Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is there a Libertarian culture? And if not, why not?

Chris Berg at Thoughts on Freedom has presented an intriguing post on Libertarians and Culture, which begins:

A peculiarity of critiques of modern capitalism is that it is, at least in part, an aesthetic critique. McMansions do not just create environmental and socially problems, they are also ugly. Plasma screens and home theatre systems are crass. Advertising on the scale that plasters New York or Hong Kong is obnoxious – European cities are much more refined. (The Melbourne City Council, well known for its trendy environmentalism, also has a thing against billboards.)

By contrast, libertarians tend to reject aesthetics as even a valid criteria for political criticism. If someone wants to live in a McMansions or full their house up with expensive and ugly televisions, who are we to judge? And if you don’t like advertising, go have one of those ‘sea-changes’ that the weekend papers keep telling us is the new coolest thing. Spend enough time around other liberals or libertarians and this reaction becomes instinctive – it’s none of our business; some people like some things, others like other things, etc etc etc. We just don’t like passing judgment on other people’s choices, and this rightly places us in sharp contrast with our political opponents.

It is common to extend this attitude to cultural matters - quality is subjective and preference should be our only the guide. Some people like Mills and Boon, others like Thomas Hardy. At the level of libertarian philosophy, Home and Away is the equivalent of Fritz Lang’s M. The old cliché that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ has been revived as the libertarian approach to aesthetics.

But one cannot have an intellectual movement without an approach to culture. Culture dominates the public sphere. Libertarians have ghettoised themselves from the vast majority of debate by speaking almost exclusively on economics and political economy.

As I see it, the challenge for liberals and libertarians is not to ramp up production of opinion piece on politics or economics. We may not dominate, but every economic or political issue has a readily available libertarian perspective. By contrast, the cultural pages of the newspaper are almost uniformly free of liberal-minded individuals. There are no explicitly libertarian film-reviewers or music reviewers. Part of this is because the small size of the libertarian community in Australia, but a large part of this is because there is no clear libertarian perspective on culture. There is a libertarian view on who should produce culture and with what money – a traditional government vs. private sector debate – but there is no aesthetic approach.


Berg argues--essentially--that conservatives opt to support traditional arts and culture, while liberals/progressives go for more avant garde and even post-modernist expressions of aesthetics, but that Libertarians are .... just sort of out there.

He concludes with this:

Perhaps there need not be a liberal or libertarian approach to culture. But, as it stands, art criticism in Australia has been almost entirely ceded to cultural conservatives or the left – their political philosophies are more comfortable with making judgments about the value of certain activities. Libertarians, as long as the government isn’t doing it, don’t usually care. I am not arguing that we should try to awkwardly shoehorn political points into album reviews, but that we develop an approach which allows libertarian morality to inform cultural criticism. The vast corpus of film, literature and art critics that hold left-wing views regularly seep their political philosophy into their writing – we should try to do the same.

After all, culture is too important – too popular even – to be abandoned by our side of politics. If we are to involve ourselves in cultural criticism, we must start becoming more comfortable with making judgments about artistic and cultural worth.


I emphasized that one sentence to make a point I think Berg overlooks. Today--as in the medieval and renaissance periods--most art exists because of patronage. And most of the patronage comes either from the government, big corporations, or philanthropic foundations (which exist as vehicles for those who made big corporate wealth to avoid handing it over to the government). By far, the largest patron of the arts is the State, even when its art that criticizes the State, while commercially viable popular culture (movies and music primarily) are often looked down upon by the hoi poloi attending operas, and is marginalized by self-appointed critics.

All of which brings me to Hip-Hop and another of my favorite blogs, Where Hip-Hop and Libertarianism Meet, that recently took on the question of whether or not Barack Obama has the courage to be the nation's "First Hip-Hop President." [Note that this is a more-or-less click through post from an original article by Latoya Peterson in The American Prospect]:

An any rate, here's the gist:

Obama has positioned himself as the straight-talking community organizer who wants to rise above politics and accomplish real change in the way this country operates. Is it any wonder that hip-hoppers like Common and Talib Kweli have come out in full force for him?

Soulstice, the critically acclaimed underground emcee and college radio sensation, believes Obama embodies hip-hop because "he's a self-made American who happens to be black. Not only is [being self-made] an ideal in hip-hop, it gets at the core of the American Dream."

"In terms of black youth, especially black males, I think his draw is strengthened by the fact that Obama not only represents the ideals of hip-hop but openly embraces the fact that hip-hop has tremendous potential to make a positive impact," says Soulstice.

Obama's opponents allege that he puts forth "more style than substance," a critique that echoes one of the long-standing criticisms of hip-hop as a flashy trend or passing fad. And like Obama, hip-hoppers consider the idea of "waiting your turn" to be the kiss of death. Generation hip-hop wants what we want when we want it, and we will pursue it to the end -- be it landing a record deal, starting a clothing line, forming an independent label, or having the guts to walk away from a bad situation and forge a new path. The hip-hop generation is not willing to wait for someone else to give it permission to succeed."


Not that I am by any means a Hip-Hop expert (or even willing to switch off my Brooks & Dunn to try it), but I think that this article supports Chris Berg's idea that for maximum effectiveness a political movement must have some relationship to a defined aesthetic.

But the only area in which I can think of having seen anything like a Libertarian aesthetic emerging is in fiction, and (once you leave Ayn Rand behind) that usually means science fiction. There is a Libertarian sub-genre in SF, which Wikipedia suggests will include at least these authors:

Poul Anderson
Ray Bradbury
Robert A. Heinlein
James P. Hogan
Cyril M. Kornbluth
Brad Linaweaver
Victor Milan
Terry Pratchett
J. Neil Schulman
L. Neil Smith
S. Andrew Swann
Vernor Vinge
Michael Z. Williamson
F. Paul Wilson
John C. Wright

I agree wholeheartedly that James Hogan, J. Neil Schulman, L. Neil Smith, and F. Paul Wilson can be categorized as overtly Libertarian SF authors. Some of Heinlein's work (notably The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) falls into that category, but the Grand Master's corpus is hardly politically consistent (hell, Starship Troopers is about as far on the other side from Libertarianism as you can get). I'm also surprised not to see David Brin on the list, as he not only writes Libertarian SF, but is a member of the Libertarian Reform Caucus.

On the other hand, I've never thought of Poul Anderson as explicitly Libertarian (maybe I missed something), and while I think Terry Pratchett's Lord Vetinari is probably a Libertarain tyrant at heart, I've never read Discworld as particularly Libertarian. Go figure.

But what would Libertarian fine art look like?

Beyond saying it wouldn't glorify either the State, coercion, violence, or collectivism, I haven't got a clue.

Ideas, anyone?

1 comment:

tom said...

> But what would Libertarian fine art look like?

"Socio-political statements, however laudable, however crucial, can cause the less sophisticated viewer to overlook the fact that the art delivering those statements is often inept, derivative, and trite. When we accept bad art because it's good politics, we're killing the swan to feed the chickens."
- What Is Art and If We Know What Art Is, What Is Politics, Tom Robbins

In the essay the above quote comes from, one of my favorite authors argues that art is a sovereign entity of its own that should not or perhaps even can not be exploited to achieve other goals. He believes that if something is really art, the aesthetics must come first, and any other values it conveys are secondary. So instead of Libertarian art, perhaps you should be looking for Art that portrays libertarian ideas. (A certain statue in New York Harbor comes to mind...)

Tom Robbins also explores this theme at some length in his novel Skinny Legs and All. And by the way, he probably belongs on the list of libertarian fiction writers (since he's as libertarian as Steve, though definitely not as anarcho-capitalist as me).