Rothbard’s Conflationary Universe
‘Return of the Irrepressed’, my overview of Rothbard, will probably return next week. It occurred to me that I should get more specific in my response to Rothbard, as I have been with Hayek and Böhm-Bawerk. So I decided to critique something of his in detail. Here’s what happened. My Patreon sponsors got advance access to an earlier draft. Sorry about the length. I would have broken this up into several posts but it’s too unitary for that.
In his essay on conservative thought, Karl Mannheim argued that conservatives have never been wild about the idea of freedom. It threatens the submission of subordinate to superior. Because freedom is the lingua franca of modern politics, however, conservatives have had “a sound enough instinct not to attack” it. Instead, they have made freedom the stalking horse of inequality, and inequality the stalking horse of submission. Men are naturally unequal, they argue. Freedom requires that they be allowed to develop their unequal gifts. A free society must be an unequal society, composed of radically distinct, and hierarchically arrayed, particulars.
– Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind
One of the things that has always driven institutional racism is the notion that underlying these socially defined categories are real fundamental biological and genetically determined differences, which make certain groups of people superior and therefore more likely–and more justified–to be those in charge of society. And others who are genetically incapable of leading society and are therefore subordinated to those with genetic superiority.
This argument goes back to the Greeks in different forms. It appeared in ancient Chinese writing in different forms. It’s always been a chief ideological tool in the arsenal of those who are wedded to the notion of a social hierarchy which feeds the wealthy and powerful and opposes and oppresses those who work for a living.
– Joseph L. Graves Jnr, in a recent interview with Danny Katch, responding to David Reich’s recent New York Times article ‘How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of Race’
In his famous and beloved (by nasty people) 1973 essay ‘Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Human Nature’, Rothbard argues the thesis in the title with a roundelay of fallacies, bald assertions, and eternally begged questions. (Again, I don’t link to crypto-fash site LewRockwell-dot-org, but that’s where you’ll find it.) His most fundamental manoeuvre is to wrongly conflate inequality and difference, claim that equality thus necessarily entails uniformity, and then point to the lack of uniformity in people as proof that equality is impossible and undesirable. He strawmans egalitarians as claiming that humans are all the same, and wishing to forcibly impose uniformity on humanity in the name of equality. As it happens, these two propositions are actually contradictory – do egalitarians think humans are all the same or do they want to make them all the same? In the course of the essay he claims that “egalitarians begin with the a priori axiom that all people, and hence all groups of peoples, are uniform and equal”, which showcases the sneaky move openly. He can use difference as proof that equality is impossible because he has already conflated difference with inequality. Difference cannot be eradicated, so neither can inequality. The attempt to minimise difference is usually horrible, ergo so is the attempt to minimise inequality. Difference and inequality thus become equally inevitable and desirable. Their very existence becomes proof that they must and should exist – because reasoning eternal generalities from historically specific particulars isn’t fallacious at all. But it all rests on the initial unwarranted conflation. As it happens, this unwarranted conflation is the first of many. Rothbard goes on to imply an entire hierarchically-arranged cosmos resembling nothing so much as the ‘Great Chain of Being which formed the basis of the so-called ‘Elizabethan world picture’ according to E. M. W. Tillyard. And Rothbard does it by conflation upon conflation.
He starts as he means to go on – with dishonest sophistry – by quoting some mainstream statements of egalitarianism, and then pulling this slippery move:
Suppose, for example, that Professor Simons’s ethical or aesthetic judgment was not on behalf of equality but of a very different social ideal. Suppose, for example, he had been in favor of the murder of all short people, of all adults under five feet, six inches in height.
But the ideals in question are actually very different. It is a category error to conflate them. Or a category lie. It is deliberately misleading or it is incredibly sloppy. Firstly, Simons was talking (at least judging from how Rothbard quotes him) about taxation as a way to even out income inequality, not about murder. Maybe the two things seem equally bad to Rothbard, but out here in the moral universe of normal human beings, there’s quite a difference. And Simons wasn’t talking about inborn traits like height which make comparatively little difference to one’s life. He was talking about income inequality, which is intensely harmful to people’s lives and society generally (the evidence is even clearer on this now than in 1973, when it was already compelling), and which is not natural and inborn.
But then that’s the question, isn’t it! – one which Rothbard merely assumes even as he pretends to argue it. To make his false analogy into a significant statement about real life, Rothbard must assume precisely what he pretends to be proving: that inequality of wealth (and thus of status, power, opportunity, etc) is natural and inborn. If he can’t do that then he is stuck with nothing more than his original dishonest manoeuvre: “imagine if this thing were like this other very bad thing… they’d both be bad, wouldn’t they!?” Yes, they would. Can’t argue with that. If chocolate was like arsenic, chocolate would kill instantly.
Of course, he isn’t done with the strawmen just yet. First he has to pull a Godwin. He suggests that egalitarian appeals to the widespread feeling that inequality should be remedied are akin to – or at least no more logical than – justifications for persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany which centred on widespread feelings of anti-semitism. It’s the old ‘tyranny of the majority’ argument again – one foundational to Austrian distaste for democracy. Once again, he is conflating apples and oranges – and deliberately choosing rotten oranges full of maggots to prove that all apples are inedible, and that anyone claiming otherwise must ipso facto be planning to forcibly stuff everyone’s mouths with maggot-ridden decomposing citrus fruits.
Not content with this, he then tries to prove the immorality of trying to achieve equality by imagining a world in which people dangerously waste a great deal of time and money trying to fly by flapping their arms – again assuming the very point under question, i.e. that inequality cannot be remedied any more than humans can fly.
After backing up his assertion (i.e. that equality would actually be bad because it would have to entail uniformity and violence to the privileged) with reference to some horror fiction (!), including (unsurprisingly) Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (though whether Rothbard has properly understood that story is up for debate), he finally gets to his attempt to prove that inequality is inevitable.
He does this by – and I shit you not – pointing out that so far we’ve never achieved social equality. History shows that inequality is “age old”, so it must therefore be inevitable. That’s it.
The great fact of individual difference and variability (that is, inequality) is evident from the long record of human experience
Notice that he is still unwarrantedly conflating equality with uniformity in order to conclude that equality is thus impossible and undesirable.
