TURN TOWARD THE LEFT

by , June 08, 2004

A Note from the Author: This is a continuation of my Wednesday column on the formerly libertarian Cato Institute’s complete capitulation to the war hysteria, and is best read in that context. To summarize briefly: in endorsing Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to start "monitoring" political groups for evidence of subversive activities, I wrote, Cato has ended up at the bottom of the slippery slope they started down when they gave a blanket endorsement to Bush’s endless "war of terrorism." I then asked: how did the Cato Institute, staffed by committed, intelligent libertarians who were unquestionably dedicated – at least, in the beginning – to the libertarian ideal of a peaceful foreign policy and a free society, come to shilling for Ashcroft and the neocon Thought Police? To understand what happened – not only to Cato, but to the libertarian movement in general – requires a little lesson in the history of modern libertarianism, and that is what follows…

The year was 1969: the venue, the St. Louis convention of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the premier conservative youth group in the country, where the libertarians and their factional opponents were poised for a fight. The country was roiled by cultural as well as political issues that were tearing the country apart, but no issue cut as deep as the Vietnam war, and the corollary question of the draft. Compulsory military service made the question of the war deeply personal for every student, and their families, in a way no war has since, including the current one. For libertarians, the two issues were inextricably intertwined: the perfect manifestation of Randolph Bourne‘s famous aphorism that "war is the health of the state." For the traditionalists, as they liked to call themselves, led by Bill Buckley, and the "fusionist" followers of Frank S. Meyer, the issue was less clear: in theory, they, too, opposed the growth of the Leviathan State, but their foreign policy views overrode the traditional conservative fealty to individual liberty in the name of the "war on Communism." And so the two sides faced off in St. Louis, where the split on the Right was formalized amid a mini-riot, as one young libertarian burned his draft card.

THE ROOTS OF MODERN LIBERTARIANISM

I tell the story behind this catalytic moment in my biography of Murray N. Rothbard, the intellectual sparkplug of this fledging libertarian tendency as it was flung, unceremoniously, out of the conservative camp, and forced to fend for itself. Suffice to say here that Rothbard and his youthful followers found other, more fruitful pastures in which to nurture the growing libertarian movement – on the Left. In his seminal pamphlet, Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty, Rothbard reviewed the real intellectual origins of libertarianism, which were not on the conservative Right, but in the classical liberal movement that rose up against the Old Order of feudalism, statism, and mercantilism and liberated a good portion of mankind.

REACTIONARY SOCIALISM

Socialism, in this new perspective, was not a revolutionary leftist movement, but a confused, muddled, essentially centrist phenomenon, one that admitted the oppressive and reactionary nature of the State, but only proposed to abolish it after an extended transition period, during which time it would supposedly wither away. Socialism, in any event, could not work and was doomed to implode in a terminal crisis. Rothbard saw, in 1965, that the end of socialism was at hand, just as the conservatives were ratcheting up the rhetoric of the cold war. The Communist colossus would soon collapse of its own impossible weight, he presciently believed, without the need for so much as a shove from the West.

LIBERTARIANS VERSUS CONSERVATIVES

The libertarian split with the Right lasted through all the years of the cold war. The foreign policy question – is America a republic, or must it become an Empire? – divided the two factions, and made any cooperation distasteful and nearly impossible, even on purely economic issues. For conservative support to the cold war overrode their allegiance to individual rights and the idea of limited government every time the two came in conflict – which was quite often. The fall of the Berlin Wall, however, changed everything – at least for a while….

RAPPROCHEMENT

For a while there it looked like conservatives were going to finally stop putting off the idea of cutting government down to its proper constitutional size and start acting on their alleged principles. With the end of the cold war – which no one but the libertarians had ever expected in their wildest dreams – the American Right turned its attention to solving the pressing economic and cultural problems facing the country. Under these happy circumstances, there was a libertarian-conservative rapprochement. The American Right was beginning to rediscover its pre-cold war heritage, and getting back to its "isolationist" (i.e. anti-imperialist) roots. Conservatives began to see foreign wars as a distraction from the main task of gutting the federal Leviathan down to size. Dusting off the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address, American rightists put themselves at the head of a populist grassroots "anti-government" movement hostile to Washington’s wars as well as its taxes and regulatory edicts.

