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July 29, 2010

Can we all agree to be honest about the constitution?

Filed under: State,U.S.A — rmangum @ 7:04 pm
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I recently unsubscribed to the Cato Institute’s daily podcast. I’ve never been a big fan of Cato’s Right-Opportunist, Fabian approach to libertarianism, but there is a dearth of libertarian podcasts that analyze what’s going on inside the beltway (except when it comes to foreign policy, where Scott Horton’s Antiwar Radio will have a monopoly on the market for a long time). The main reason I stopped listening was one particular episode which featured a nameless wonk defending Obama’s use of CIA-directed drone attacks in Pakistan. I nearly broke my iPod. But a secondary reason was that seemingly more than half the episodes since I started listening were about issues related to the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the Constitution. This is to be expected, since this year has so far seen a lot of activity there: the Kagan nomination and important (as far as those things go) decisions on the second amendment and corporate money/free speech (take your pick). I became impatient with Cato’s relatively conservative take on the court, but what finally hit me was how boring I found the whole thing, especially compared with the daily exposure of the truly malevolent shit our government has been up to in the War on Terror. I finally had to admit to myself what I already pretty much knew: I do not care about the Constitution. At best it’s a thin, soft sheath over a vast iron truncheon. I do not care that most people don’t know that torture is unconstitutional, but I am horrified that they approve of its use, and I am unconvinced that correcting the former problem would help with the latter.

The Constitution in American political discourse is usually just a veil for other concerns and interests. Conservatives are most likely to identify as “Constitutionalists” who want to interpret the document “strictly” and according to its “original intent” (an analogy here to the fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic is probably quite apropos), but they do so because they think- rightly in many cases, wrongly in others- that the Constitution conforms to their conservative vision of America. But that doesn’t stop them from disregarding it during wartime (which in our lifetimes means all the time). Libertarians are often highly supportive of the constitution, but really would probably love to scrap everything except the Bill of Rights (addenda forced upon the document by the naysayers in the first place), and if they could design a machine to automatically protect against rights-aggressions they would do so in a heartbeat. Liberals should probably just come out and say they wish for the abolition of the second amendment.

Now I’ve just been going through the archives of the Journal of Libertarian Studies and come across historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s review of Thomas Woods’ (now of Meltdown fame) Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Hummel is quite rightly critical of the book- which I read when it first came out- from its asinine packaging and marketing (admittedly the publisher’s fault and not Tom’s), its glib style, and the barely held-together tension between libertarian, conservative, and neo-confederate sympathies. But most of all Hummel takes Woods to task for his “constitutional fetishism,” a feature far more appropriate to a conservative than a libertarian, even a conservative libertarian. He wonders why a libertarian ought to care about constitutionality per se, since,

The Constitution, rather than representing the culmination of the American Revolution, embodied in fact a reactionary counterrevolution, designed to reverse many of the previous victories of Liberty over Power.

This was precisely the position of Woods’ avowed mentor, Murray Rothbard, who always preferred the Articles of Confederation. The most charitable reading I can give Woods’ book is that he’s trying to win traditionalist conservatives over to a more libertarian position, but the book so effectively muddies the libertarian message that traditionalist conservatives are more likely to think that their position already is libertarian (or, vice versa, that libertarians are or ought to be traditionalist conservatives).

Then Hummel goes on to write probably the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read about the Constitution, with implications far beyond the libertarian political culture:

In the final analysis, there is no absolutely correct interpretation of the Constitution. From the outset, it was a political document, deliberately ambiguous in some clauses to ease its ratification, and contested right from the Philadelphia starting gate in 1787. Since then, competing theories about applying the Constitution have vied for political supremacy. American politicians have invariably embraced whatever constitutional theory fits their policy predilections. Over the two centuries and more the Constitution has been in force, only a mere handful of intellectually consistent statesmen has ever publicly concluded that government activities they favored for other reasons were proscribed under the Constitution. And I include among politicians all judges, because the courts have always been as politicized as the other branches.

An intriguing question is whether American political life could continue in good faith if we all admitted these facts.

