The “Left” in Left Libertarian

My previous post regarding the nature of left libertarianism was fairly general and vague about what I mean by “left.” If the notion of left libertarianism is going to make sense, we need to be clear on what is and isn’t left.

I don’t think there's anything wrong-headed about other recent characterizations of the central concern of the left as anti-authoritarianism, openness to the future, or opposition to privilege. I want, though, to offer a different proposal regarding what I take to be the central elements of a leftist agenda and to suggest what may be a thread capable unifying these elements.

An authentically leftist position, I suggest, is marked by opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation.


One person, A, is subordinate to another, B, when B has significant, persistent power over A. The power involved may be physical, but it may also be economic, psychic, social, or cultural. The important thing is that B determines, to some meaningful degree, what A does. A is significantly un-free in relation to B, either because B can impose on A some cost that A is unwilling to bear or because A genuinely (but mistakenly) believes that B is entitled to determine the character of A’s conduct.

I assume here that subordination is presumptively morally objectionable. That, indeed, is part of what it means to adopt a position I would recognize as leftist. I do not seek to justify this presumption (perhaps that's a task for another post) nor to suggest how one could correctly identify cases in which it might rightly be defeated. I suspect that most of my readers do not like being subordinated, and might be inclined to accept this dislike as revelatory of something important. But my goal here is not to show them that they should.

Note that the question, Is there a relationship of subordination in a given case? doesn’t determine the answer to the question, If there is subordination in this case, what is the appropriate remedy? I emphasize this because many libertarians and anarchists adhere to what might be called the Principle of the Proportionality of Remedies (PPR). According to this principle, my using physical force against someone is appropriate only when defending myself against a physical threat posed by her to me or someone else; my infringing on her property rights apart from those in her body is appropriate only when defending myself against a threat posed by her to my non-bodily property rights. And so forth.

Someone who endorses the PPR may be nervous about the notion that subordination (or domination, or hierarchy—pick your favorite term here) might be exercised economically or psychically. Clearly delimiting subordination, so that the only sort with which one ought to be concerned is physical, provides a check on the use of force. By contrast, appearing to conflate different kinds of subordination runs the risk of justifying the use of force to respond to non-forcible exercises of influence.

But this worry is ill-founded, for several reasons. Among these:

(i) Physical force can be seen to underly many other forms of domination that do not themselves involve physical force. Persistent violence against women in a given social environment may lead to a climate of fear and submission on the part of many women, even in relationships with men who have not themselves behaved violently and might not threaten to do so or be inclined to do so. The knowledge that a strike might be broken through the use of violence might dispose workers in a morally objectionable work setting to avoid initiating the strike in the first place. And so on. An important aspect of objection to the subordination in these cases will be, precisely, objection to this background of physical violence.

(ii) More fundamentally still, someone who acknowledges that subordination comes in different forms need not maintain that all of these forms merit the same kind of remediation. Being on the left means being opposed to subordination, but it needn't mean supposing that all sorts of subordination should be dealt with in the same way. There is nothing inconsistent about holding both that workers in a given firm are dominated in a morally objectionable way by managers and that this morally objectionable domination does not on its own in any way justify the use of physical force against the managers. Acknowledging the reality of subordination as morally objectionable need not involve erasing moral differences among kinds of subordination or responses to them.


Some person, A, is excluded from a group when it is made clear that she does not belong to the group, that she is entitled neither to the material incidents of membership nor to the recognition as a fellow member (and respect) associated with belonging.

Unavoidably, some intimate relationships exclude: close friendships and monogamous partnerships are obvious examples. No credible leftist position will seek simply to eradicate the particularity of these relationships. And it can thus defend no bright-line rule regarding permissible and impermissible exclusion. Roughly, though, I think, it will want to offer at least two kinds of limits on morally permissible exclusion.

(i) It will want to say that, even when particular intimate sub-communities justly exclude someone—for the simple reason that they would cease to be the kinds of communities they are if they weren’t strictly limited in size—there is clearly room for her in the broader community of which they are components. She is clearly welcome there, clearly included there.

