Archive for the Bertrand Russell Category

Libertarianism, Anarchism, Socialism and Democracy

Posted in activism, alternative, alternatives, analysis, anarchism, Bertrand Russell, Chomsky, Jefferson, Kropotkin, libertarian, libertarian socialism, libertarianism, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, politics, right, right wing, Ron Paul, social theory, socialism, sociology, the right, Thoreau on April 19, 2011 by jtoddring

Fundamental questions


The future of humanity on earth


Further reflections on political economy in the real world

The questions of philosophy, and in particular, political philosophy, are of course large: and the implications of our responses, vast, far-reaching, and profound. We must take a moment to gain, as much as we can, a fresh look at things. From this freshness of perspective, we can gain a basic clarity of view. It is that basic clarity of mind, combined with a basic and shared goodwill and a courageous spirit, that we shall prevail; that victory over injustice and tyranny, as well as the madness of ecological self-destruction, shall be won; and we shall have, as human beings on this earth, and our children shall have – even more importantly – a better and brighter future than any of us might have dared to imagine, or dream of. It starts with clear-eyed and honest, thoughtful reflection. It starts here, now, in this moment, as in every moment. The future is wide open, but to create out of this vast openness, and not out of precluded possibilities or blinkered, presumptive, shallow thinking and narrow prejudice, requires our full attention and our well-considered thought. Let us dive in. There is much to discuss, and much to reflect upon. We can afford, and must demand of ourselves, a few moments of reflection, or else we will continue to rush madly and headlong into our own enslavement and self-destruction – which is the path we are currently drifting upon, and drifting with increasing speed, toward that cliff which approaches now. Let us stop for a moment, pause, and consider or reconsider, our groundwork assumptions, in a little more depth perhaps than we are ordinarily inclined, so that we can muster the clarity with which to act in the greatest interests and for the greatest benefit for all, including for ourselves, for our children, and for our children’s children.


I heartily agree with Thoreau on most subjects, including his views on government: he is at once a far-sighted idealist, and also a very clear-eyed pragmatist, with his feet firmly on the ground. His thought is always refreshingly lucid, frank, honest, good-hearted and direct, and he is a definite kindred spirit. A quote from him will open this short essay on political philosophy:

“I heartily agree with the statement, “That government is best which governs the least” – and I would like to see it acted up to more readily and more completely; and I would extend it to say this: that government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that is precisely the kind of government they shall have.” (Emphasis added.)

Thoreau here makes it clear that he is a kind of grassroots Jeffersonian democrat, with strong anarchist inclinations. He goes on to clarify precisely what he means, however, in order that we have no confusion or misunderstanding in our minds: “But I would not count myself among the no-government men. I do not call, at once for no government, but at once for a better government. Let every man state what kind of government would command his respect, and that shall be one step towards attaining it.” In other words, anarchism is the long-term ideal, but men and women are not likely ready for it just yet. In the meantime, let us have the least heavy-handed government possible, and also the most noble that we can create. Thoreau is, in a word, eminently sane. (The very well-considered views of Chomsky and Bertrand Russell echo Thoreau on this point as well, and both are of a rare lucidity, generally speaking – though naturally no one is infallible.)

All forms of elitism and authoritarianism are based in the urge to control and repress. The impulse to control and repression is based, clearly, in fear. The problem with control complexes – be they in personal life or the political sphere – is that they tend to compound problems, and end up creating more problems than they solve. As the old sage and first philosopher of Taoism, Lao Tzu said, “If you want to control the cattle, move back the fences.” He continued to say, with emphasis, “The greatest danger is the excessive use of force;” “Trust them: leave them alone.” And, as Jefferson said, piercing the Hobbesian delusion to its core, “If you can’t trust people to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others?” We would be wise to ponder these statements at length, and in depth. Or as Chuang Tzu, the second major thinker and sage of Taoism has said, “You should govern a large country like you cook a small fish.” That is, lightly.

Jefferson, Thoreau, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and others of like spirits – such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Chomsky, Bookchin, Rianne Eisler, David C. Korten, Ron Paul, Kropotkin and Etienne de la Boittee – I would say, are all in a mode of mind which represents a basic clarity with regards to political life and human society. We might want to look more into these thinkers, for they have much to offer us today in light of our current social issues and global crises. We are running headlong into a kind of global neo-fascist corporate feudalism, and that spells the end of both freedom and democracy if we allow this trend to reach its chilling final conclusion. A little quiet reflection is sorely needed now, to avert disaster of the greatest magnitude, to defend over 800 years of rule by law and constitutional due process, to prevent us from being thrown back into “a more brutal age of empires” (as Zbig wishes for us), and most essentially, to secure a future of well-being and freedom for all.


