Date of Degree

10-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor(s)

Leith Mullings

Subject Categories

American Studies | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology

Keywords

Anarchism, Conservatism, Libertarianism, Populism, Social movements, U.S. politics

Abstract

This dissertation examines the contemporary resurgence of libertarianism in the U.S., exploring a rapidly expanding, transnational network of hundreds of thousands liberty movement participants connected through student groups, community organizations, and established institutions, as well as through social media and a vast array of online forums. Grounded in 32 months of ethnographic fieldwork and over 200 interviews, it documents the rise of a profound disenchantment, particularly among millennials, with state-based solutions to pressing contemporary problems and, more broadly, with the nation-state project itself. Drawing on first-hand accounts ranging from elite boardrooms and think tank conference rooms, to political demonstrations and direct actions, to student reading groups and gatherings of cryptoanarchist communities, the dissertation situates the ethnographic study within the broader framework of a reconfiguration of U.S. populism in the era of the security state.

The project examines how established libertarian organizations, a key component of the longstanding U.S. conservative coalition, have helped infuse libertarianism with renewed relevance for a substantial part of an entire generation deeply disheartened by a world embroiled in economic crisis and heavily militarized systems of governance. Through the consolidation of a libertarian wing of the Republican Party, parts of the liberty movement are presently shaking up the very conservative coalition that helped usher forth the movement's revival. But libertarianism's resurgence is also powerfully reshaping U.S. political culture beyond formal political processes, giving rise to a proliferation of libertarian spaces that expressly reject effecting change through electoral politics and policy in favor of changing "hearts and minds" by promoting libertarian principles and social organization. Simultaneously, growing numbers of millennials influenced by the liberty movement increasingly challenge its dominant trends, focusing on the experiences of vulnerable and marginalized groups -- from urging the integration of libertarianism with a broader socioeconomic critique as well as antiracism, feminism, mutual aid, and labor solidarity, to revisiting the ideas of 19th century U.S. individualist anarchists. Thus, while the libertarian political establishment is likely to continue to expand over the coming years and secure a firmer place in the Republican Party, the movement simultaneously serves as a siphon -- growing numbers of millennial libertarians are presently breaking from the political right and moving closer to various forms of left libertarianism, market anarchism, mutualism, and even social anarchism. The project thus illustrates the centrality of cultural formations beyond policy and electoral politics to the largest popular movement motivated by distinctly libertarian ideas in the postwar period, as well as to reconfigurations of U.S. liberalism.

The dissertation contributes to a burgeoning literature on the resurgence of antistatist theory and organizing in the new millennium. Scholars and activists alike continue to document especially the revitalization of social anarchist traditions permeating numerous contemporary struggles, tracing how the resuscitation of social anarchist thought and activism informs important parts of extant insurgency across the globe. The U.S. liberty movement presents another key but understudied aspect of the present antistate moment. The dissertation also builds on longstanding anthropological approaches to understanding the complex processes through which political ideologies are shaped and constituted. Through an ethnographic lens, it interrogates how deeply ingrained U.S. ideologies of freedom, individualism, and even liberalism itself are interpreted, contested, and reappropriated to both challenge and reinscribe relations of power. The libertarian resurgence represents a crucial struggle over the very meaning and direction of U.S. liberalism in our historical moment.

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