Liberals were terrified: the neoconservativesdisillusioned leftists (mostly of the Shachtman school) consumed by their hatred of what they once saw as a "workers’ paradise" – were absolutely mortified. Why, they cried, this was a revolution – and we couldn’t have that!

BACK TO SQUARE ONE

Far from shrinking the federal government, the neocons wanted to strengthen it, and infuse it with a sense of "national greatness," all the better to engage in their favorite activity: war. When the Soviet Union fell, they were at loose ends for years – but September 11 has given these vultures a new lease on life. Without an enemy to relentlessly pursue, the neocons had drifted, aimless and dejected, unable to interest much of anyone in their dreams of "benevolent world hegemony." The American people, and especially conservatives, were far more interested in exercising hegemony over their own pocketbooks and taking back their country from the entrenched political class. When a conservative Republican House of Representatives voted against Clinton’s "humanitarian" adventure in Kosovo, Bill Kristol, the neocons’ little Lenin, who wanted to "crush Serb skulls," as he once put it, threatened to walk out of the GOP.

The Gulf war, the Kosovo war, and all the Clintonian interventions built up the momentum of a new conservative "realism" that reaffirmed the aversion of the Founding Fathers for foreign intrigues. But it was, in a certain sense, too late for that: too late, at any rate, to avoid the horrific "blowback" of 9/11. The emerging conservative foreign policy consensus was blown to smithereens in the explosion: it was back to square one.

CATO – DECLINE & FALL

The Cato group capitulated to the war hysteria because they had long ago become conservatives, and lost any real sense of a distinctively libertarian consciousness. In the push for influence, and "respectability," they had talked so many people into believing that they were just harmless conservatives who want to legalize drugs, gay marriage, and cloning, that, in the end, that is what they became. When the real test came, and they had to choose between principle and convenience, they had forgotten the former and so went with the latter as a matter of course.

The libertarian rapprochement with the Right has reached a dead-end. American conservatism is, at any rate, no more: there is only neo-conservatism. As Weekly Standard writer David Brooks famously put it: "We’re all neoconservatives now." This includes my erstwhile comrades over at the Cato Institute, who are now in the midst of an about-face and moving rapidly toward a more neo-connish line on Israel. Once sympathetic to the idea that Palestinians, after all, have property rights, and perhaps even the right to national self-determination, the Catoites are falling into line behind the neocon-enforced pro-Likud consensus. Here, in Cato honcho Tom G. Palmer’s account of his recent confrontation with a bunch of lefties, we can literally see him sliding down the slippery slope, propelled by the sheer weight of his neoconnish prejudices:

"I could not resist a little argument with a number of the unpleasant little critters in the local Chipotle burrito bar on Saturday. They were covered with stickers demanding a Palestinian state NOW and holding signs denouncing Israel. I asked whether I’d seen them at the protests against Hamas’s suicide bombers and against funding of the Palestinian Authority, which receives oodles of money from the U.S. and the E.U. I guess not, I added, since that would mean they were against the killing of Jews."

The mere sight of these Palestinian supporters – perhaps there were a few Arabs among them – is enough to provoke a maelstrom of withering disdain on Palmer’s part, but, suspiciously, he doesn’t give them any lines. Presumably they were struck dumb by his Wilde-like wit. Ah yes, Hamas – you mean the group that was founded with significant Israeli backing?

With the new position of Cato in the neocon firmament as the "libertarian" wing of the War Party, however, Palmer doesn’t have time for arguments. His only aim is to earn his stripes by smearing the protestors as, incredibly, anti-Semites – as if he were describing a gang of skinheads rather than these dreadlocked crunchy-granola nose-ringed "critters." The youthful antiwar protestors – who might, in an earlier era, have been seen by Palmer as potential libertarian sympathizers – are now his "enemies":

"I shouldn’t assume that the enemies of my enemies are my friends, but it’s clear that the enemies of Israel are despicable. I’m not a Zionist, but the people who are attacking Israel the loudest are precisely the sort of people who make me more sympathetic to the Israelis."

