What is Libertarian Socialism?
Libertarian socialism is fundamentally an effort to replace hierarchal State governance that is based on violence and coercion with systems based on free association, lateral accountability, and cooperation. In essence, a libertarian socialist society is a self-managed society where there is no separation between those who govern and those who are governed.
That’s worth restating: the left-libertarian alternative to the State isn’t “no government”, it’s collective governance and self governance instead of government imposed from above via force.
There are obvious limits to a self-governing society free from State coercion. First, and most obviously, it requires a functioning and healthy civil society and some significant degree of social cohesion. It can’t work in an atomized society like the North American Settler culture where people’s sense of responsibility to their community has been deliberately eroded and “freedom” is often interpreted to mean the ability to hurt people without consequences. To make such a project work, you need a culture where freedom and responsibility are inextricably and explicitly linked, where people believe that individual self-actualization is only possible in a community, and we recognize that humans are social creatures and we need each other. It also requires a sense of connection to place and to the natural world. Native Americans didn’t need the EPA to tell them not to destroy their homes, but the settler culture has proven over and over again that it cannot be trusted not to destroy everything in its path.
That means in order to get there, we have to start by changing our culture.
There are many potential models for Libertarian Socialism, both inside and outside the western “Anarchist” tradition. Ideologies are useful lenses to understand sets of ideas, but they all blur at the edges and carry baggage. If we can shed that baggage, we open up new possibilities.
What follows is one of a nearly infinite number of potential proposals for how a libertarian socialist society might look. Other visions might be radically different in important areas. These are my own thoughts and I’ve borrowed heavily from thinkers and writers in the anarchosyndicalist, mutualist, social ecologist, indigenist, communalist, and chicano nationalist and black nationalist movements.
What might a left libertarian society look like?
In a society where the State has been abolished, the basic political unit becomes an individual or a community. Typically this means a village, town, or neighborhood. This is one of the core recurring ideas that links Chicano nationalist thought (as typified by the Plan de Santa Barbara de Aztlan and other foundational documents), with Huey Newton’s Inter-communalism, Zapatismo, Social Ecology, Kurdish Democratic Confederalism, and social anarchism.
All of these models are based on free networks of self-governing and self-managed communities, as most communities through the vast majority of human history have been. None of them relies on the States.
This is an important point, in virtually all pre-state societies, local communities were more or less self governing. A king or an emperor might demand taxes for protection, but outside of capital cities, the day to day life of a village or town was controlled by the people who lived there. This idea of a strong central government that makes all the important decisions about people’s lives is less than 400 years old! Looking at the incredible damage capitalism and the state have wrought in that time, it’s clear that the State is a failed experiment.
So what do you replace it with? While it would be absurd for me to try to legislate the political structure of a hypothetical future society from my desk, there are a few core principles that are common across the various political traditions mentioned above.
- Free association – society should be organized from the bottom up, not the top down, and that organization should be voluntary. If a community wishes to secede from a larger body to which they are attached it is their absolute right to do so.
- Lateral accountability – hierarchal systems of accountability consistently fail to hold people at the top of the hierarchy accountable. Horizontal structures where peers hold each other accountable are far more effective. This is true among groups of individuals and it’s true for groups of communities.
- Smaller is better – lateral accountability only works up to a certain scale, past which point the mental bandwidth of keeping track of who did what when becomes too much and accountability breaks down.
- Non-aggression – using offensive violence or even the threat of it to achieve political ends destroys the social fabric and cannot be tolerated. Aggression must be met with resistance. This does not mean pacifism. Self defense is always legitimate, aggression is never legitimate.
- Decentralization – the more power is distributed the more opportunities there are to maintain accountability. Further, human diversity means that different communities will often have different ideas about how best to do things and decentralizing power allows decisions to be made at the most local level possible.
- Self management – Every person and community that has a stake in a decision should get a vote in that decision, and people who are not stakeholders should not be making decisions for people who are. One of the biggest problems with State based systems is the division between the people doing the governing and the people who are governed. Libertarian Socialism erases this division.