From my own perspective, I would be happy, in the short term, with a form of democratic socialism, with the emphasis on democratic – and for this or any kind of democracy to be just, it must be a constitutional democracy or republic, with the rights and freedoms of all individuals enshrined in and protected by constitutional law. I would be even happier with an environmentally conscious social democracy, or what can be called a red-green democracy – again with the critical emphasis on constitutional democracy, freedom and civil rights for all.

With regards to socialism however, I would have to state clearly that questions of wealth pale in significance to questions of power. Therefore the vertical axis of political thought, which ranges between libertarianism and elitist authoritarianism, is far more important than the more commonly focused-upon horizontal axis of right and left. The vertical axis indicates relations of power, from decentralized to totalitarian. The horizontal axis chiefly emphasizes relationships, dynamics and distribution of wealth, from communal to hyper-individualistic. Wealth shapes power, if it is allowed to do so. The converse is also, and even more fundamentally true: the distribution of power determines the distribution of wealth. Therefore, if we are concerned with equitable distribution of the fruits of the earth or of our labour, we should be concerned first and foremost with the distribution of power. Libertarian socialists understand this; most Marxists and state-socialists seem not to. And in any event, and much more importantly yet, any society that claims to be just or free, but in reality concentrates power in the hands of the few while disempowering and making slaves of the many, is anything but just or free, no matter what it calls itself, or what grand rhetoric it invokes.

There are major questions with regard to economic systems, and above all, with questions of economic democracy, or the lack thereof, which fundamentally pertain to the subject at hand, but these are beyond the scope of this short essay. For excellent reflection, analysis and thought on these subjects, see Bertrand Russell’s Roads To Freedom, along with the writings of Kropotkin, Bookchin, Chomsky, Joanna Macy and Michael Albert.

I would be happy with either a right-leaning or left-leaning democracy, whether it be conservative or liberal, republican or democratic, libertarian or progressive, socialist or capitalist, or any blend of the above, so long as it is a true and functioning democracy, with constitutionally protected rights and freedoms for all individuals, and above all, true rule by the people – unfortunately, such a thing is still very rare anywhere in the world at present: but this is certainly open to change, and change – real change – is coming, and is emerging now, rapidly, all over the world. The tide is turning in Latin America, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and also, though it is still gestational and yet to blow the lid off, so to speak, in North America and Europe. Real change is on the rise, I assure you. Freedom and justice are at hand. Democracy is coming.


To further clarify the fundamentals of democracy and political economy, let the following be stated and the subject matter elucidated. The word democracy is beautiful, meaning, from the Latin, demos kratos: people power, power to the people, power of the people, or rule by the people themselves. The word or idea of democracy must be clarified however, so that it is not abused or misunderstood. Most essentially, for a democracy to be just, noble and free, or even for it to be effectual, intelligent and to function at its best, it must be a constitutional democracy or republic, in which rule by majority vote is held in check and balanced against certain basic laws which are enshrined in a constitution, in order to protect the freedom, rights and well-being of all individuals, and in order that the voices of all may be heard and considered. Without such constitutional safeguards, democracy degenerates into that ugly description of its dark side or dark potential: two wolves and a sheep sitting down at the table, and deciding what to have for dinner. “Tyranny of the majority” is not just a phrase: it is often the reality. This is why democracy requires a constitution, with protection for the voices, rights, freedom and well-being of all individuals.

Another critically important note must be made here: that constitutional democracy and corporatism are fundamentally and unequivocally at odds. The one grounds power in the hands of the people; the other silences and marginalizes the people, nullifying any genuine substance to democracy, quietly or overtly eviscerating both democracy and freedom, along with the destruction of constitutions and rights, while concentrating all power, increasingly and steadily, by coup or slow stealth, in the hands of a reigning financial or economic elite. The one values, safeguards and upholds the well-being, rights and freedoms of all individuals, while the other is a deception: pretending that corporations are real persons, when clearly they are not, so that the corporate powers can trump and triumph over the people. In short, the rights and freedoms of individuals apply to real people, and cannot be applied to or appropriated by corporations. When the latter happens, democracy and freedom are dead or in peril, and nothing but slavery is on the horizon. Failing to understand this antagonism and fundamental difference between democracy and corporatism is the reason that democracy is in peril now (though many, amazingly, still do not realize it) and freedom is facing its darkest hour.