There is also the fact – which he leaves unmentioned – that it is by no means certain that all human history is the history of inequality. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be remarkably egalitarian by our standards – without imposed uniformity. (While disputed, this is – at the very least – widely argued, and therefore not something which can simply be dismissed.) And it is permissible to suppose it more than possible thathumans lived in small, relatively egalitarian tribal societies for thousands of years before the rise of class society and hierarchy. This, by the way, also gestures to the fact that Rothbard conflates drastic inequality as we experience it now in modern society with any degree or social form of inequality, which is again unwarranted.
But he can’t just leave it there, so he turns – as many have before and since – to biology.
As is so often the case with reactionaries, Rothbard mistakes the biological for the eternal and immutable, and then proceeds to reason unwarrantedly from biological certainties that are not actually certainties at all, but which are actually in hot dispute. But Rothbard is happy to rule on the issue based on how things look to him:
The age-old record of inequality seems to indicate that this variability and diversity is rooted in the biological nature of man
That the biological impossibility of equality thus ‘seems’ to be ‘indicated’ (to Rothbard) is taken as reason to abandon any attempt to achieve it. ‘The sky looks a bit grey, so I won’t go outside to take my dying child to the doctor – in case she gets wet and catches a chill that will kill her faster.’ Anyone employing such logic would be suspected of not really being all that fond of their kid.
Rothbard then asks us to “ponder an example that is deliberately semi-frivolous”, as if what had gone before had been serious minded.
Suppose that we observe our culture and find a common dictum to be: “Redheads are excitable.” Here is a judgment of inequality, a conclusion that redheads as a group tend to differ from the nonredhead population.
Note, again, the unwarranted conflation of “inequality” and “difference”. It’s not too much to suggest that this same conflation still bedevils the thinking of the Right. How many times have you heard some alt-Righter or alt-Liter moan about the supposed double standards of ‘SJWs’ who want equality but also emphasize different identities? The confusion wasn’t invented by Rothbard, but he almost certainly played his role in transmitting it to today’s reactionaries. Apparently the essay currently under discussion is much treasured by libertarians, themselves the peddlers of the gateway drug to the alt-right (i.e. today’s fascism). (I say ‘confusion’, but I’m sure many of them use the conflation of “inequality” and “difference” cynically, as a ploy, rather than being actually befuddled by it.)
What follows is an incredibly instructive example of sloppy and/or dishonest reasoning:
Suppose, then, that egalitarian sociologists investigate the problem, and they find that redheads do, indeed, tend to be more excitable than nonredheads by a statistically significant amount. Instead of admitting the possibility of some sort of biological difference, the egalitarian will quickly add that the “culture” is responsible for the phenomenon: the generally accepted “stereotype” that redheads are excitable had been instilled into every redheaded child from an early age, and he or she has simply been internalizing these judgments and acting in the way society was expecting him to act. Redheads, in brief, had been “brainwashed” by the predominant nonredhead culture.
While not denying the possibility of such a process occurring, this common complaint seems decidedly unlikely on rational analysis. For the egalitarian culture-bugaboo implicitly assumes that the “culture” arrives and accumulates haphazardly, with no reference to social facts. The idea that “redheads are excitable” did not originate out of the thin air or as a divine commandment; how, then, did the idea come into being and gain general currency? One favorite egalitarian device is to attribute all such group-identifying statements to obscure psychological drives. The public had a psychological need to accuse some social group of excitability, and redheads were fastened on as scapegoats. But why were redheads singled out? Why not blondes or brunettes? The horrible suspicion begins to loom that perhaps redheads were singled out because they were and are indeed more excitable and that, therefore, society’s “stereotype” is simply a general insight into the facts of reality
It’s hard to know where to start.
Firstly, notice the get-out clauses he carefully leaves himself. He says he doesn’t deny the “possibility of such a process occurring” etc. So, if called out, he can always backtrack tactically through the little escape hatch he left for himself. He is bolting caveats onto categorical statements (or, more precisely, arguments which invite categorical logic even as they carefully avoid actual categorical statements) in the hope that we won’t notice. Jordan Peterson didn’t invent that particular move, though he is now perhaps its most polished practitioner.
Secondly, Rothbard’s account of the explanation for how ideas about groups become socially constructed is a strawman. For instance, he crudely conflates socialisation with ‘brainwashing’ in order to make a sophisticated argument sound silly. Again, a tactic familiar to anyone who has listened to today’s anti-feminists sneer at what they take (sans research) to be meant by terms like ‘rape culture’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. (And, as is customary with reactionaries, he is projecting his own crude failings onto those he criticises; it is actually Rothbard who thinks people have been somehow brainwashed into believing nonsense ideas, as this essay shows.) And while there may be some people who point to vague psychological impulses as lying behind the social stigmatisation and oppression of minorities, there are far better material and social explanations out there. Rothbard represents the entirety of the argument resting on the weaker version. It is not the case that arguments about culture and socialisation depend upon the idea that culture “arrives and accumulates haphazardly, with no reference to social facts”. Ironically, while there are sloppy species of bourgeois sociology and history that will dally with such lazy formulations, historical materialism (i.e. Marxism, i.e. definitely not the set of ideas Rothbard wishes to defend) always demands to know from which hard material facts of history culture arises.
Thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly… obviously he means to use redheads as an analogy rather than as a representative example. Yet he also does seem to be claiming – even if he doesn’t mean to and doesn’t realise it – that redheads actually are inherently more excitable than other people. His analogy slips into being a case study. After all, by the logic he lays out here, there can be no validity to the idea that “redheads are excitable” is just a socially-constructed notion with no basis in the eternal and immutable nature of redheads. As it happens, Rothbard’s personal incredulity aside, there is a great deal of evidence showing that prevalent behaviours are socially taught and learned, and that they arise from contingent social and historical causes.
Of course, he carefully avoids claiming that sociologists would find empirical support for the greater excitability of redheads should they go looking… but, by his logic, how would he explain the reputation redheads have of being excitable without reference to an empirically observable innate tendency towards excitability? By his logic, the existence of the reputation logically entails its own truth! It’s a metaphor that traps itself into becoming literal or disproving the point it aims to illustrate. And there’s no way he can avoid the logical consequence of his reasoning (much as he issues sneaky disclaimers), which is that reputations must be based in truth, else whence come they? Is he also claiming that some reputations arrive and accumulate haphazardly with no reference to social or biological facts? Handy.