(ii) It will want to say that, when justifiable exclusion occurs, it ought not to reflect false beliefs about or unreasonable reactions to some group to which the excluded person belongs. Perhaps A acts reasonably in declining to marry B because of, say, important differences in the ways in which B and A understand the nature of marriage, differences which might emerge from B’s membership in a particular group with a tradition of viewing marital relationships in a certain way. But surely this is quite different from A’s declining to marry B either because of (a) the fact that certain visible members of B’s group hold beliefs about marriage, even if (1) A does not know that B holds these beliefs or (2) B credibly denies holding these beliefs or (b) A holds to a visceral prejudice against members of B’s group, believing, say, that cohabitation with a member of this group would render someone like A unclean.

A credibly leftist position, then, will oppose exclusion-in-general, treating as reasonable exceptions only (roughly) when they don’t involve exclusion from large, relatively impersonal, communities and relationships and only when they are not rooted in false beliefs or unreasonable reactions.

Again, it is important to emphasize that treating exclusion as morally objectionable does not determine what counts as an appropriate remedy for morally unjustifiable exclusion. I won’t repeat the points I made above with regard to subordination which are, in general, applicable here as well. It is not necessary to justify exclusion as reasonable or morally appropriate, all things considered, to object to the use of physical force as a remedy for exclusion.


A credible leftism will oppose deprivation.

Some person A experiences deprivation if she lacks the resources needed for (i) physical survival and health; (ii) clothing and shelter; and (iii) material circumstances that qualify as minimally dignified in accordance with the norms prevailing in her commnity.

To oppose deprivation in this sense is not so far to assign blame for anyone’s deprived condition. Nor is it—I repeat—to identify any particular remedy for deprivation as morally required or permitted. That is a separate question. A position is credibly leftist if it regards ignoring the deprivation of others as prima facie morally objectionable. But a position can reasonably be regarded as leftist while defending any of a wide range of responses to that deprivation as consistent with (or demanded by) prudence or justice, provided those responses can reasonably be regarded as effective, or likely to be so.


A position qualifies credibly as a leftist position if it involves clear objection on moral grounds to subordinating people, excluding them from community membership, or tolerating their deprivation. I suggest that concern with subordination, exclusion, and deprivation can be seen as united by a concern with respect for and protection of people who are vulnerable—vulnerable to the power of those who dominate and exclude, vulnerable to the circumstances that lead to deprivation and the risks associated with being deprived. (More broadly, we might righly include within the concern for the vulnerable that animates positions credibly recognizable as leftist concern for those who suffer the direct violence of the state when it wages war, tortures, or, often, imprisons.)

The Range of Leftist Positions

Morally grounded opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation, perhaps best seen as linked by a concern for the vulnerable, defines what I am inclined to argue is the minimum core of a leftist position. I do not mean to suggest that all those who might claim to be leftists would acknowledge just these commitments—the Stalinist or the Maoist seems unlikely to exhibit much in the way of concern for the particular vulnerable person. And I do not mean to deny that many of those associated with the left might go on to hold particular positions about the most effective or just ways of achieving leftist goals. Some might argue, for instance, that a position was not authentically leftist if it failed to involve recourse to the state or the use of physical force against persons to prevent subordination, exclusion, or deprivation. This seems to me to be a possible development of leftism, but not a necessary one. There is, at minimum, no reason why someone who supports the anarchist project of doing without state could not adopt a leftist position of the kind I have described.

I think it is clear that a market anarchist could be a leftist. Whether a market anarchist should be a leftist is, of course, another matter. Whether she should be will depend on what reasons warrant opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation, and the consonance of those reasons with her reasons for endorsing market anarchism.


Anton Sherwood said…
The exclusion formula bothers me, partly because it's expressed as a double negative and partly because it implies thought policing. Why not simply "oppose exclusion from large, relatively impersonal, communities and relationships"? Apparently because this shorter formula doesn't require Leftists to condemn those who limit their intimate relations on incorrect grounds.

Does it forbid churches? I'm not sure.

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