It must be emphasized, that while democracy is the best form of government – that is, rule by the people, and not by any self-proclaimed elite – for democracy to be at its best, or even to function properly at all, it must be bound to constitutional law. In order that democracy may function as the rule of the people, and do this in the best possible way for all, it must be open to the voices of all. This means that a constitution is required in order to provide the grounding of fundamental laws protecting, at the very least, the freedom of the individual from arbitrary arrest, detention, torture or summary execution, along with other basic freedoms and rights, such as the freedom of speech, freedom of thought and belief, and the freedom of expression and assembly of all individuals. Without such protections and safeguards to freedom of person, speech, thought, assembly and expression being constitutionally enshrined and upheld, individuals and minority groups can and often are silenced by the majority, and democracy becomes both far weaker and far less just. Without the safeguards of basic laws enshrined by a constitution which protect and defend the rights, civil liberties, freedom and well-being of all individuals, democracy reverts to a kind of crass and blind rule of the majority, which often and easily degenerates into a tyranny of the majority. For democracy to function well, the voices of all must be heard and not silenced or marginalized; and for democracy to avoid becoming a simple-minded tyranny of the reigning majority, a constitution must enshrine and defend and protect – even cherish – the well-being, rights and freedoms of all individuals. So when we say democracy, let us understand that this must mean constitutional democracy, and not simple majority rule, so that the well-being and freedom of all individuals is upheld and promoted.

It must also be emphasized that for democracy, freedom or justice to be real and to prevail, not only political power, but also economic power must be addressed. As Chomsky put it, cutting as usual to the very heart of the matter, “It is an axiom that power follows property.” If we allow economic powers to become so staggeringly concentrated, as they have over the past 200 years with the rise of the corporation, then we will naturally see the eclipse of both freedom and democracy, all justice will be gone, and we will, once again, be peasants under the boot of feudal lords. If this sounds familiar, it is because we have left unchecked for too long, the staggering growth of economic powers: we are now serfs, and are rapidly becoming slaves. It is not too late, but monopolistic or oligarchical, plutocratic powers of excessive concentrations of financial or economic power, must be checked.

The powers of finance, corporations and the economic realm in general, cannot be permitted to continue to encroach upon, dominate, or functionally eviscerate the democratic process, as they are doing now. This is a basic requirement for democracy and for freedom, as well as for justice – in fact, given the ecological crisis, it is a requirement for any future for humanity at all.

If Tom Paine were alive today, he would be urging revolution, now as then. And he would not be speaking in denunciation of a king, but of a far more grotesque, more pervasive, and all-encompassing form of tyranny than King George could ever have imagined. He would be speaking truth to power, and urging us to resist, to defy, and to overthrow that unjust, undemocratic and tyrannical power which is oppressing and exploiting us, and holding down the freedom, creative power, imagination and true potential of humanity. The power he would today be decrying and urging resistance and revolution against, is the new money powers of the corporate aristocracy and the global corporatist empire, which has arisen over the past 200 years, and which now threatens to swallow up the dreams of humanity, along with our freedom and civil liberties, our democratic process and governments, our wealth and potential and very future on earth.

Thomas Jefferson saw this danger 200 years ago: the very real, and even then, imminent danger of “the new monied aristocracy” and rising corporate powers usurping the powers of the people and of democratic government, and leaving in their place a new kind of slavery and tyranny over the earth. We have failed to listen for nearly 200 years, and so are at a very dark hour. We had better listen now.


To further state my own views as to political philosophy, I would say that I am libertarian, or more simply put, anti-authoritarian. I am not opposed to the term anarchism, but prefer the less misunderstood term of libertarianism, since the elitists, globalists, authoritarians and corporate propagandists have made such a successful attack on the term anarchy that it immediately strikes fear in the hearts of otherwise intelligent people, rendering them blinkered bleating fools, incapable of any kind of rational thought.

It is a libertarianism of the left that I am speaking of here, and not the laissez-faire capitalism which constitutes right-wing libertarianism. Right-wing libertarianism is an oxy-moron, as far as all evidence and logic would indicate. Socially or fiscally conservative libertarians must understand, as many do, that both economic and political powers can and do threaten our basic freedom and well-being; and therefore, it is imperative that both political and economic powers be kept in check and within certain bounds, so that freedom, democracy and the well-being of each and all can be secured and promoted.

