Which Side Are You On?
Robert Wolff, Murray Rothbard, and Me
I spent two days in 2013 in a conference at Duke University on Community and Emergent Order in Non-State Spaces. One of the other participants was Robert Wolff, who published his In Defense of Anarchism a year or two before I published my The Machinery of Freedom. I found his presentation, and especially what it implied about the difference between his views and mine, one of the most interesting parts of the conference.
Wolff considers himself a left anarchist and a Marxist. He described the difference between us as the difference between two movie tropes — the self-sufficient western loner who comes into town to clean it up, seen as symbolizing the propertarian anarchist, and an Amish barn raising for the communitarian anarchist.
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There are two obvious problems with that. The first is that I, like most individualist anarchists, have nothing against the Amish barn raising, indeed see that sort of voluntary cooperation as an important and attractive feature of the kind of society we want. The second is that the actual Amish are both propertarian and communitarian. The barn will end up as the private property of the farmer on whose land it is being raised.
The real difference between our views, as best I could tell, is something quite different. Wolff described how, as a professor of philosophy at Columbia during the student riots there, he had been trying and failing to find a philosophical derivation of ethics, an argument showing what was good or bad, what one should or should not do, in the work of Kant. His conclusion was that if Kant could not do it, it could not be done, leaving him with no intellectually satisfactory way of answering the important questions. The solution to that problem was provided to him by one of the student revolutionaries, one he thought was almost certainly a communist, who told him that he did not need a philosophical derivation of ethics. All he needed was to decide which side he was on.
Wolff eventually concluded that the student was right. He did not go into details, but pretty clearly the way he saw it was that he was on the side of the workers, the South African blacks, the oppressed of the earth against their oppressors. There was still room for disagreement among those on his side of the barricades but the essential problem was solved.
There are problems with that solution. In his comments on my talk the previous day — the recording is webbed,1 but it is hard to hear the questions — he indignantly rejected the idea that one could judge the effects of capitalism by comparing it to the major non-capitalist societies of the 20th century, the Soviet Union and its allies. But his communist student would probably, judging by the ones I knew at the time, have been a supporter of either the Soviet Union or Communist China. If the only question was which side he was on and he accepted the student’s answer, as pretty clearly he did, that put him on the same side of the barricades as states that murdered millions of those they ruled and held hundreds of millions at a level of poverty compared to which the bottom third of the U.S. income distribution, whose misery he had offered the previous day as evidence of the horrors of capitalism, live in luxury
I concluded that his fundamental disagreement with me was the same as Murray Rothbard’s, which I discussed in a recent post. Rothbard, in an old essay, claimed that what was wrong with me was that I did not hate the state, that I regarded those who disagreed with my libertarian views not as evil but merely as mistaken
My response to Wolff, as to him, was that the fundamental question is not whose side you are on. For many, although not all, political questions the right answer is the same for almost everyone. The fundamental question is what is the right answer.
Is my extreme version of free market capitalism better or worse than the mixed economies that are currently the norm of the developed world? Are they better or worse than some alternative set of institutions? There may be some issues for which there is an irresolvable conflict of interest, where one large group of people are better off with one answer and a different group with another. But on most of the big issues almost all of us should support about the same policies — if only we could agree on what the consequences of the alternatives would be. I have never met a socialist who was in favor of what I think the consequences of socialism would be and I doubt there are many libertarians who would approve of what a socialist thinks the consequences of their policies would be.
Wolff commented that my describing him as on the same side as Murray Rothbard was a terrible insult. But it is also true. Both of them chose to see the conflict as between good men and evil men. I see it as between good ideas and bad ideas, where bad ideas are not evil, simply wrong.
In the course of his talk, Wolfe mentioned a conversation he had had in South Africa with an intelligent intellectual who supported Apartheid. His conclusion was that there was no argument he could offer to prove the other wrong — the supporter of Apartheid was simply evil.
The question I put to him, and I do not think he ever answered, was what the implications would have been if the end of apartheid had set off the sort of blood bath that decolonization did set off in some of the African states — Nigeria killed about a million people in the process of suppressing the attempt of its Ibo citizens to secede, at least two other black African states ended up with bloodshed on a similar scale, and a number of states ended up with oppressive governments. It is easy enough to imagine an alternative history in which the shift to one man, one vote in South Africa turned out to be a mistake as judged by its effect on the South African blacks, the people on whose side Wolff thought he was. It could still happen, although hopefully it won’t. If it did, does Wolff have to conclude that he, not the supporter of apartheid, was the evil one?
I had had advance warning of his position, and what was wrong with it, in his comment on my talk. As best I could tell, he simply took it for granted that his view of the facts—that a market system led to massive inequality and miserable conditions for a large part of the human race—was obvious fact, and the only puzzle was how I could be in favor of such things. It did not seem to occur to him that I, or anyone, might disagree about the relevant facts, that the argument might be, not about what outcomes we wanted but about what outcomes followed from one or another set of institutions.
One of the things that made that approach more striking and, to me, more obviously wrong, was the earlier talk of another speaker, the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who appeared to share a good deal of Wolff’s view of the world. The picture he painted struck me as a highly colored cartoon view of the world, inconsistent with obvious facts. He talked (I am pretty sure I am not confusing him with one of the other speakers with similar views—if I am, it does not affect my point) about how vampire capitalism focused investment on one low wage nation after another, draining it dry and then moving on when wages got high enough to make further exploitation unprofitable.
It did not appear to occur to him that moving a country from low wages to high was a good thing, not a bad thing, nor that the countries supposedly “drained dry,” presumably including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and, a decade or two earlier, post-war Germany and Japan, had ended up as developed countries with first world standards of living.
Wolff and Robinson were entertaining speakers and I ended up liking both of them; perhaps some day I can have the opportunity to continue our arguments at greater length. But Wolff, like Rothbard, is wrong, dangerously wrong. He holds a view of the world which, however emotionally satisfying, implies that the essential relation of human beings to each other is that of enemies, a view that has been used to justify some of the worst deeds of the past century. It is, as Orwell pointed out, much easier to defend the liquidation of antisocial elements than to argue in favor of murdering people who disagree with you. If the reason people disagree with you is that they are evil there is no need to think about whether they might be right and you might be wrong.