You’ll note that the important thing, for Palmer, is not the actions of the Israelis – or the reality that US aid to Israel, totaling $90 billion plus over the years, has single-handedly sustained this settler colony since the beginning, and is in no way comparable to the pittance reluctantly doled out to the PLO. What matters is his oddly subjective reaction to the Palestinians’ American supporters. He complains that the protestors, who hate the IMF, don’t understand what it is – not that the aristocratic old fogey Palmer would ever deign to explain it to them. They might benefit from a little lecture on how the IMF and the World Bank are the foundation stones of a new state capitalist world system, culminating, as Murray N. Rothbard pointed out, in

" [A] World Reserve Bank issuing a new world paper money unit, replacing gold altogether. Keynes called his suggested new unit the ‘bancor,’ and Harry Dexter White of the US Treasury called his the ‘unita.’"

In his blog, Palmer gives an impressively long list of all the lectures he’s recently delivered: too bad he passed up the opportunity to give the lefties a little lecture on the evils of Keynesianism and what Rothbard called "the fiat money plague."

Oh, I forgot, the Cato crowd doesn’t cite Rothbard anymore. Nor do they recognize in any way his key – indeed, I would argue, central – role in conceiving the project and convincing billionaire Charles Koch to fund it: he even named the damned thing, but do you think they’d give him credit at their lousy 25th anniversary "celebration"? No way, and it’s a good thing, too. For I know that Rothbard would not want to be associated, in the public mind, with an organization whose name should be a synonym for the sort of extreme opportunism that borders on outright mimicry.

Back in the 1970s and early 80s, when they were trying to pass themselves off as "low tax liberals," the Catoites went so far in their mimicry as to join John Anderson’s short-lived third party, in the hopes that they could pass themselves off as "centrists" with a libertarian twist. They shifted rightward, however, along with the rest of the country, enlisting as the vanguard of the Gingrichian revolution, and have lately jumped on the neocon bandwagon, even making friendly noises at the Israeli lobby.

ED CRANE – CHAMPION SELL-OUT

Just in time to mark Cato’s complete subjugation to the neoconservative foreign policy consensus, comes the news that the Libertarian Party is going to be awarding Cato president Ed Crane its "Champion of Liberty" award at the upcoming LP national convention in Indianapolis. The last time Crane attended a Libertarian Party convention, in 1983, he and his cohorts were decisively defeated by a coalition of their factional opponents, and together the "Craniacs," as we called them (a little less than half the delegates) stomped out of the Libertarian Party, never to return – until now.

What could be the reason for this touching reunion? Knowing Crane, it sure isn’t sentimentality. Crane and the Catoites have disdained the LP for years. One theory is that Crane and the LP share a new ideological affinity. There are elements in the LP who would love to see Libertarians jump on the pro-war, pro-Israel bandwagon, and be done with the cumbersome baggage of the party’s traditional anti-interventionist stance. The party has been nothing but a jobs program for certain otherwise unemployable ne’er-do-wells, and the funds would certainly flow in if the anti-interventionist, anti-foreign aid planks in the platform could be downplayed if not entirely thrown overboard. A resolution introduced at the August 2001 meeting of the LP National Committee, calling for an end to US aid to Israel and reiterating the longtime party stance in favor of withdrawing all US troops from the region, was derailed by one Elias Israel, now a candidate for the office of LP National Chair. Mr. Israel explained that to even offer such a resolution was "anti-Jewish" – an extremely odd position to take, since this amounts to saying that the party has taken an "anti-Jewish" stance for the greater part of its 30-year existence.

Will the necons capture the Libertarian Party, too, adding it to their collection of Washington-based satraps? It would be a final indignity, and a sad end to an organization that so many of us spent so much time and effort on – rather like hearing that an old flame has become a crackhead. For years, the LP’s chief appeal has been to dissident Republicans soured on the "compromising" GOP leadership. If they could just rid themselves of their cumbersome foreign policy positions – which don’t fit it too well with the role of a national right-wing pressure group on the GOP – they would be in the money, so to speak.

The question, then, arises in the case of the LP, as it did with the Cato group: how and why did it come to this? The answer is strategic stagnation. The LP was never all that in touch with the ideology it supposedly upholds, and is even less so now. While the party platform is a sprawling document, the party’s pronouncements on the issues of the day are routinely simplistic and mechanical, reduced to a few rote phrases and formulas endlessly repeated. The party newspaper, the LP News, deals almost exclusively with internal organizational matters of interest to no one but other party members. This routinism, a sense of running-in-place, has been mirrored in the whole movement’s strategic orientation, which has for years been oriented to the Right. But this will no longer suffice.

