What the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard dubbed the welfare-warfare state has held sway in the US, and in the West generally, since the run up to World War II. The “welfare” part of the equation describes the growth of the State as the source and guarantor of social equity, while the “warfare” side describes the role of the State – in this case, the American State – as the source and guarantor of the “international order.”
For the past half century or so this system has proved impregnable to would-be challengers. Indeed, the solidity and seeming permanence of this state of affairs was so convincing that certain of its champions theorized that we had reached, at long last, “the end of history” – that future developments in political and social science would merely refine and perfect the social democratic status quo, which would slowly but surely spread over the entire globe.
Yet history stubbornly refused to recognize its supposed endpoint. Things kept … happening, until, today, this supposedly immortal status quo is threatening to break apart in the face of populist rebellions from below.
The populist revolt currently shaking the American political landscape, and similar eruptions in Europe, herald the same sea change, albeit with somewhat different degrees of seismic intensity. In the United States, where a right-wing populist movement led by now President-elect Donald Trump has scored a major upset, the insurgents have stormed the fortress, and seized the inner sanctum of the ruling elite – the White House.
Trump defeated his Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton by attacking what he called their “globalist” agenda, and promised to put “America first” – a slogan that described his anti-Establishment politics to a tee. “Globalism,” or the idea of the American welfare-warfare state as the epicenter of a world system, perfectly encapsulates the ideology of the political class at “the end of history” – and captures the hubris that was their undoing.
Having supposedly achieved socioeconomic and moral perfection, our rulers embarked on a crusade to export their achievement to the rest of the world: and yet this was hardly a new idea. A similar crusade was undertaken by Woodrow Wilson in his war to “make the world safe for democracy,” and his successors continued the same mischief through World War II and the cold war.
This ongoing campaign for global uplift took on a new urgency with the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union. Under the pretext of avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and “draining the swamp” of the Middle East, the administration of George W. Bush undertook what many of his neoconservative cheerleaders saw as the final offensive against the last remnants of opposition to what Bush the Elder had called the “New World Order.”
That this ended in utter disaster did not deter the interventionists in the least. While ordinary people caviled at the monetary and human costs of perpetual war, the political class – secure in the certainty that both parties were safely in their hands – charged ahead. Their goal: eliminating the last vestiges of opposition to their international hegemony. This would eventually have to mean a confrontation with the two big holdouts: a new cold war with Russia, and the encirclement of China.
The presumed success of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was supposed to have been the launching pad for this grand project – but something unprecedented happened on the way to the victory parade.
The welfare-warfare state has been held together politically by the fact that the two major parties were engaged in a tradeoff. The Democrats, who bought off entire constituencies with tax dollars, were allowed to expand the welfare part of the equation in exchange for giving the Republicans a free hand to bloat the other half of the equation beyond all rational definitions of “national defense.” The political term for this is “logrolling,” or, in layman’s terms, you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours.
This deal was sealed and justified by the respective ideologies of the two parties: the Democrats with their social-democratic conception of the State, and the Republicans with their internationalist foreign policy. And while the two parties had ostensible differences, these were more a matter of degree than of principle: and after decades of logrolling, the Republicans basically abandoned their formal devotion to small government, and the Democrats ditched their peacenik pretensions. In effect, the two parties became the Uni-party of the welfare-warfare state.
Trump overturned this cozy arrangement. By challenging the ideology of globalism, and the domestic policies that are the offspring of the globalist project, he overthrew the ideological and electoral foundations of the status quo.
His first target was the widely misunderstood “free trade” policies of the business and foreign policy elites – which have nothing to do with free trade, and everything to do with the severing of the political class from any real connection with our country.
Trump attacked the “bad deals” we have been making with the low-wage export-dependent colonies of the American Imperium: not only Mexico but also the “Asian tigers,” Japan, South Korea, and now Vietnam. The basic template of the deal American policymakers made was this: in exchange for the free passage of goods in one direction, the colonies had to agree to either the military occupation of their territories, or, at the very least, the complete subordination of these favored nations to the exigencies of US foreign policy. Thus, US troops occupied South Korea, and Japan was forced to give up Okinawa to the tender mercies of rampaging US soldiers: the “hearty welcome” given to US ships in the former American base at Cam Ranh Bay portends Vietnam’s developing future military alliance with Washington. The dropping of the arms embargo, Obama’s visit to Vietnam, and new trading relationship – more uni-directonal “free trade” – adds our former Communist enemies to the outer fringes of the Empire. The deal with Mexico was more complex – since military occupation was out of the question, given the sensitivities of the Mexican public – but essentially the same: the free passage of goods and people was permitted, as long as American business lobbied on behalf of what was essentially an open borders policy and the Mexicans didn’t go Chavista on us.
