Left Libertarianism and the Democratisation of the State

Featured is a comment by Chris Whitrow arguing that left-libertarianism should be an ideology focussing upon democratising the power relations between an individual and the state so that those relations become inverted. In effect, Whitrow is arguing that we should most away from a democracy where we elect our master, i.e. representative democracy, and move to an alternative form of democracy. Presumably, he’s implying that a move to a participatory democracy is the best way to form a libertarian society. Liberty isn’t achieved by abolishing the state or trying to reduce its size in the conventional sense that libertarians usually think in terms of. It is achieved, rather, by overhauling the power relations that exist between the citizen, the subject, and the state in favour of a new form of power relation in which the state serves the citizen, rather than the alternative way which we live in now.

A lot of what is written in this essay are based upon presumptions and theories I deemed necessary to uphold to try argue as forcefully as possible in favour of a inverted state. Unless actually stated in his comment as posted above, you should presume that these are my own thoughts and opinions on the subject matter not Chris Whitrow’s. This essay is not an argument in favour of an inverted state, instead it an exploration of a vision of what it would look like. The essay is designed to provoke new thoughts and perspectives about how a libertarian society would look like and what constitutes a libertarian society.

It should be assumed that I’m referring to a throughly decentralised society throughout this essay, not centralised forms. It is the intention of this essay to elucidate a differing form of libertarianism, but I will admit my language is very atypical from normal libertarian language.

I am also speaking very abstractly about libertarianism in general. They are many schools within the movement some of which may have a noticeable influence in the essays, wile others will have none. Left and right libertarianism are seen as guides to reflect differing social attitudes and priorities among libertarians, the labels are not to be taken too seriously.

Liberty and Coercion as Conceived in Classical Libertarianism

Such a conception of libertarianism relies on a fundamental conceptual difference to the contemporary way in which libertarians conceive of liberty. Contemporary libertarians, left and right libertarians who aren’t libertarian socialists, conceive of liberty as the absence of external influences in forcing you to make choice. Another way to rephrase that liberty is the freedom to not be coerced by others. All libertarians recognise that, by definition, the state is ultimate agency that can coerce an individual into performing particular acts that person may wish to not undertake.

Right libertarians like to think in terms of the state enforcing political correctness laws onto them, imposing taxes they would much rather not pay at all and regulation on business practices for a non-exhaustive list. Left-libertarians tend to focus not only upon what the state can coerce, but how culture and institutions within society can discriminate against particular groups. Left-libertarians are also more likely to think in terms of how a monopoly of land usage and how businesses/corporations are structured can result in coercion occurring.  Left-libertarians are more likely to favour liberalising trade union laws in order that labourers can have the right to organise amongst themselves to promote their own common interests in society.

Left-libertarianism essentially has a far more expansive notion of what acts of coercion occur within society with dis-empower individuals, thereby ensuring that individuals are not as free as a right libertarian would think. At the core essence of this is a distinction between the the left and right conceptions of coercion. Coercion for the right is the ability of an external agent to force yourself into making a decision you wouldn’t have done otherwise or if you would do it that it could not be said you did of your accord. Say you would give a donation to charity purely of your own back. That is a voluntary exchange. If the government forced you into making that donation, that is an act of coercion even if you were intending to give the donation voluntarily anyway. The main injustice right libertarians have against coercion, though, is when the individual wouldn’t otherwise commit to an act; like if the person wouldn’t give to charity because they didn’t want to, they didn’t agree with the cause of the charity or thought the charities cause was unimportant.

Prima facie, the left libertarian may fully agree with that conception as explained. The difference between the two conceptions is how we apply this definition to contracts. Right libertarians make the presumption that contracts are voluntary agreements between two agents that stipulates they will do x and y for one another. An example would be a labour contract, in which the worker agree to provides labour for the company in exchange for a wage. The contract might be a form of credit: I will lend you x amount of money if you’ll pay me x amount back at time t with y% interest applied to x. Even though the contract will coerce an individual to behave a particular way, it is still considered voluntary because both agents mutually and voluntarily agreed to enter the relationship.

The left-libertarian will share these sentiments, but only under a specific set of conditions. Some left-libertarians, for instance, will oppose contractual arrangements in which exploitation occurs, e.g. contracts specifying an individual can be a slave to another or that workers shouldn’t be allowed to form, or be part of, a trade union while labouring for a company. Not all left-libertarians will agree, and some right libertarians will agree that slavery is an abomination to one’s liberty.

