Ironically, in seeking to curb the individual will to power in favor of equality, leftists invest their own subterranean desires for freedom-as-power in the activist state. In my view, the revival of the left depends on relinquishing this investment. We need to recognize that despite appearances the state is not our friend, that in the long run its erosion is an opportunity and a challenge, not a disaster. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not suggesting that we stop supporting social security or national health insurance or public schools or antidiscrimination laws. If my immediate choices are the barbarism of unleashed capital or a state-funded public sector, the tyranny of uninhibited private bigotry or state-enforced civil rights, I choose the state. Or rather, I choose the social goods and civil liberties that are available under state auspices.The distinction is important, because the idea that the state gives us these benefits is a mystification. Basically [Charles] Murray is right: government does not cause social improvement. In actual historical fact, every economic and social right that we’ve achieved since the nineteenth century has been hard-won by organized, militant, and often radical social movements: the labor movement; the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements; the new left student movement; the black and feminist and gay liberation movements; the ecology movement. . . . The role of the state from the New Deal and the postwar compact till the start of its present no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy phase was to manage potentially destabilizing social conflict by offering carefully limited concessions to the troublemakers.
. . . The government’s current rush to abandon any pretense of social responsibility ought to make this painfully clear: what the state supposedly giveth it promptly taketh away as soon as the balance of power shifts. In this case, of course, social power is shifting away from the national state itself; liberals and social democrats are still trying to board a train that’s already left the station.
In parallel fashion, the statism of the cultural left does not further equality so much as it reinforces law and order. . . . Insofar as the demand is to outlaw overt, provable discriminatory acts by employers, landlords, store, owners, and so on, it simply aims for public recognition that (pace [David] Boaz and Murray) discrimination is a coercive act as unacceptable as violence or theft. But the problem, from the social movements’ point of view, is that overt, deliberate discrimination is only the crudest expression of a deeply rooted culture of inequality. For many opponents of that culture, it has seemed a logical next step to invoke state power against patterns of behavior that reinforce white male dominance and exclude, marginalize, or intimidate vulnerable groups.
Actually, it’s a plunge into a dangerous illusion. The ingrained behavior and attitudes that support the dominant culture are by definition widespread, reflexive, and experienced as normal and reasonable by the people who uphold them. They are also often unconscious or ambiguous. A serious effort to crush racism and sexism with the blunt instrument of the law would be a project of totalitarian dimensions—and still it would fail. Transforming a culture and its consciousness requires a different kind of politics, a movement of people who consistently and publicly confront oppressive social patterns, explain what’s wrong with them, and refuse to live by them. . . .
It’s time for the left to become a movement again. That means, first of all, depending on no one’s power but our own. . . .
Ellen Willis, Their Libertarianism—and Ours, 1997
There is much which is provocative—in the best sense of the word—in Willis’s work, and much of her left-libertarianism with which I agree.
But she doesn’t confront the contradiction in her own essay: the gains of past movements, gains which she wouldn’t give up, were accomplished through the actions of that compromised, unfriendly, authoritarian state. She criticizes the right-libertarians for not recognizing the coercive power of the marketplace and warns leftists of the coercive power of the state, but merely criticizing parallel coercions does not in an of itself offer an escape from them.
Yes, by all means, we need a new, new-left movement (NL x.0?), a new vision of freedom and equality in which we live in “voluntary cooperation” with one another. But we can’t get their simply by dismissing either the state or the market as coercive—and not only because coercion (or, if you prefer, power) itself may be inescapable.
It’s nice to say we ought to rely on no one’s power but our own, but is that enough? And what if it isn’t? That is the dilemma, and the work.