- A radically decentralized economy based on free exchange of goods and ideas. That could be market-based, as in mutualism, it could be planned as in anarcho-communism, or it could be a hybrid of the two. That’s a decision for the people who live in that society to make.
- An approach to technology and science based on creating solutions and technology that serves humanity and our planet – not driving profit margins for the owning elite
Social goods in Libertarian Socialism
Unlike State-based systems that start with an army and a police force to assert control, a libertarian socialist system of governance builds legitimacy by serving the public good. This most often comes in the form of strong social safety nets, enforcing environmental protections, and other activities that directly improve people’s quality of life.
Critically, there’s no reason those functions should be part of one single institution. The unitary State that handles everything from safety regulations to national defense to arts funding is an artifact of the way modern States grew out of monarchies – allowing the aggregated interests of the Capitalist class to replace monarchies, but otherwise leaving the structure virtually unchanged. Freedom will require outgrowing such structures.
By breaking the State up so each of its useful functions are handled by a separate autonomous institution, you fragment its power.
If each of these new social institutions is autonomous, there’s no reason why they should all have the same borders either. After all, modern Nations are the result of States imposing boundaries on a fluid world map. A syndicate (group of people in charge of a specific function) in charge of providing drinking water should probably map its borders to the water tables or the bio-region, while a syndicate for research biologists might be distributed globally. A syndicate in charge of coordinating healthcare across a region should probably map to a specific urban area and its suburbs. Transportation infrastructure would likely be managed by a network of autonomous regional syndicates that coordinate across regions to make sure the roads connect and the trains arrive on time. Those syndicates and networks of syndicates could grow as large or shrink as small as is practical. Freed from rigid State boundaries, each function would be free to find the form that best serves its use case.
Breaking the State up into all its constituent functions would insure that school funding and programs to take care of the sick or build transportation infrastructure can never again be put on the chopping block to pay for programs that only benefit a minority, because their funding streams would be completely separate. The result of that would be a tremendous victory for everyone campaigning to fully fund schools, social programs, and other programs that actually help people.
Funding to support these institutions can be handled any number of ways. I think it’s likely that most communities would opt to have a set percentage of all the wealth an individual or collective produces be paid into a common fund. Those who don’t want to opt in would not be forced to do so, but also would probably not be welcome to stay in that community. The result is something closer to collective bargaining than taxation – a group of neighbors pooling funds to pay for something that helps all of them instead of systematic theft by an unaccountable State that squanders the money on war and corporate subsidies.
In practice the details of funding would be up to the communities that want access to the various syndicates’ services, and most syndicates would likely offer some sort of sliding scale for less prosperous communities. And if no pre-existing syndicate is willing or able to supply a necessary service, there’s nothing stopping people in a self-governing self-managing community from starting their own. Don’t like PG&E? Currently, there’s a state-backed monopoly in place stopping your town from setting up a community grid! In a truly Libertarian system, people are free to start their own.
Socialism without the State
Under Capitalism, land is owned by individuals and in Marxism it’s owned by the State. In a libertarian socialist system it’s not owned at all.
Instead, land and resources are managed collectively by the people who use them. Primary goods such as machinery (factories still exist, even if not many of them are in the US any more) would belong to the workers and communities that created them or who voluntarily traded for them. Returning all the wealth stolen by capitalists and their predecessors is a necessary pre-condition for a free market since unequal access to startup capital creates massive barriers to entry and wildly distorts the market.
Science and technology are likewise part of the common heritage of humanity and must be collectively owned by everyone. Every innovation is built on other innovations that preceded it. In a world that rejects the concept of intellectual property, I might very well come up with an innovative new machine, but anyone else who wanted to could create their own version of it as well – and improve on it. In return for sharing my improvement to the pre-existing technology I gain access to all the improvements others create to mine. These principles are already well established in the world of open source and work well in practice all over the world. Rules governing the details of how all this is managed could be set by trade and industrial associations – a role that many labor unions already play. I’m sure some people would attempt to keep their innovations to themselves, at least for a while, but there are very few truly unique ideas in the world and eventually everything would get added back to the collective since it would no longer be possible to use legally enforced patents and copyrights and stifle innovation.