Power Relations and the Natural Origin of Power Relations Hypothesis

Why is this relevant to Chris Whitrow’s comment on democratising the state rather than minimising it or abolishing it? It all has to do with how power relations are conceptualised and the intrinsic valuation of whether we can consider such a relation good or bad. We must first identify what the power relations are. On the issue of contracts, both the right and left will agree that a contract is a power relation. They will disagree though on the power dynamics at work when the contract was initially signed and its significance on the impact on the liberty of those whom the contract is concerned about. Left-libertarians acknowledge that when a worker signs a contract, they may be doing so with a bad bargaining hand. The worker may be impoverished desperate for any increase in their income so they can keep feeding the family and sheltering them.

This is why a left-libertarian may oppose a contract that stipulates that a worker cannot organise themselves amongst trade unionists. The trade union gives the worker the opportunity to address this power imbalance so that a more voluntary agreement between the two agents can occur. The right-libertarian will be concerned that this power dynamic will go the other way and it is the union that dictates to the company what the labour contractual agreement should be.

Here is where Whitrow’s insights come into play. We now have a situation in which the left and right are willing to acknowledge power dynamics are at work which can effect the nature of how a voluntarily contract is agreed upon. In other words, power relations are important in determining the nature of a voluntary agreement between two agents. To simply have a pure negative conception of liberty though is inadequate in this case, for negative liberty takes no account as to what the power relations between ‘free’ individual are. As the conception of negative liberty is central to the libertarians focus upon reducing the size of the state, it’s inadequacy speaks for the effectiveness of the libertarians solution to free us from state coercion.

How can the libertarians respond to this challenge? The right libertarian will deny that the worker is disadvantaged in negotiating the labour contract in the first place, the labourer doesn’t have to choose to work for the company. The worker can choose to live a life of voluntary poverty if they so wish. It is their choice that they wish to want to have a greater standard of living in materialistic terms, rather than a spiritual enlightened ascetic lifestyle. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famous quote stated that:

Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.

The right-libertarian would amend Rousseau’s quote to say this:

Man is born free and everywhere chooses to live within chains.

Those on the left with either sympathise with the claim that the labourer could choose a lifestyle of voluntary poverty, but would emphasise it would be wrong for such a person to be penalised by the respective culture for living an alternative lifestyle; or they would condemn this as a rationalisation of the plutocrats to enforce poverty onto those beneath them in the social hierarchy. These latter left-libertarians find an abhorrence in poverty, which they wish to see destroyed.

The concern of the left-libertarian is that living the alternative lifestyle, not something to be intrinsically condemned or even better something to be outright advocated, will lead to a systemic oppression against such individuals and groups. History is littered with groups in society who live by differing norms only to find themselves persecuted either through violence or being treat as subhuman. The right libertarian should be equally appalled at the use of violence against alternative lifestyles, even if they personally found such lifestyles disgusting, but being treat as a subhuman does not necessarily mean you are being coerced. Which again highlights us to different perspectives on what constitutes a power relation. The left say the gypsy being treat as a subhuman, or as an outcast, is the primary group exercising their power to demonise a sub group in the community. The right just see it as the free choice to protest against such a culture.

Now we have clarified what the differences, often subtle, between what constitutes a power relation in society we must address the question of how such appalling power relations are dealt with. Can the exercise of negative liberty grant the individual and communities in society grant them the freedom from such power relations which face ethnic, culture, racial, religious and sexual minorities, or in the case of women ‘majorities’, that allow oppression, persecution and discrimination to occur against them?  Will a simple solution such as the abolishment of the state tackle these power relations?

The answer to this depends on your analysis of the origin of power relations, or rather what the primary determinants of them are? This is the most fundamental question we have come across in our analysis, understanding the power dynamics between agents within a society usually tells us a great deal about the nature of that society, its values and its hierarchical structures. Let’s define society as a collection of agents in which social, power and economic relations exists among these agents. Let’s also suppose Nietzsche was correct in stating that the Will to Power is a determining factor in determine to how behave from a psychological point of view. Note: I’m not saying it is the only determinant of human psychology and Nietzsche would in fact say it was the determining factor of human psychology, not a determining factor.

It follows from these statements that power relations are a natural result of the psychology and behaviour of agents within the society. Some may consider this result a tautology, or even an act of circular reasoning, due to me defining power relations into the concept of society. This is not so. I have defined society in such a way to acknowledge that there exists power relations in society, I gave no definition of there origin. The result I concluded to though is a statement about were power relations originate. My thesis is what I called the Natural Origin of Power Relations Hypothesis. There is nothing unnatural about the existence of power relations, abolishing them would be tantamount to abolishing society. Yet social anarchism, the libertarian movement most inclined to abolishing power relations, relies upon a conception of an egalitarian society in which mutual aid occurs.

