Amongst most libertarian groups in the United States, certain concepts have been met not with open arms but outright hostility. Concerned not with the actual content of these ideas, the reaction against them has mostly been fed by an antipathy towards their place of origin. I refer here to the rift between the tradition of ‘Continental’ Philosophy and much of the Anglo-American ‘Classical’ and ‘Analytic’ traditions. Over the past few decades, the segmentation of these traditions into almost entirely separate philosophical pantheons has led to a great deal of ill-will betwixt those who endorse these rather different approaches. This piece will not concern itself with the history and particularities of the disagreement – so much has already been written of that. It will rather refer to ‘American Libertarians’, and for the most part their general ignorance of continental philosophy and the benefits of it, were they to explore post-structuralist ideas.
In the United States, Continental Philosophy and the post-structuralist approach has not been wholly dismissed. Much of the American ‘left’ has embraced it – seeing it as providing a powerful critique of the incumbent liberal democratic paradigm. Indeed, it is ironically helped by a general dichotomous narrative held consciously or unconsciously by many American leftists, that of “American bad, non-American good”. This is the mirror image of the narrative encountered amongst many constitutionalists on which I have written about before. Understandably, the cosiness of elements of the American political left with continental philosophy has alarmed much of the conservative right-wing, and this distrust and ‘defensive ignorance’ is found even among the more bohemian elements of American Libertariandom.
This is not to say that the American libertarians are entirely bereft of the comprehension of continental philosophy. Key ‘proto’-post-structuralist thinkers (such as Max Stirner) continue to heavily influence certain segments of American libertarianism. However, much of the interest in Stirner’s ideas from libertarians stems from his egoist approach to ethics, whilst his ontology (a profound nominalism) is usually misunderstood, applied inconsistently or ignored entirely. There are also some signs of a breakthrough of post-structuralism into American libertarian critique through the work on prison systems and punishment by Dan D’Amico and his understanding of the thought of Michel Foucault. These are however baby steps which I argue ought to be much larger strides.
Without a clear understanding of post-structuralist critiques, much of American libertarian discourse will remain mired in essentialism and reification which can only maintain the symbolic order. Indeed, an ignorance of such critiques has enabled ‘minarchist’ ideas to thrive at the expense of ‘anarchist’ approaches – i.e. consistent libertarianism. The acceptance of ‘classical’ approaches to philosophy being part and parcel with the worship of ‘the founding fathers’, ‘constitutionalism’, ‘rights’ and a veritable Tobin’s Spirit Guide worth of spooks. It is time to move beyond debates on the ‘nature’ of government and ‘the state’ and towards a deeper, radical critique that emanates from ontological foundations – what is real and what is not -and marches on from there.
Get enlightened by getting past ‘the enlightenment’.