Beyond the Setting Sun
Beyond the Setting Sun
The editorial from the newly released Summer 2019 issue of the Austro Libertarian Magazine: Our posture and demeanor in an era of political disillusion.
Among the animating convictions behind the creation of the Austro Libertarian magazine project is that there is immense need for a broader commentary on the world than can currently be found in the majority of “movement” outlets. We felt the nagging pull toward a project that might contribute so much more than empty and fleeting commentary on trending topics. While so many libertarians seem honed in on policy-related chatter and repetitive complaints about this or that government activity, there is an emerging realization that we must not ignore more epochal concerns. Such concerns must not be relegated narrowly to the state, but as well to the development of the history, culture, and worldview of our time.
In reflecting on how we desire to leverage the benefits and insights of our Austro-libertarian principles, we are conscious of two destructive tendencies among contemporary libertarians.
First, there are those who expand the definition of libertarianism beyond the legal and political boundaries of its own subject matter. The expression associated with this expansionary characterization of libertarianism has come to be called “thick libertarianism.” This understanding of libertarianism extends the doctrine into a general spirit or demeanor by which people express the overall struggle of Western man to be free of all psychological, moral, cultural, and familial pressure.
Stating this tendency differently, the libertarian (qua his libertarianism) ought to oppose the state, not merely because the state is itself an inherent breach of property ownership rules, but because it is more generally an oppressive factor in the struggle for men to be free from social biases, prejudices, norms, and expectations. In this vague terminology, the state is but one example, though certainly a unique and especially egregious one, of the general problem of social restraint on freedom.
The second tendency is generally a reaction to the first one, but is, despite this, also a reflection of a wider developing social problem: the disinterest in meta-human affairs. Related to the “libertarian movement,” such as it is (and such as this phrase still serves a purpose), this tendency presents itself in those libertarians who make libertarianism the only thing worth discussing and propagating.
Since libertarianism is “thin,” the libertarian is free to ignore developments outside the topic of the state directly, as well as the state’s impact on the world indirectly. Cultural and historical phenomena, the progression and decline of epochs, the shifting character of social interpretation and outlook on the world—none of these matter because they are merely side issues that stand outside the spotlight focus on the state itself.
This is not to say that these libertarians who misuse libertarianism’s thinness are intentional about their neglect of extra- political concerns, but rather, in practice and in their general habits and daily focus, this is what really attracts their daily attention. They have not theoretically traded a “thin libertarianism” for an “atomistic libertarianism,” but they have indeed done so practically. This is a product of a sort of social nihilism where all is meaningless except the single most important issue: the activities of the state.
Over against both “thick libertarianism” and “atomistic libertarianism,” our own framework is such that libertarianism is a particularly developed and precise legal theory, an heir of common law and classical legal theory, yet advanced to a highly refined and technical degree. And it fits, like a puzzle piece, into a larger framework of subjects related to what was once referred to as “the humanities.” Austro-libertarians offer something important to the humanities; yet let us not ignore the fact that legal theory is but a single subject matter in the greater discipline of human affairs.
In light of the above, the Austro Libertarian magazine project is an exercise in practicing what we preach. Statism is a tremendous and festering disease in our world and has indeed contributed to political, economic, and social crises. But to deal with the problems of the ages, we need more at our disposal than political theory and such sentiment comes not from an ivory tower or bullhorn. We are not the libertarian movement’s leadership à la Vladimir Lenin, and neither would we purport to be its guiding voice.
But if our observations at least tend in the right direction, then perhaps it would behoove us to first live out the impressions we seek to communicate. Specifically, there are four attitudes that strike us as particularly relevant to a burgeoning libertarian identity crisis. As follows, they will be expressed from broad in scope, to narrow.
Our libertarianism seeks to understand where libertarianism fits within a broader historical and social framework. Here, we intently seek to avoid a particular accusation within Murray Rothbard’s screed against the typical libertarian, offered during his latter, paleolibertarian years.
This typical libertarian, he wrote, “is fairly bright, and fairly well- steeped in libertarian theory. But he knows nothing and cares less about history, culture, the context of reality or world affairs. His only reading or cultural knowledge is science fiction … which manages to keep him very nicely insulated from reality.”
To update this for the present decade, Netflix and Taylor Swift constitute the breadth of culture for the typical libertarian. We emphasize that this general inability to grapple with a more profound analysis of socio-cultural affairs is not a product of one’s libertarianism, but rather the loss of an appreciation for more meaningful cultural standards in the West more generally.
But, Rothbard continues: “as a result, the average rank-and-file member of the most ineffectual Trotskyite sect knows far more about world affairs than all but a tiny handful of libertarian leaders.” It is difficult to overstate the role that this simple critique had in the creation of Austro Libertarian magazine. For nearly a year and a half prior to the first print, our reading through the issues of Jacobin magazine and understanding the way they approach world affairs at a meta-level demonstrated Rothbard’s seemingly offhand cheap shot.
In this regard, a core component of our effort is to ourselves be grander lay-thinkers and analysts, and not simply to “go and make [libertarian] disciples of all nations.” Part and parcel of this goal is to understand the world, to explain its emergence, to come to an awareness of the ages and epochs through which humanity has passed, and to interpret the meta-framework of historical development.
In short, following the lead of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s recent endeavor to produce a “libertarian grand narrative,” we seek to contextualize and apply our libertarianism within the framework of broader studies. In Hoppe’s own words, “the greatest challenge for libertarians is to develop a grand historical narrative that is to counter and correct the so-called Whig theory of history that all ruling elites, everywhere and at all times, have tried to sell to the public– that is, the view that we live in the best of all times (and that they are the ones who guarantee that this stays so) and that the grand sweep of history … has been one of … steady progress.”
But even broader than the difficult investigations into civilizational progress and decline, we consider as vital the recovery of interest in narrative history as a discipline. Robert Nisbet explains the lost interest in traditional history as a sweeping study of the development of humanity in exchange for the cheap and disintegrated “potpourris” of scattered past events and stories (History of the Idea of Progress, 328). If we are to properly understand the world around us, we must appreciate the path, intellectual and otherwise, that we have taken to get here.
Revolution and Change
In our present age, those attracted to ideology are often tempted toward sentiments of a revolutionary impulse. While one will not find in our pages a particular denouncement of ideology as such (after all, libertarianism, a body of abstract propositions, is in fact ideological), we do carry a general demeanor or attitude of hesitancy and restraint with regard to social change. Such an attitude is not restricted to criticism of the bloody mess created by the French or Bolshevik Revolutions; revolution in a broad sense can include calculated political centralization as a means toward social change (a replacement of what remains of natural society with increased artificial/political dynamics) such as, for example, the attempt to ignore local cultural dynamics in a quest to bring about a grand implementation of a new ideal socio-economic order—whether this be national conservatism, libertarianism, or socialism.
There are specifics to the logical outworking of our first principles, and yet, revolutionary social upheavals are perilous toward social stability and longevity. Due to this, we are generally critical of those who adopt a Trotskyite “permanent revolution” approach toward social change, even if purportedly libertarian.
In this way, we stress the organic, evolutionary nature of the foundation and continuation of a sound society. Society is not something that can simply be manipulated and swept away artificially via coercion or upheaval. As a general rule, the common, everyday man does not think in terms of sweeping changes that must be made holistically in pursuit of a better world; rather, he spends his time thinking about his own specific problems and frustrations: lower taxes, increased financial security, safety, etc.
Most people do not think in terms of what a reconstruction of society would do for the world; they do not dream about the ideal society. Far from this being an accusatory observation, it is rather an attempt at political realism. Ignoring the mood of the common man, some who think about grander problems purport also to design a path forward for humanity. This had very serious ramifications, for instance, as the Bolshevik intellectual (ideological) revolutionaries decimated the centuries-old tsarist system and therefore the lives and livelihoods of millions in the decades that followed.
While it is relevant to consider the dangers of a revolutionary impulse, there is an under-appreciated additional layer to this observation. In Richard Pipes’s short Three Whys of the Russian Revolution he compares the cataclysmic changes in Russia during the early twentieth century to the shifts that occurred in Western Europe during the same decades. From its ancient foundations “the Russian state was imposed from above” rather than, as in the European case, evolving over centuries from below. The European feudalistic structure included elements of strong non-state social institutions and lateral lines of authority. Thus, when epochal change came to the East at the dawn of the twentieth century, the vanishing of the Russian state created a vacuum of social chaos.
To pinpoint the conclusion here, consider that as the now all- powerful state in the West has largely succeeded in undermining whatever lattice work of social authority and cultural institutions once existed independent of the state, we must take to heart the dangers of a transition from a society that is upheld exclusively by the state, to a society upheld by nothing at all.