From here we end up firmly back in the universe of an old-fashioned comic performing for a bunch of whiskey-swilling, cigar-chomping businessmen. Irishmen are stupid. Wives nag. Mother-in-laws are ballbusters. Jews are greedy. Etc, etc, etc. These things must be true, otherwise wither their reputations?
And here we get to the real issue. Because of course, if all this stuff about redheads is just a stand-in for something else, some actual connection between the physical traits of some groups and their behaviour that sociologists could link (or perhaps already have linked?), then that leads us to wonder what – and who – is Rothbard actually talking about?
This is where things start getting seriously troubling. Because any reader who approaches this with any degree of interrogative scepticism soon becomes aware that Rothbard is talking in code. Yet again, a familiar technique.
Notice that his argument rests upon the idea that sociologists will – or at least might – find that the subjects of stereotypes conform to those stereotypes. He doesn’t claim that redheads are more excitable, but strongly suggests that the metaphorical excitability of redheads (i.e. the tendency of stereotyped groups to conform to stereotypes) is a social phenomenon in need of explanation. Otherwise, what are we even talking about? Now, I’m sure this sort of thing has happened, because most things have. I myself have met arrogant Germans, etc. But we have to bear in mind that, as I say, Rothbard is talking in code. ‘Redheads’ here stands for something – someone – else. After all, redheads are not horribly disadvantaged in today’s world. And if they were, I somehow suspect Rothbard would not have been vehemently opposed to this being remedied. Rothbard later came to claim that white people were being oppressed by things like affirmative action and political correctness – as evidenced by his support for the agendas of people like David Duke, and Duke’s desire to end the racial injustice perpetrated against white people. By the way – by Rothbard’s own logic, how does one prove that this is unjustified, and not in fact an expression of some underlying biological necessity? I suppose he would point to it as a recent development, and thus a perversion of the natural order. But reactionaries in dominant groups have been claiming to be oppressed by those below them since forever.
It seems at least possible to me that, in his repeated reliance upon the idea that difference equals inequality, Rothbard is telling us more than he realises about the motivations behind his own thinking.
Rothbard keeps going with his ‘metaphor’ about redheads. As he goes along, the kinds of people he’s actually talking about becomes clearer.
Statistical proof of the “oppression” of redheads would proceed in a manner all too familiar in American political life; it might be shown, for example, that the median redhead income is lower than nonredheaded income, and further that the proportion of redheaded business executives, university professors, or congressmen is below their quotal representation in the population.
In his ‘amusing’ metaphor, Rothbard imagines a world in which redheads are systematically impoverished relative to the rest of the population, excluded from opportunities, from positions of power and authority and status, from influential careers, from government, etc. By ‘redheads’, he clearly means to refer to those who occupy a similar place in our actual world. By jocularly imagining such complaints about the predicament of redheads in his alternate fantasy world, he implies the silliness of complaining about the actual predicament of people of colour, and women, in the real world. He forgets, of course, that you cannot draw conclusions about reality from how things pan out in jokey metaphors, especially when those metaphors seem calculatedly designed to not resemble the reality they supposedly connote. For a start, redheads were never subjected to slavery and then Jim Crow for hundreds of years.
This doesn’t stop Rothbard doing the exact same thing again.
Using controversies over the disproportionately male, non-white and older make up of the delegates to the 1972 Democratic Convention (raised by McGovern supporters) as an example, he engages in some sophistry about underrepresentation of small children, equating the systematic exclusion of women and minorities from positions of influence and responsibility with the exclusion of five year olds. He apparently doesn’t realise that this is not only a false equivalence but one which perfectly illustrates the kind of contempt underwriting such systematic underrepresentation.
His five-year-olds analogy is, he claims, a “reductio ad absurdum”. But a reductio ad absurdum, to be valid, must take the original logic to a conclusion which turns out to be absurd, and must demonstrate that there is no inbuilt reason why the logic cannot be taken that far. Instead, Rothbard only achieves what most people achieve when they claim to have executed a reductio ad absurdum: he takes the logic he wishes to reject further than it is designed to go, thus achieving a result which does not actually follow from it, but which he is then able to disingenuously use as a strawman.
Five year olds were underrepresented (as a proportion of the population) among the delegates at the 1972 Democratic Convention because they were members of a group of people who, by definition, cannot be delegates at Democratic Party Conventions, by reasons of being incapable. (Am I really explaining this?) They were underrepresented for the same reason that incarcerated people, or dead people, or Republicans, were underrepresented. Rothbard is tacitly asking us to draw a comparison between five-year-olds and those other groups underrepresented because he tacitly assumes that those other underrepresented groups – i.e. women, people of colour – are just as incapable of being convention delegates as five year olds. While pretending to be reducing egalitarian arguments about representation to absurdity, he is actually demonstrating precisely why they are so necessary: there are people in this world who think that women and people of colour either cannot represent themselves or have no business asking to be represented.
By the way… why should proportionate representation be required to materialise spontaneously? How do we know that it would and should materialise spontaneously as a result of ‘biological’ equality? Rothbard never explains how this works, nor does he ever provide an argument for why non-biological factors cannot possibly intervene to distort the process. It is simply that anything other than ‘spontaneous order’ would be the kind of social engineering which Rothbard and people like him find so sinister (for non-mysterious reasons, they themselves being the current beneficiaries of the allegedly spontaneous order), and which they must try to discredit using arguments based on false equivalence, conflation, ignoring evidence of social oppression, and begging the question.
He finally just comes right out and says it – at least with regards women. And runs through the same maneuvers. He strawmans the feminist argument, saying that feminists (he calls them “the widening forces of ‘womens’ liberation’”) claim that women are less politically active (and hence less represented) because they’ve been ‘brainwashed’. Thus is a sophisticated critique of socialisation and ideology ignored and written off by being reduced to sounding like something from The Manchurian Candidate. He then reminds us that “every culture and civilization in history, from the simplest to the most complex, has been dominated by males”. Again, he is deducing eternal necessities from past contingencies. Let’s pass over the issue of whether or not this is even true (because, as we’ve seen, there are at least grounds to doubt that the entire history of human society has involved male supremacy). Does anyone deny that civilised human history has been dominated by males? Why does Rothbard think that simply pointing out that this has a long history a) justifies it, and/or b) means it is inevitable?
