A couple of months ago, I found myself briefly in Texas, and I had the opportunity to visit Occupy Austin. It presented a rather typical scene, with nothing of particular interest to report. However, I made the acquaintance of a young protester, whom we shall call here “Nick”. Nick did not stand out from the small crowd in any particular way, but we were able to engage in an interesting conversation.
To no great surprise, Nick turned out to be a libertarian and a Ron Paul supporter, although the fact was not immediately obvious at first. During the course of a conversation which lasted approximately a half hour, Nick went from the normal comments about the problems of corporate money in American politics to sheer insanity. He started by singing the praises of the free market. Simply by following his own arguments, he ended by advocating society’s return to subsistence agriculture. The point here is to demonstrate the inherent absurdity of the libertarian position, and how its basic premises, in fact, turn into sheer nonsense if one simply follows their own course. If the outcome is preposterous, therefore, then the initial premises must not have been as sound as they seemed.
I present a highly abridged version of our conversion:
Nick: “Man, the big corporations have taken over the government. We’ve got to do something about it!”
Nick: “The problem is that they keep bailing out the big corporations, and so the little guys can’t compete!”
Myself: “Uh huh.”
Nick: “What we need is to restore the real spirit of America. The free market! You’ve got to get corporate money out of politics so that real competition in the free market can work like it’s supposed to. And government regulations! That’s the problem! All these regulations don’t let the free market work for the little guy.”
Myself: “But the whole reason that there was regulation in the first place was because of the free market.”
Myself: “In a free market, the last thing that any individual business actually wants is competition, because that drives prices down. So businesses buy each other up in order to remove competition. That’s why there’s a tendency toward monopoly in a free market, and that’s why regulations were introduced in the first place. To break up monopolies.”
Nick: “Yeah, you’re right. The free market does lead to monopolies. But that’s okay, because you’ve got all the power as the consumer. You can choose to do business with someone else.”
Myself: “But they’re monopolies, so you can’t choose someone else. That’s the definition of a monopoly.”
Nick: “Okay, well, then, you can just opt out of the whole system, then.”
Myself: “How? Where are you going to get all the stuff you need? Like food.”
Nick: “You can just grow your own food. Grow food on your land!”
Myself: “Umm, what if you don’t have land?”
Nick: “You can buy it on the free market.”
Myself: “Umm, what if you don’t have enough money? Or… how much time is it going to take you to grow all of your own food? How will you get everything else you need that you can’t grow? Actually, no, scratch all that… Let’s look at it another way… What if you live in a city?”
Nick: “Ah, well, we’ve got the solution, and it’s already happening: It’s called guerilla gardening. You can grow your own food in your apartment! You just need to get a bunch of plant lights and hydroponic gear, and you’re all good to go!”
Myself: “Yeah, but where does the electricity for the plant lights come from? Doesn’t that come from oil and coal? Don’t you have to deal with the electric monopoly?”
Nick: “No, man, it’s simple: Just get everyone together in the apartment building to get a bunch of solar panels.”
Myself: “But then won’t the cost of solar panels on the free market skyrocket?”
Nick: “Yeah, so… Some people can use generators, instead!”
Myself: “But generators need gas or diesel, so you’re back to the same problem.”
Nick: “Nah, man, come on! They’ve got these generators these days that run on vegetable oil. Everybody can just get the used cooking oil that restaurants throw out from their fryers. It’s easy, man! This’ll all work great!”
And that’s about where the conversation ended.
Now, young Nick had greatly underestimated the population density of large cities, but that’s not really the point here. This young libertarian — a classic flag-waving Ron Paul supporter — went in the space of thirty minutes, simply by following his own logic, from touting the merits of the free market to envisioning a utopian society based on hydroponic agriculture in big apartment buildings equipped with giant plant lights, all fueled by generators running off an unending supply of restaurants with an unending supply of used cooking oil. Of course, Nick didn’t stop to think about how all these restaurants would exist if everybody were growing all their own food in their apartments. Oops! Better yet, where did the generator itself come from in this scenario? Did some guy make it in his apartment from his own generator parts that he somehow had sitting around? Oops!
We should emphasize that Nick is essentially advocating a return to subsistence agriculture. In ancient and medieval times, peasants were able to grow all the food they would need to sustain themselves on a yearly basis. Needless to say, this is no longer possible, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there are now 7 billion people on earth. And as for people who live in cities? Our friend Nick should try the experiment himself! Even granting an unending supply of electricity and water, we’d love to see Nick try to produce his yearly caloric intake by himself, with his own time, and all in the space of one Brooklyn apartment. Libertarians all too often forget that the basis upon which they even have enough free time to go to a Ron Paul rally presupposes a vast and complex division of labor. Again: Oops!
Naturally, this hypothetical return to subsistence agriculture is only vaguely plausible if 95% of the world’s population were to suddenly die off. Perhaps that’s why Ron Paul supporters like the sinister fantasies of Thomas Malthus — history’s greatest advocate of mass starvation — even more than they like the naive optimism of Adam Smith. Today, all these absurd and outmoded economic theories have been renamed, and they are now collectively called “Austrian Economics,” a common buzzword among libertarians, including Ron Paul himself. It’s really a pity, because even Adam Smith knew that everything begins with the division of labor. In our day, unfortunately the greatest enthusiasts for classical political economy represent that crude right-wing cancer known as libertarianism. And Austin, Texas is no fluke, because this cancer has spread throughout Occupy, thereby confirming that the movement was of an objectively upper-middle-class character since its very beginning.
As Selecting Stones has explained elsewhere, libertarianism objectively represents the interests of small business owners, whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of their workers. Small business owners are among the nastiest and most reactionary elements of the upper middle class. And with small business under threat from big business, these natural spokesmen for right-wing politics must necessarily conjure up the absurd proposition that history can be turned backward, back to the “real capitalism” of free trade. They cannot see that this capitalism that we live every day is real capitalism, and so they point the way directly toward fantasies of a return to whatever may have existed before capitalism, that is to say, to subsistence agriculture. This is the exact type of backward-looking hysteria that has led the class of small business owners in the past to the most drastic of right-wing solutions. Fascism is but one example. Ron Paul is another, although the interests of big capital in today’s U.S. are far too powerful — through institutions such as, for example, the Democratic and Republican parties — to allow his insane theories too much influence.
The handful of people who find in Ron Paul a savior consists almost entirely of small business owners and their blood relatives, or those unfortunate members of the working class seduced by the false illusion that they, too, will one day be able to own a business. No doubt, a few isolated individual members of the working class may be able to overcome the cards stacked against them, as social mobility does still exist in America, but this cannot apply to the working class as a whole. Obviously, if everyone owned a business, there could be no employees for a business to hire. In this impossible scenario, everyone would become their own private producer, a set of relations also known as: Subsistence Agriculture. And thus we come full circle, back to our buddy Nick. Herein are the reasons why libertarianism, in particular, and the political thought of the owning classes, in general, necessarily lead to absurd and contradictory outcomes. Only the working class can know up from down, because only the working class sees the whole totality of social relations from the very bottom.