A Libertarian Divide – Lessons from the Amazon Boycott

Disregarding faux-“libertarians” of limited principles (most often associated with Koch-funded outfits in the D.C. beltway, and the Libertarian Party in the US), the most obtrusive divide between principled libertarians is not even that between the principles or strategies of limiting government (minarchism) and abolishing government (anarchism). It is the divide between those who reflexively adhere to bourgeois values as a presumed, often unacknowledged additional principle, and those who expect the application of principles to alter their lifestyles and alter social values—those with a progressive aesthetic of personal revolution. This is not accurately a class difference so much as a difference in temperament between conservative and progressive disposition, aside from theory, to which theory is sometimes made to bend.

In the progressive-temperament libertarian, some of whom frequent antiwar.com, radical theory finds application in radical practice, such as boycotting Amazon.com in solidarity for Amazon’s subserviently taking political sides in the persecution of Wikileaks. (Antiwar.com took this action despite a sacrifice of $10,000 per year in referrals from the site to Amazon.)

To the conservative-temperament libertarians most often associated with Lew Rockwell, such as Stephan Kinsella, Robert Murphy, et al., the prospect of changing buying habits is so offensive it requires an extensive series of articles, essays and arguments in various outlets, blogs, and forums—despite its supposed unimportance—to justify themselves and explain how unwise or un-libertarian it is to hold corporations to account when they side with the State. They appear insensitive to the dangers of precedent for themselves, if all web hosts fall into step with Amazon’s example.

Libertarians of bourgeois values are inherently and reflexively pro-business, regardless of hierarchical corporate decisions, or unnecessary participation in corporatism (the co-mingling of government and select corporations). Thus Rockwell, Kinsella et al. persistently refer to Amazon as a “victim,” despite Amazon’s statement insisting that they were not coerced, and the apparent sequence of events which shows Amazon acting against Wikileaks on mere inquiries—effectively passing judgment on Wikileaks’ illegality without legality involved, on the say-so of partisan officials acting extralegally. Rockwell et al. may even go so far as to interpret corporations as “benefactors”; Kinsella, the most hysterical of the anti-boycotters defending Amazon, credits Amazon with “heroically helping people avoid sales tax”, even though this is almost certainly a stand taken out of financial interest and not principle.

Rockwell et al. have an aversion to the aesthetics of social change which include “boycotts,” regardless of type or reason for the strategy, because they associate boycotts with socialism. (Rockwell even made a point to market Amazon referrals more heavily on his site as an “anti-boycott”.) The idea of making choices based on business practices besides judging the products or services themselves is also foreign. That materialism may seem to make little sense for theoreticians, unless we consider that material goods supply a bourgeois lifestyle. Likewise personal interest in a financial lifestyle is characteristic, and no doubt contributes to fascination with the financial industry (and its “banksters,” in the Rothbardian phrase). Perhaps this explains Kinsella’s bizarre choice of words, when he asked libertarians boycotting Amazon if they would also “suicidally” boycott Paypal.

To a radical practitioner of libertarian principle, on the other hand, it seems entirely reasonable that sacrifices of lifestyle might be involved in loyalty to principle, and making theory into reality. It also makes sense to question corporations insofar as they show similarities to the government’s hierarchy and bureaucracy, collectivism and anti-individualism, and insofar as they side with the State versus the citizen, or fiat versus rights.

Ideas do not live by themselves, and this divide is a useful example of that fact. Political philosophy cannot be discussed productively and accounted for in isolation, without also examining culture and physiology, within a total discussion of humanity and the enhancement of human life. This omission is an intrinsic flaw in a libertarian identity or libertarian worldview, and a limitation to any libertarian school of thought. An identity or worldview based on libertarianism is not sufficient, and must look further.

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7 responses to “A Libertarian Divide – Lessons from the Amazon Boycott

  1. I’m not conservative at all. I’m a radical anarcho-libertarian; anti-IP; anti-war; pro-gay marriage; anti-drug war. How is that conservative. How.

    As for my use of “suicidal” I was referring to shoestring non-profits like antiwar.com who would deny themselves necessary funding if they turned off paypal.

    I think boycotting is silly and counterproductive, but I don’t care if others do it. They only harm themselves. What I do believe is there is absolutely no libertarian or moral duty whatsoever to join in one. It’s completely optional and a personal choice. I never criticized people for boycotting–I disagreed with their insinuation that other libertarians have some moral duty to join in.

  2. As I believe is clearly expressed in the opening paragraph, “conservative” here does not pertain to political ideology, much of which the libertarians debating the boycott share. There is another meaning of conservative which describes temperament, particularly in terms of inflexible aversion to change versus attraction to transformation, and a related usage to describe socially-conservative sensibilities, which can be aside from political positions. Specifically here, as I make clear, I am talking about reflexive attachment to certain bourgeois values historically associated with personally-conservative libertarians. My post is meant to highlight differences which come out even if they are not discussed, and affect ideology in practice even they do not shape it.

