My Kind of Debating Partners: The Libertarian Socialists
So I was browsing the website of the Workers Solidarity Movement this morning, prompted by posters around Dublin announcing their upcoming march and rally for a decent public heath service, when I found a pamphlet, complete with footnotes and a bibliography, arguing for universal healthcare.
Radical health reform, in terms of creating equality and accessibility, and stopping the agenda of privatisation and for-profit medicine, is one of the great challenges facing Irish society. In this pamphlet, anarchists explain the reasons why such change is needed, give examples of important first steps in creating change, and describe the type of struggle that is necessary if we are going to win.
It’s really quite an impressive pamphlet, both in its detail and research, though I didn’t didn’t quite have time to read it all. I wanted to find out some more about their overall perspective.
I discovered that they are in fact a very interesting group. For example, they say that they support individual freedom, socialism, and democracy; they see themselves as building a “broad libertarian movement” comprised of anarchists and libertarian socialists. They are influenced by Mikhail Bakunin.
I have read about this philosophy before, though not from the WSM, and my rather rough suspicion is that these folks are attempting to square some circles with only a compass and a straightedge. Perry de Havilland has written a fairly combative article on libertarian socialism, in response to another by Peter Hain, which explores some of the conflicts inherent in the conception:
The notion that a completely politicised democratic ‘society’ of the kind advocated by Hain could by its very nature allow any personal liberty whatsoever in a meaningful sense is manifestly absurd. If you cannot opt out of something you have not previously agreed to, in what manner are you free? If society is totally political, then you may have ‘permissions’ to do this or that, won by the give and take of democratic political processes but you do not have super-political inalienable rights at all. Politics can in theory make you ‘free from starving’ perhaps (in practise of course it tends to do the opposite), but what about being free to try or not try, some course of action? When every aspect of life is subject to the views of a plurality of other people, there is no liberty to just try anything at all on your own initiative. What Hain is arguing for is by his own words collectivism.
I need to reflect some more on this, but I imagine that the contradiction of describing libertarian socialism as compatible with individual freedom is basically wrapped up in the collectivist view of class which is retained by its proponents. It seems to me that any ideology which views people according to their membership of a perceived collective, be it the class, nation, race or religion, is doomed to struggle with incoherent notions of liberty.
Having said all of this, I hope that WSM members who read this will take it in the spirit in which it is intended – that of constructive criticism. I clearly agree with them that radical and fundamental change in our mode of social organisation is required. I agree with them that entrenched interests are due most of the blame for holding this back. And I agree with them on some substantive issues, most notably in global affairs (e.g. my strong opposition to war and military adventurism).
Nothing can hide the fact that I think libertarian socialism would lead to the end of civilisation wherever it was attempted. But people like these are clearly interested in exploring alternative points of view, so I think they have some potential, if not to show me where my classical liberalism is wrong, then to evaluate it and agree that it accurately explains political and economic reality.