sociology, another historiography. We want to interpret the world, to discover the nature of human affairs, and understand the prerequisites for a sound society.
But far too often, those of us annoyed at, even completely embarrassed by, “libertarians,” the libertarian brand, and the Libertarian Party, frame our frustration with the following: libertarianism has been corrupted and taken over!
This sentiment is a result largely of seeing libertarianism primarily as a Ron Paul phenomenon. A large number of libertarians between the ages of, say, 25 and 35 came into the fold because of the Ron Paul moment. Ron Paul was a libertarian of the Mises Institute faction of Austro-libertarianism. Ron Paul was also personally conservative, bourgeois, religiously oriented, and had a firm foundation in the rhetoric and context of a rightist-constitutionalist sentiment.
What has become of what we now know of libertarianism, eight years after his final and biggest profile campaign, is a libertarianism of a completely different species. However, this does not mean libertarianism as we now know it is a unique phenomenon in the “movement’s” history. In fact, an objective reflection on the libertarian identity crisis would show that nihilistic-libertarianism is the norm, the rule, not the exception or anomaly. As Hans Hoppe reflected:
Not surprisingly, then, from the outset the libertarian movement attracted an unusually high number of abnormal and perverse followers. Subsequently, the countercultural ambiance and multicultural-relativistic "tolerance" of the libertarian movement attracted even greater numbers of misfits, personal or professional failures, or plain losers.
Our recent move is not a mere push toward what we consider to be the proper definition of libertarianism. This is rather a reflection about the failure of the libertarian "movement" and its culture, part of which stemmed from its complete ignorance of anything outside libertarian theory. The objective here is not to save libertarianism’s definition, it is to dehomogenize and separate two completely different camps. That is to say, there is a major illusion that libertarianism is our glue: to save liberty we must first save libertarianism. This is far from the case. As Lew Rockwell wrote in the above article: “there is no more powerful unifier or divider” than culture.
The move to Bastion is not a move to qualify libertarianism, to adjust it, to move away from its purity. Rather, we are echoing the same frustration first felt by Rockwell and Rothbard with a libertarian movement that has characterized political liberty as the only (or primary) struggle worth fighting for. We do not want this publication to be thought of as an outlet that accepts or rejects content on the basis of its Austro-libertarian subject matter. We are convinced that there is more to be said about sociology and history and culture and civilization that fall outside the purview of the Austro-libertarian phrase. We don't want to fall under Rothbard's criticism of most libertarians:
the average rank-and-file member of the most ineffectual Trotskyite sect knows far more about world affairs than all but a tiny handful of libertarian leaders.
We want to think about more than just libertarianism, narrowly conceived. Rothbard felt the same way in 1991:
We are saying, in short, that liberty is great and we don’t wish to weaken or dilute it by one iota, but that for us, at long last, it’s simply not enough. We are still hard-core libertarians, but we now are not willing to settle, as a movement, for liberty alone. We insist upon liberty plus.
That is, we are not adding to libertarianism, we are rather fighting for so much more. Rothbard was exactly right all those decades ago when he wrote:
the libertarian world has been sunk, for years now, into torpor at best and advancing decay at worst. It has been marked by a lack of new ideas, of new thoughts or strategies. In the last decade, libertarian ideas have been advancing and permeating throughout the world, but apart from the specialized area of free-market economics, libertarian institutions have been steadily crumbling and falling into total irrelevance in American culture. Instead of meeting the challenge of chronic deterioration and decay, movement leaders have huddled around, hunkered down, and desperately stepped up their host of scams and bunco schemes, precisely like leeches accelerating their vampirism as their host‘s blood gets ever thinner and less nourishing.
Far from this all being a statement against the Libertarian Party, this is an indictment of the general libertarian movement:
But while the Libertarian Party is indeed irredeemable and has in fact not yet been subject to enough of an expose, the Party is not the sole problem. For the Party is simply the most visible, and most organized, institution of the movement. The sickness of the Party is only the visible reflection of the underlying rot of the movement as a whole.
That is why Lew and I are not calling for a new Libertarian Party or for an immediate replacement as a substitute mass institution for the movement. The disease cuts far deeper, and so the solution must be far more radical, and unfortunately must take longer than another quick fix.
Lew Rockwell stated in his January 1990 article that it had been thirty years since there was an attempt at a libertarian-conservative coalition in what was then referred to as fusionism. And in 1990, it was time to try again with a paleo-libertarianism. Well, this coming January, when we will publish our first Bastion issue, marks another thirty years since Rockwell’s paleo-libertarian manifesto. Nothing has changed. Libertarianism as a movement and subculture is as it was. Perhaps Hans Hoppe was correct in his own explanation for this phenomenon.
The objective in our move is hardly to make a plea for a new conservative-libertarian coalition. We don’t have the audience or pull for such a grandiose call to arms. And in any case, there is not much of a decentralist, localist paleo-conservatism to speak of. 1990 is behind us. Paleo-conservatism was also broken down. The anti-NeoCon conservatives (though we appreciate their sentiments and demeanor against the left) have chosen the new National Conservative route. Our interests are more along the Paul Gottfried regionalist conservatism; itself a rare breed. Paleo-libertarians associated with the Mises Institute would do well to pursue partnership with them over the mainstream libertarian movement.
However, we will make this prediction: in our world of ravage leftism, corporate “wokism,” authoritarian cultural progressivism, there will be a rightist reaction—like it or not. And the libertarian world will continue to splinter; it will not develop toward unity. There is no libertarian moment on the horizon. The Ron Paul-era libertarian unity has broken down and the coalitions of the next decade will formulate along cultural, not political lines.
Libertarians will begin to see themselves not primarily as libertarians in a world of statism, but as either apathetic toward, or highly critical of, the leftist cultural revolution. We believe the new coalitions will be for or against internationalist-universalism, egalitarianism, expanded democracy, multiculturalism, and so on. With libertarians and even the GOP split right down the middle; we believe there will be an anti-Trump (perhaps post-Trump) "libertarian" (read LP)-neoconservative soft coalition.
As this is our prediction, we have made our move: the libertarian movement is no longer meaningful. The left is dangerous and an enemy to all that we love. Libertarianism and Austrian economics are important, but so is the cultural context in which they are propagated.
We do care about the cultural-civilizational crisis. We are not nihilist libertarians. We do want to preserve the memory of the West, to learn from its mistakes and triumphs. We are concerned about so much more than just the state. Thus, those who share in these concerns are allies, and those who do not are not. Our libertarianism therefore is secondary. It is important and vital, it is our asset, but it is not the singular source of our interpretation and analysis of cultural decadence. If this puts us at odds with the general spirit of the typical libertarian in our time, so be it. There's bigger things to worry about.
Was Murray Rothbard right to be disillusioned with the "movement" in the 1990s?
Once my old friend Ralph Raico, commenting on some movement atrocity or other, took his cue from the wonderful line in the movie The Godfather, when Lee Strasberg, as the Meyer Lansky-type, was delivering Old World homilies to Corleone: ‘When Moe was killed (by the Corleones) did I say anything? Did I ask questions? No, because I said to myself: This is the business we have chosen.”
Ralph paraphrased this into “This is the movement we have chosen.” Okay. That worked as a consolation of sorts for years. But we paleos have had it. We’re opting out. We’re unchoosing the movement.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.