What role does the state play in all this? The state will be the agent that not only creates power relations naturally by what it is but also has the ability to enforce them onto others to an extent few others in society could. The inverted state libertarianism of Whitrow would suggest that the power relations of the state considered to be an evil are the result of the power dynamics between the state and its citizens. Further, that those dynamics can be changed to create a power dynamic that will result in an egalitarian society, or at least a more egalitarian one. The anarchist and conventional libertarian, on the other hand, will state that the power dynamic between the state and its citizens is the result of an intrinsic set of properties that the state must have for it to be considered a state. In other words, the unequal power dynamic is a necessary consequence of a state. It is this reason why the libertarian and anarchist will condemn an inverted state libertarianism, it is too naive on the operations of statecraft.

The inverted state libertarians will reply by arguing that the state cannot be the root cause of all the unjust power relations in society, in fact they derive naturally from society. How just the power relations are is a reflection upon how morally just the agents within that society are. In other words, how just a society is is a reflection of how morally good the inhabitants of that society are. The same is true whether a state exists or not, the hypothesis does not discriminate against the state being the primary agent causing power relations in society. The imposition of power relations can be as much a bottom-up process as a top-down one.

To stipulate that the state is the only root of unjust power relation does contradict the Natural Origin of Power Relations Hypothesis. The Hypothesis clearly stipulates power origins are a natural result of the behaviour of agents within society. It is natural for the state, an agent in society, to create power relations and enforce them to a greater extent than other agents. It is natural that the state would be the root of a lot of unjust power relations. But not all of them. It is a non-sequitur to argue from our thesis that the state can be the source of all the unjust power relations in society, assuming you are a left-libertarian because a right libertarian could acknowledge this to be true while being consistent. A unique property would have to be ascribed to states in order to justify the claim they were unique in developing unjust power relations.

Why does this matter? If the state is not the root of all unjust power relations, then even in a state of anarchy unjust power relations will exist. The State is to the libertarian what God is to Feuerbach; a projection the inner evils that we contain in ourselves. God is an idealised form of the pure goodness we all want to become one with, the state is our ultimate expression of dealing with the inner evils lurking within man. This expression of what the state is is what libertarians and anarchists find repellent in the state. Defeating that expression does not result in the evils within society disappearing, instead the power relations will manifest in a new form. Either a hierarchical anarchy in which those with a stronger will to power will rise to the high echelons of society, or the formation of a new state.

This is the Problem of Anarchism. How does it address the power relations that are a result of our own inner demons? To blame the state for all this is to confuse our inner demons with the manifestation of our symbolic description of them. The state is a body that acts as a tempter for vested groups to influence the activities of others to pursue their own goals at a greater advantage. This is what the Will to Power amounts to over an aggregate of people. Such a Will to Power will exist within an anarchy.

Inverted-State Left Libertarianism v Classical Left Libertarianism

Inverted-state left libertarianism is the ideology that power relations in the state must be decentralised and democratised in order the power dynamics existing between the state and the citizen are reversed. It is the state that becomes the slave, not individuals. ISL Libertarianism takes the left libertarians adoption of democracy in all realms of society seriously. The primary difference is that rather than abolishing the state to establish these new democratic institutions, the state will be reformed to incorporate these democratic institutions. The reason for this is because the ISL libertarian wants to radically transform the nature of the power relations that exist within our society, believing that the evils of the state are a result of extrinsic properties of how power relations are defined relative to the state.

Liberty will be achieved by empowering individuals so they no longer are controlled by power relations from others. The democratised state is designed to ensure that individuals and communities control their own power relations but not those that influence others. In effect, the primary power relation will be that the state enforces individuals to not enforce their on power relation onto others. However paradoxical this may sound, it is not incoherent and it is reflection of the influence of Natural Origin of Power Relations hypothesis on their thought.

Classical left libertarians don’t agree with ISL libertarians on two key points: first, that unjust power relations resulting from the state are in fact an intrinsic property of statecraft and secondly, that democratising the state will liberate individuals. Robert Paul Wolff elucidated an argument about how the state, by virtue of being the state, violates the free will of individuals thereby ensuring that they cannot be fully moral agents. His text In Defense of Anarchism is a classic on the subject matter and gets right to the heart of the attitudes shared by classical left libertarians regarding the first disagreement.

