Liberty, Anarchism, and Eben Moglen

by on March 18, 2009 · 44 comments

TLF reader mwendy points me to this Eben Moglen paragraph, presumably as evidence of his anti-libertarian agenda:

“…Moreover, there are now many organizations around the world which have earned literally billions of dollars by taking advantage of anarchist production. They have brought their own state of economic dependency on anarchist production to such a high level, that they cannot actually continue operating their businesses without the anarchists’ products. They, therefore, now begin to serve as founders, mentors, and benefactors, for anarchism. They employ our programmers and pay them wages. They assist our programmers in gaining additional technical skill and applying that skill more broadly. They allow me to heavily fund a carefully constructed law firm in New York, to train only lawyers to represent only anarchists on only the payrolls of the big companies which produce the money to pay for the legal representation of anarchism. They have to do that. They need anarchism to be legally solid. They do not want it to fail. They want the anarchist legal institutions that we have created to become stronger over time, because now their businesses depend upon the success of anarchist production.

“In other words, we have reached a very important moment, a moment noticed some hundred years ago by my collaborators Marx and Engels. We have reached the moment at which the bourgeois power sources have turned the crank on invention to the point in which they are actually fueling their own downfall. They have created the necessary structures for their replacement and the forces which are speeding up that replacement are their own forces, which they are deliberately applying because the logic of capitalism compels them to use those new forces to make more money, even though in the long run it speeds the social transition which puts them out of business altogether. This is a very beautiful feeling…”

As I said before, Moglen is not the guy I’d pick to sell free software to libertarians. But I don’t think this passage is as outrageous as mwendy thinks. According to Wikipedia, anarchism “is a political philosophy encompassing theories and attitudes which consider the state, as compulsory government, to be unnecessary, harmful, and/or undesirable.” That certainly sounds like a laudable goal to me. I don’t personally think it’s possible to achieve a stateless society, but there are plenty of self-described anarchists who take fundamentally libertarian policy positions.

Of course, Eben Moglen is not Murray Rothbard, and I’m sure there are plenty of issues where Moglen and I wouldn’t see eye to eye. But aside from his name-checking of Marx and Engels, there’s no evidence of that in this passage. It’s important to remember that libertarians’ objection to Marxism isn’t over Marxists’ desire for a classless society but their willingness to use violence to achieve it. But here it’s very clear that Moglen isn’t advocating the triumph of free software via violent revolution. The process Moglen describes is entirely peaceful and voluntary. Companies are funding the free software movement because it’s in their self-interest to do so. Maybe Moglen is right that in the long run this process will doom the proprietary software industry, but I don’t see how that would be a problem from a libertarian perspective.

I’ve written before that the world is full of left-wingers trying to achieve left-wing goals through peaceful means, and that this is something libertarians should celebrate. Many of these experiments will fail, of course, but the essence of a free society is letting these kinds of experiments run their course. Of course, we can all have opinions about the likelihood that any given experiment will succeed (I’m not expecting co-ops to topple commercial grocery stories any time soon, for example) but there’s nothing particularly libertarian about trying to predict in advance which forms of social cooperation will prove most successful.

When you strip out the left-wing rhetoric, that’s the process Moglen is describing here: a group of people decided to try a new way to develop software based on sharing rather than ownership, and it turns out that it out-performs proprietary alternatives in at least some sectors of the software industry. That’s an interesting result that we need to incorporate into our economic models. And it’s perfectly compatible with libertarianism provided that we understand that being a libertarian means being pro-liberty, not necessarily pro-business.

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