(Also, he ignores the Marxist argument – well supported by anthropological and archaeological evidence – that the history of civilisation is the history of class society, arising from a ruling class’s control of surplus created by agriculture, and that class society generates male supremacy for complex reasons. Looked at properly, I’d argue, the link between the arrival of agriculture and the arrival of class, and then the arrival of male domination, actually helps prove the socially-constructed nature of both class and gender hierarchy. Rothbard soars above even gesturing to this argument, despite taking aim at the Marxists lower down the essay. At most, he makes a mocking gesture towards arguments egalitarians make about other societies.)
Rothbard, viewing reality in static snapshots as reactionaries always do, again reasons from the fact of something to both its morality and its inevitability. This, by the way, is the same false logic biological determinists always use. For instance: “People are naturally greedy/competitive/xenophobic/whatever. How do we know? Here are examples of people being greedy/competitive/xenophobic/whatever.” The evidence for the inevitability of something is found in the existence of something. The innateness of the behaviour is proved by the existence of the behaviour. And from innateness and inevitability they always move smoothly (unaware or uncaring that they are engaged in a category error) to declarations of moral justifiability. The fact that something is, is evidence that it must be, and this is further evidence that it is good. This is a clearly ideological manoeuvre, quite aside from the illogic, and the ignoring of counter evidence. But the past is littered with examples of people declaring this or that thing to be impossible because it had not yet then been done. And their successors never learn, even as they laugh at people who made the mistake before them. And such arguments usually come from people trying to justify injustice. ‘Black people were meant to be slaves. How do we know? Because lots of them are, and there are no black senators. Ergo, it’s morally permissible to use black people as farm machinery, sell their kids, and whip them if they try to escape.’ To be clear, I’m not saying Rothbard says this (though his neo-confederate sympathies are documented), just that his reasoning is very recognisable from just these kinds of sophistic apologetics for horror.
Techniques like these will also be drearily familiar to anyone who has wasted any time listening to the moronic ideologues of contemporary popular anti-feminism. This isn’t because Sargon of Akkad has read Rothbard (as far as I can tell, Sargon of Akkad hasn’t read anything) but because Rothbard was lazily ploughing the same obvious and dishonest furrow long ago. And he himself isn’t being especially original.
Rothbard is ‘brave’ enough to just come out and say it:
…if, indeed, men have succeeded in dominating every culture, then this in itself is a demonstration of male “superiority”; for if all genders are equal, how is it that male domination emerged in every case?
I guess this counts as an argument if you simply discount any and all attempts to situate male domination of human societies in any kind of actual historical analysis. Having done precisely that, Rothbard goes straight to the biological determinist argument.
Amusingly, he cites Irving Howe’s condescending and mean-spirited attack on Kate Millet. Howe, of the Democratic Socialists of America, was angry about Millet’s use of Marxist ideas (amongst others) to help found Second Wave feminism. While Howe makes a few points about the radical feminists’ attitude to class, these aren’t what Rothbard cites. Rothbard approvingly quotes Howe’s irrelevant observations about biological differences. He goes on to cite other biological determinist ideas about innate male/female differences (males are naturally more aggressive, etc).
For a demolition of the ongoing gender-essentialist discourse around this topic I refer you toCordelia Fine’s excellent Delusions of Gender. As well as debunking the idea that we know that boys are naturally drawn to toy guns and girls to toy dolls (hint: gender socialisation is both more powerful and harder to eliminate than anyone thinks), Fine cites numerous examples of the kinds of opinions Rothbard relies upon. Generations of scientists have theorised about exactly how and why the (obviously inevitable) inferiority of women works. My favourite is the theorist who speculated that women might lack brain power because the energy that would otherwise go to their brains is redirected south to make the ovaries work. Fine wonders aloud if he thought testicles were solar powered.
Rothbard’s revealing characterisation of feminism is as a “rebellion against biological sex norms”, which he conflates with womens’ apparently natural and inescapable role as less-aggressive, less-intelligent helpmates. But again, if we are to generalise innate nature from superficial phenomena, how does Rothbard explain the existence of the rebellion? More broadly: egalitarianism is a longstanding human idea, hope, aspiration, etc. How did this come about if it is a revolt against human nature? How does one select those human preoccupations which are part of human nature and those which are somehow not? A great degree of preference seems to be operating with regards which existing phenomena are deduced to be eternal and inevitable.
Rothbard goes through the same manoeuvres a few more times. He tells us that “biology stands like a rock in the face of egalitarian fantasies”, but this is just a fancy way of – again – conflating difference with issues of equality and inequality. To equate difference and inequality is to simply assume a vast mountain of socially-constructed ideological ideas about hierarchies of worth in aptitudes, tastes, etc. He also seems to take it for granted that a natural or biological trait is always an iron law rather than a predisposition, and that all natural and biological traits are impossible to subsume. But a great many natural and biological limitations have been subsumed. We might not be able to fly by flapping our arms, but we can now fly. Why shouldn’t material inequalities be subsumed if they can be? Why does the supposed naturalness of an inequality necessarily entail that it must be wrong to overcome it? The assumed hierarchy of worth mentioned above is taken as a reason why some should be denied, for instance, the opportunity to take advantage of our modern ability to fly. And the supposed inherent violence and uniformity of equality is relied upon to answer this, but again this is simply assumed. Even if we assume Rothbard is right about the hierarchy of worth built into difference, he offers no rationale as to why a society shouldn’t offer all it has to offer even to those who do not ‘deserve’ it. His tacit worldview of ‘desert’ is as chilly and swingeing as the welfarism that libertarians profess to hate so much.
