The “Anarcho-Liberal”

Mark Engler’s commentary on my symposium entry and the “legacy of anti-globalization” more generally is appreciated. I don’t disagree with him on the specifics. “Anti-globalization” had its genesis before Seattle, rattled on after 9/11, and left behind a tangible legacy. But was this legacy an unambiguously positive one? The diversity of the global justice movement is undeniable, but to the extent its prominent intellectual voices represented broader trends, we can see the crystallization of a new type of radical that would come to prominence on the Left. The reconfiguration of the Left at the end of the twentieth century created a void. The “anarcho-liberal” filled it.

The mainstream media weren’t the only ones surprised by the “battle in Seattle.” Left-wing commentary also betrayed disbelief at the return of mass street protests. But much had changed since the New Left. The intervening decades saw the rise of neoliberalism, while on the center Left, social democracy was in crisis and struggling to modernize. The situation among radicals was even more disorienting. Stalinism was vanquished, but this triumph, long hoped for by democratic socialists, did not cause a revival on the Left. The old working-class parties weren’t reclaimed by radicals; they either faded away or drifted along with no sense of historical purpose in technocratic directions. Socialism had failed as a political movement and, at the theoretical level, Marxism was increasingly abandoned as a way to understand the world.

This is moment when the “anarcho-liberal,” the iconic actor in the “anti-globalization” movement, was forged—a figure in flux between the historic positions of the social democratic and anti-capitalist Lefts.

The center Left had tasked itself with the burden of governance, delivering welcomed doses of socialism within the capitalist framework. The crowning achievement of postwar social democracy, the welfare state, represented a high point in human civilization. The state was wielded, not smashed, and class compromise, not class struggle, fostered economic growth and shared prosperity previously unimaginable.

But social democracy faced the structural crisis in the 1970s that Michal Kalecki, author of “The Political Aspects of Full Employment,” predicted decades earlier. Contra Leninist predictions, near-full employment and a cushy welfare state made workers bold, not docile. They made militant wage demands. Capitalists were able to keep up with them when times were good, but when stagflation hit—the intersection of poor growth and rising inflation—capital suffered from a crisis of profitability. Neoliberalism’s success came in curbing this inflation and restoring profits through a vicious offensive against the working class.

Social democratic parties that sought to administer advanced economies in the neoliberal age, especially with the pressures wrought by globalization, had to adapt their platforms to this new reality. It’s often meant, such as in the case of New Labour in Britain, betraying the principles and constituencies that these parties built their legacies around. But, at its best, it has yielded a “progressive neoliberalism.” Certain European nations, like Sweden, have maintained much of their social safety net, and Lula’s Brazil provides a model of market-oriented center-left governance for the developing world.

A crude overview, sure, but right in the broad strokes: the Marxist-derived Left was defeated, while social democracy reconciled to the neoliberal framework. “Anarcho-liberalism” sauntered in a weird middle ground between both camps. Its representatives had the modest ambitions of the social liberals of the center Left, but the flair for the dramatic associated with the most militant anarchists of the far Left. Take the talented Naomi Klein, the archetypical “anarcho-liberal.” At a panel hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society, Klein critiqued Milton Friedman on the peculiarly reactionary grounds that he was a “Utopian ideologue,” mentioning that she didn’t think that there was any great need for “grand projects of human freedom.” This is consistent with past statements to the effect that she wasn’t “a utopian thinker.” She continued, “I don’t imagine my ideal society. I don’t really like to read those books, either. I’m just much more comfortable talking about things that are.”

An odd stance for an iconic intellectual of an avowedly radical movement. Adding to the confusion, she has described herself as a Keynesian. Meaning there’s little separating her and the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, much less many European politicians, in terms of their vision of a just society. Yet instead of traveling to Socialist International meetings, Klein attends the World Social Forum or files adoring reportage from an occupied factory in Argentina, a raucous street protest, or Zapatista strongholds in the Lacandon Jungle.

Klein is a pre-crisis social democrat, untainted by neoliberalism. But if she wants to restore the policies of “golden age” social democracy, she is going about it in an unusual way. Social democracy drew its strength from the institutions of the workers movement—parties, unions, programmatic platforms, and the degree of discipline and coherence that came along with them. But to quote from a New Yorker profile, “[Klein] distrusts centralization, institutions, platforms, theories—anything except extremely small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives.” Small c conservative Keynesianism! Lyrical, creative, disruptive protests in pursuit of a localized variant of what the New Left considered a drab and conformist bureaucratic welfare state. The incoherence is baffling.

Some things were broadly shared by “anarcho-liberals”: an anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of “grand narratives” and structural critiques of capitalism, abhorrence for the traditional forms of left-wing organization, a localist impulse, and an individualistic tendency to conflate lifestyle choices with political action. The worst of both worlds, the “anarcho-liberal” can neither manage the capitalist state nor overcome it, and aspires to do both and neither at the same time.