Joss Whedon and Libertarianism

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has a complex relation with Libertarianism. His political views appear to be standard left-liberal Hollywood. Together with most of the cast of Angel (a spin off from Buffy), he endorsed the John Kerry/John Edwards Democrat ticket in 2004. Whedon’s normal views appear to be pro-civil liberties for all. In creating a positive lesbian character, Buffy’s best friend Willow, he signalled a committment to equality for gays.

Buffy was designed as a feminist hero, tough and independent though also distinctly feminine. She has been referred to as ‘Buffy the patriarchy Slayer’ and though the character does not tend to be overtly politicla or ideological in any way, there are signals of her attitude. This culminates at the end of season 7 when she pulls an Excalibur type weapon out of its place, only the Slayer is destined to do this. This also allows an emphasis on Buffy the Post-Feminist. The woman who was watching her Excalibur weapon appears, and it turns out that she belongs to a female order that has been watching the male dominated watchers (trainers and supervisers of slayers). Buffy is rather different from the stereotypical earth mother type feminist. Buffy’s fashionable style and immersion in popular culture contrasts with the grand prophetic tone of her new protector. The new protector cannot believe that Buffy is called Buffy, signalling the distance between them. Significantly the woman is killed a few minutes after she appears on screen, she is part of what is passing away. Whedon’s shows refer to pornography and male fantasies abut women in a jokey way which distances them from the kind of feminism which looked with extreme aversion on such phenomena, and which resorts to a mixture of moralising condemnation and a reductive account of power through representation. Though many commentators on Whedon maintain a condemn male fantasy stance, it’s clear that Whedon regards that attitude as a distraction from central issues of power, violence and equality.

Political Correctness and Libertarianism
Libertarianism may take political correctness as a target. That particularly applies to Libertarianism of a kind which mixes social conservatism and capitalist free markets, essentially the constituency that Ron Paul is appealing to in his current run to be Republican candidate to be elected President of the United States. Such people may look askance on feminism and gay rights as ‘politically correct’ impositions of a left-liberal elite which dominates the state and education, in their view. Sometimes they seem to think big corporations are dominated by such people conspiring with the state elite, though sometimes they seem to think private corporations are necessarily beyond criticism. Conservative libertarians say they do not favour discrimination, but do not believe that the central state has the right to impose non-discrimination on local communities. Strangely enough I’m rather suspicious of the line, ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe but I do not think anyone should be forced to respect blacks and gays and it would be wrong to force communities to give them equal rights, therefore I will vote in congress against any such rights’ which as far as I can see is an accurate representation of Paul’s views. One of the Whedonverse actors is a Paulite, Emma Caulfield who plays Anya in Buffy. Appropriately her character is a parodic capitalist who puts money before people, and enjoys the dance of capitalist superiority when closing the Magic Shop at nights. It would be wrong to represent capitalist libertarians in that way, evidently they believe free markets are the instrument of liberty, but it’s still funny.

There is a comparatively liberal progressive kind of Libertarianism at the Cato Institute, or even the Ayn Rand/Objectivist groups, though I struggle to take seriously anyone who follows Ayn Rand (fifth rate philosopher, fourth rate novellist, third rate screen writer and first rate grotesque destructive egomaniac). While these people are generally closer to the Republicans than the Democrats, unlike Paulites they tend to respect Lincoln and think the right side won the Civil War, so conceding that there are times when use of central state power for a liberatory object maybe a lesser evil than just letting communities deny basic liberties to certain community members. These people tend to more careful about distancing themselves from social or national conservatism. It must also be said that Paul has left-libertarian fans who support a return to weaker federal government.

X-Files Libertarianism
That leads us to what I will very unkindly and unfairly label X-Files left-libertarians. X-Files
is of course a reference to the TV series (some of whose writers have worked with Joss Whedon) in which two FBI agents unravel many layers of a conspiracy of the central state to allow aliens to take over the world. For those who have not seen the show, it must also be said that the show is very funny and self-parodic, and that one of the FBI agents in particular can be read as a delusional obsessive. The show deals very acutely with fears of central government and fears of hidden forces, and often refers to quite real ways in which power may become secretive and unaccountable. The show lacks a direct political message but on the whole I would say it is most consistent with a left-libertarianism that is critical of corporations, the state and social conformism.

Joss Whedon: Statist or Libertarian?
As was indicated above, Whedon is comfortable with Democrats of a kind who wish to preserve the and expand New Deal big state, which has been the major function of the Democratic Party since F.D. Roosevelt. That New Deal big state is tied up with an Imperial Presidency which commands vast military resources and has an interventionist foreign policy trying to shape every region of the world. Whedon is rather neutral about foreign interventionism. Buffy’s one serious non-vampire boyfriend, Riley Finn, leaves her to join a covert military squad destroying demons in Central America. The associations with regional American intervention of a very aggressive kind, leaning towards authoritarian right right wing governments and paramilitary groups are left unremarked. The political tone of Buffy and Angel is standard left-liberalism. The death penalty is implicitly rejected, very pro-capitalist views are seen as amusing, large companies tend to be represented as operating in a sinister way. It must also be said that left wing political correctness is parodied, most obviously in the episode Pangs in season 2. What we also get is an interest in insurrectionism. This becomes most obvious in the penultimate episode of season 4, which ends on an X-Files tone. A hidden man of power refers to Buffy and her allies as ‘civilian insurrectionists’, and notes that in the end they were correct to resist a secret government demon fighting initiative and fight demons in their own way. This hint at the justification of insurrection has rich American associations. The right to rise up and resist the central state was recognised by the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson. It is Jefferson who favoured self-governing rural communities under a very loose central government and who is often invoked by libertarians. That role for Buffy and her allies is paralleled in Angel by Angel’s unlicensed detective agency. In both cases, the aim is to uphold law in ways the state cannot, but certainly there is an emphasis that law rests on basic action by individuals.