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July 4, 2010

Anarchism and Patriotism

Filed under: Anarchy,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 1:03 pm
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Last night I did what I suppose what millions of Americans do for fourth of July: I watched a fireworks show at a local park. I was the designated driver for the evening, and I suppose not being drunk for the occasion had a certain detrimental effect on my enjoyment of the proceedings. I like hot summer evenings, outdoor grilling, and fireworks as much as the next guy, but I do not know what they have to do with America, or freedom, or anything other than a good time and a day off from work. I suppose fireworks are meant to remind us of “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and other such warlike imagery which, we are taught from a young age, are central to our national sentiment. One thing I don’t like is the flyovers by fighter jets and bombers which accompany the show. These remind me that the military is everywhere. They give me a tight feeling in my chest, an anxiety that is the opposite of a feeling of freedom.

Patriotism, even the kind which recognizes a difference between State and Nation, is usually anathema to anarchists (Emma Goldman, for instance), but I don’t think this need be the case. I’d like to quote extensively from an essay by the great English writer G.K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism.” He considered himself a true patriot and was indignant that patriotism was becoming identified in his country with the warlike spirit, or what he calls a “deaf and raucous jingoism.” His words can be neatly transposed to our own country’s situation as well:

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

. . .

We have to ask, then, Why is it that this recent movement in England, which has honestly appeared to many a renascence of patriotism, seems to us to have none of the marks of patriotism–at least, of patriotism in its highest form? . . . We are, as a nation, in the truly extraordinary condition of not knowing our own merits. We have played a great and splendid part in the history of universal thought and sentiment; we have been among the foremost in that eternal and bloodless battle in which the blows do not slay, but create. In painting and music we are inferior to many other nations; but in literature, science, philosophy, and political eloquence, if history be taken as a whole, we can hold our own with any. But all this vast heritage of intellectual glory is kept from our schoolboys like a heresy; and they are left to live and die in the dull and infantile type of patriotism which they learnt from a box of tin soldiers. There is no harm in the box of tin soldiers; we do not expect children to be equally delighted with a beautiful box of tin philanthropists. But there is great harm in the fact that the subtler and more civilized honour of England is not presented so as to keep pace with the expanding mind. A French boy is taught the glory of Moliere as well as that of Turenne; a German boy is taught his own great national philosophy before he learns the philosophy of antiquity. The result is that, though French patriotism is often crazy and boastful, though German patriotism is often isolated and pedantic, they are neither of them merely dull, common, and brutal, as is so often the strange fate of the nation of Bacon and Locke. It is natural enough, and even righteous enough, under the circumstances. An Englishman must love England for something; consequently, he tends to exalt commerce or prize-fighting, just as a German might tend to exalt music, or a Flamand to exalt painting, because he really believes it is the chief merit of his fatherland. It would not be in the least extraordinary if a claim of eating up provinces and pulling down princes were the chief boast of a Zulu. The extraordinary thing is, that it is the chief boast of a people who have Shakespeare, Newton, Burke, and Darwin to boast of.

America cannot look back on a long and deep tradition of high culture and intellectual distinction (though we have recently produced some of the finest world literature, from Whitman and Dickinson to Faulkner and Stevens), as England and the European nations can. But it has a far more glorious tradition of libertarianism, and it is this tradition which is forgotten, largely by the design of our education.  It is therefore a shame that the nation of Jefferson and Paine, of the Whiskey Rebellion and the spirit of ’76, of a long long train of religious dissidents and individualist anarchists, has as its best avatar of the soul Dick Cheney.

I recommend as devotional readings for the anarchist patriot the following: “Anarchism and American Traditions” by Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Origins of Individualist Anarchism in America,” and “Was the American Revolution Radical?” (an audio excerpt from the multi-volume history Conceived in Liberty) by Murray N. Rothbard.