Presently, big money is a far greater threat to freedom than is big government – and while I am a fan of neither, I am interested in choosing my battles intelligently: first things first. Reign in the corporate elite, restore the rule of constitutions and democracy, return the power to the people, and then we can go from there.

In order to accomplish these most critical and urgent aims, the people must unite: this means that we must begin to realize that the primary battle is not between left and right – it is between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and the rule by an unchecked and anti-democratic, arrogant and tyrannical, self-serving elite on the other.

The real battle is not between liberal and conservative, nor left and right, but between the people and the would be “masters of the universe.” Let’s get things straight: if we do not come together on the fundamentals – the preservation of freedom, democracy, and rule by the people, there will be nothing left to debate, for we will all be slaves, and democracy shall be no more. It is time for the people to unite. Unite!


We could also call left libertarianism by other terms (hopefully, without frightening too many people into irrationality, or into fits of rage or frothy-mouthed vitriol, or glazey-eyed unthinking presumption, or name-calling stereotyping, or bleeting group-think, or asinine guilt-by-association absurdities, or glib, smug, thoughtless reactionary jingoism, or else into a terrified grab for the remote control and the soft pain of somnambulant self-medication through the great grey tube of the tv and the virtual enslavement system of the mass media trance – the shot in the arm of the digital opiate). To speak in broad terms, a libertarianism of the left can also be described as, or at least closely related to, that which has been called variously, libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism or democratic communitarianism. To put it most simply and directly however, let us say that left libertarianism is most readily and easily, and also most accurately understood, as this: grassroots democracy, with an emphasis on sharing, cooperation and mutual aid.

It is hard for anyone of sound mind and good heart to argue against such a position as this: Jesus meets Jefferson, you could say; or the Buddha meets and meshes with the Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, solidarity and democracy. Left libertarianism evokes our better selves, our higher impulses and thoughts and motivations, and aspires to our highest values as human beings on earth: love and compassion, freedom and democracy, mutual aid and caring, justice for all, and a basic instinct towards peaceful coexistence, cooperation and sharing. Who dares denounce such values openly? I dare them to profess aloud that they despise these things.

Are these values and views out of touch with reality? Are they childishly naive or whimsically idealistic? Hardly. History shows that such a view as this, which is deeply sceptical of all forms of excessive concentration of power in society, is the most lucid, the most sober, and the most prescient and prudent. One need not be an optimist about human nature to agree with a left libertarian view. If one is sceptical about the darker potentials of human nature, then one should all the more be a democrat, and, a democrat in the populist sense, the Jeffersonian sense, or the libertarian sense, for we have seen all too often, too repeatedly, and too gruesomely, that power does indeed corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Therefore, if we are sceptical as to human nature, or at least as to human fallibility, as Hobbes was, we should, unlike Hobbes, be rational, and prevent any one person or group of people from acquiring too great a power in human society. This means, taken to its logical conclusion, that we are strongly in favour of grassroots participatory democracy, constitutional checks and balances and limits on all forms of social power, including, not only political power, but also economic and cultural power, such as media powers or church powers or financial or corporate powers, so that freedom can prevail, and so that no one group or individual can dominate the rest, and so that tyranny, exploitation, oppression and injustice can be averted and avoided, to every extent possible. In short, if you are a democrat, and are rational and lucid, or have given the subject clear-eyed and in-depth thought, then you are a libertarian democrat, or a grassroots democrat, or a Jeffersonian democrat, however you wish to phrase that basic clarity of mind.

This does not mean that one must be socially or even fiscally conservative with regards to political economy or political philosophy. What it means, is that all forms of excessive concentrations of power are regarded with a serious scepticism, and that freedom and democracy are valued, not only in rhetoric, but in policy and action.

To be a true democrat, one must value, in thought, speech and action, democracy and freedom – that would seem to be self-evident, but alas, it is rare. What this entails is this: to be a true democrat (or republican) one must be anti-authoritarian and anti-elitist. And to be a consistent – or one could even say – an intelligent democrat, one must address not only political power, but also economic power. To address both political and economic power, along with a valuing of freedom, justice and truly authentic, substantive participatory democracy, requires one to be both a democrat and also a libertarian. Anything other is simply self-contradictory, irrational, or else either disingenuous or flatly undemocratic.