He anticipates his rapturous embrace of The Bell Curve (later comprehensively debunked but sadly still championed) by praising the work of Herrnstein, later one of its co-authors. He informs us – as if this tells us anything meaningful about the complex interactions of people and ideas and institutions in society – that “[i]ndividuals differ from each other even in the minutest details of anatomy and body chemistry and physics”, as if the mere fact of variation is enough to prove the inevitability of oppression. But then the whole point is that, according to him, oppression doesn’t exist; there is only difference. This is the whole point of false equating difference with inequality: to associate it rhetorically with something innate and inevitable. If inequality is the same thing as difference then obviously inequality is both inevitable and not a moral issue, i.e. not oppression. (One is not morally responsible for that which one has no choice but to do.) This is the entire thesis of Rothbard’s essay (no matter that he repeats it several times in different forms) and it relies on rampant false equivalences, and begs questions all over the place.
Rothbard’s essay really is a relic. But sadly it is not one safely lodged in a museum, but is still proudly carried aloft – at least in spirit – much like The Bell Curve itself. The biological determinist arguments – restatements as they are of the difference/inequality conflation – are still used, in more or less exactly the same language, let alone form – all across the reactionary fuckwitosphere. You’ll have heard racists blithering about “HBD” or “human bio-diversity” as a way to both excuse and mask their sexism and racism? This is all Rothbard is doing here. Yet again he is revealed as one of the ‘intellectual’ godfathers of today’s gobby reactionaries. And increasingly this kind of thinking is being re-mainstreamed. It is being lifted back out of the gutter whenever Jordan Peterson witters about lobsters, or Sam Harris tells Ezra Klein that American history is irrelevant to a discussion of racial inequality.
Because we should be in no doubt that, for Rothbard, ‘redheads’ is code for women and black people.
None of this is to say that biology has no impact on social life. There are, of course, ways in which the differing biologies of, say, (cis) men and (cis) women do have an impact on their social opportunities. Take pregnancy, an issue Rothbard raises (via someone else’s quote). (Please take it as read that I’m talking about cis men and women in the following section.) The fact that women get pregnant and nurse small children does have an effect on their ability to achieve parity in employment, and thus income, etc. To a great extent – far greater than reactionaries like to pretend – such ‘disadvantages’ to women are socially constructed, and can thus be socially addressed, even remedied or eliminated. There is no biological reason why pregnancy need hinder anyone in that age of safe abortion. People like Rothbard’s reactionary buddies make the social choice that this biological issue should be allowed to continue to impact on the lives of women when they campaign against a woman’s right to choose.
Biology does not exist separate from society, immutable and supreme. The moment an innate biological issue becomes of less importance because we have developed ways of overcoming it, then it instantly becomes a purely social choice whether to let it hinder people or not. For instance, different abled people often find themselves at socially-constructed disadvantages owing to the fact that our world is not physically designed for them. This is partly a biological issue, in that it is to do with the construction of bodies. Yet nobody morally sane would argue that we should simply make no allowance for the fact that some people cannot walk (for instance), because to do so would be to unfairly even out innate differences in ability! (Of course, in practice, capitalist society shows a tacit willingness to neglect such issues and the people affected.)
I’m not strawmanning Rothbard’s argument, since he does not provide any rationale why his logic should be applied to one kind of biological difference and not another. Again, he simply decides to apply it to those biological differences which can be imagined to cause inequalities he is a priori committed to defending. The inequalities he likes are assumed defensible based on assumed biological causes.
Going back to issues of gender and parenting, we have an entrenched cultural idea that individual mothers should care for infants; that men do not need to be as involved. But there is no reason to suppose, simply because men cannot breastfeed, that there is nothing they can do. Increasingly, men do like to be involved in this kind of infant rearing. Far from being innate and immovable, inevitably stemming from biology, ideas about gender roles shift in response to deeper social patterns – not the least of which is struggle against oppression. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that child care must be individual, atomised, confined within nuclear families. The nuclear family is, essentially, an invention of modernity. For a long time, even in developed capitalist societies, extended family groups engaged in a form of socialised child care. Such groups existed in networks of families, and inter-family care was organised as well as intra-family care. Other societies – many hunter-gatherer societies for instance – consider child care to be a job for the community at large, with the children all looked after in one group by a shifting retinue of adults with various relationships to the kids.
Strangely, what might be assumed to be innate biological imperatives have proved very changeable, often in ways related to income and social bracket, i.e. wet nursing.
Even more fundamentally, the whole idea that motherhood is not a valuable occupation (i.e. one deserving remuneration) is socially constructed, an artefact of a society which essentially defines value as profit generated in the production process. It is the same logic which considers it natural to leave women unpaid for the vast amounts of domestic labour they still do. Capitalism, however, would never have been able to survive without the social reproduction taking place outside the workplace, most especially via the unpaid domestic labour of women in the home, tending to the workforce and rearing their replacements.
In revolutionary Russia, grand plans for the socialisation of childcare began to be drawn up and realised. Freeing women from the bondage which kept them at home looking after their kids and husbands was a major goal of the revolution. And, as with so many of the great intentions of the revolution, the failure of those plans was far more to do with wider forces – i.e. the catastrophic civil war which ensued when the revolution was attacked by Western capitalist armies and the proto-fascist counter-revolutionaries they sponsored and armed – than with any supposedly innate failure of the ideas. Reactionaries always like to abstract away history. They like to unwarrantedly substitute vague essentialist generalisations which reify existing socially-and-historically-contingent realities into eternal categories. They did this with the failures of the revolution as much as they do with gender roles. It’s the same logic Rothbard – and the countless others he is regurgitating, and who now regurgitate him – uses to argue that currently-pertaining differences in the social positions of the sexes are evidence of some eternal inequality. Indeed, Rothbard joins up the two versions of the same approach by linking his attack on ‘womens’ liberation’ to his wider metaphysical assault on egalitarianism as ‘a revolt against human nature’.