P.S.- I was looking for some American flag pictures to accompany this post, but I found it too stomach-turning. Enough with the damn flag already. The less American citizens care about actual freedom or any of the worthwhile traditions of this country (like say, the Bill of Rights), the more they care about worthless symbols like the flag. I am reminded of a witty aside by literary critic Harold Bloom in one of his best books, The American Religion: “Creationism, I am now convinced, is only secondarily directed against the ghost of Charles Darwin. It is directed instead against all those who might deny that the Bible is a vast solid object, like a cliff or a First Baptist Church in a Texas city.” Similarly, American patriotism, 99 times out of a hundred, is only secondarily directed against those who hate America. It is instead a fierce defense of the American flag as a concrete object as it waves in arrogant victory over the cowed foreigner and the awestruck citizen, its stripes licking the sky like tongues of flame, its stars seeming like an explosion of sparks, the kind often seen when one has been punched squarely in the nose.

June 23, 2010

Spotlight on Israel

Filed under: State,War — rmangum @ 1:31 pm

. . . the government of Israel does not like the kinds of things I say — which puts them into the category of I suppose every other government in the world.
-Noam Chomsky

I may be premature or overly optimistic, but I think that we’ve reached some kind of turning point in American public opinion regarding Israel in the wake of the Gaza aid flotilla debacle. Our policy of blindly supporting Israel whatever they do, at whatever cost (monetary or political) is one of the greatest barriers to peace in our time, and such a policy seems more ludicrous the more heavy-handed Israel’s tactics become. When the Israeli state’s (I must repeat, with emphasis, “State,”not people) only supporters in America are the Christian Right and Democratic party leaders with a clear vested interest in keeping the Israel lobby happy, then we might see some change.

Here’s a round-up, with some comments, of articles I’ve recently read on the subject.

“Israel’s Feeling of Isolation is Becoming More Pronounced” (from The Washington Post): If Israel is very much like America, and a taste for indie rock is a pretty good indicator of liberal political beliefs, then concert cancellations by “Elvis Costello, The Pixies, and indie folk singer Devandra Banhart” should breed some internal resentment (in addition to, you know, the murdered aid deliverers).

“Desegregation in the Holy Land”
by Richard Spencer, from Alternative Right: This is not really about the Gaza situation, but it points out that relations with Arabs aren’t the only race problem Israel faces. Coming from a right-wing perspective, of course Spencer points out the hypocrisy of this, given the fact that Jews have been in the vanguard of civil rights movements in America. But what he fails to address is this: in every case of hypocrisy, the question is in which direction should it resolve into consistency- start practicing what you preach, or start preaching what you practice? Spencer’s fellow “white nationalists” clearly prefer the latter, the former is always possible and usually preferable.  This leads me to a fascinating article by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, which shows clearly that there is something of a generation gap between young Jewish liberals in America and their parents or grandparents when it comes to attitudes about Israel. Faced with a choice between liberal democratic values and support of Israel, young Jews will decidedly opt for the former. Or as Beinart puts it:

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Beinart characterizes this situation as a “failure of the American Jewish establishment,” that is, a failure to offer an alternative “liberal Zionism.” Whatever, the reason, it is an important part of the change in public opinion I am sensing.

Michael Chabon, the Jewish-American novelist, (author of several novels I’ve been meaning to get around to reading), is a bit older than the demographic Beinart discusses, but his embarrassed reaction to the news of the aid flotilla attack in the New York Times is probably somewhat typical. He muses about the discrepancy between famed Jewish intelligence and Israel’s “unprecedented display of blockheadedness.” Had he read Kevin Carson’s book on Organization Theory, he would have no cause for wonder: a given organizational system (in this case a militarized state) may be stupid, even if the people who make it up are not. It is no accident that “military intelligence” is widely regarded as an oxymoron. But I wonder if Chabon is not evading the real issue by focusing on the stupidity of Israeli actions, which is of course that they are highly immoral. As a parallel, I suggest that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is one of the stupidest acts the American government has ever done, but that is nothing compared to how immoral it was. One of my main problems with liberal critics of the war is that they have been obsessed with how “badly handled” it was (the unspoken subtext being that a high-I.Q. Democratic administration would have fared better), which distracts from the fact that it should not have ever happened in the first place. Bad management does not bring people to the barricades. Fighting brutality and oppression, that is to say, fighting evil, does.

