I bumped into a fellow Brown alum on the subway, and recognizing me as that libertarian guy from campus, she mentioned she had a book coming out critical of capitalism that I should check out. That was 20 years ago—Halloween 2003—since which time Alissa Quart has written a few more books critical of capitalism (and some poetry), but this year I finally made it to an alumni event dedicated to a discussion of one of her books, a denunciation of rugged individualism called Bootstrapped, the 2003 one having been Branded. I get to everything on the To Do list eventually, but New York is a busy city.
The city didn’t resolve all its political disagreements and social problems in the interim, and I notice that just a couple of blocks from where Quart and I bumped into each other, a deranged homeless man named Jordan Neely died a few days ago when put in a chokehold by a marine named Daniel Penny who was trying to defend fellow passengers.
Protestors here (who I doubt have any more details than I do about how Neely was behaving in the moments before he was put in the chokehold, though it appears all agree he was yelling and threatening people) immediately turned out to denounce Penny. Slightly cooler heads have mainly lamented that Neely didn’t get more of the community intervention he needed.
Privately, Penny is likely seen as an all-too-rare hero by some people, including women not so unlike the one Neely punched, breaking bones in her face, during one of the numerous random street attacks on fellow New Yorkers he launched in the years prior to his death.
Regardless, the narrative about attackers like Neely you’ve been most likely to hear from New Yorkers over the years—very much including people like some of my fellow Brown alums gathered at Lincoln Center to hear about Quart’s book—is that they fell through the cracks in a system shaped largely by capitalism, which is too callous, though instead of markets one could as easily blame the government that arrested Neely 40 times without truly stopping him or treating him—or perhaps, if you insist, even blame the government’s military for giving Penny the ability to use deadly force without perhaps giving him as much skill in de-escalation.
(The Quart event’s moderator, on a decidedly non-callous note, was a bona fide Hollywood “intimacy coordinator,” Alexandra Tydings, which may sound like a fancy way of saying she’s in charge of making sure male actors don’t get the studio sued but also means she’s got some experience in conflict resolution, a skill the whole society could use.)
Quart’s current book is largely an attack on the fiction of the self-made man, the isolated individual. She sees that notion as contributing to a nation full of lonely, impoverished people guilt-wracked about their need for assistance—eager to avoid looking “dependent,” a state she regards as natural and unfairly vilified, reminding people how much they needed their moms and each other to get anywhere in life. She tweaks Thoreau for having his laundry done by his mother while he was ostensibly living in the woods and Ayn Rand for accepting Social Security in her old age.
There’s a term that falls somewhere in between the “dependence” Quart hopes to reclaim and the “independence” hailed by Americans from the time of the Transcendentalists to the time of the Objectivists, though, and that’s “interdependence,” which few libertarians and almost no conservatives would consider a dirty word, even if the occasional eccentric (of whatever political stripe) decides to live in the woods.
The question is really what the most humane form of interdependence is, with people like Rand most admiring commercial exchange but recognizing that it makes an array of other social relationships possible and more conventional conservatives admiring the web of traditions that free individuals weave. Think not only of church groups but institutions like the Moose and Elk lodges that made people like my grandparents a bit less fearful of ending up alone, before the welfare state stomped in to displace such groups, sometimes even regulating and taxing them in a counter-productive fashion, to this very day (recall the soup kitchens forbidden to give out food containing “trans fats”).
Quart praises the “mutual aid” vision of the Russian anarchist Kropotkin, and it’s worth remembering he and his fellow Russian Rand agreed on at least one thing: Government is evil. We can use language more altruistic than Rand’s without becoming any more enamored of government than Kropotkin was.
Just ask people like the anarchists in the group Common Ground, who were first to render aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina while untold millions of dollars of government money were still flying around in the form of helicopters overhead engaged in anti-crime surveillance. The jazz musicians I’d met in New Orleans a few years before that certainly seemed more like DIY types than fans of “overwhelming force” from the federal government.
One of the younger members of the Quart audience quietly noted that he’s an advocate of mutual aid himself, sometimes operating a charitable food truck, though knows people very skeptical of his aversion to voting and political parties. His way, which is also to some degree Kropotkin’s and Rand’s, is the future, though. Government will likely go right on failing us.
While it does, I make a concerted effort to avoid blaming government’s victims, too. You shouldn’t call an unjustly imprisoned man a hypocrite for eating the prison food while he plots his escape, and I don’t much fault Rand for taking the Social Security checks she was taxed to create, though it’s great if you can help privatize that semi-insolvent system while you’re at it. I’d hardly regard it is as a feather in pro-government people’s moral/compassionate cap if they forbade libertarians to use government-funded roads, I should add, and if you think libertarians can’t envision a system of inexpensive toll roads to replace government ones when government goes away, please try us. There already are many private roads, you know. This stuff isn’t sci-fi.
In the meantime, don’t assume, as one protestor commenting on the Neely death has, that everyone on his subway car was callous and culpable and ought to be arrested right along with Penny. Even in the frustratingly brief video clip we have of the incident, you can hear onlookers discussing how best to lay Neely on his side after he passes out so that he doesn’t choke in his own vomit. They were trying to cope with the situation in a spontaneous, communal way while government, as usual, was of no immediate use.
As one online commenter put it, what do you think anarcho-communal policing is supposed to look like anyway? It’s not perfect, but it’s more productive than AOC arguing with Mayor Adams over whether Neely died because he was black, as AOC suggested. Government always divides, while free individuals, alone or in groups of their choosing, do their imperfect best to cope.
—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey