In Defense of Political Radicals
Sometimes, life imitates shitposting. Under the guise of conducting research, I’ve come to join and like an absolutely inordinate amount of politically-inclined shitposting groups and pages. It’s bad, to the point where normie posts about meals, trips and life achievements have been completely drowned out in political compass memes and ancap smileys. Right around the time where radical centrist memes began making an appearance in my favourite meme group, I became aware of a piece by Hunter Maats which perfectly represents everything that’s wrong behind the idea that inspired the meme.
This is what Hunter Maats looks like. See the original tweet in context.
In his extremely verbose article, Maats perform an intricate kata of mixed mental arts, chopping down conveniently constructed straw men built up in the shape of Tom Woods, intended to be a sit-in for the entire ideology of anarcho-capitalism. Between ad-homs (intended as bait?) and masturbating about how widely he has read, the author does a pretty shitty job of explaining to us why and how anarcho-capitalism sucks, relying mostly on choice arguments such as MUH HUMAN NATURE. I’m not going to white-knight for Tom, simply because he doesn’t need my help. I’m not going to refute the piece too, because the concerns Hunter has with anarcho-capitalism have been addressed before. Maybe he hasn’t read widely enough. What I am going to do is point out how the underpinning of Maat’s “arguments” are essentially the same as those upon which the states builds it’s own perverse logic, in that, hopefully make a sound defense of political radicals, a group in which I include libertarians.
What aggravates libertarians more than anything else about the state is its hubris: how a small group of elected officials, upon manning the controls of apparatus of the state, suddenly come to think of themselves as gods, who with sufficient time and budgetary appropriations can solve everything. Functionaries of the states and their elected political overlords have different interests, but the latter coincide when it comes to making the state look like an all-knowning entity with the power to fix everything. We can make the Middle East democratic. We can save people from their self-destructive habits through nudging and subsidies. We can engineer our way into permanent economic growth. We can provide everything for everyone forever.
This hubris of the state is also that of the technocrat, and apparently, Hunter Maats. While reading his piece, I got the impression that Maats’ point was that if only everybody read as much New York Times best sellers as he did, we could finally move towards an improved society; if only everybody accepted consensus opinions on subjects like “human nature”, we’d have a solid foundation upon which we can build a better society. In doing this, Hunter commits what should amount to a cardinal sin to anybody who believes in science: he behaves as if he had found pure, eternal, objective truth between the covers of paperbacks. His pretension to be able to build politics upon a solid foundation is nonsensical: firstly because it is epistemically unsound, and secondly because understanding politics as science is absurd*.
Modernity was built on doubt; such a well read person as Maats aught to know this. Descartes methodological doubt constitutes the basis for modern science, and thinkers like Karl Popper who have built upon it have shed light upon one of the foremost criteria of truth: falsifiability. In the face of science, the soundest of knowledge is to be questioned, all fact is provisional by definition. Men and women of science aught to be humbled by this sword of Damocles inherent to the process of discovering and rediscovering truth. Knowledge is a shaky edifice by virtue of the fact that it’s building-blocks are subject to crumble at any time. When he makes cocksure pronouncements on the existence of an essence of man or processes of evolution on the scale of universe, what Maats is doing isn’t science; he’s simultaneously praying at the altar of science and desecrating it with his arrogance.
Ironically, the Austrian school of economics, the works of which Maats refers to as mental masturbation, does a much better job at being humble in it’s view of the science of economics. To be sure, the Austrian methodology could be critiqued, but its insistance that economic preferences are subjective and largely impenetrable are a sign of committal to the idea that some things simply can’t be perfectly revealed through science.
So, one could say that Maat’s refutation of anarcho-capitalism in favour of governance based on science is significantly weakened by the fact that he fails to acknowledge that every bit of knowledge he builds his case on could be proven to be completely false. What completely demolishes his case against Woods / libertarians / ancaps is his complete lack of understanding of what this person and groups are about fundamentally.
The libertarian mouvement is a political one. This implies that it interacts with other mouvements, actors and institutions that are contemporary to us; it attempts to influence the status quo in a manner coherent with it’s founding principles. Hunter portraits the movement as striving for the establishment, ex-nihilo, of a stateless society; this is of course ridiculous, because politics is by it’s very nature a process. How did we get here, politically? According to historians and scholars on nationalism like Benedict Anderson, the state was formed around the state-sponsorship of an official culture through things like language and education, progressively asserting itself as a incarnation of the collective will which bore much more legitimacy than that of divine-right monarchs. Democracy is a relatively recent ideal which best channels this ideal of legitimacy, and which has been proven to be robust, if imperfect. There is no pivotal moment where our current institutions magically appeared. There is no teleological “march of progress” leading up to democracy and the modern state. What we have before us is the results of human action, the slow process of humans shaping their environments through interacting with one another.
We libertarians, the political ones at least, wish to participate in this process for the betterment for our society. We are well aware of our institutional surroundings, as demonstrated by our eagerness to criticize the state, its innate immorality and spectacular shortcomings. I know of nobody who wishes to achieve the libertarian ideals while ridding ourselves of what good things we have invented collectively (the idea of courts and arbitration of disputes, social institutions, and even GASP roads!), but this does not mean we do not carry a utopian vision of what we would want society to look like. This utopia is a guiding light, in the same way the sun, moon and stars can be used for navigation despite being out of reach. If politics is constantly in movement and evolution, this ideal is the direction of our vector, not a mere point.
In a sense, Maats is attempting to discredit an inherently political concept, the ideology of libertarianism, in strictly apolitical terms. In his article and follow-up tweet to me, he makes it sound like being political is a bad thing, and that science alone can yield a better future. Is he forgetting that the Kants and Rousseaus that he likes to namedrop where also guided by an ideal, and imminent political? Is he denying that their ideas had an influence on the foundation of our societies, despite their respective utopias never having been achieved? In citing Diamond, Pinker, et al as “evidence” (his words) of some sort of human nature and transcendant process towards progress, he discards the role of human action in the shaping or our world. The thinkers, the people that their ideas sway, the practitioners of politics and the masses they mobilized, the groups that coalesced around this or that aim or objective, they are the real force behind the creation of our societal order. The very idea of the contemporary nation-state that is so dear to Hunter was borne of an assembly of myths, from the social contract to the “collective will”. What is to say that ideas can’t change the current order of things?
In his attempt to evacuate politics in order to assume the stance of the “realist” (again, his words), Maats dons the robes of the soul-less technocrat, eager to engineer a better future but all too quick to forget the human beings that will inhabit it. Like the state, he adopts a quasi-religious belief in the “just a bit more effort” mentality and carefully plans a map to the exact location of what turns out to be a mirage of brighter tomorrow. In the end, the only place he’s bound to end up after much adjustment, readjustment and sensible choices is further down the road to serfdom. The real enemies of human progress aren’t on the ideologues on the left or the right, who dare imagine a different world. The real threat, if one indeed does exist, are radical centrists like Maats, who look to smother the act of politics in what they perceive to be truth.
Radicals, keep doing what you do, your ideas and actions are the engine of history. Hunter, once you’re done beating off to best-sellers, you can come out and play too.
*This claim might sound weird coming from a political scientist. In the french language, there exists a distinction between la politique and le politique. The first refers to the conduct of politics, the interaction between political actors (campaigning, coalition forming, media ops, etc), while the second refers to the abstract notion of the affairs of the state and governance. Here, I am referring to la politique. To be sure, my discipline, in so far as it concerns the analysis of public policy, voter behaviour and scholarly analysis of political situations is absolutely a science. When discussing ideology however, this is not what we’re talking about.