Libertarianism and Populism: A Possible Synthesis
As always seems to be the case, there is infighting between certain segments of the so-called liberty movement, another squabble between libertarians. Such squabbles can bring up interesting subjects, however; and for such a reason I’ve begun thinking about populism, and its relation with libertarianism. In a way, I do believe that a populist libertarian movement can be created, as long as certain requirements are met.
There have been others who have already spoken their thoughts, libertarian thinkers critiquing the flaws of populism, and well thought-out critiques in fact. And there are more important things to bring to light, such as the Ghislaine Maxwell trial, in which potent information about the connections made by Jeffrey Epstein and the numerous elite of the world to form a sex trafficking ring is finally getting revealed.(1) We do plan on writing on it in the near future; for now, a quick philosophical discussion.
What is Populism?
Before anything, let us outline what exactly populism is, and the numerous dangers as well as virtues that is encrusted in it.
While ideologies such as conservatism or liberalism have specific structures and commandments that holders of the ideology must practice, populism lacks those things. Populism doesn’t have any particular set of dogmas, and does not moderate the ideas of the people who practice it; instead of populism determining its practitioners’s ideas, the practitioners’s ideas determine the kind of populism in play. Because of this fluidity and flexibility, populism can be practiced all across the spectrum, leading to right-wing and left-wing forms of it being practiced around the world.
Of course, just because there isn’t any rigid set of principles, doesn’t mean there isn’t at least some form of general trend or general ideas behind it. As the name implies, populism is about popularity: specifically, it’s about making movements based off of popular support, based off of the “will of the people”. Because of such a cornerstone, it’s a primarily anti-elitist stance, critical of institutions and the powers that be. Such a stance could be vital in combining it with libertarianism.
However, there are a few flaws to such a position, the most dire being these: the ease in which populist movements devolve into cults of personality, into demagoguery. Populist movements have a tendency to split into an Us-Them dichotomy, no doubt a result from their foundation of popular will and anti-elitism. This kind of mentality, when not kept in check, can devolve into irrationalism and fear of anyone outside the group questioning the in-group. The movement cannot be critiqued; it is holy and pure, and anyone critiquing it only wishes to destroy the movement, and only because they are, in some way, evil or fooled by evil.
This worship of the movement can lead to worship of a leader, in which anyone who questions such a leader or idol is an enemy of the movement. It embodies the evils of hero-worship, of idolatry in the truest sense of the term. The leader or figurehead can do no wrong; he is the perfect one, who is always right and lead us into victory. Examples of such a mentality is in the worship of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, etc.
On the flip side of that worship is the purity spiraling of the in-group, and scapegoating of the out-group. We can take a note from Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller here, where, when it comes to demagoguery (populism at its worst and, sadly, common form), concern is focused on the group identity, “who is in the in-group, what signifies out-group membership, and how loyal rhetors are to the in-group,” as well as an extreme focus on “the terrible things the out-group is doing to us, and/or their very presence” and on punishment of that group, “ranging from the restriction of the out-group’s rights to the extermination of the out-group.”(2) Anything that the in-group does is good, anything done by the out-group is bad; and anything good in the in-group is determined either by the dogmas of the group or by the leader: anything done against the leader or contrary to the dogmas is against the group; even the act of questioning is an act against the group.
Demagoguery, simply put, is the logical outcome of a populist movement whose prejudices are unregulated, one in which the Us-Them dichotomy becomes doctrine. When that is the case, who is the “elite” (out-group) and who is the “people” (in-group) can spiral out of control. The final evolution of this descent into madness, from populism or demagoguery, can be described in one word: Totalitarianism, or, perhaps more fittingly, Fascism. “Not all populisms are fascisms, but every fascism is first of all a form of populism.” (3)
Populism does have some value: the anti-elitism of most populist movements, along with a strong focus on the people making their own decisions, on having ordinary people decide their fate instead of someone on Capitol Hill or high up in their pearly-white CEO office, can be seen as conducive to freedom. However, the threat of Fascism or demagoguery is also ever-present; one can go on the path to slavery, mistaking it as the road to freedom.
Is Libertarian Populism Possible?
With all that in mind, is there hope for a populist libertarian movement? Can such a thing as Libertarian Populism exist?
The main problem that we would have to deal with would be the threat of falling into demagoguery or fascism. Populism’s virtues seem already to align with libertarian values: an anti-elitist mentality, a preference for the people ruling over themselves, an overall wanting of freedom. Here, there is no contradiction.
What must be laid out are the requirements of any libertarian populist movement, that is to say, some regulations. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the traps that lead one into totalitarianism and away from liberty. Without such precautions, the notion of Libertarian Populism becomes another way for Fascism to sneak into the liberty movement.