On the second point of disagreement, libertarian socialists agree that democratisation is essential for the establishment of an egalitarian society. The state though must be abolished and alternative institutions, such as communes and municipals, introduced as a replacement. New decentralised forms of governance will exist which are voluntary in nature. Even though the ISL libertarian may also support communes and municipals as forms of governance, they will be less inclined to adopt he voluntary aspect in so far as they are concerned that voluntarily unjust power relations will emerge. It would be the role of the state to enforce a participatory democracy in which discrimination doesn’t occur. Alternatively, a hierarchy is needed to preserve an egalitarian society.

Naturally, the two conceptions of libertarianism are intertwined. To support radical decentralisation will involve significantly reducing the size of a centralised state. Decentralisation of power will mean taking functions of power that we naturally take for granted in the state and diversifying it elsewhere. Decentralisation is a vague concept however. It’s vagueness is that it tells us nothing about how decentralisation will occur and what will be decentralised.  The only way decentralisation fails to be a vague concept is if the reader assumes a particular conception of decentralisation when using the term.

Argument For The Democratised State

To stand up to scrutiny, a democratised state must be able to argued for strongly. We have already seen one argument in favour of it through the Natural Origins of Power Relations Hypothesis. Such an argument though never really justified why we should have a democratised state, instead it gave us the persuasion that anarchy itself will not achieve that which it desires. Underlying that point was the assumption that democratisation the state may avoid those problems while preserving key points in favour of liberty, equality and decentralisation.

What needs arguing for? First, it must be argued that it is possible for such a state to occur. Second, can a democratised state be consistent with the concept of liberty? thirdly, the argument for state force in certain matter. Finally, is it possible for a state like this to exist in historical terms?

First, ISL libertarianism is arguing in favour of a participatory democratic state in which many citizens will have a great influence in the decision making process. Even though it may be practically difficult to administer such a state, we do have a concept of the state called a polyarchy. A polyarchy is a state in which power is multiple people. The founder of the concept, Yale Professor Robert Dahl, argued that we actually live in polyarchies rather than democracies currently. The reason being that the key criteria needed to establish a democracy do not exist in real life. We can state that a participatory democracy is a logical extension of a polyarchy, where the multiple people become everyone. This suggestion demonstrates the logical possibility of such a state.

We now need to address whether it is possible to actually define an egalitarian state. The key question here is whether it is possible to define a set of power institutions that are liberty enhancing and enforce an egalitarian distribution of power? Yes. It is impossible to argue for this here, but a cryptic answer would be to state that it as possible as developing the institutions of any egalitarian society. In other words, if it isn’t possible then left-wing thought is outright false in the sense it proposes to implement a political scheme which is impossible to implement. All forms of left-wing thought, whether anarchist or statist would fall at this point. The key insight is that even an anarchist society will have institutions of power. So the real question being asked is can you define an egalitarian set of institutions of power? If you can’t, an egalitarian anarchist society is as impossible as an inverted state.

Second, it is consistent depending upon your conception of liberty. If liberty is defined in a purely negative sense, or in a sense defined so that it is contradictory to the existence of a state, then obviously it is inconsistent. Unless there is a good argument for holding those specific definitions of liberty, this should be of no concern. A suitable definition of liberty would be the free expression of an individual’s will and the empowerment to act upon that will not at the expense of others. The first part of the definition is key in establishing negative liberty for individuals and communities, while the second part focusses upon the concept that to be free involves having a certain amount of power to act on those decisions. It should be noted that the concept of power does not refer to power over another individual or community, but the ability to perform such an act without restriction.

Third, we have the most controversial argument in libertarian thought, so controversial because it so seemingly violates the principles of libertarianism: the support of state force. Why should this be an advantage? In some scenarios it may be necessary for the state to define rules which indirectly influence people’s better to achieve better results For example, it may be necessary to implement a carbon tax to discourage behaviour that contributes to global warming. The state may need to define property rights in a specific way to make them more equitable for all in society; such as making land a common and personal property rather than private, or by changing intellectual property rights. Regulations on harmful market activities may need imposing, such as ensuring it is an obligation that free information on the finances and assets of the company are made available to the market so less asymmetric information exists in investing opportunities. Such interferences should still be significantly smaller than we see today though.