By the way, none of what I’ve written here about hunter-gatherers should be taken as implying that hunter-gatherers are always elevated and moral because they’re ‘in touch with nature’ or any of that patronising nonsense. Nor should it be taken as me arguing that people are naturally good and egalitarian, etc. I don’t think that. I think people are incredibly variable and malleable, and that people adapt to their material circumstances. Human society is plastic, and both grows out of and moulds itself to fit the environment in which it develops. The historical materialist case is that humans can and will adapt their societies to fit their material situations. It’s remarkable how peaceful and egalitarian people will tend to be if their circumstances allow it – not because they’re innately good but because it’s a good social strategy, all else being equal. This is the essence of why we believe socialism is possible. If the material constraints – external and internal – are removed, an egalitarian society will be by far the best strategy, and society will consequently settle in that direction. It should be clear that this is a more subtle, nuanced, evidence-based, historically aware viewpoint than the reductionist-reactionary one, which simply surveys the world as it currently exists in one place and one time, and smugly concludes that not only are these ‘things as they are’ good, but this must be the only way they can ever be. I mean, I was under the impression that Voltaire had dispensed with that kind of childish nonsense quite some time ago.
Even if genes do limit our capacities, that doesn’t mean we live in the best possible world. Who is to say that we have already reached the biological limits of the possible? It is perfectly possible to imagine biological limits on what humans can do and be which have nevertheless so far not been achieved. To assume otherwise is to assume, without any warrant, that we have already cleared away all artificial barriers to our achievements, and what we see now is the fullest possible expression of our fullest possible nature. It is to assume that we already live in the freest possible society. It is, once again, to assume that which is under discussion. The reactionaries do precisely this, ignoring the mountains of evidence which indicate that most humans are artificially held back from achieving their fullest possible potential by huge numbers of social factors which might be removed or minimised. Indeed, that is really all the egalitarian project amounts to: the removal or minimising of these barriers.
People like Rothbard like to pretend that socialists believe in the ‘perfectibility of Man’ so that they can then pose as hard-headed realists who champion our flawed natures against the utopian dreams of those who want to re-engineer our souls, etc. But the socialist project, properly understood, is not about the ‘perfectibility of Man’, but rather the optimisation of society so that it may permit, as far as materially possible, the full and free expression of everyone’s powers and capacities. That was, at any rate, what Marx thought. It is also the recognition that such powers and capacities are not fixed but may be extended by our ongoing interaction with a society which does not retard, but rather encourages, their growth.
Rothbard cannot claim to be unaware that this is the socialist vision. He quotes (sneeringly) some of the great socialists on this point further down the essay.
In the egalitarian idea’s ostensible rejection of biological destiny, Rothbard sees a cameo of a wider egalitarian rejection of reality itself. Again, he foreshadows the kind of rhetoric – most recently exemplified by Jordan Peterson – about left politics involving a denial of exterior reality. Peterson caricatures postmodernism (itself made into a catch-all that catches so much it becomes meaningless) as denying the existence of objective reality and then conflates this with Marxism (which he conflates with all leftism). He does this via a just-so story about leftists sneakily embracing identity politics as a cover after they find they can no longer get away with supporting communism. To the extent that this account resembles anything real that actually happened in any existing intellectual, scholarly and/or political movement, it is oversimplified into misleading nonsense – something revealed by Peterson’s lack of citations. Peterson himself inherits this idea of leftism=postmodernism=relativism from a long line of conservatives like Roger Scruton, etc. He also inherits it, it seems, from Rothbard. It is a core plank of the current trends in reaction, from YouTube anti-SJWs to the alt-right, from Jordan Peterson to Sam Harris.
In the concluding part of the essay, the section dealing with these issues, Rothbard strawmans Herbert Marcuse – who is, in any case, only one thinker in a varied tradition – and then pulls what he imagines to be his trump card, the final and decisive flourish in his endgame to prove that egalitarianism constitutes a rejection of reality: Charles Fourier. He cites (via Mises) Fourier’s claims that communism would entail the seas turning to lemonade and lions becoming “anti-lions”, creatures which assist man instead of eating him.
Now, this is true. Fourier said stuff like this. But there is a great deal more to Fourier than his wackiest ideas. The stuff about lemonade oceans comes from Fourier’s weird and wonderful book of detailed utopian projections The Theory of the Four Movements, written not long after the French Revolution. Fourier is imagining changes which might be made to the natural environment
which among other benefits will change the taste of the sea and disperse or precipitate bituminous particles by spreading a boreal citric acid. In combination with salt, this liquid will give the sea a flavour of the kind of lemonade known as aigresel.
Even here, in this much-mocked passage, he’s not talking about salt water spontaneously transmogrifying into literal lemonade.
Let’s be clear: his premises are wrong, groundless, and bizarre. And virtually no modern socialist says otherwise, even those who defend him (in a superb act of appropriate recuperation, Andre Breton claimed Fourier as a pioneer of revolutionary surrealism). But with Fourier we are talking about early speculations of possibility, in an age when such speculations were exploding across intellectual culture. In some ways, Fourier’s relationship with what we now call the Enlightenment was fraught and antagonistic – but this is paradoxically true of many of the great Enlightenment thinkers. Contrary to the myths put about by the New Atheist and Skeptic types, who fetishize an Enlightenment they don’t actually know anything about, this age was fueled as much by imagination and faith as it was by empiricism and rationality (though Fourier’s motivations were firmly anti-Church). We might want to pause to remember some of the things Newton believed; they don’t mean calculus doesn’t work. And it’s not as if changes in human social structure can’t radically change the environment: the ‘spontaneous order’ of capital is currently melting the ice caps. As it happens, Fourier was one of the first to theorise the ‘greenhouse effect’.
I can’t help suspecting that Rothbard’s real issue with Fourier is that he is credited with having invented the word “feminism”. Fourier was, as Engels said, “the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation”. Was he a feminist by modern standards? No. But, in the words of Gareth Stedman-Jones in his introduction to the modern edition of Four Movements, “no theorist before him had conceived a more resolutely anti-patriarchal vision of social and sexual order.”
Fourier was a great social critic and satirist who, as Engels pointed out, argued “against talk about illimitable human perfectibility”, i.e. the very perfectibility of man that is supposedly socialism’s original folly. He was rather – and here we get at another reason for Rothbard to blacken his name – one of the first to start rationally imagining ways in which human communities might be designed to unshackle and maximise human potential, as in his ‘Phalanstères’. His utopia is regulated and ordered – but in order to enable endless permutations of human will and desire. Many of his ideas – while primitive and flawed – are pioneering.
