Sydney Libertarianism. David Ivison 1964

Some Thoughts on Libertarianism

Source: Broadsheet No. 35, January 1964;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

Based on a paper given to the Libertarian Society on 12/18/63 as part of the symposium on Libertarianism.

When the Libertarian Society was first formed in 1951, we shared many beliefs in common with freethinkers and Andersonians and it was only natural that we should emphasize our differences rather than the things we had in common. However, our audience (and our general environment) has changed radically with the collapse of the Freethought Society and the demise of Professor John Anderson.

But our arguments have not changed greatly even though we are addressing ourselves to a group that is largely non-Andersonian and often even non-university, that is not only largely without a developed critical apparatus but is often ignorant of psychological and sociological theory. It is not surprising therefore that we are sometimes misunderstood even by those who are sympathetic to libertarianism.

So it may be timely to outline once again certain beliefs and preferences which libertarianism has taken over from Andersonianism. To say that libertarianism grew historically out of Andersonianism is not to say that Andersonianism was taken over uncritically, as a whole, and in fact certain libertarians have been in the forefront of the critical evaluation of Andersonian logic and metaphysics. Nevertheless, in view of the silence which we have maintained on these matters in recent years, it may be worthwhile to acknowledge our debt to that school of philosophy in which libertarians were trained and out of which Sydney libertarianism sprang. Who knows, someone may be interested in these beliefs and want to follow them up by systematic study.

Firstly, there is the belief that there is a real world of independent and different things. Things do not exist because of or by virtue of any relation they may have to something else – for example, it is not true that things exist only because human beings imagine them to exist, what human beings know are real things which exist independently of their being known.

I will not go into the arguments in support of this view or the criticisms of other views such as the idealist. But it might be pointed out how this belief, with its denial that anything is ever constituted by its relations to other things, indicates that to describe a position as, e.g., anti-authoritarian, is not in fact to describe the position at all but merely to indicate its relationship to another position (an argument which, when used against the notion “anti-communist,” gets wide support amongst libertarians and people who attend their meetings).

Secondly, there is the belief that there is only one way in which these independent things have being, they exist like anything else does. If we talk of higher and lower realities, as theists regularly do, then we are faced with the question of how these two realities could interact. If they cannot interact, then the things in the lower reality could never know the existence of any higher reality, nor could things in the higher reality know that a lower reality existed. In whichever reality the theists declare themselves to exist, they could never show that there is any other kind of reality.

If, however, interaction between the two levels is permitted (if, for example, things in one level can bring about changes in things in the other), then we can ask what is the point of talking about two different kinds of reality. If the higher and lower reals can interact, they must have a common level and thus there is only one kind of reality.

Again, I am not going to argue for this view here, but one implication might be sketched, namely, that there are not different kinds or degrees of truth. In particular, there are no especially true truths or self-evident truths – anything that is asserted can be doubted or denied and determining what is the case depends on finding something to be the case.

Thirdly, these different, independent, existing things are complex. They cannot be reduced to elementary units, be they called molecules, atoms or electrons, and we can never know all about anything. Reality consists of complex situations, situations which have many features and each feature of which, in turn, has many features. There is no limit to the complexity of real things.

In short, there are no ultimates-no ultimately simple things as opposed to complex historical things, no ultimate reality as opposed to ordinary everyday existence, and no single ultimate on which all things depend for their existence.

It is this rejection of ultimates of all kinds, this belief that occurrences are good enough, along with the related intellectual preference for enquiry and objectivity as opposed to obscurantism, that gives content to the anti-authoritarianism of libertarians. It is as empiricists that libertarians reject God – for God is not an occurrence but an ultimate, a higher reality on which ordinary reality is held to depend. It is as empiricists also that libertarians reject moralism – the social expression of theism.

The obligatory is “what we are to obey,” and nothing is said as to what it is that we are to obey. That is, the obligatory (or moral) thing is not an independent real thing at all but something dependent on or relative to the person who states the obligation. If we are not fobbed off with words like “obligatory,” “moral,” “good,” and “right,” and ask what it is that is obligatory we are faced with specific commands which have nothing “obligatory” or “moral” about them – we find that certain interests want everyone to behave in a way consistent with these special interests. Just as appeals to the “common good” are usually emphasized when it is obvious that there is variety and conflict, so appeals to duty and obligation are emphasized when it is clear that there are interests opposed to what is being proclaimed as “that which ought to be done.”

It is also as empiricists that libertarians reject the authority of the State, for the State attempts to set itself up as an ultimate, as that which ought to be obeyed and no questions asked.

It is also as empiricists that libertarians attempt to reject their own ultimates inside themselves, the authoritarian and moralistic tendencies in their own minds. R.T.M.’s article in Broadsheet No. 34, I hope, raised this question of the authoritarian upbringing which we have all received in this culture. It is not enough to see through the illusions of moralism put forward by spokesmen for Church and State, it is also necessary to combat the moralistic illusions which are ingrained in ourselves if we are going to develop a thorough-going objectivity or empirical approach.

R.T.M. has suggested that it is particularly as regards the various forms of sexual activity that we are liable to encounter resistances in ourselves. I would add that other activities may also be repressed in various ways and I would argue that our repressive defense mechanisms distort our perception of what is the case, that, in respect of the activities concerned, they hinder us from seeing things as they are, from, being objective about the situations involved (and especially about our motivations as part of the situation).

When we look at individual minds, where all too often sexual repression has been the order of the day since the first weeks of life, the wonder is that there is ever any objectivity, any seeing through of illusions at all. It will always be a struggle to maintain an empirical approach against the forces of rationalism in one’s own mind, and especially will this be the case in connection with sexual activities. How often have we seen the notion of “free love” distorted into compulsive promiscuity or guilt-ridden associations which are just as much the antithesis of spontaneous sexuality as is compulsive monogamy?

Perhaps it is worth reiterating that for libertarians free love does not mean promiscuity for its own sake. Rather it is an. objective approach to sexuality in terms of an emotional attachment on the basis of mutual sexual gratification in which sensuality is not divorced from tenderness but both are affirmed spontaneously – and without incestuous fixations, infantile sexual anxiety, or repressed, unsublimated sexual strivings of a pregenital or homosexual nature. Such an approach, with what “Wilhelm Reich calls “full orgastic potency,” is not possible on the basis of an authoritarian sexual morality and is probably achieved only rarely, on isolated occasions even within the one relationship, by persons raised in our culture.

But all is not repression and we are not without allies in this struggle for empirical objectivity. It is not merely a question of free activities cooperating, although I will suggest that there may be a way in which they do, but a whole multitude of activities are served by the recognition of what is the case, a whole host of demands are more efficiently met if the situation is recognized for what it is – and this, briefly, is how we first came to shift from a “pleasure principle” to a “reality principle.”

Nevertheless, we must beware of the classical defense mechanism of intellectualization which R.T.M. mentioned. As long as there is the “splitting of awareness and affect” there is not insight to communicate from one field to another but only pseudo-insight defending against objectivity. Perhaps it is only when the barrier between preconscious and unconscious is breached that the breach is widened by the cooperation between free mental activities.

This is not the place to go into a detailed account of psychological theory, but it might be argued that the spontaneous individual rebellion in relation to sexuality, which R.T.M. emphasized, would be liable to go along with the seeing through of illusions in other fields, especially if connected with the acquiring of a critical intellectual apparatus and the study of psychology and sociology.

At least, we can distinguish libertarianism (a body of theory and a set of preferences) from libertarians and recognize that no individual libertarian’s mind is completely free from authoritarian forces. “Permanent protest” is a feature of mental as well as of social activities.