Walter Benjamin – an unlikely source of inspiration for libertarians

Daniel Pryor May 6, 2014 0
Walter Benjamin – an unlikely source of inspiration for libertarians

Daniel Pryor discusses the ways in which libertarians can learn from reading Walter Benjamin.

“If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the state, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war.”

The above quote is taken from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: an influential 1936 essay by the (Marxist) Frankfurt School philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. Except it isn’t. I replaced the phrase ‘property system’ with ‘state’. Altered in this way, the quote is positively Rothbardian in sentiment; ‘war is the health of the state’. Benjamin was not a market anarchist, but those who support freer markets would do well to read the essay in the hope of understanding the relationship between critics of the market and critics of the state.

At the time of writing, the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy had brought about huge expansions in state power. An important theme within The Work of Art is that of fascism’s ostensible status as the response of ‘advanced’ capitalism to an organising proletariat: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure”. A libertarian examination of fascism would differ to Benjamin’s in certain regards, arguing that fascism represented a triumph of the corporatist, military-industrial state monolith: categorically distinct from market relations. The impoverishing property structures that Benjamin identifies as capitalist were in fact statist, reaching their zenith in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, as well as Soviet Russia and other authoritarian communist regimes.

Fascism represented a triumph of the corporatist, military-industrial state monolith: categorically distinct from market relations.

Indeed, the main flaw of the essay is a common one amongst supposedly anti-authoritarian Marxists: the conflation of the state with market relations qua ‘capitalism’. Contrary to the views of Benjamin, it is not capitalism that directed “a human stream into a bed of trenches”, nor is it capitalism that dropped “incendiary bombs over cities”. Nowadays, it is not capitalism that restricts borders, nor is it capitalism that wages the failed War on Drugs.

However, one need not be convinced by Western Marxism’s critique of capitalism in order to gain valuable insights from Benjamin’s best-known essay. His recommendation for communists to respond to fascism’s ‘aestheticization of politics’ by politicising art can also be applied to libertarianism. Direct political involvement is not the only way of promoting an anti-authoritarian mindset.

My interlocutor may argue that Benjamin, were he alive today, would deem my apparent appropriation of his work for libertarian ends fascist. It is a charge that I reject. I am not trying to convince anyone that Benjamin had pro-market sympathies by ripping apart the cohesive whole of his work. I am merely relating the thoughts of a libertarian who has read it.

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