The US anarcho-capitalist Libertarians are wrong to think that capitalism could exist without a state or that its competitive struggle for profits does not lead to wars.
The anti-war movement in the United States may be underwhelming at the moment, but clearly anti-war sentiment today, four years after Bush declared the mission accomplished, is very strong. This does not mean that everyone in the US who opposes the war in Iraq (and/or Afghanistan) does so for the same reason, or that they share the same political outlook.
It is true that the bulk of anti-war activists view themselves as belonging to the “Left,” as that hard-to-pin-down political place is known. And there is a tendency to view the Pro-war vs. Anti-war dynamic as closely reflecting the Right-Left divide. The leaders of the Democratic Party certainly benefited from this perception in the recent election, despite their history of issuing Bush one blank cheque after another to wage his wars.
It turns out, though, that a growing number of “rank-and-file” Republicans are taking an anti-war stance. Indeed, the recent electoral success of the Democrats reflects the growing disgust of that creature known as the “moderate Republican” with Bush’s foreign policy. In many cases, these are people who thought invading Iraq was a swell idea back in early 2002. Their newfound opposition to the war is not based so much on the mountainous death toll or destruction of that country, as the obvious fact the war is unwinnable.
It would be a gross caricature, however, to imply that anti-war sentiment on the Right is limited to these unprincipled Republican “flip-floppers” who wisely turned their backs on the “dead-enders” sticking with Cheney and Co. There are more than a few on the Right who have opposed the war from the outset, for principled reasons.
Take the Libertarians, for example. Or I should say, some Libertarians, as they are split into pro- and anti-war camps. The former, sometimes called “pseudo-Libertarians” by the anti-war camp, essentially seem to be individuals who don’t mind the world going up in flames as long as their taxes remain low.
Some of the most informed and spirited anti-war Libertarians can be found at the website antiwar.com, including its leading light, Justin Raimondo. The website was created back in 1995, and at the time may have seemed a Republican effort to score points on the Clinton administration (because Libertarians have burrowed deep inside that Party like Trots cuddling up inside the Labour Party). Pro-war liberals in particular labelled this anti-war viewpoint “isolationism” to suggest a fascistic or anti-Semitic quality, as this was the term applied to the “old Right” that opposed entry into World War II. The preferred term among the Libertarians themselves is “non-interventionist,” and they largely supported Bush in the 2000 election based on his pledge to not get involved in “nation-building.” When Bush soon showed his true colours, and the bulk of the “anti-war” Republican flocked to his crusade, these Libertarians, to their credit, stuck to their principles.
Capitalism: antithesis of war?
So what are the principles of the Libertarians that allowed them to hold their ground in the face of the war-hysteria on the Right at the time?
Setting aside the strong sense of moral outrage that they share with any sensible person witnessing the atrocities in Iraq, Libertarians have opposed the war there and elsewhere because of a general opposition to expanded state power, which they view war as facilitating. The mission statement on antiwar.com notes that the Libertarian “opposition to war is rooted in Randolph Bourne’s concept that War is the health of the State,” and emphasizes that, “With every war, America has made a ‘great leap’ into statism.”
The opposition to the state might sound pretty good to your average anarchist or socialist, but the Libertarian anti-state position is based on a blind faith in the free market. They argue that the benevolent forces of the market economy are curbed by the centralised power of the state, which results in a curtailment of individual liberty.
The logic goes something like this: Free-market capitalism on its own would naturally lead to a world of personal freedom and economic prosperity, but this is thwarted by the power of the state, an organism that grows robustly at times of war. Hence, war must be opposed not only because of its own obvious evils, but as a way to drive back the power of the state which is standing in the way of a better life.
For Libertarians, moreover, capitalism is an inherently peaceful system. They ridicule the idea that there is a connection between the nature of capitalism and the wars that constantly break out under it. Raimondo, for instance, goes so far as assert that, “capitalism—free markets—is the antithesis of war” (28 October 2002 column). The Libertarian economist Walter Block, for his part, describes the essentially peaceful Libertarian (free-market) principles that should govern capitalism:
“The non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of Libertarianism. It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another. That is, in the free society, one has the right to manufacture, buy or sell any good or service at any mutually agreeable terms. Thus, there would be no victimless crime prohibitions, price controls, government regulation of the economy, etc.” (“The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism”)
This Libertarian view of the benevolent nature of a market economy (= capitalism) is a selective one, to say the least. Their focus is on exchange, as a mutually beneficial act. This is a real “win-win” situation, where I give you my widget and get your gadget in return. What is left out, however, are some of the strikingly war-like aspects of a capitalist economy, starting first and foremost with the cut-throat competition that goes on in the pursuit of profit. Nor do they dwell on the class divisions inherent to such a system and the conflict that that results.
