On Statism, Socialism, Libertarianism, and the Greens

by Steve Welzer

Green Party of New Jersey

Undoubtedly, Greens, Libertarians, and socialists should cooperate in regard to our common effort to open up the electoral system to “more voices and more choices.” Beyond that, it is sometimes proposed that we jointly run candidates under the banner of “big tent” third party coalitions. Or we might hear entreaties from progressives who feel that it’s sectarian to have left-oriented electoralism split between socialists, social democrats, and Greens. The problem with these types of ideas is the fact that the ideological distinctions among the movements are more significant than is often acknowledged.

Green politics emerged during the 1970s due to a dissatisfaction with the extant left electoral alternatives and a desire to distance progressivism from the increasingly discredited socialist movement. A “post-socialist” perspective was based on the idea that socialism was the last great historical liberatory movement and Green politics represents the next.


Socialism is a 19th century ideology in many respects. At its inception it posited that the abominations of early industrialism could be attributed to the private ownership of the means of production. The argument was straightforward: An industrial-scale enterprise might employ tens of thousands of workers, affect millions of customers, and be a factor in the prosperity and well-being of hundreds of communities. It’s scandalous, then, that such a socially significant enterprise could be treated as a private interest, with decisionmaking dependent upon the limited judgments, prejudices, and whims of a single individual or a small clique of controlling owners. And the socialist prescription was straightforward: For any enterprise beyond a certain scale of social impact, ownership should be public (collective) — for the sake of accountability and democratic control.

These ideas became popular during the decades of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The first attempt at implementation followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. But the result was disappointing. The collectivism of the Soviet Union turned out to be abhorrent. It was bureaucratic, oppressive, and gray . . . and almost as ridden with power elitism as its corporate capitalist counterpart. Emma Goldman recognized this within a year of living there (1920) and was motivated to write My Disillusionment with Russia. Other attempts at socialist implementation took many forms during the ensuing decades, but none came close to fulfilling the original liberatory aspirations of the movement, nor did they provide the basis for a “next higher stage of human history.”

It was on this basis that, by the latter decades of the 20th century, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan proclaimed: the evidence is in and the conclusion is unavoidable — There Is No Alternative to capitalism (the “TINA” assertion). The only significant debate then seemed to be between the advocates of “pure” capitalism (laissez-faire) and the advocates of managed capitalism (managed by governments and central banks to smooth out the business cycle, provide a social safety net, and countervail tendencies toward monopoly). The former camp included anti-statist conservatives (reference: William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman), Austrian economists (Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek), and Objectivists (Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan) — all of whom made the case that collectivism inevitably results in a complex of horrors: oppressive statist centralization, economic inefficiency, and bureaucratic constraint. The most radical strain of this line of thinking spawned a whole new ideological movement, Libertarianism, whose chief early theorist was Murray Rothbard. His seminal works (Man, Economy, and State, 1962; For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 1973) argued: Freedom requires free enterprise (meaning: private ownership of enterprises, from the smallest to the largest) and minimalist government.

Anti-statism has a long and commendable heritage. But the anti-statism of the extreme conservatives and the Libertarians does not have much in common with that of left-wing anarchists, decentralists, and communitarians. Libertarianism, in particular, is a hyper-individualistic form of anti-statism.

Libertarians fetishize private property rights and private enterprise. According to Wikipedia, Murray Rothbard “asserted that all services provided by monopoly governments could be provided more efficiently by the private sector. [He] said that many laws ostensibly promulgated for the ‘public interest’ were power grabs by government employees motivated by self-aggrandizement. Rothbard held that government services were inefficient and that they would be better provided by the private sector.” So he advocated full-scale, near-total privatization . . . even of schools, roads, fire protection, welfare services, and the judicial system.

Rothbard asserted that individuals possess the right of absolute “self-ownership.” His value system prioritized the right to exchange property with others. Economic relations between individuals should be strictly contractual. Government should be limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. It should be funded voluntarily (taxation is robbery; government is a racket; government employees are thieves).

This ideology has very little resonance worldwide, but America is, and always has been, a hyper-individualistic country. So it makes sense that Libertarianism developed here and has some resonance here, where bumperstickers expound: “Get Goverment Off My Back.”