The pattern is clear enough: we allow our colonies, awash in cheap labor, to hollow out our industrial base, while the only products we ship to them are weapons, software, and cold hard cash. Indeed, under President Obama we led the world in arms exports, up 27 percent during this administration.
The winners in this arrangement are the military-industrial-congressional complex, the banks, Silicon Valley, and the Davos crowd. The losers: the working men and women of this country.
This isn’t “free trade” – it’s legalized looting carried out under the rubric of “national security,” i.e. empire-building. Trump recognized this, and also saw that it’s an empire of a peculiar sort, the kind where everything goes out and nothing comes in.
In the past, all empires were founded on the principle of “to the victor goes the spoils.” Yet the American Empire has reversed this historical tradition. In the Bizarro World of our enlightened rulers, it’s to the conquered go the spoils. We defeated Germany in a war in which millions perished – and yet, today, our troops stand on their soil, protecting them from a largely nonexistent threat from the East, while US military bases enrich the surrounding countryside. Japan enjoys the same luxurious accommodations.
Reminding the voters of our $20 trillion national debt, Trump dared to ask: Why are we doing this? Oh, but NATO protects the West from Russia, was the answer from the foreign policy “experts,” who scoffed that a major party candidate would ever call that sclerotic institution “obsolete.” Trump’s answer rocked their world: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with the Russians?”
“Treason!” cried the militarists. He’s a “Russian puppet!” screeched Hillary. A puzzled people listened in wonder: was it Russia that had taken away their jobs? Was the Kremlin behind the hollowing out of American industry? Was the threat of Putin turning “Red Dawn” into a reality the biggest threat to their personal livelihoods?
The welfare-warfare state could continue only so long as 1) The two parties played their assigned roles, and 2) The accumulated capital and productivity of what had once been the mighty American economy continued to grow and create. When the latter started to stall and sputter to a virtual halt, the former began to break down.
After fighting a series of wars that emptied the Treasury, and pouring trillions more into one social engineering project after another, the accumulated seed corn of generations was gone. In the hollowed-out core of what was once the world’s greatest industrial power opiod addiction spread, along with a sense of hopelessness and dislocation, while the financialization of the economy – generated by the Federal Reserve’s pump-priming – enriched the coastal elites at the expense of Flyover Country.
The stage was set for the rise – and ultimate victory – of one Donald J. Trump.
Having announced his candidacy, GOP orthodoxy demanded that he endorse the aggressive internationalism of the neoconservative foreign policy “experts.” It was also expected that he would carry the “free market” banner of neo-liberal austerity policies, which require their adherents to advocate throwing little old ladies off Social Security — while negotiating trade deals that deprive their grandsons of any job outside of McDonalds. But Trump wasn’t playing by the rules.
He challenged the neocons’ foreign policy orthodoxy, while taking it a step further – famously declaring that we were lied into the Iraq war, questioning the utility of the NATO alliance, and wondering aloud why we continue to send billions to Ukraine, Uganda, and Lower Slobbovia, while our veterans are dying in the streets of America’s decaying cities.
Sweeping aside the neoconservative pygmies (and Rand Paul) who clotted the GOP primary debate stage, Trump sent them scurrying to the sidelines one-by-one – and then took on not only Hillary, but also the media, the pollsters, the leadership of both parties, academia, and the Money Power.
And he won.
Libertarians cavil at his domestic program: big infrastructure projects, no cuts to “entitlements,” and his dubious commitment to civil liberties. Yet what they fail to understand is that his proposed dismantling of the “New World Order” – America’s role as world policeman – would, if put into effect, represent the biggest rollback of State power since the American Revolution. As Ron Paul has often remarked, if only we let go of the Empire, and brought all that money home, the financial crisis of the welfare state would disappear overnight. Which means we could have that debate about how to fund a Social Security system fast approaching bankruptcy without the threat of grandma being thrown out on the street.
Furthermore, without our endless series of foreign wars generating fresh waves of recruits to terrorist groups, the need for a system of universal surveillance would gradually disappear. While our rulers would not voluntarily recognize this change, and give up their power to spy on us, they would have a much harder time justifying it.
Without the albatross of empire hanging around our necks, so many resources would be freed up that the country would be renewed, both financially and spiritually. The long history of the process by which the State advanced on the private sector, and co-opted so many institutions that used to be the province of free Americans, would be reversed. For if you look at the history of the past 100 years, one thing is clear: each great leap forward of State power has been preceded and justified by war. Both world wars, and the cold war succeeded in centralizing and increasing government activism, all in the name of “national security.”
