Counter Culture

May 23, 2010

Allison Kilkenny writes:

The free market can’t provide solutions to many social problems. As Oliver Willis (sarcastically) put it, “instead of boycotting [the] bus, rosa parks should have been an entrepreneur and started her own bus service. let the market decide.” Therein lies the problem with Libertarian [sic] philosophy. Social minorities aren’t in a position to start their own businesses, and they are frequently at the mercy of state and private business policies. We can’t all be the CEO of BP. Most people live on the other end of the social spectrum, like the poor fishermen, standing on the Louisiana coast, waiting for the oil to hit the shore.

First things first. Repeat after me: Rand Paul is not a libertarian (or a big-L Libertarian, for that matter).

Next, a history lesson. Rosa Parks was standing up to state laws, not the bus company per se. It was precisely the existence of the government’s laws that prevented the free market from having any chance of working in this case.

It is no coincidence that there were Jim Crow laws in the pre-civil-rights South. White racists were unwilling to rely on voluntary compliance alone to keep blacks “in their place,” and this reluctance on their part was a shrewd one. The famous segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, were segregated by law, not by choice of the bus company. In fact, the bus company had petitioned, unsuccessfully, to get the law repealed — not out of love (i.e., concern for the equal rights of blacks) but out of greed (i.e., the policy was costing it customers). So [libertarians] are quite right in thinking that racism can be undermined by a concern for the bottom line (though it would be naive to assume that it must always be so undermined; people do care about things other than money, and some of those things are pretty repugnant).

- Roderick T. Long, “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class”

Perhaps Kilkenny should quote someone else, with some other example, if she wishes to demonstrate how the “free market can’t provide solutions to many social problems.” Historical facts aside, I find it particularly interesting that Kilkenny thinks that boycotts aren’t themselves part of the free market. She seems determined to think of the free market as only the cash nexus. This leads her to imply that libertarian theory recommends, as the only solution, that Rosa Parks start her own bus company (or, if not Parks, someone or some group from the affected social minority).

Kilkeeny is right to mention that libertarian theory does indeed point to competition (but not only competition) as a potential force against discrimination. But she reminds us that, “Social minorities aren’t in a position to start their own businesses, and they are frequently at the mercy of state and private business policies.” I give her credit for being honest about the state’s involvement in creating poverty and putting up barriers against truly free competition, but I’m not sure how that helps strengthen her point, which ultimately seems to be that she’s in favor of state interference with free competition. But why must we assume that the competition has to come from the social minority in question? One thing a good boycott or protest against harmful cooperative ventures (such as racist businesses) can do is act as a signal to anyone and everyone who might be in a position to start their own business:

Such cooperative ventures are easier to undermine when there is free competition, because they create a large group of excluded people who have an interest in seeing that cooperation fail, and this group constitutes an attractive market for any entrepreneur interested in defying the cooperative venture.

To be sure, pressure within a selectively cooperative venture…may be strong enough to discourage defections. The racist, tempted by profit to hire the qualified black over the unqualified white, may think again when he realizes he will be subject to severe social sanctions from his fellow racists within the community. The pull of the bottom line can be quite limited in the face of social ostracism by one’s peers.

But that is precisely why I stress the importance of free competition. The beneficent power of greed in overcoming harmful cooperative ventures lies not so much in its ability to undermine the venture from within, as in its ability to attract cooperative ventures to outcompete the bad ones. The white racist who has lived all his life in Kluxville may prefer social conformity to profit, but if the resulting low wages for blacks in the Kluxville area serve as a cheap-labor magnet motivating Amalgamated Widgets to open a new plant in Kluxville, the folks who run Amalgamated Widgets may not care that much if the whites in Kluxville shun them; they already have their own peer group, after all.

- Roderick T. Long, “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class”

Finally, Kilkeeny sums up Paul’s position as, “Civil rights are a ‘red herring’ that should not be applied to private businesses.” This, however, is just another example of how easy it is to slide from the Civil Rights Act to civil rights full stop. Charles Johnson recently responded to a similar misattribution (“Rand Paul….won’t approve of lunch counters being desegregated.”). I’ll let him wrap up the post. Take it way, Charles:

Rand Paul is a liar and a politician. (But I repeat myself.) However, in the interest of fairness, I watched that interview, and he didn’t say that he was against “lunch counters being desegregated.” What he said is that he’s against the use of federal antidiscrimination laws to desegregate lunch counters.

The second position implies the first only if there’s no other way to desegregate lunch counters except for getting a federal law so you can go hire a lawyer and file a Title II lawsuit against the department store in federal court. But of course there are other ways besides that kind of bureaucratic bullshit. Nothing that Rand Paul said about Title II or Title VII would rule out the use of grassroots organization and nonviolent direct action, of exactly the sort that was already being used effectively to dismantle Jim Crow in towns throughout the South, when the a bunch of grandstanding white Democrats decided to rush in and take all the credit.

I think that what keeps people from needing to do sit-ins right now isn’t primarily government laws; it’s the radical shift in community norms since the Jim Crow era. (Also, the fact that business owners in the South are now much more likely to be black themselves than they were in the early 1960s.)

Enforcing a law like the Civil Rights Act isn’t free: it took a lot of hard-fought political effort to get it passed, and once it passed, it didn’t automagically erase all the segregation in the U.S.; rather, what happened is that some places immediately desegregated and others didn’t, and got sued. Eventually, enough businesses were sued that the rest decided it wasn’t worth the fight to try to keep their racist policies. But that happens with protests too: if direct action is successful in one campaign, it makes the next campaign easier, because fewer businesses are willing to fight it out with you, and eventually you start winning without even having to fight. (There are plenty of actual cases where this happened — for example, that’s how the NSM won the desegregation of all the downtown businesses in Nashville in summer 1960, even though they had only targeted a limited subset of those businesses for sit-ins.)

So, the question isn’t how you can get social change without a struggle (you can’t); rather, it’s what kind of struggle is the most effective and the most productive. But I think it’s obvious here that the most important thing that the struggle did was to change the culture in the South, so that Jim Crow was no longer socially sustainable; that is, black people became too pissed off to take it, and eventually not enough white people were willing to dish it out anymore. But what creates cultural change more effectively — fighting moral battles in the streets and neighborhoods? Or having to hire lawyers and dickering over a bunch of legalistic mumbo-jumbo in federal court? I think that the change of venue to court was at best useless from the standpoint of social change, and sometimes ended up stalling a social struggle by getting it caught up in expensive, slow, and complicated legal battles.

So, setting aside my Anarchist objections to any form of legislative authority for the moment (although I do also have those objections too, of course), I think that it’s just far more valuable to concentrate efforts on maintaining a strong social movement and a culture of solidarity, than it is to fritter away energy on political lobbying and trying to work through federal bureaucracies.

…the “mechanisms” that Anarchists have usually envisioned are free associations that work through social sanctions and direct action, not political courts or police forces. So if you want to make sure that businesses don’t discriminate (which I think is a perfectly reasonable thing to want), the kind of mechanisms you’d expect to see in an Anarchistic society to would be focused on holding the creep socially accountable, rather than trying to retaliate legally or coercively. That would be acted out through things like labor unions, community groups, grassroots campaigns of protest or direct action (like the sit-in movement itself), boycotts and strikes, social ostracism of the business owner, etc. Not statist mechanisms like threatening lawsuits or filing forms with some tax-funded bureaucracy.

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One Response to “Counter Culture”


  1. Excellent post! The left-libertarian revolution continues apace…


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