Those of us who consider ourselves social scientists (I’ll have to amend this soon; I’m entering a Human Science program), and who look at current events with an eye toward comprehending the rabid right’s hold on political discourse in the United States are faced with a challenge of synthesizing ideas that simply don’t go together. Indeed, there’s not a lot of sense to be found.
Yves Smith adds some meat to my longstanding observation that capitalist libertarians—and I would emphasize those who call themselves anarchocapitalists—refuse to acknowledge economic hierarchy, documenting what anyone who has ever looked for work knows: if someone has something you need, they have leverage over you. And it is interesting to contemplate the assumptions which must underlie that denial.
First, from the last time—and it’s been a while—I indulged these morons in debate, they blamed government for allowing corporations to gain such power. This part is hard to refute: it certainly is true that government has enabled oligarchy; that when oligarchs control mass media outlets, they inevitably influence the messages that can reach mass audiences, and therefore inherently limit the terms of debate; and that while the social safety net is cut to the bone, welfare for the rich and for corporations continues to be expanded. It is also hard to see how, in anything like a so-called “free” market as we generally understand it, particularly in a global economy where states (and their governments) must compete for investment, it could be any other way. Taking this line of reasoning to its extreme—and acknowledging the history that Smith cites of private armies and the like—we might as well abolish government and simply enact a feudal society, with corporations as lords.
But we also have to examine the capitalist libertarian hypothetical. Imagine a world based on an ethic of unrestrained individual accumulation; a world in which any means to wealth is legitimate; a world in which the only restraints on greed are that contracts must be inviolable and that the market, in which capitalist libertarians envision consumers as free to choose from competing vendors not merely on price but on the same so-called “external” costs—such as infrastructure, social, and environmental costs—that they presently refuse to accept when it is government’s role to assess those costs in the form of taxes; and a world in which the measure of all things is in its monetary value on the market.
In such a world, it is inevitable—and I think that this means to power is part of the capitalist libertarian motivation—that not everyone will be equally talented and inclined to entrepreneurship. Let’s make no mistake here: most Libertarians I’ve talked to in person (as opposed to the idiots who invade anarchist groups on line) are highly intelligent; they argue well but choose blindness to the consequences of economic hierarchy. I sincerely doubt that they are all that naïve; embracing the ethic I described in my last paragraph at the expense of fundamental moral values as concern for the well-being of others, they see a means to individual enhancement. Capitalist libertarians cannot in fact be very principled; if they were, they wouldn’t have expended so much energy on the intellectual dishonesty of denying anthropogenic climate change or economic hierarchy, and they would include a lot more vegans. Principles in the capitalist libertarian universe are for rubes; capitalist libertarians are working to make a fast buck.
So given that not everyone will be equally talented and inclined to entrepreneurship, some will serve others, inherently contradicting the egalitarian definition of libertarianism and utterly belying the legitimacy of so-called “anarchocapitalists.” Poor people and members of the lower, working, and middle classes will do so because they must, in order to survive, and because whatever frontiers—for the most part, we’re no longer talking about Planet Earth—are left for just anyone to exploit are very expensive to get to. Here, as I’ve said again and again, the advantage of the market goes to whomever is most able to decline a deal, money (as a store of the only recognized value) is much more transportable than labor or resources, this advantage goes to the rich, and any exchange system thus inevitably exacerbates gaps between rich and poor.
So capitalist so-called “libertarians” cannot truly be anarchists. Their interest in “freedom” is only for the very rich and as Hannah Arendt explained, “because all human beings are subject to necessity [for the sustenance of life], they are entitled to violence toward others; violence is the prepolitical act of liberating oneself from the necessity of life for the freedom of world.” Consequently, only the wealthy have a privilege—not a right, but only that which is predicated on their fortunes—to life.