Most crucially for our purposes here, Fourier was writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, long before egalitarianism or science as we know them today were constituted in a recognisable form. He was one of the ‘Utopian Socialists’. They were very influential in their day, and were a vital stepping stone in the socialist tradition, but many of their ideas were either abandoned or superseded. This happened not least because they were subjected to warm but rigorous criticism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who insisted that socialism should be based firmly in the scientific worldview of facts (which is all Marx and Engels meant by using the scary and much-scorned term “scientific socialism”).
Ignoring the gulf that separates the Utopian Socialists from Marxism (the latter being partly built atop a critique of the former) Rothbard goes ahead and conflates them. They are undoubtedly part of the same tradition, but it is a tradition which evolves by criticism. As mentioned, Rothbard quotes Engels, Lenin, etc, as to the idea that socialism will be a society in which all are unfettered from realising their full potential. Rothbard mentions that some communists – Kautsky and Trotsky are the ones he names – have imagined socialism (or communism; Marx used the terms interchangeably) as ushering forth a new kind of human, one of previously unimaginable accomplishments. To the extent that Trotsky was a tad eugenicist about this, I reject it. Again, one thinker cannot be expected to carry the weight of the entirety of egalitarianism, so pointing out that one of his or her ideas was bad cannot be taken as disproof of the entirety of egalitarianism. (And notice how, by this point, Rothbard is conflating the entirety of the egalitarian project with 20th century Marxism! I wouldn’t do that, and I’m a Marxist! Here, once again, we see a trend still operative: collapse all liberalism with leftism and all leftism with communism.) But the basic idea – that it might be possible to devise a society in which nobody is so constrained by the conditions of economic production that they are hindered from pursuing their full potential, and that this might vastly expand human potential in the long run – is far from as self-evidently crazy as Rothbard obviously expects us to think it is. We might not end up with lemonade-flavoured seas, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the staggering advancements we’ve achieved, and the staggering wealth currently pooled in the hands of a miniscule parasitic minority, to free the potential of all people. Again, Rothbard’s ‘argument’ rests upon personal incredulity and levels of unwarranted conflation which amount rampant dishonesty – all in the service of his class interests and allegiances.
In this essay, Rothbard’s refutation of the socialist idea amounts to quoting Alexander Gray to the effect that human potentials are finite. But this was never in question, and is in any case irrelevant. The question isn’t whether or not human potential is finite. The question is whether we have reached the limits already. Socialists argue – based on a great deal of evidence – that we have not. People like Rothbard simply assume that we have. They assume we can go no further. Because where we currently are happens to be very comfortable for them.
April 13, 2018 @ 12:56 pm
This talk of expanding human potential is tickling a memory, one of those bastard memories where important details like names and figures are ignored and instead some broad, possibly incorrect generalization is all that remains. I remember an article about “geniuses”, which I want to say was trying to answer a question that went something like “Where are all the geniuses?”. The logic was that the historical record seemingly shows crops of geniuses showing up here and there, your Franklins and Jeffersons and Beethovens and Mozarts, in times with far greater infant mortality. Thus, in this modern era where a child is less likely to die in early childhood and the birth rate and population are thus sky-high, there should be a grand society of geniuses, thousands of them if not millions. It was the softest and poppiest of soft pop sociology. The Kirby of sociology. But it took it in an interesting direction:
If we are to take “genius” as being a combination of an innate talent with a lifelong education that nurtures that talent, then we do enjoy a bumper crop of geniuses in our modern American society, namely professional athletes. Their innate talent is identified early on, grown through a 12 year education that focuses on that talent to the general exclusion of any other (Mozart would sympathize) and then allowed to flourish and be enjoyed by the greater society. And one clear thing about professional athleticism is that it’s always getting better. Through better techniques, strategies, and performance enhancing drugs, records that seemed to indicate the peak of human potential get broken every year. Look at the history of running, for example. People are practically hitting the finish line before the race even starts these days. To me, it’s clear that the human animal is perfectible, that this progress is visible, marked down in ledgers, recorded to film and tape and broadcast for anyone to see. Marshawn Lynch threw a 200 pound man 15 feet through the air with one hand, the upper body strength equivalent of a Fifth Symphony.
Now, the fact is (and this was the conclusion of the article, as I recall) it’s more beneficial to the corporate, capitalist hegemony to foster athletic genius than, say, mathematical or musical or literary genius. And in absence of this identification and nurturing process (“sponsorship”, let’s call it) genius talents are wasted or ignored or misidentified. Those few born to families or communities capable of sponsoring them are the ones we seem to identify as modern geniuses. So to me, the egalitarian utopia, where all needs are met and all roadblocks eliminated, would be one where all genius could be cultivated and sponsored.
I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to say “Everybody will be a genius in the socialist future”, but I think it’s fair to say “Every genius will get a shot in the socialist future”.
April 13, 2018 @ 2:36 pm
Your last comment reminded me… Engels even says something like that somewhere. I’ll have to go looking for it now.
April 13, 2018 @ 4:16 pm
Currently, though, the sort of athletic development you’re referring to is incredibly competitive and hot-housed (often with not much thought given to the long-term health effects).
I’d assume that, in a socialist future, that sort of intense specialisation and pressure from a young age wouldn’t be encouraged; so whereas you’d see a general flowering of opportunity and potential, it might be a bit different from the sort of quantifiable leaps associated with, say, athletic record-setting.
Maybe that would be counterweighted by so many more people having a chance to devote themselves to that sort of thing though.
April 13, 2018 @ 5:38 pm
The very framing of the alternatives as whether to “allow” inequality or intervene to prevent it is incredibly disingenuous. Of course there is some natural variation in abilities, but Rothbard begged the question by simply assuming that the present degree of economic inequality is some sort of spontaneous outcome of such variation. Arguably (and, I adamantly believe, also in fact) the overwhelming bulk of inequality results from past robbery or from the ongoing enforcement of rents on artificial scarcities and artificial property rights, and most of the plutocracy’s wealth results from such robbery and rents. Absent the imposition of inequality by class states of one sort or another throughout history, we would be far, far more equal.