“‘Rugged individualism’ has meant all the ‘individualism’ for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking ‘supermen.’ America is perhaps the best representative of this kind of individualism, in whose name political tyranny and social oppression are defended and held up as virtues; while every aspiration and attempt of man to gain freedom and social opportunity to live is denounced as ‘un-American’ and evil in the name of that same individuality.” – Emma Goldman

As Chomsky so aptly and cogently summed it up: “You’re either an aristocrat or a democrat.” There is no third choice, in reality; and all aristocratic sentiments and notions are anti-democratic and ultimately tyrannical, if not simply mad. The aristocratic notion of political philosophy or ideology amounts always and most essentially to this one simple-minded thought: I, or else me and my buddies, should rule supreme over all. The infantile grandiosity and megalomania should be readily self-evident to all. To be a genuine democrat is to resist and reject all such notions of elite rule, in favour of a genuine rule of the people, by the people, for the people. In short, you can choose freedom and responsibility, which are a package deal, or you can choose a childish dependency upon a supposed benign parental figure of elite rule, and hope that your slavery is pleasant, or at least not too damaging. I would say in conclusion, we are left with a choice of sanity or madness, and the path of democracy and freedom is the only path aligned with the former.

J. Todd Ring,
March 17, 2011
Prajnaseek on Youtube

See Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, Rianne Eisler, Bookchin, Kropotkin, Aldous Huxley, Erich Fromm, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Emerson and Thoreau for similar views on society and political philosophy.
(See the Nolan Chart for the four dimensions of political philosophy – there are more than two.)

On Libertarianism: Right & Left

Posted in anarchism, Bakunin, Bertrand Russell, capitalism, Chomsky, communism, conservative, corporate rule, corporatism, crisis of democracy, democratic deficit, Eric Fromm, fascism, globalization, Hobbes, Jefferson, Kropotkin, left, Lenin, libertarianism, Marx, neoliberalism, philosophy, Plato, political theory, politics, right, social theory, socialism, Thoreau, war on democracy, World Economic Forum with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2007 by jtoddring

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

~Albert Einstein

Libertarianism is a term that has come to be identified with the right, with limited government, ideals of freedom, free market capitalism and laissez fair economics, however, the term originally meant libertarian socialism, a libertarianism of the left. The distinction of two kinds of libertarianism, or more appropriately, a spectrum of views within what is called libertarianism, is important. Both right and left libertarianism have a deep skepticism about excessive concentrations of state power, encroachments of government power in the lives of individuals and communities, and a belief that ultimately, “That government is best which governs the least.” Beyond this agreement, there are considerable differences between libertarianism of the right and that of the left. But before the distinctions between left and right libertarianism can be discussed, we need to clarify just what is essential to a libertarian perspective, and also, to distinguish between the ideal and the immediate in terms of advocating or working towards specific goals for human society.

Thoreau expresses a very clear and lucid view of the subject, recognizing the ideal, yet also the immediate reality: ideally, and “when men are ready for it,” no government, which we shall have, and which shall be a degree of liberation not yet seen or imagined; but in the immediate sense, not “no government, but at once, a better government.” In other words, work toward and keep in mind the ideal – freedom from state power messing up and intruding on the peoples’ lives, liberty and communities, but also seek more limited victories in the short term: a better government.

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have…..But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

– Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience

Bertrand Russell also came to the same conclusion. His cool, rational conclusion, after a very fair-minded and objective analysis, was that anarchism – from the Latin, an-archos, meaning absence of an over-arching power, not chaos – is likely the best form of human society (as well as the full and self-consistent application of libertarian values), but we are not likely ready for it; in the short term, what he called libertarian socialism is the best order for society to which we can aspire. By that he meant limited government, with all government power kept as close to the community as possible, and as close the hands of the people as possible – as Jefferson urged – but also with strong values of voluntary free association and human cooperation for mutual aid and benefit (a la Kropotkin). Ideally, and in the short term, he recommended we work toward a society where power lies primarily, not in the hands of a few bureaucrats and lobbyists in a far away capital where power is centralized, but in the hands of the people at the level of community, with federations or networks of human cooperation and solidarity, trade and communication between and among communities and individuals for their mutual benefit and protection. Jefferson would certainly agree in spirit if not in all details.