This, indeed, was the pretext the cold war conservatives used to justify their capitulation to the growth of State power. William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review and the godfather of the modern conservative movement, gave their game away in a 1951 essay for Commonweal, wherein he denounced the growing State power as “aggression,” but bemoaned the unfortunate fact that the alleged threat from the Soviet Union required “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy.” He went on to write that the “thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union imminently threatens U.S. security," which meant that:
“[W]e have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”
Conservatives, he wrote, must therefore support "large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington — even with Truman at the reins of it all.”
This wasn’t true then – communism was an unsustainable system that had to collapse of its own impossible weight. And even if this is arguable, the idea that we must embrace “a totalitarian regime within our shores” seems a bit overwrought, to say the least. Be that as it may, the external “threat” to the United States is much less credible today – indeed, it is virtually nonexistent. The only real existential threat we face is that which comes from within – the threat of bankruptcy, of decline, of overreach brought on by the hubris of our rulers.
Trump saw this – and launched a crusade to “make America great again.” Not by vanquishing some foreign bogeyman, but by challenging and defeating a decadent elite that is draining the country dry with its foreign wars, its war on American workers, and a subversive allegiance to transnational entities that owe no loyalty to this country.
Trump may stumble on the road to success: his appointments may fly in the face of his declared goals; his policies may be wildly inconsistent; he may even take us into another war or two. Yet the fact remains that ideas rule the world, and determine the course of nations – and of history. The ideological challenge to the elites stands, even if Trump falls by the wayside. The working “deal” between the two parties is broken: the structural supports that have held up the welfare-warfare state all through the twentieth century and into the first two decades of the twenty-first have failed. Like Samson bringing down the temple, Trump has wrecked it all, and he has done it single-handedly. For that we owe him a great debt – although many if not most libertarians either don’t know it or are unwilling to acknowledge it.
Back in 1992, in the last years of Murray Rothbard’s life, the brilliant founder and leading theoretician of the modern libertarian movement gave a speech before the first meeting of the John Randolph Club, a convergence of libertarians and paleoconservatives. Entitled “A Strategy for the Right,” it outlined the means by which a united paleo-libertarian movement could take back the country. I won’t try to summarize what he said in that seminal talk here, except to say it was vintage Rothbard, and that it ended on a characteristically optimistic note in which he seemed to foresee the possibilities that are opening up before us today:
“When I was growing up, I found that the main argument against laissez-faire, and for socialism, was that socialism and communism were inevitable: ‘You can’t turn back the clock!’ they chanted, ‘you can’t turn back the clock.’ But the clock of the once-mighty Soviet Union, the clock of Marxism-Leninism, a creed that once mastered half the world, is not only turned back but lies dead and broken forever. But we must not rest content with this victory. For though Marxism-Bolshevism is gone forever, there still remains, plaguing us everywhere, its evil cousin … well, let’s just call it ‘Menshevism,’ or ‘social democracy.’
“Social democracy is still here in all its variants, defining our entire respectable political spectrum, from advanced victimology and feminism on the Left over to neoconservatism on the Right. We are now trapped, in America, inside a Menshevik fantasy, with the narrow bounds of respectable debate set for us by various brands of Marxists. It is now our task, the task of the resurgent right, of the paleo movement, to break those bonds, to finish the job, to finish off Marxism forever.”
Referring to an influential book, The Radical Right, edited by Daniel Bell, a prominent neoconservative sociologist, Rothbard continued:
“One of the authors of the Daniel Bell volume says, in horror and astonishment, that the radical right intends to repeal the 20th century. Heaven forfend! Who would want to repeal the 20th century, the century of horror, the century of collectivism, the century of mass destruction and genocide, who would want to repeal that! Well, we propose to do just that.
“With the inspiration of the death of the Soviet Union before us, we now know that it can be done. We shall break the clock of social democracy. We shall break the clock of the Great Society. We shall break the clock of the welfare state. We shall break the clock of the New Deal. We shall break the clock of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom and perpetual war. We shall repeal the 20th century.
“One of the most inspiring and wonderful sights of our time was to see the peoples of the Soviet Union rising up last year to tear down in their fury the statues of Lenin, to obliterate the Leninist legacy. We, too, shall tear down all the statues of Franklin D. Roosevelt, of Harry Truman, of Woodrow Wilson, melt them down and beat them into plowshares and pruning hooks, and usher in a 21st century of peace, freedom, and prosperity.”
While historical analogies necessarily lack precision, in the broader sense they are often on the mark, and in this case comparing the electoral insurrection we are witnessing today to the series of upsurges that overthrew the Russian Czar is not entirely out of place. In this context, the Trumpian Revolution is the 1905 upsurge that overthrew Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs – and paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. While Trump is no Kerensky – a weak, vacillating character, soon swept aside by the tides of revolutionary activism – this is all the better. For only a strong leader with more than a touch of the demagogue about him could have broken the power of the oligarchs and set us on the road to freedom.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.