Finally, we can propose a hypothesis  about the the long term development of statecraft through history, which I have called the Evolutionary Trend for Decentralised Power in Statecraft Hypothesis. The hypothesis begins with assumption that the state consists of institutions of power. Over time, those institutions have been democratised from a highly centralised form of statecraft; such as from an absolute monarchy, feudalism and aristocratic democracy. The key point is that the decentralisation of power from a centralised state is an evolutionary phenomena. In each case, the operations of the state has been defined differently. For instance, in liberal democracies citizens have access to rights that they didn’t have in an absolute monarchy.

The next stage in the argument is that more revolutions on the operations of the state are required before it becomes a non-authoritarian entity. This evolution will involve further decentralisation of powers of the state and granting it to ordinary people. For instance, we might see a significant rise in economic democracy, so the economy would be the next major institution that will face decentralisation of powers.

The rise of the internet could be the beginning of a new institution of power in regards the state. The internet has seen a large rise in the amount of peer-to-peer connections making decentralised modes of power becoming more influential.

The key point here is that over the course of history, power is getting democratised and thereby decentralised. What is not being claimed is that power has been sufficiently decentralised, neither is what is being said is that only a moderate decentralisation of power is needed.  It is this reason why inverted state libertarianism is in fact a form of libertarianism, it supports radical decentralisation and democratisation. This is what makes inverted state libertarianism differ from the localist agenda seen within the Liberal Democrats.

The trouble with this argument is that ignores the centralisation tendency among states throughout history and recent times. At the beginning of human society, societies would have been far more egalitarian to the point of being communist like. Marx’s first period of history in his theory of historical materialism was primitive communism. Over time, monarchies and other forms of institutions that centralised power in the hands of a few. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that this trend was broken in favour of more democratic forms of governance. Even in contemporary times, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher centralised authority in their respective parties during their reign’s as Prime Minister. Power was more decentralised at the top of the Conservative and Labour party before the 1980s.

Arguments Contra Inverted-State Left libertarianism

Only two argument have to be made against inverted-state libertarianism. If unjust power dynamics are the natural consequence of society, how can you be sure that an inverted state will not become corrupted by the emergence of such relations inevitable leading to a state of affairs like you see today? Would not granting individuals the lures of power also lead to a scenario in which hierarchical structures within the state and society would emerge? Would not the state that is meant to protect egalitarianism be used to defeat it only through a natural evolution?

The primary response would have to be that yes such patterns could very well emerge, but there is more of a chance that those effects will be mitigated due to how institutions of power within a democratised state are defined. We do not suppose that we will live in an utopia, but we can still live in a far more free and egalitarian society than we would today or if we adopted anarchism. This is more a concessionary argument on the line that this is the best solution to enhancing liberty and equality out of a bad bunch. It is a pessimistic thought pattern, natural when you consider the Natural Origin of Power Relations Hypothesis.

Second, would the transformation of the state come from a bottom-up or top-down reformation? If the latter, this would mean that a participatory democracy most likely would not ensue as you rely upon the existing states to give their power away. Not only that, but more importantly, it would be contradictory to the principles of decentralised democracy to impose such reforms from a top-down process. If the former however, how can this be achieved when states are so centralised in the first place and they most likely mould resist such attempts to transform? Inevitably, you would end up having to subvert the state in the exact ways anarchist groups currently do in existing society.


Inverted-State left libertarianism is very different form of libertarianism to contemporary versions. It enhances liberty through empowering individuals and communities by inverting the power relations between the citizen and the state. The currently existing power relations themselves is what troubles ISL libertarians the most, not the existence of the state. It is a more statist variant of libertarianism, it’s focus is upon decentralisation rather than minimising the state. Naturally, the state as it exists now would be greatly minimised once the decentralisation process is accomplished.

It does have its problems. We do not know what one would actually look like in either theory or reality. It is a vision of a potential libertarian society, in which the details are clouded over leaving the bare principles of how it would work. There is the strategic issue of how such a state could be implemented given that the currently existing state would be hostile to an inverted state. One of the arguments for this state also involves a more right-wing conception of how humans behave psychologically, which inevitably creates a tension given that it is a left-wing form of governance that is being promoted.

If this essay is successful, hopefully a left libertarian society resembling somewhat what Chris Whitrow wrote on the Liberal Conspiracy blog will have been explained in a manner in which either myself, or someone else, can flesh out in more detail over time.

Gareth Mawer
I consider myself a left libertarian committed to promoting the philosophy of liberty, even though I do not always support proposals that are normally considered libertarian. Georgism and mutualism have had profound influences over my beliefs, though I'm not afraid to digress from them were necessary. My mains interests are politics, economics and philosophy.