Chomsky clarifies the distinction between long-term ideals and short-term goals within a reasonable and clear-headed perspective which is skeptical of concentrated political power, or any form of social power for that matter:

“Classical anarchist thought would have been more opposed to slavery, feudalism, fascism, and so on, than it would have been to parliamentary government. There was a good reason. Classical liberal thought, and anarchism coming out of it, were opposed to any concentration of power, that is, unaccountable concentration of power. It is reasonable to make a distinction between the more accountable and less accountable. Corporations are the least accountable. So, against the corporate assault on freedom and independence, one can quickly turn to the one form of social organization that offers … public participation and … that happens to be parliamentary government. That has nothing to do with being opposed to the State. In fact, it’s a sensible support for the State.” – Noam Chomsky

This is precisely why I can admire a democratic socialist like Hugo Chavez, who was democratically elected in closely monitored free and fair elections, who has introduced and held public referenda on every major decision faced by the people of Venezuela – a thought inconceivable to the elitist politicians of Washington, Ottawa, London, Paris or Berlin – and who is presently utilizing, with great popular democratic support, the institution of constitutional parliamentary democracy to protect the people of Venezuela from the greatest threat to human freedom and well-being on the planet today: the tyranny of unaccountable private empires – the global corporate raiders. It is no contradiction, therefore, to support libertarian socialism, or left libertarianism, while admiring a social democrat like Chavez. As Chomsky put it, it’s sensible support for the state – under certain limited conditions.

Chomsky as well expresses a view of libertarian socialism, and advocates for a society based on libertarian socialist principles of freedom along with voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. And Chomsky, as well or better than any other, clarifies the distinction of right and left libertarianism. Libertarians across the spectrum are opposed to excessive concentrations of political power, as it is viewed that such high degrees of concentrated political power in society have more often than not created more harm than good – a view that is shared among Jefferson, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Kropotkin, Chomsky and many others.

The history of the world shows that this view is the most realistic perspective on government and political power. The opposing view, that government is the saviour and redeemer of humanity, has brought about Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, Maoism, and lately, neoconservatism, among other evils. The view that is opposed to the libertarian desire to keep political power firmly in check, sees government as a kind of benign big brother, a paternal or maternal figure, a parent that treats citizens like children, who need to be coddled and scolded, controlled for their own good. It is a dangerous elitism, breeding naturally authoritarianism. It comes from a fear of freedom, as social psychologist Eric Fromm correctly pointed out, and not just megalomaniacal dreams of power.

Plato was the most famous and influential of the “government as saviour” camp. The philosopher kings, the wise few, would rule with benign despotism over the hapless and ignorant many. Sounds desirable, maybe, until you reflect that if you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you possibly trust them to govern others? (A flaw of basic logic which was not missed by Jefferson.)

Hobbes furthered the view, presenting the anthropologically ignorant and incorrect view that life before civilization, by which he meant life before centralized government, was “evil, nasty, brutish and short.” The revolution in anthropology that occurred in the 1970’s with the discovery of new and conclusive evidence about our human history prior to the age of empires, refutes Hobbes unequivocally. Hobbes knew nothing of anthropology, of course, and the data would not be revealed for another few centuries, but he was wrong, and we know that now – or at least, we can know that now, although almost no-one is aware that such a revolution has occurred in anthropology and our knowledge of human history: we live in a pre-Copernican time with regard to the general culture’s understanding of anthropology and human history; most still believe the sun revolves `round the earth, though the evidence to refute this fallacy has been made clear.

In any case, Hobbes was engaging in a kind of rational self-deceit. Hobbes view of human beings was jaundiced and pessimistic in the extreme. He felt, as many do, that if there was no powerful over-arching force to restrain human beings, they would instantly rip each other’s throats out, and everything would descend into a war of “all against all.” Again, the anthropological data refutes this terrified view, but even if one were to accept it for sake of argument, it simply begs the question. If you do not trust people, then why would you give a few people extraordinary power? Would this not seem even more dangerous? Who did Hobbes expect to govern us, aliens? Hobbes did not trust people, so he argued that some people have an all-powerful position in order that these people protect people from people. This should strike us as immediately self-contradictory, ridiculous and absurd.

As Jefferson said, “If you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others?” It is therefore not idealistic and utopian to think that government should be kept to a minimum of centralized, concentrated power, but on the contrary, it is a healthy and prudent skepticism that informs such a view.

(When you combine Plato, Hobbes and Machiavelli, you get the neoconservatives – or their mirror image, neoliberalism. You get wildy elitist, authoritarian, ruthless, predatory, self-delusional, megalomaniacal empire fetish. That is what we are experiencing now.)