April 13, 2018 @ 11:36 pm
But we have to bear in mind that, as I say, Rothbard is talking in code. ‘Redheads’ here stands for something – someone – else. After all, redheads are not horribly disadvantaged in today’s world.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s not a “code.” The point is to pick an example that isn’t weighed down with social baggage.
There are real problems with “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature,” and you mention several of them here, but this not-exactly-unusual argumentative move is not one of them.
April 14, 2018 @ 11:31 am
Clearly it worked, at least on you.
April 14, 2018 @ 11:25 am
I don’t think you need to worry about any of this stuff in order to be an egalitarian. All you need to observe is firstly, that everyone is (presumably) equally conscious, so that aching feet are just as bad for a labourer as they are for a CEO and enjoying a nice glass of wine is just as good for a labourer as it is for a CEO, and that secondly, making more money only correlates weakly with producing more valuable goods and services, since as well as the obvious things like rent and conquest, there are profitable jobs like market manipulation, high pressure sales tactics, subconsciously convincing people that buying your product will make them more attractive to the opposite sex, patent trolling etc. and even when it comes to productive work, the people who take time to play office politics are likely to get better raises.
So obviously a hundred pounds will do more good if it’s allowing someone to eat a healthy diet or have antibiotics for an infection than it will if it’s allowing someone to have a very slightly shinier Ferrari, and the idea that the Ferrari was earned becomes speculative at best.
April 15, 2018 @ 6:11 am
Okay, here I go. Trying to jog with the big boys and I’ll probably trip over the untied laces of my Dunning-Krugers, and fall flat on my face, again.
Informative and fascinating read. Thanks, Jack, as always. I don’t comment or ask questions on here much, as I seem to come across as argumentative, or deliberately contrarian, a snoutband, or an uneducated proletarian bum who doesn’t understand the arguments of his overeducated betters, which is usually not my purpose (although I have been known to be a sarcastic smart-arse from time to time, love a good tautology, and tend to ramble). And this is a genuine query.
I’ll start with this; “In theory there is no difference between practice and theory; but in practice there is.” Glib oversimplification to be sure and something I have experienced to be true many, many times over.
In the classroom, lecture hall or from a senate podium, theory (and rhetoric) sounds great. Much as it does on a multitude of blogs and tumblr link chains. But once we step away, the reality of ‘people’ and the ‘world’ slaps us in the face.
The question on my lips is, and has always been, “How’s this really going to work; who is going to do the shit jobs?’ You know the ones that actually make any society work, from the lowliest agrarian to the top of the technological tree.
TL;DR for the rest… convince me it’ll work, because I just cannot see it.
In the idyllic theory, everyone is doing what they love, or at the very least, complete their daily grind and then have ample spare time and freedom to do what they desire. All are equally paid, treated and respected (as I understand it).
In practice, the woman working at the seam face in the underground mine, the man scrubbing faeces from the communal toilet bowls, the trans person sweating fourteen hours a day working the farm, and the fox-kin in a university delivering a lecture on the injustices of past societies and how we have now moved on from them, are not going to feel, or be, equal in their down time. Equal pay? Equal living conditions? Equal respect from society? Equal access to all that society can offer? Will actors still be revered as gods?
What will induce someone like me, in my younger days, to take up a hard labouring, dangerous, hot, dirty, trade I hated every fucking minute of, other than the fact it paid well? Really, really well (i.e. bestows some sort of privilege). That would include the vast majority of the people I worked with on building sites. Especially those who were not, let’s just say, of great intellect. And it wasn’t ‘that’ bad a job. Nowhere near as satisfying or comfortable or respected as what I do now. And preferable to many I did while funding the early days of my own business to make ends meet. And even those jobs were not remotely as shit compared to others I’ve seen out there.
Job sharing to spread the burdensome tasks won’t work in practice. Jack, Elizabeth, you and I cannot trade places in our respective work-places now, and I’d doubt many on this blog would willingly take on my old trade. So what about doctors, plumbers and software engineers? Do they take their turn as garbage collectors (who make much more than I do in Australia; AU$39,149 – AU$85,788 pa), but need little training compared to the mentioned professions? Salary may be similar on average, but for vastly different reasons.
I know a couple of garbos, great blokes and fun to be around, but I wouldn’t want one of them as my doctor. Collecting garbage isn’t their preferred vocation, but it puts food on the table. None do it by choice. Not even remotely. What will induce them do it in an ‘equal’ society? One with a universal income?
I can utterly believe and participate in the equality of sexes, races, and genders. But each to their own desires within society. Equality of outcome is a concept that I cannot remotely believe is natural or achievable. Even among an in-group.
An authoritarian government? “When the boot is on your throat it doesn’t matter if it’s the Left or the Right” That poster is on my office wall.
At that point any argument has lost me.
None of this is I’m sure, new or even remotely interesting to you. But I and millions like me are the ones you have to convince.
I am a practical man. Marxism seems to be a very theoretical idea that has struggled, and will seemingly continue to struggle to work in practice. I agree that the current system, all of them, have gaping flaws and inequalities…however,
What is the plan? Give me a practical road map to the Marxist future; one that doesn’t involve purges and gulags and Holodomor and Lysenkoism and Stalin and Mao and genocide and famine, the breakdown of law & order and fear in the streets and end in current day South Africa or Venezuela.
Unless this is the future… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOGxftzy6mU
April 15, 2018 @ 7:48 am
Thanks for this. I won’t respond here and now because I’m actually planning to try to write about how I see socialism working sometime fairly soon.
April 15, 2018 @ 3:06 pm
Thank you, Jack. I am genuinely interested to read that.
April 16, 2018 @ 2:42 am
I don’t expect Jack to take it in this direction, but a phrase I hear tossed around a lot nowadays is “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism”, which sounds delightful. Fanciful? Perhaps, but fully automated utilitarian capitalism has already come and set up shop, so the foundation seems strong.
April 16, 2018 @ 8:56 am
“Communism comes about when the productive forces are so great that there’s no need for a conventional state etc.” does sound quite similar to “complete equality comes about once we have robot toilet cleaners.”
April 17, 2018 @ 12:03 am
500 irony points to Mr. Rothbard if he wrote his essays while wearing glasses.