Thanks, Libertarians. But We’ve Got This

Let’s have a debate over the Left and the state. But not on the libertarians’ distorted terms.

A certain strand of left-wing anti-libertarianism has aroused the ire of my colleague Peter Frase. But his critique is hard to follow — its object has been a moving target.

In a post last week, Frase used Sean Wilentz’s recent New Republic hit piece on Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald as a jumping-off point to condemn “some on the Left” who believe “defending the possibility of government requires rejecting any alliance with libertarians who might criticize particularly noxious aspects of the existing state.”

But in a follow-up post, he clarified that he wasn’t advocating a literal “alliance” with libertarians. Rather, he explains:

I lump in left critics of Glenn Greenwald or Edward Snowden’s ‘libertarianism’ with obvious partisan hack like Sean Wilentz [because] their arguments all point to the same thing: not a clarification of the Left’s politics, but merely a stigmatization of anything that attacks the security state, as if that’s somehow incompatible with the values of the Left.

But that explanation doesn’t compute either. Of the two “left critics” Frase offered as examples —  Mark Ames and David Golumbia  — neither appears to be engaged in a campaign of blanket “stigmatization of anything that attacks the security state.” Ames has praised 1970s CIA whistleblower (and actual defector) Phillip Agee — whose own politics were firmly on the Left, Ames notes, unlike today’s leakers — for helping to spark a number of valuable restrictions on the security state. Ames compares him favorably to Assange and Snowden.

David Golumbia recently wrote (in an online comment) that private intelligence contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton are “every bit as serious a problem for freedom as is surveillance directly conducted by governments, and by dint of being formally outside of oversight, may be even more worrisome.” That may or may not get the issue just right, but it doesn’t sound like a knee-jerk defense of the NSA to me.

Frase quotes “libertarian-ish” blogger Will Wilkinson making a point similar to his own — that “it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false.” But the only named person to whom Wilkinson attributes that fallacy is . . . Sean Wilentz.

At this point, I’m not convinced there actually are any left-wing apologists for rampant NSA spying.

But that doesn’t mean Frase is merely chasing phantoms. He is gesturing, somewhat wildly, at an old and knotty problem for the Left: the question of the state, its nature, and its uses. This insightful passage provides a hint of Frase’s real concerns:

And yet there is the persistent temptation to invoke the genie of state repression despite the Left’s documented inability to make it do its bidding. That can take the form of “humanitarian” warmongering or what Elizabeth Bernstein has described as “carceral feminism”: “a vision of social justice as criminal justice” that attempts to deploy the repressive power of the state to protect women who are portrayed as helpless victims.

The issues Frase is pointing to are real. The problem, though, is that somehow in talking about the Left and the state, he has gotten himself mixed up talking about libertarianism. Libertarianism, to put it mildly, is not helpful for the Left. As a political philosophy that revolves obsessively around the secondary question of “the role of government,” it’s an irrelevant monomania at best. At worst, it’s a rhetorical decoy that uses procedural anti-statism as cover for a series of private tyrannies.

Like many others, I’ve been put off by the tone of Mark Ames’s criticisms of Glenn Greenwald. But it’s hard to deny his observation that the cyberlibertarian milieu of Snowden and Assange is bathed in a sensibility that marries personal gestures of rebellion — courageous as they may be in those two cases — with an ambient Social Darwinism, bristling with contempt for the weak.

Hence Assange’s admiration for Ron and Rand Paul and his flirtation with the Australian far-right. Hence Greenwald’s tirade against the Latin American left’s “crazed enthusiasm for worn-out, socialist/collectivist policies” and his opposition to “unmanageably endless hordes” of immigrants who “pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate.” Hence Snowden’s attraction to the gold standard, his fear that Obama’s stimulus would debase the currency, and his desire to abolish Social Security because it corrupts the elderly by “sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day.”

There’s an argument to be made that “now is not the time” — that political critique of these whistleblowers could be harmful or misused at a moment when they’re under relentless pressure from the secret state and its apologists. That is an argument I respect, although it’s not the argument Frase is making.

What makes no sense, however, is to condemn such criticism on the grounds that it fails to contribute to “a clarification of the Left’s politics”: if there’s anything that cries out for clarification, it’s the question of how the Left should relate to, and distinguish itself from, a reactionary political philosophy that has a knack for attracting would-be iconoclasts and rebels.

So by all means, let’s have a debate over the Left and the state. But let’s not do it on the libertarians’ distorted terms. Let’s not lend comfort, as Frase unintentionally does, to the low-brow right-wing talking point that claims that the Left’s desire for equality actually masks a passion for state coercion for its own sake. That talking point will soon enough be turned around against Frase’s own politics: after all, for the vast majority of those who identify as libertarian, the intrusive IRS audits that will be needed to sustain his favored Basic Income policy are as bad if not worse than any amount of NSA spying.

And to play devil’s advocate, what fundamentally distinguishes the state coercion of those audits from the false solutions of “carceral feminism” — state punishment for the sake of social justice — that Frase rightly deplores? Or from the NSA itself? These are perfectly legitimate theoretical questions. Libertarianism is of no help in answering them.

Henry Farrell rendered just the right verdict on the Wilentz thesis in the Crooked Timber piece that inspired Frase’s original sally:

If imaginary-Edward-Snowden were running for the Senate, and I was thinking about whether to vote for him, I’d find his views on welfare very, very relevant. Since actual-Edward-Snowden is running from the government for leaking security information . . . not so much.

Snowden is not running for Senate. But he is an object of adulation from the progressive left — for good reasons, mostly — despite his association with a noxious ideology inclined to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted.

Coming to grips with this incongruous aspect of the contemporary landscape is not just trolling — it’s a worthwhile task for the intellectual left.