Thoreau demolishes Hobbes’ fantasy-scape with a few strokes on the pen:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Libertarianism: Right and Left

The libertarianism of the right has a view of power that does not keep to its own self-consistency. It views political power as potentially dangerous, having the great potential to be abused, and therefore needing to be kept in close check. But it does not recognize economic power as a power in society, which is an oversight that is hard to fathom, such power being so plainly obvious. Because libertarians of the right tend not to recognize economic power as a form of power in society, they are unconcerned with its concentrations – even when concentrations of economic power become staggeringly large, as they have over the past twenty or thirty years. This is an oversight that is frankly dangerous, if not delusional.

Libertarians of the left share the skepticism of highly concentrated political power, but, naturally, recognize the potential for harm and abuse from excessive concentrations of economic power. Thus, in the present order of things, corporate power is to be addressed equally, along side state or governmental power. To do otherwise is to contradict oneself, and worse, to leave the door open to serious and extreme abuses of power, and also, to fascism, which, as Mussolini said, is rightly called corporatism, since it is the merger of business and the state (and that is exactly what is happening now, and on a global scale) due to the lack of foresight to correct and put in check all forms of great concentrations of power in society.

Right libertarianism questions, challenges, and repudiates high levels of concentration of political power in society – and rightfully so, I believe – yet it is, or at least has been until recently, unwilling to question the role and nature of high levels of concentrations of economic power.

This is, once again, frankly, a gross oversight, and one that makes right libertarianism a contradiction in terms: you cannot advocate limitations on powers that unduly constrict human freedom and pose threats of tyranny in a self-consistent, coherent, or even rational manner, if you are only willing to look at one form of power in society, and remain blind to others. Economic power is every bit as real as political power – some would say more so.

The 500 biggest corporations on earth now have combined revenues that total three times the GDP of the world’s biggest national economy – that of the United States. If this does not constitute power in society, I’m not sure what would.

OK, well, corporations have immense power, but that does not mean it translates into political power – does it? They are competing with one another. Yes, they are competing with one another, and they also share common interests: drive labour costs and wages down, eliminate or circumvent labour and environmental standards, find the cheapest source of labour and resources and move there, then dominate them, open borders to free flow of capital, but not to labour…..The commonalities are pretty clear.

And do they meet, discuss common interests, work together cooperatively? Of course. Wouldn’t you if you were in their position?

Do teachers join together to pursue common interests, such as decent pay, pension plans, etc.? Do janitors get together to pursue common goals of better pay and working conditions?

It is obvious, or should be, that there are common group interests – or, heaven forbid we use the term, class interests – that bring otherwise competing parties together to pursue common goals. The corporate elite are no different. This is not a conspiracy, but simply common sense.

The world’s corporate elite gather, among other places, at Davos Switzerland, every year for the World Economic Forum, and there seek to push governments to their will, to advance common interests among the elite global investment class, the billionaire class, or the class of ruling oligarchs, to every extent that they are able to do so – and that is a considerable length.

The billionaires, and the large corporations they control, do not control the world – but they certainly dominate it, and they dominate virtually every nation and government on earth, as well as dominating the global economy, the financial system and most of the media. This is, by any sane or reasonable definition, hegemonic power: corporations and the billionaires who control them, now effectively rule the world. The only way to properly define such a system or order of things, is not democracy, certainly, but oligarchy – or plutocracy, or neo-feudalism, or most starkly, and what we are fast approaching in its full, ugly form: global, neo-feudal, corporate fascism.

It is impossible to deny the very real power of corporations in society without digressing into ideological fundamentalism and willful blindness. Refusing to challenge economic concentrations of power while espousing a libertarian philosophy is self-contradictory: right libertarianism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Would a laissez-fair, free-market capitalist, who supports only limited government – a libertarian as it is known on the right – be considered an oxymoron or a self-contradiction if he was also a slave owner? Of course. But it is not very different if a libertarian advocates checks and balances on political power, yet does not question the giant corporate monopolies and oligopolies that now wield more power than democratically elected governments.

Right libertarianism is truly a contradiction in terms, unless by that you mean a conservative libertarian, who also questions and challenges excessive concentrations of corporate, economic and financial power, and not only state or governmental power. U.S. Congressman and 2008 Presidential candidate Ron Paul, for example, I would describe as a conservative libertarian in this sense. He has his head on his shoulders when it comes to corporate powers, as far as I can tell. He is not stuck in ideological dogmatisms.

The left is equated – wrongly – with heavy-handed, bureaucratic, if not totalitarian government – or at least this is the view of the left that we get from the right wing; however, there are, broadly speaking, two wings or schools of thought within what has been called the left, and only one of the two fits the above description.