THE CONSERVATIVE DEAD END

In the post-9/11 world, the strategy of trying to convert conservatives to libertarianism has become a dead end. The Right is no longer interested in limiting the powers of the State at home – especially when it is focused like a laser on the question of how to expand the dominion of the American state abroad. As the world plummets toward some neocon Ragnarok in the Middle East, with the Right agitating for an all-out invasion not only of Iraq but of Saudi Arabia and beyond, it is high time for libertarians to orient themselves to the antiwar, anti-authoritarian resistance, wherever it arises.

In practice, what this means is a re-orienting our efforts to focus on the Left. The Old Right, which Patrick J. Buchanan tried to revive, is an isolated minority, kept alive by a few centers of activity: the paleoconservative Chronicles magazine, of course the classical liberal Ludwig von Mises Institute – which took up where the Cato Institute dropped the ball – and the paleolibertarian kids over at LewRockwell.com. But these voices are largely drowned out by the array of lavishly-funded front groups and right-wing thinktanks all crowing for an all-out war of Middle Eastern conquest and unconditional support to the government of Ariel Sharon.

VOICES OF DISSENT

The only voices of dissent are heard, today, on the Left – or, at least, are raised by those who in no sense consider themselves conservatives. While a great number of yesterday’s left-wing anti-imperialists defected to the War Party during the Clinton years, a new campus movement aimed at Israel’s depredations against the Palestinians in the West Bank has arisen, along with a growing antiwar movement. This is where all the vitality, the rebelliousness, the willingness to challenge the rules and strictures of an increasingly narrow and controlled national discourse resides.

That isn’t to say that the Left isn’t stuffed to the gills with idiots, of one variety or another. The "vanguard parties" of Marxism’s final degeneration still cling, precariously, to some form of life. And there is a disturbing tendency of some to characterize the United States, politically and culturally, as the fount of all evil in the world – along with an abiding faith in the shattered dream of socialism. But the end of Communism, and the intellectual bankruptcy of what passes for leadership on the Left, have many of the younger lefties (mostly anarchists) asking the right sort of questions, even if they don’t have much, as yet, in the way of answers.

A NEW APPROACH

It is beyond the scope of this column to answer the question of how to approach the Left, but, briefly, the answer is by not pandering to them or conciliating their nostalgia for socialism in any way. For what we see in the process of globalization is not the creation of a worldwide free market but the establishment of a global social democracy, based in the West, but now extending itself – through a system of alliances and outright conquest – to the rest of the world. This is not the free market, but state capitalism on a global scale, a system sustained and expanded by war – and driven, not only by economic considerations, but also by ethnic, religious, and political factors, all of which are manipulated by the War Party to its advantage.

IT SEEMS LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY

In exhorting the young libertarians in YAF to throw off the chains that bound them to the Right, Murray Rothbard – in his characteristically blunt and colorful way – had much to say that bears repeating today. In "Listen, YAF," his open letter to the delegates assembled at YAF’s storied 1969 convention, he wrote:

"For years you have taken your political advice and much of your line from assorted ‘exes': ex-Communists, ex-Trots, ex-Maoists, ex-fellow travelers. I have never been any of these. I grew up a right-winger , and became more intensely a libertarian rightist as I grew older. How come I am an exile from the Right-wing, while the conservative movement is being run by a gaggle of ex-Communists and monarchists? What kind of conservative movement is this? This kind: one that you have no business being in."

Substitute "born-again Christian Zionist" for "monarchist," and those words are truer, today, than the day they were written.

Who is fighting against the all-out assault on our civil liberties, and resisting Bush’s drive to war? It sure ain’t the conservatives, who seem intent on overthrowing our old Republic and installing in its stead a global Empire. As the political elites unite behind a program of endless wars abroad and state repression at home, the old labels of Left and Right are increasingly meaningless: liberals and conservatives, increasingly, have come to stand for minor variations on the same theme. Now is the time for libertarians to, finally, break free of all that – just in time to take a leading role in the next upsurge of social and political change.

Read more by Justin Raimondo