Lefties Contemplate the Pain of "Cyberlibertarianism," Wonder Where They'll Ever Find a Centralized World to Manage Choice and Behavior

David Golumbia
writing at

is steamed at the supposed “deletion of the left”
by supposedly dominant “cyberlibertarians.”

He starts off going wrong with a rather gross misunderstanding
of what being “of the left” in American terms means these days:

The digital revolution, we are told everywhere today, produces
democracy. It gives “power to the people” and dethrones
authoritarians; it levels the playing field for distribution of
information critical to political engagement; it destabilizes
hierarchies, decentralizes what had been centralized, democratizes
what was the domain of elites.

Most on the Left would endorse these ends. The widespread
availability of tools whose uses are harmonious with leftist goals
would, one might think, accompany broad advancement of those goals
in some form. Yet the Left today is scattered, nearly toothless in
most advanced democracies. If digital communication technology
promotes leftist values, why has its spread coincided with such a
stark decline in the Left’s political fortunes?

What the left really wants is a centralized elite authority that
pursues particular ends it claims to desire, often allegedly on
behalf of “the people”; people who really want dethroned authority,
free flow of information, and decentralization are

Why would a left that wants to see a world shaped to its own
particular desires–about income distribution, market and personal
choice and behavior, and forced change in people’s transportation,
energy, and consumption choices, embrace a world of greater
decentralization and choice? 

Rather than engaging the real reasons why the mentality implied
by the “digital revolution” hasn’t lead to a resurgent leftist
world of policy, Golumbia decides to blame those who actually
recognize that there is a pretty natural connection between digital
practice and ideology and libertarianism. What’s more, he gets mad
at leftists in the digital realm who even hold any truck with

When computers are involved, otherwise brilliant leftists who
carefully examine the political commitments of most everyone they
side with suddenly throw their lot in with libertarians — even when
those libertarians explicitly disavow Left principles in their

This, much more than overt digital libertarianism, should
concern the Left, and anyone who does not subscribe to libertarian
politics. It is the acceptance by leftists of the largely
rhetorical populist politics and explicitly pro-business thought of
figures like Clay Shirky (who repeatedly argues that representative
democratic and public bodies have no business administering public
resources but must defer to “disruptive” forces like Napster) and
Yochai Benkler (whose Wealth of Networks is
roundly celebrated as heralding an anticapitalist “sharing
economy,” yet remains firmly rooted in capitalist economics) that
should concern us….

The first line above is wonderful: markets and most especially
the Internet (where no one knows you are a dog, if you don’t want
them to) are wonderful realms for mutually pleasurable and valuable
interactions where, blessedly, ancient obsessions about agreement
on religions, or race or culture, are irrelevant. They are even
places where, to get to where what I’m implying will stop making
sense to many people even though the beautiful advantages for peace
and mutual advantage of just treating certain things as
irrelevent to civilized interaction
are the same as in the old
Enlightenment project of getting over race, religion, and gender,
and nationality in deciding who we’ll tolerate, political
becomes relatively unimportant.

But to the leftist, one must “carefully examine the political
commitments of most everyone they side with….” and act

The rest of the essay goes on (among many other things,
including relying on
Philip Mirowski’s tendentious vision
of libertarianism’s dark
soul) to make typical category errors about what he’s speaking
about (no, libertarian belief in liberty and spontaneous order is
the very opposite of his claim that “cyberlibertarianism holds that
society’s problems can be solved by simply construing them as
engineering and software problems”); usual assumptions that
anything anyone might make a profit at is for that very reason
suspect and unsavory; and a core vagueness about
what exactly leftist goals are,
because sometimes just saying:
“managing everyone’s lives and a vast roundrobin distribution of
wealth in all directions via a massive national machinery of power
that we then hope will do the nice things we approve of with it”
can be a hard sell.

The digital revolution has given us 3D printers–which help
make guns regardless of regulation
. It has given us the means
to gamble
from our own homes
. It has given us an experimental
outside government control and management. It has
allowed communities of affinity to discover facts and arguments
they would not have the means to encounter in a more centralized
world of news and communication, and propelled strange candidates
Ron Paul to prominence

All that has not been accident. It is inherent in a very
libertarian-at-heart “digital revolution.”

The Left alas, will have to invent its own institutions and
methods to get what it wants–like, say, an attempt to register and
restrict access to and prohibit tools of personal defense, picayune
shaping of people’s choices of fun, a huge central bank by which to
manage the currency for its elite needs and enrich the well
connected, and politicians who say only those things that near
majorities want to hear. Wherever will the Left find its dream
coming true? I feel for them.

I took on an earlier iteration of crummily argued attacks on
techno-libertarians back in 2000, in a review of Paulina
Boorsook’s crummy book

from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/12/06/lefties-contemplate-the-pain-of-cyberlib

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