In the socialist movement of the 1800’s there was a definite rift, and a fierce debate, between the two very different currents of thought within what is loosely described as the political left. Marx led the wing we are most familiar with, Bakunin the other. Bakunin and the libertarian socialists were ousted, lost the battle, and were to some considerable degree eclipsed from history – at least until very recently. Bakunin warned that Marxist ideas would lead to a new form of tyranny – and of course he was right. The Soviet Union was the prime example, and Bakunin predicted the tyranny long in advance.

Now, with the Marxist-Leninist school of thought being in full disgrace within the left, as well as within the broader community of humanity world-wide, and with global neoliberal corporate capitalism experiencing a deep and profound, and rapidly growing crisis of legitimacy world-wide, with rapidly rising popular discontent, people are beginning to look for alternatives – and the alternative is becoming clear to many. That is, in the short term: a freedom-loving and anti-authoritarian, democratic socialism in the short term; and libertarian socialism in the longer term. I would say they deserve our thoughtful attention, and merit respectful consideration, at the very least, and to put it most mildly.

The War on Democracy: Unchecked Power Out of Control

Under what we should more honestly call monopoly capitalism, the era of the small shop owner being the primary economic player having long ago vanished, corporate power has become so concentrated – that is, economic power has become so enormously concentrated – that it now threatens to engulf and eviscerate all remaining democratic power of societies world wide. We should be concerned. Jefferson warned of this 200 years ago. We did not listen. We are now facing the results of our lack of foresight.

Those on the right and the left with a libertarian perspective would do well to communicate. There is a natural alliance here, if we can learn to speak in ways that are mutually understandable. There is no time for bickering or ideological warfare. We need to get together to protect the basics: decent, although flawed, human, imperfect limited government, within the framework of constitutional democracy and basic human rights and freedom.

If we do not come together, and not just right and left libertarians, but more traditional liberals, conservatives, social democrats, greens and progressives, and all who oppose the, by now undeniable, drift into oligarchy and corporate fascism, and stand together for constitutional democracy, civil liberties, human rights and freedom, all other considerations will become merely abstract, and we will find ourselves living in a brave new world, and a very dark age,  leading rapidly to ecological collapse and the end of human life on earth.

Jamie Brownlee sums up the current, central challenge to humanity at this time, in one brief and extremely lucid passage:

“At present, the state is the only institution large enough to act as a counterweight to corporate power; therefore, short-term goals should involve defending, even strengthening, those elements of the state that are accountable to public input (which are the ones constantly under attack by private power.) Opening up the state to democratic participation and improving the effectiveness and accountability of state regulation are the most realistic interim strategies for dealing with the corporate threat and the practical problems of tomorrow—problems on which people’s lives depend. In the short-term, then, political activism that directly targets corporate power should be complimented by efforts to re-democratize the state and government.”

– Jamie Brownlee, Ruling Canada, Corporate Cohesion and Democracy, 2005

As constitutional lawyer Joel Bakan, author of, The Corporation, has said, if the typical corporation really was a person, then by an exact psychological definition, it would have to be labelled as a sociopath. Even if we did not have grave misgivings about excessive concentrations of power in human society, as we should, these are not the kind of powers which we should wish to govern and rule our nations or the world. Clearly, it is time for a change – a real change, and now. The urgency cannot be overstated, or emphasized enough.

First things first – let us recapture, reclaim and renew our democracy, and “crush in its infancy”, as Thomas Jefferson said, the oligarchy, the new empire, and the excessive powers of “the new moneyed aristocracy,” which now threaten, not only democracy and freedom, but all life on earth. Then we can decide where to go from there. On this point, we must be clear.

We must gain the clarity that is urgently needed at this time, and unite and inspire, and empower the people. And we must act decisively, and now.

J. Todd Ring

April 15, 2007

Further reading:

Writings of J. Todd Ring Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions): Books: Henry David Thoreau Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism & Syndication: Books: Bertrand Russell The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future: Books: Riane Eisler The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy: Books: Murray Bookchin Escape from Freedom: Books: Erich Fromm The Power Elite: Books: C. Wright Mills,Alan Wolfe The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power: Books: Joel Bakan

Economist’s View: You’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone

Economist’s View: Can Democrats and Libertarians Find Common Ground?

“Their Libertarianism and Ours” – from: Don’t Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial: Books: Ellen Willis