Such a view, of course, conflicts with the evangelical Protestant view of the unborn—but almost no one else—as having a right to life. That’s not the only contradiction: capital-L “Libertarians,” such as those making up the Libertarian Party in the United States, reject many intrusions into individual freedom. In their view, personal conduct should be immune from state intrusion, subject only to the inviolability of contracts. So (government) censorship would never happen, drugs would be free from restriction, and prostitution would be a matter between presumably consenting adults in a contractual relationship.
Such contradictions make the current Tea Party phenomenon of the rabid right harder for social scientists to understand. Johann Hari explores this further, in a commentary for the Independent, noting that Republicans now embrace “naked imperialism,” another capital-L “Libertarian” no-no (hence one appeal of Ron Paul in 2008 as the only prominent anti-war presidential candidate); “dog-whistle prejudice — pitched just high enough for frightened white Republicans to hear it,” as seen in the seemingly obligatory “birther” phenomenon and in the vitriol against so-called “illegal” immigrants; “raw worship of wealth as an end in itself,” immune from social responsibility; and an “insist[ence] that any fact inconvenient to your world view simply doesn’t exist, or can be overcome by pure willpower.” This is not a coherent movement but a coalition which would surely disintegrate if it ever actually achieved power.
Yet right now, I’m seeing the presidential election in 2012 as the Republicans’ to lose. In his insistence on compromise as an opening position, Obama has undermined any moral justification for his claim to power. He has sold out to oligarchs, warmongers, and white evangelical Protestants; and he has unmasked, for all to see, the Democratic Party as reduced to the condition of Republican-wannabes. He and his administration have not only repeatedly betrayed his “base” but made highly visible their disdain for his “base.” The likelihood of his re-election depends on (as now seems probable) Republicans alienating everyone to the left of an incoherent hybrid of Ayn Rand, the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Jerry Falwell, and Terry Jones (the pastor who burned the Quran). Holding on to power is Obama’s only visible reason for being in power.
That adds a sickening feeling to the incoherence of our present political discourse. This is not visibly the foundation of a rise to the challenges of resource exhaustion and climate change. Hope lies only in substance—if it materializes—of anger visible at recent Town Hall meetings over the injustice of Republican advocacy simultaneously of further breaks for the rich and of cuts for the poor.
But given that both major political parties—assuming they can be seen as distinct entities—are at least complicit in the degeneration of political discourse and that political possibilities in the United States exist in the form of a binary between these two parties, any move towards coherence will surely be misdirected.
- Yves Smith, “Earth to Libertarians: Private Parties Have Coercive Power Too,” Naked Capitalism, May 1, 2011, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/05/earth-to-libertarians-private-parties-have-coercive-power-too.html↩
- Smith, “Earth to Libertarians.”↩
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), 31.↩
- Johann Hari, “Johann Hari: Donald Trump’s lunacy reveals core truth about the Republicans,” Independent, April 29, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-donald-trumps-lunacy-reveals-core-truth-about-the-republicans-2276222.html↩
- Angry Bear, “Town Hall Meetings on the Ryan Budget Raise Concerns,” Business Insider, May 1, 2011, http://www.businessinsider.com/town-hall-meetings-on-the-ryan-budget-raise-concerns-2011-5; Associated Press, “Ryan heckled at town hall meeting in Greenfield,” CBS Moneywatch, April 29, 2011, http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/news/ryan-heckled-at-town-hall-meeting-in-greenfield/6226420/; Marin Cogan, “Webster town hall ‘degenerates into bedlam’,” Politico, April 26, 2011, http://www.politico.com/blogs/glennthrush/0411/Webster_town_hall_degenerates_into_bedlam.html; Tory Dunnan, “Several Tossed From Congressman’s Town Hall Meeting,” WPBF, April 28, 2011, http://www.wpbf.com/politics/27697577/detail.html↩
- Noam Chomsky, “Containing the Threat of Democracy,” Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, ed. (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2005), 157.; Gore Vidal, interview by David Barsamian, “Gore Vidal Interview,” Progressive, August 2006, http://www.progressive.org/mag_intv0806↩