This is an incredibly powerful difference. Currently, science and technology serve the interests of Capitalists and States that fund them and their progress is constantly warped by the need to drive returns on investments or increase the State’s power. In a libertarian socialist system, access to knowledge and the ability to use best-in-class tools to solve problems is made available to everyone.
Rather than relying on States or philanthropy to save people, this economy would be designed to empower people to save themselves and solve their own problems in their own way. And, in so doing, share the resulting innovations with others who may be facing similar problems. From computer systems to malaria research, this approach liberates human ingenuity and makes progress serve humanity – not the bottom line.
Meanwhile, collective ownership of the means of production and the abolition of wage labor means that individuals own the full value of everything they create – and are able to exchange that value with anyone else. In practice that could mean simple co-working arrangements or full on democratically run worker owned businesses.
There would be no corporations, no state-backed limited liability or fiat currencies, no bailouts, no regulatory capture, no inheritance, no intellectual property; just free people working together to produce and exchange the things they need to live. I believe that this free market socialism, also known as mutualism, is the only form of socialism that can ever achieve the goal of a self-managed and truly egalitarian society. Others disagree, and that’s ok.
And, of course, if a community decides they want to go full libertarian communist and institute income sharing they are free to do so. I believe such arrangements are unlikely to last, but I’m open to being proven wrong. Political decentralization opens the floodgates for experimentation, and as people discover newer better ways to do things you would expect to see other communities follow their lead and iterate. But they would be doing so independently and voluntarily, not based on the dictates of billionaires, technocrats, or a ruling party. In a real way, this creates a free market of ideas, and as different communities and collectives try different things, others are free to follow their lead and take what works – or not – as they see fit.
Startup capital for new businesses and collectives can come from credit unions, existing syndicates, community funds, or other sources; but the ownership model does not allow people to trade monetary investment for ownership in an enterprise where they do not work themselves. There is no stock market. No landlords. No rent-seeking.
Because no one would be able to use private ownership of the means of production and the threat of starvation as a weapon to steal the surplus value other people create, no one would ever be able to amass the fortunes that are possible under capitalism. No one in all of human history has ever earned a billion dollars, but capitalism has let a few greedy sociopaths steal billions of dollars from workers, and then use that stolen wealth to reshape the world in their own image. In a mutualist economy, a skilled craftsperson or a hard worker could certainly have a comfortable existence, but their maximum wealth would be limited by the value that an individual can create over a lifetime. On the other end of the scale no one would be paid starvation wages and left destitute. It’s not perfect equality, but it is freedom.
Libertarian Socialism and Defense
Defense and policing in all forms of libertarian socialism follows a militia model – not like the crazy right wing “militia’s” in the US, but a democratically run and accountable version of the national guard. It would be made up of citizens who have other jobs but spend a set portion of their time every year training and are able to step in protect their fellow citizens as needed. In times of conflict, the result would be similar to the CNT’s democratically run worker’s militias that fought fascism in Catalonia in the 30’s or the Zapatista and Kurdish YPG where volunteer citizen armies have successfully repelled aggressive States and liberated their homelands.
In any society there will need to be some group of armed citizens to deal with threats, but having people do that all the time as their only job produces a violent mindset that jumps to the use of force as the first option. It also means that police and military are used for all sorts of things where they aren’t really the best option. Soldiers are not disaster relief workers, police are not mental health counselors, and using bodies of armed people to respond to every crisis – as most States do – creates violence and oppression. By funding and supporting nonviolent solutions and making an armed response the absolute last option, you eliminate the need for policing as we know it. This is the logical conclusion of current calls to defund police and defund the military.
The end result of this is a global network of networks, free people and communities self-managing their own affairs. It would be a society with no States, no clear borders, no presidents, no CEO’s, no extremes of wealth. That’s my utopia.
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