First and foremost, a libertarian populist movement must, first and foremost, stay true to the principles of liberty and freedom. The movement must be radical, in that it cannot and should not compromise on any of its principles.(4) To forsake any of our ideals in order to accommodate the wants of some group or demographic is the highest of treasons, the greatest of betrayals, to ourselves and to liberty. We cannot bend down to please authority; we must take no concessions, and act to achieve revolution; we must always, unapologetically, fight for liberty. (Sorry Rothbard, no “unleashing the police” on the homeless just so you can please David Duke. (5))
One might ask, but what exactly are our principles? It is simple: liberty and freedom for all; rejection of authority and power over others. People should be free to do as they please, to live as freely as they can, to live a life of their own choosing and design. It is a rejection of all institutions that wish to enslave humanity, a rejection of all forms of power. Pure freedom.
Anyone, with whatever views, can thus live life as they see fit. The only requirement is you respect the life and liberty of others; everything else is up to you. Youth liberation, queer liberation, feminism, racial and ethnic quality, all fall under liberty and freedom, as well as traditionalism, masculinity, etc., etc. All is welcome and allowed; the only requirement is anti-coercion and anti-tyranny.
Thus, a libertarian populism is open for anyone to participate, whether conservative, liberal, etc., in order to practice liberty and fight for the freedom of all. However, it is neither conservative, nor liberal, nor any other ideology: it is a radical libertarianism, and it cannot be anything other than that.
Secondly, the evils that lead to demagoguery must be combated. While anti-elitism should still be a value held by a libertarian populism, the worship of the in-group must be rejected. We must not fool ourselves in thinking we are purely angels, nor that the opposition are purely demons: evil must be contested, but we cannot allow our zeal blind us. Such a division, of Us vs. Them, leads only to purity spiraling of the worst kind, and of the forming of an inner totalitarianism within the movement. Be true to the values of liberty and justice: keep yourself and your peers to the same standards as your enemies.
Along with that rejection, we must also reject the practice of hero-worship. No one is above criticism; “sin is a reproach to all people.”(6) To sanctify a person over others, to make them seem holy, a leader of true righteousness, is to start down the path of decay. We must be willing to critique those who even we find amazing. In simplest terms, we must be willing to kill our heroes, and be able to say “Fuck Ron Paul!” or “Fuck Dave Smith!”, etc. If not, we will be doing a disservice to ourselves and to the moment, blinding us all and binding us in chains of ignorance.
Finally, a libertarian populist movement must be able to practice and act on empathy, not only towards our friends and comrades, but also to our enemies. What we are fighting for is the freedom and liberty of all, including our enemies or opponents. In our fight for tyranny, we mustn’t become new tyrants, but must be willing to forgive those who were once our enemies, who used to believe in tyranny. To forever break the chains of slavery, we must be able to forgive our former slavers, so that we all can live in freedom and peace. “This is the ultimate secret of liberation: to forgive, and to be forgiven…”(7) Empathy, forgiveness, and love: these are the ultimate tools of liberation.
Here, I have set out a possible plan for a form of populism specifically aligned to libertarianism. It is bare bones, only outlining basic principles and tenets; that is purposeful. As was said earlier, a worship of dogmas can create tyranny within the group, and thus the basic principles, those of libertarianism, should be the only foundation for a libertarian populism; everything else is fluid, open for all those who fight for liberty. That is another reason for it being brief: each group of people, from whatever location or environment, has different challenges; to lay out one specific plan for all to follow is idiotic, and contradictory to the idea choice and freedom for individuals and groups.
What is left is possibly the formation of libertarian populist groups, though they already seem underway: is not any grassroots organization, based on growing local power, the power of the people, and fighting for the freedom and dignity of those people, already some form of libertarian populism in practice?
Thus should we act, in our communities, in our homes, in ourselves: build and create liberty while destroying the institutions that would enslave us; and giving all the chance to redemption, and fighting for the freedom and liberation of all, friend or foe, on an international and local scale, and creating a truly libertarian society, a truly libertarian world.
- Besides a few prominent figures such as Chris Hedges shining a light on the matter, there has been little media attention on the trial, at least on the mainstream levels. Other similar cases, like the CIA not having its staffers prosecuted for participating in child sexual abuse, are also swept under the rug.
If you are interested in following the Maxwell trial, a twitter account was created for that exact purpose. Check it out for yourself.
- Patricia Roberts-Miller, Demagoguery And Democracy, p. 33
- Michela Murgia, How To Be A Fascist: A Manual, p. 69
- That is not to say we cannot work with others who may differ in our politics, but will fight alongside us to preserve liberty. Karl Hess, in his book Dear America, tells of how an undergraduate student, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, helped farmers keep their land from government eviction. “Many of the farmers… were extremely right wing in their politics generally — but in the concrete case of the threat to their land they were as against the “law and order” that was about to evict them as any flaming radicals you could imagine.” (Dear America, p. 153)
- This is in reference to an article Murray Rothbard wrote on an alliance with the far-right, which he called the Paleo Strategy. It is a diservice and disgrace to libertarianism, as well as a blemish on the career of a prominent modern libertarian thinker.
- Proverbs 14:34
- Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 134. I recommend that all libertarians, and especially those interested in possibly creating a libertarian populism, read this book.