    I think the harshness of your strident critiques belied your claim that you “never criticized people for boycotting”, as did insinuations that boycotting is not a seemly strategy. You belittled the boycott as ridiculous, and then proceeded to make patently-ridiculous reductio ad absurdum claims about what else we’re supposedly required to boycott, if we boycott Amazon for mistreatment of their customer taking political sides in a critical free-speech battle. (“And the State Dept. is urging students not to read or share WikiLeaks. Now we have to boycott students!”) In short, you have not respected the boycotters’ positions and reasons or fairly represented them, nor really tried to understand them, a mistake you have repeated in speed-replying to this post.

    I appreciate your clarification of the use of “suicidally.” However I think the choice of the word is still suggestive of more investment in this issue than you claim.

  3. (re-posting; bad formatting)

    As I believe is clearly expressed in the opening paragraph, “conservative” here does not pertain to political ideology, much of which the libertarians debating the boycott share. There is another meaning of conservative which describes temperament, particularly in terms of inflexible aversion to change versus attraction to transformation, and a related usage to describe socially-conservative sensibilities, which can be aside from political positions. Specifically here, as I make clear, I am talking about reflexive attachment to certain bourgeois values historically associated with personally-conservative libertarians. My post is meant to highlight differences which come out even if they are not discussed, and affect ideology in practice even they do not shape it.

    I have no aversion to radical change. There are just different strategies out there. Some are more or less effective, or suitable for different people. I would not oppose, say, assassinating slaveowners or certain others during antebellum slavery days in the US, say. I think you have a libertarian right to use force to defend yourself from the state–it’s just usually not that practical or effective.

    I think the harshness of your strident critiques belied your claim that you “never criticized people for boycotting”, as did insinuations that boycotting is not a seemly strategy. You belittled the boycott as ridiculous, and then proceeded to make patently-ridiculous reductio ad absurdum claims about what else we’re supposedly required to boycott, if we boycott Amazon for mistreatment of their customer taking political sides in a critical free-speech battle. (“And the State Dept. is urging students not to read or share WikiLeaks. Now we have to boycott students!”)

    I think the boycott is ridiculous, for a number of reasons. First, it’s futile. Second, it is going to harm the boycotter more than amazon. Third, Amazon has no obligation to host Wikileaks so not-hosting them is not unlibertarian. Fourth, the state is the problem, not Amazon. The reason the state gets away with what it does is all the state sympathizers in society–like 98% of the populace–boycott them. Fifth, if you are consistent you boycott so many groups that you basically do commit suicide or you harm yourself a lot; I think that’s altruistic, and not required by libertarianism. And if you pick and choose then you are just arbitrary, ad hoc, unprincipled, and inconsistent–notice Antiwar is NOT boycotting PayPal.

    In short, you have not respected the boycotters’ positions and reasons or fairly represented them, nor really tried to understand them, a mistake you have repeated in speed-replying to this post.

    Respected their positions? I disagree. I recognize their right to do it; no other kind of “respect” is owed by a libertarian. THat’s all the “respect” anyone is due. And it’s enough. However, I did go further–on the TLS cross-post of my LRC piece, which contains more detail, I wrote:

    And I, like you, have always disliked boycotts. That said, libertarians can disagree on this tactical issue; and I of course regard antiwar.com as heroic. Thus, to bolster my dislike of boycotting, and even though I disagree with antiwar.com’s stance on Amazon and their intentional rejection of Amazon revenues, I’ve just donated $100 to Antiwar.com (and $200 to LRC).

    … Clarification: In some of my online writings about the Amazon boycott, I’ve apparently given an impression to some that I do not wish to give. Some of my comments have been construed as more than just friendly disagreement. Let me be crystal clear: I am a strong supporter of antiwar.com. They are one of the most heroic libertarian institutions on the planet, and I greatly respect, admire and appreciate everyone who works for and supports it. I love what they do and remain a strong supporter.

    I think that’s giving them sufficient “respect”: I respect their right to do it; I admit we can disagree; I state that I respect and admire them even if I disagree.

    I appreciate your clarification of the use of “suicidally.” However I think the choice of the word is still suggestive of more investment in this issue than you claim.

    I think if Antiwar.com rejected paypal it could well kill them. They are a low budget shoestring operation and the blow from rejecting Amazon payments is already hurting them. To refuse PayPal payments would be literally suicidal, IMO. This is no hyperbole at all.