It follows from the previously expressed hesitancy toward ideological revolution that we must follow-up with an additional comment of general disinterest in what might be called “political reformism.” Marxist theorists and strategists at the dawn of the Red Century intensely debated whether their program should seek to eradicate the existing order in one fell swoop, or, instead, work within it to challenge the system and slowly generate small improvements over the long haul.
Likewise, those today who are fed up with “the two party system” and the present political power dynamic have continued to seek change at increasingly centralized levels of government. Betraying all consideration of historical and cultural elements, they seek to enact a “libertarianism from the top down.” Of particular interest to us in the United States, the Libertarian Party leadership has in recent months continued to goad the politically disinterested into diving into national party participation (to the complete abandonment of quality in principle—for what matter to them is numbers, not ideas) as a means of expression.
This strikes us as being in complete opposition to the most prudent path forward. We prefer a mood and spirit of de-politicization, not revamped and renewed political passion. Our argument is not against the possibility of politics as a tactic, but against the idea that anything outside the political is an abandonment of the pursuit of improvement.
Similarly, the recent coalition around a so-called “national conservatism,” as much as we appreciate the anti-left sentiment, strikes us as the very abandonment of the quest for a conservative, natural society, that the true spirit of rightism should prefer. A national conservatism in our present federal government-driven society, made up as it is of disparate groups, factions, cultures, and outlooks, smacks instead of a politicized, and therefore inherently leftist, constructed society. If what has become of American conservatism continues to emphasize the national instead of the regional, they will find themselves unable to compete with a much more powerful political brand of centralism, characterized by the AOCs of the world. An instinct characterized by taking all fights to Washington, D.C. tends to accomplish only the channelling of power and identity to Washington, D.C.
Against all this, we continue to promote and champion decentralization; not only politically, but socially and mentally as well. The commitment to one’s community and region over the so-called and artificial “national community” is tremendously more realistic and mindful of the nature of social organization. This is, as well, an important aspect of our framework that promotes the reinstatement of non-political institutions to which individual and familial units can cling in a time of political disintegration.
A Refuge for Ideas
While the general interpretive framework of our modern world holds that democratic universalism, egalitarian social structures, highly regulated economic interventionism, and our alleged “propositional nationhood” constitute the “end of history” and the fulfillment of mankind’s progressive advancement, our reaction to these things involves a more critical nuance. We are neither pronouncers of progress nor dour declinists.
If neither civilizational progress nor decline is inevitable, it follows that the course of human history depends on the people who make it. Mises once expressed sorrow and regret that his motivating attempt to prevent Austria and Europe from social disintegration resulted only in his being a “historian of decline.” But his profound words of wisdom on the importance of communicating ideas to the world offer us the inspiration to undertake this project.
In our time, capitalism is seen as the enemy of all humanity, decentralization as a reflection of man’s inherent tribalistic bigotries, and a principled commitment to private property as an antiquated scourge on socially meaningful living.
However, people believe these things because this is what is taught by the most influential sources of contemporary propaganda – a politically regulated and controlled system of education and news/opinion media. Thus, we see our role, as small in reach as we may be, as participating in the rediscovery and renewed interest of non-politicized avenues of expression.
Our intention is to continue to produce content into the future that can speak to libertarians who, like us, recognize that there is an entire world of literary criticism, historical narrative, sociological analysis, and social philosophy in the greater Western tradition. These have gone unnoticed in modern man’s being distracted by the tiring and degrading contemporary world of political news and shallow entertainment. Beyond all the noise, there lies hidden and disregarded, presented in tremendous literary and aesthetic elegance, an entire body of Western social thought. Libertarians ought to learn from those that came before.
And conversely, we aim to offer insight to those, interested in the likes of Tucker Carlson, who recognize the socio-cultural crisis in our time and, yet, who unfairly cast blame on capitalism and decentralism. We seek to leverage our economic and political theory unswervingly, yet never forgetting that there is more to human history than markets and libertarianism’s ethical analysis of the state.
The demeanor we carry forward in our time of social upheaval and agitation is a realistic Austro-libertarianism; one that fits into a wider context of the fight that Western man must undertake to defend and protect what is true, good, and beautiful and to speak resolutely against the degradation of these things. If it is possible for civilization to ever regress, and if the era of modernity and postmodernity are in crisis, indeed if the sun is setting on our age of American democratic imperialism, it is worth journaling the transition to a state of affairs beyond this setting sun.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Austro Libertarian. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and others. He owns several consulting business and actively works on the magazine, for Tom Woods, and lives in Northern CA.