The libertarian tendencies in Joss Whedon come to the fore in the science fiction series Firefly. The series takes place in the aftermath of a failed rebellion by Independents against the central authority of the Alliance. The central character Mal leads a gang which makes a living from smuggling, illegal salvage and robbery, along with legal work. There is some connection with stores of the James gangs, Confederate guerillas turned bandits. However, the series also clearly distances the Independents from the slave holding aristocratic Confederacy. They are seen as west coast libertarians, poor but self-reliant people struggling to hold on to their free wheeling individualistic society. Mal is the spokesman for the view that governments exist to get in the way, that they interfere without helping. Whedon says that he does not share all of Mal’s views, but he created a series which makes Mal the hero and the spokesman for world view which is clearly Whedon’s own: anti-religious, anti-transcendent, an individualism of tough self-reliant characters. The series is quite explicitly an anti-Star Trek. Star Trek features an earnest liberal technological interventionism even though at the explicit level the Federation the space ship serves is anti-interventionist. The Federation is socialistic, and capitalistic characters, particularly the Ferengi in Next Generation, are presented as morally questionable.

The series and the spin off film Serenity certainly impressed libertarians. The film received a Special Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society. LFS is devoted to libertarian science finction, which is a major part of the libertarian canon. The write Robert A. Heinlein is the most famous in a large group of capitalist libertarian and anarcho-capitalist writers. Joss Whedon belongs with Ayn Rand and Heinlein in the receipt of an award from Heinlein, and has produced a TV and cinema classic of futuristic capitalist libertarianism, though the emphasis is still on the poor small entrepreneur.

Nozick Alone Among the Libertarians

I’ve been researching Nozick and his commentators for the MA course I’m giving next semester on Contemporary Political Theory (details on my university web page, see right hand column). The most vicious critics of Nozick are certainly his fellow Libertarians, including Murray Rothbard who Nozick refers to as important in converting him to a Libertarian point of view. Libertarian in this context means the capitalist version in which if the state exists at all, it should only exist to uphold property rights based on voluntary contract, and protect individuals from violence. In the Anarchist, or near Anarchist version, of which Rothbard is the best example, these laws emerge in a voluntary way without any need for a state.

Though I was already acquainted with the idea that Capitalist Libertarians/Anarcho-Capitalists are a quarrelsome lot and that most of them are on the fringe of the academic world, I was startled by the response of Libertarians to Nozick. Nozick is by some way the most distinguished representative of that point of view in academic philosophy. No one has replaced him in that role since his death, and Nozick may himself have stopped filling that role. Though he did not say much about political philosophy after his Libertarian masterpiece Anarchy, State and Utopia, there are indications he pulled back from his claims in that book to a softer form of Libertarianism (presumably heading towards the kind of welfarist liberal/capitalist libertarian crossover I favour). The Libertarian response is to sneer that he turned into a social democrat. Anyway they did not like his book in the first place, and were probably relieved that he could be later labelled as an apostate .

Murray Rothbard, and his followers, express great jealousy of Nozick’s success, claiming that Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty (click for pdf download) is a more important book. The book can be found via as can a great deal of other relevant material. I certainly don’t fault the Misess Insittute people for failure to use the Internet properly. Anyone who compares Rothbard’s book with Nozick really ought to feel embarrassed for Rothbard, and his followers, that they could be so self-deceiving and foolish as to think Rothbard’s book is better. His method of argument is constant restatement of the view that the state is unnecessary, and that left to themselves, people will create better voluntary arrangements. His method of dealing with different points of view is to insult them and to fall back on an analogy between the state and a supplier of goods or services in a market economy based on rules of a kind which have always been enforced by the state. Just like Anarcho-Communists, Rothbard relies on natural intuitions of Natural Law to substitute for the role of the state. Again the universality of these intuitions is asserted rather than argued for. The fact that Nozick’s book is composed from a variety of detailed arguments for his position is used against him by the Rothbardians, apparently people just read those arguments separately which is supposedly easier than reading Rothbard’s book through. There is nothing difficult about Rothbard’s book apart from the boredom resulting from his constant under argued assertions.

Other criticisms of Nozick from team Rothbard, and other Libertarian crews, include outrage that Nozick finds paradoxes at the foundations of Libertarianism he has to try to answer, essentailly the classic paradox of explaining how people consent to a common set of rules without force. In their zeal Libertarians are shocked by the possibility of paradox in the foundations of their ideal system, though one might think the whole point of political philosophy is to deal with the paradoxes that human reason throws up and which every inquiry into the heart of a subject always throw up.

Jealousy is never far from the surface. The feeling that famous universities are dominated by cliques of elite left-liberal academics excluding the knights of Libertarianism is a constant theme. It is not possible that the left-liberals (also Neo-Conservatives and Conservative Paternalists) could be doing honest work of high quality. The fact that Rothbard never had a job at a famous institution clearly embittered him and his followers. Rothbard appears to have been a generous and inspiring person in some respects, but somewhat lacking in a sense of proportion about his importance and the quality of his essentially polemical work. Nozick was a professor at Harvard, and even worse is very generous about the work of his famous left-liberal colleague John Rawls. Generosity to non-Libertarians is not widespread in Libertarian culture; they find it hard enough to be generous to each other. Nozick appears to have been a sensitive, understanding and well rounded individual who did not try to dominate other people or establish a clique of loyal followers. He was certainly a misfit on Planet Libertarian