Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ph.D.

TOTAL FREEDOM

TOWARD A DIALECTICAL LIBERTARIANISM

REVIEWS

PAUL SAFIER, CANADIAN JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE 34, no. 4 (DECEMBER 2001):  881-82.


Safier writes:  "This book is an attempt to reclaim the concept of dialectics for libertarianism.  Through an analysis of a number of important late-twentieth-century libertarians (especially Murray Rothbard), Chris Sciabarra advances two parallel arguments---first, that there are certain 'dialectical elements at work in the libertarian canon', and second, that it is only when libertarianism is rooted in a distinctly dialectical account of the dynamics of social life that it can embrace what the author calls ' "total freedom"---a freedom bolstered by a recognition of its complex preconditions and effects.'

"What does Sciabarra mean by dialectical libertarianism?  The most vivid definition Sciabarra supplies is to say that it is 'radical social theorizing in the name of liberty', where radical means something like what Marx meant when he said 'to be radical is to grasp things by the root'.  It involves an explicit commitment to grounding normative theorizing in an effort 'to grasp the workings of the system within which one lives.' . . . It concentrates on analyzing the concrete cultural and structural conditions that sustain existing forms of social order, hoping to determine how those conditions would have to be altered in order to move to a form of social life in which freedom is more completely realized.

"What is it that libertarianism would actually gain by explicitly embracing the 'dialectical turn'?  The most frequent answer Sciabarra gives is to say that it would gain plausibility. . . . But the book also suggests two more specific and noteworthy advantages.  First, adoption of a more dialectical orientation would allow right-libertarianism to shed its association with atomistic conceptions of human nature, acknowledging humans as fundamentally socially embedded while nevertheless rejecting states as the proper basis of social organization.  A second and more important advantage is hinted at by Sciabarra's suggestion that adopting a dialectical orientation will lead 'to a new nonutopian radicalism, one that recognizes complexity and seeks change on the basis of conditions that exist.' . . . The specific promise of dialectical libertarianism is to be able to explain simultaneously:  why libertarianism is normatively attractive, why it has nevertheless failed to be concretely realized, and what the conditions are under which it could be realized.  This, not coincidentally, exactly mirrors the structure of Marx's critique of capitalism, which attempted to show:  what makes capitalism fundamentally exploitative, how it nevertheless came to take root, and what the conditions are under which it could be transcended.

"It is a strength of this book that it makes abundantly clear why a 'dialectical' form of libertarianism would be useful.  It is a weakness that it gives little sense of what it would actually look like, as opposed to what it would accomplish.  . . . Sciabarra anticipates this line of criticism . . . Hopefully, Sciabarra will accept his own invitation and develop a fully worked out version of 'dialectical libertarianism.'  What this book provides is the promise that such a project would not be an oxymoron.  It remains to the future to give the project form, and to put us in a position to judge its adequacy."

Paul Safier

Princeton University


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