Greens are in a unique position to point out the key element that is missing in the Libertarian perspective: the issue of scale. It’s simplistic and misleading, for example, to conflate the oppression of huge modern centralized governments with government-in-general; or to apply the critique of industrial-scale bureaucratic collectivism to local public enterprise.

Both Libertarianism and socialism have been deficient in this respect. Green politics had the advantage of being influenced in its early development by the work of E. F. Schumacher. In Small is Beautiful (1973) Schumacher wrote about scale in relation to polity, economy, and technology. He made a distinction between a critique of Big Government and a critique of governmentalism in general. In regard to economics, the Introduction to Small Is Beautiful (written by Theodore Roszak) says this:

“Schumacher’s work belongs to that subterranean tradition of organic and decentralist economics whose major spokesmen include Prince Kropotkin, Gustav Landauer, Tolstoy, William Morris, Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, and Murray Bookchin . . . [It] distinguishes itself from orthodox socialism and capitalism by insisting that the scale of organization must be treated as an independent and primary problem. This tradition, while closely affiliated with socialist values, nonetheless prefers mixed to ‘pure’ economic systems. It is therefore hospitable to many forms of free enterprise and private ownership, provided always that the size of private enterprise is not so large as to divorce ownership from personal involvement, which is, of course, now the rule in most of the world’s administered capitalisms. Bigness is its nemesis, whether the bigness is that of public or private bureaucracies, because from bigness comes impersonality, insensitivity, and a lust to concentrate abstract power. Hence, Schumacher’s title, Small Is Beautiful. He might just as well have said ‘small is free, efficient, creative, enjoyable, enduring’ . . . Reaching backward, this tradition embraces communal, handicraft, tribal, gild, and village lifestyles as old as the neolithic cultures. In that sense, it is not an ideology at all, but a wisdom gathered from historical experience. In our own time [1973], it has reemerged spontaneously in the communitarian experiments of the counterculture.”

So: Government at an appropriate scale need not be antithetical to freedom. When close enough to those whom it serves, local government can be transparent, accountable, and subject to a participatory form of grassroots democracy. Private enterprise at an appropriate scale can be regulated so as to play a “good citizen” role in the social fabric. And public (collective) enterprise does not inevitably result in statist centralization, economic inefficiency, or bureaucratic encumbrance . . . as long as it is “community-based.”

Humans are social beings who need and prefer to live in collectives. For most of our species-existence the vast majority of people were nurtured by local, personal, human-scale collectives: extended families, tribes, clans, village communities. A problem of the modern world is that the state — an impersonal, remote, irresponsible collective — has become conflated with the idea of community. For example, nation-state patriots feel that they are standing up for “the people;” the army is out there fighting for “us.” But this sensibility is based on a delusory perspective. A distinction needs to be made between local/regional community and the hypertrophied collective that constitutes the nation-state.

Both pro-state patriots and anti-state Libertarians fail to acknowledge this distinction. Greens do — and, on that basis, advocate for a decentralist alternative which is both liberatory and common-sense-practical. Rather than a brave new world of utopian-ideal social relations based on some ideological model (as in the case of Libertarianism or Marxism), Greens offer an eco-communitarian model of relocalization that would simply restore our natural, organic, and sane human social heritage.

The state really is a horror and has been from Day One (5,000 years ago). The power elites who dominate the states try hard to promote patriotism. But the relationship of the people with the state is always love/hate. Sometimes the state is “we” and sometimes the state is “they”. Those more inclined toward the latter sentiment will say: “Damn how they tax us, conscript us, exploit us; damn how they act in our name.” Those people will be drawn to a boldly anti-statist vision. They will be attracted to Libertarianism if the Greens fail to embrace the radical consequences of our key value: Decentralization.

There has never been a human society looking anything like what the Libertarians advocate (based on pure market, contractual relations). The Green alternative has much more potential to resonate with the masses of people — who already comprehend the importance of “going green” when it comes to saving the environment. It may be a challenge for Greens to explicate the more radical aspects of our worldview and program: devolution of power, decentralization, simplification, regionalization, etc. But it can be done and it should be done . . . as part of our effort to convey the distinction between the individualistic anti-statism of the Libertarians and the communitarian anti-statism of the Greens.

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