In the Libertarian’s mind, capitalism is—or should be—a world made up of enterprising capitalists, minding their own business(es) and interacting peacefully, without any need for the state to intervene in these affairs or for wars to be waged overseas. Here we are basically dealing with the viewpoint of the individual capitalist, particularly the small-scale one, who experiences the state as an unpleasant institution that appropriates his hard-earned wealth through taxation, sometimes to pay for wars that bring him no direct benefit. Remove this alien force, he reasons, and life would immediately be much rosier.
The “liberty” that Libertarians wax so philosophical about is the freedom of this economic actor to chase after his profit in peace; never minding the fact that his own profits are squeezed out of workers, thus depriving them of their own personal liberty!
The wider view
The state and the wars it wages may seem a complete waste of taxpayer money to the individual capitalist (and to the Libertarian who translates his myopic viewpoint into a grand philosophy), but things look a bit different if we consider the capitalist class as a whole.
Like any ruling class throughout history, the minority capitalist class needs the state, as an apparatus of coercion, to maintain its grip on power. And in addition to this age-old function of the state, a capitalist state is also necessary as a means of coordinating the diverse interests of individual capitalists in order to represent their collective interests as capitalists. The example of Enron alone shows how deregulation may benefit a tiny stratum of capitalists at the expense of their bourgeois brethren who have to purchase exorbitant or shoddy products. (This does not mean, however, that state intervention and regulation can turn capitalism into socialism, as Libertarians fear and leftists hope.) Given this twin-necessity for the state—as policeman and mediating judge—the more far-sighted or financially comfortable capitalists view the taxes directed to the state apparatus as money well spent.
Libertarians, in short, loathe the state without understanding why it must exist and play certain roles under their cherished capitalist system. And the same shallowness characterizes their view of war, which is fervently opposed without an understanding of its root causes.
Capitalism, as already noted, generates its own war-like behaviour at home, where capitalists will go to any lengths to vanquish the enemy (= competitors). We may find this selfish behaviour deplorable from the standpoint of human decency, but it does have its own necessity. And there is a similar capitalist logic at play when nation-states jostle and throttle each other for access to markets and resources, despite such behaviour being the height of idiocy from the perspective of humanity as a whole.
That does not mean, of course, that every war goes as planned, achieving the greedy goals intended. Just as the best-laid plans of a company to win out in competition may fail, military adventures have been known to backfire perfectly (just look at Iraq!). Still, regardless of whether or not goals are met, the ultimate impetus for conflict between nations can be found in the unceasing competition over raw materials, access to markets, and the like, which itself is the direct outgrowth of that insatiable thirst for profit among the capitalists within a given nation. Even if a conflict is directly triggered (or at times averted) for this or that specific reason, war itself is inevitable under the capitalist system of production for profit, as the experience of the past decades alone amply demonstrates.
A world without war
An anti-war Libertarian reading this criticism might say: “Our free-market principles are really beside the point; the important thing is to end the war now!” Libertarians at antiwar.com and elsewhere are calling for a political realignment through a Left-Right “united front” to end the war. They are more than willing to join hands with leftists (who they mistake for socialists) over the single issue of ending the war immediately. And there is every chance that such an alliance can succeed, because bringing the disastrous war in Iraq to an end has become an urgent necessity for the capitalist class itself—although it still dreams of salvaging some benefit from the fiasco.
Meanwhile, the “Far-left” is happy to hide its own “socialist” principles from view in order to build a broad anti-war coalition (which is just as well considering the state-capitalist content of those principles). Looking at the political landscape, it is hard not to have a sense of déjà vu, as it resembles the situation in the late sixties and early seventies when those who pointed out the need to do more than just end a single war—and who called for “Socialism now!”—were branded “sectarians” and given a moral browbeating for distracting attention from the immediate task at hand.
But recall what happened after the Vietnam War. The US was gun-shy for a couple of years, sure, but less than a decade later Reagan was revving up the war machine again. Since then we have seen conflicts on an ever-escalating scale, culminating (so far) with the horrifying carnage in the Middle East. The reason is not simply the malevolence of US leaders or an insufficiently powerful anti-war movement, but that the competitive economic system that triggers the war-impulse remains firmly in place. This system was not overcome in the Vietnam War era, when socialists were written off as unrealistic dreamers, and today the people of the Middle East are paying a heavy price.
End war in Iraq? Yes, right away! But let’s not—once again—forget about the victims of future wars. They can only be saved by all of us deciding to rip out the weed of capitalism (which Libertarians mistake for a precious flower yet to bloom) by the roots. The hard truth of the matter, but also a source of hope, is that we will be stuck with the tragedy of war until we manage to move beyond capitalism, to a society where things are produced to meet human needs, not as a means to the profit-making end. In such a society, which is cooperative rather than competitive, there is no longer any basis for war, as the divisions and conflict between classes and nations will have dissolved along with the very existence of those categories.
If Libertarians are serious about liberty, and truly want to live under a state-less system where peace (not just the temporary absence of war) reigns, then they need to consider ending their silly love affair with capitalism, whose invisible hand has been slapping all of us around and pushing us to slap and to slay each other.