    • Stephan (FYI, I deleted your first post with the bad formatting that appeared identical):

      Respect is not simply a matter of mandate. And it’s all very well to quote your clarification after some damage is done, but you had already expressed animosity rather clearly and listened to others rather poorly in order to argue your case rather badly, in my opinion. Comments under this post offer one such example: http://www.antiwar.com/blog/2010/12/01/boycott-amazon-com/

      I do not see why picking and choosing based on whether alternatives exist discounts the effort as unprincipled, necessarily. It can be a part of principle to be pragmatic with long-run thinking instead of “suicidal” as you put it. For many, it is relatively easy to boycott Amazon because alternatives exist, whereas financial companies can be quite another matter. Is it so important for Amazon customers not to be inconvenienced by buying books elsewhere?

      There is also a cost in perception for libertarians to consider, and I am sure the people at antiwar.com took that into account as well as personal feelings. Is it so important for LRC to use Amazon’s referral system rather than another? And agree or not, it simply looks bad to market anti-TSA T-shirts as an “anti-boycott” while lecturing about either effectiveness or principle to other libertarians who are taking action out of commitment.

      The idea that the State is not or does not include corporations, or at least depend on them and their support is an important point of debate, but I’m sure that would open up a can of corporatist worms rather larger than suitable for here.

      I will skip ahead to the more important disagreement I have with characterization of the boycott as ineffective or futile. First, Amazon has responded to boycotts by reversing themselves before, so it is not impossible, and would of course be more likely with more participation. Second, there are several ways boycotts can be effective. Even supposing Amazon does not reverse themselves, I can think of several ways in which a boycott could be worthwhile by succeeding on other levels. I’ll order them roughly in my opinion of most to least importance, which is certainly debatable. A boycott can:

      • Show other web hosts besides AWS that they will lose business if they willingly assist the censors, instead of insisting on court orders and due process for freedom of speech cases. And thus, hopefully, arrest this disturbing trend of censorship by private request instead of the fascists even having to pass any law.
      • Show that businesses offensively taking political sides and toadying will cause objection—Amazon’s statement most definitely took sides, in parroting the claim that Wikileaks is “harmful.”
      • Show dissidents and all those that take chances that they will receive support in solidarity with them, which may encourage more dissent.
      • Demonstrate to those who attack freedom that freedom supporters can act together too.
      • Show others that libertarians take action as well as theorizing.

      Take exception with these as you will, but the war against State domination is one of symbols and myth as well as substantive content, and subjective opinions as well as argument. The reactions to Wikileaks, and the Julian Assange arrest are arguably more important than anything published by Wikileaks.

  4. WisdomDancer,

    What exactly is the principle here? “Boycott any big corporation who colludes with the State’s campaign against WikiLeaks?” Because nobody is obeying that principle, as far as I can see. E.g. one guy who was arguing with me over email (saying I was not doing my part to stand up to cowardice etc.) admitted he hadn’t cut up his MasterCard, because otherwise he couldn’t continue his business.

    So I am not going to condemn Amazon for doing what is perfectly within their rights (i.e. declining to let WikiLeaks use their servers), since they understandably thought it would be really bad for business if they took on the government. Unless other people are willing to do the same, I don’t see how they can wag their fingers at Amazon.

    (Note that I agree some people may very well have done this; cut up all their credit cards, never use PayPal or Amazon, etc. But so far that hasn’t been true of the people I’m arguing with on this issue.)

    • Bob,

      Replace “took on the government” with “put off Lieberman’s staffers” or “followed free speech law and due process in the courts,” much less “notified their customer” or “did not insult their customer and their other customers’ intelligence in their press release”. There is just no evidence whatsoever that gigantic Amazon was put under extraordinary duress, and to the contrary, we have accounts that this was at the stage of mere inquiry, and Amazon’s statement insisting they be judged as making the decision themselves instead of as victims.

      As for the principle at stake, I have explained my primary reasons for a boycott here:
      http://wisdomdancer.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/legal-procedure-and-business-ethics-arent-too-much-to-expect-from-amazon/

      PS. To address comments you have made elsewhere, concerning suspicions over boycotting a large corporation: the reason this boycott is focusing on a big corporation is that a) a big corporation was the web host, Tableau Software only the chart provider, and b) there’s very little point in Glenn Greenwald or antiwar.com or anyone of that audience size bothering to organize a boycott of a small company hardly anyone does business with, which would also c) make no statement. These points seem obvious enough. Some may reconsider doing business with Tableau Software, if they happen to know who they are, but it should be obvious why that discussion is not at the scale of mass public interest.

  5. The duopoly Visa and Mastercard have on debit cards in the UK make boycotting them an unacceptable cost for me. I’m looking into ways to circumvent their bullshit blockages, like using my Visa card on Flattr et al to contribute: subversion just strikes me as much more satisfying and effective.

    Amazon, as much as I love shopping there, I can go without, seeing as they’re but one of many in their field; Paypal’s already ditched.

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