P.S.- It’s stupid that I should even have to address this, but let me clear up a few things: 1. I am not Jewish, but even if I was, that fact alone doesn’t seem to keep you safe from the charge of anti-Semitism these days (nor, apparently, does it even give you a right to visit Israel). 2. Not only am I not anti-Semitic, I would even say that I am pro-Semitic, though I would point out that Arabs are Semites too. 3. Do I think that the State of Israel should not exist. Of course! I am an anarchist: I think no State should exist. States do not have a right to exist- people do, and both Jews and Arabs, in the Middle East as elsewhere, can claim the same right.

June 12, 2010

The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . .

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
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I’ve been reading Phillip Jenkins‘ political and social history of 1970’s America, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. The first thing I have to note is the striking similarities between our current period and the one Jenkins covers (focusing specifically on 1974 to 1977). But I really had an epiphany when I read about what Jenkins calls “The Terror Noncrisis.” He argues that the mid-seventies saw a wave of domestic terrorism in America. He writes, “In terms of the scale and frequency of attacks , America during the mid-1970’s was suffering one of the worst waves of terrorist violence in its history to that point.” He cites some well-known events, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the ’75 bombing of the State Department by the Weather Underground, as well as some which were news to me, such as the “Zebra murders” in San Francisco and a Puerto Rican nationalist group called the FALN, supposedly responsible for “over thirty bomb attacks in New York, Chicago, and Washington.” These groups didn’t really have anything to do with each other, but all could be broadly categorized as subscribing to some Leftish variety of radicalism. But Jenkins also notes that anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami “became the heart of a flourishing terrorist and guerilla subculture.”

So what is the point in linking all of these together under the rubric of a “terror wave”? 1970’s domestic terrorism as a single phenomenon has been largely ignored by historians (“as late as 1995, writers on Oklahoma City were still remarking that finally ‘terrorism had come to the United States'”) and, more shockingly from a post-9/11 perspective, was not high on the list of earth-shaking fears of Americans at the time. As I said, the various groups were not linked (except as they each represented the death-spasms of the New Left), but it is strange that it was not thought to be the case at the time (except by usual anti-commie suspects like the Birchers). A mere 10 years earlier every longhair with a peace sign was suspected as an agent of Moscow, but now that the longhairs were actually blowing things up, nobody thought the revolution was finally upon us?  And its not as if the seventies lacked the paranoid mindset. As Jenkins demonstrates, this was the decade when the conspiracy theory went mainstream. So what happened?

The short answer is that Richard Nixon happened. The revelations about Watergate, COINTELPRO, the American-backed coup in Chile, and other government scandals had everyone looking to Washington as the source of crime and corruption. “The near-total focus on abuses by government and law enforcement meant that political dangers of a kind that in any other political environment would have demanded an urgent response. . . . The powerful focus on evils committed by the state diverted attention from subversives or revolutionary threats, however well-documented those dangers.”

While Jenkins does not deny that government agencies brought it on themselves, he seems to lament that the CIA and FBI were weakened, and thus unable to deal with new terror threats. “Infiltration and surveillance of the sort that once would have been commonplace was now highly unpopular . . .” But that’s the rub! Every single terror group Jenkins writes about fizzled out within the decade. Precisely nothing came of these threats beyond the isolated events. There was no revolution, because it was not televised. Americans quite rationally feared being spied on by government, but they did not fear that the Symbionese Liberation Army would force them all to smoke dope in communes while having orgies in front of a Chairman Mao poster. But let’s say that the Feds had retained the organization and legitimacy to “mobilize public concern.” It might have been civil war, and people might have felt like the wheels were coming off entirely (as they arguably did in ’69-70, the time of the Manson Family murders and Kent State). Consequently, they would have demanded greater force and more expansive measures.

Obviously, we can learn something from this era. As it stands, we have a president who refuses to prosecute his predecessor, the latter being guilty of crime and corruption at least on the level, and probably far exceeding that of Nixon and LBJ. And, oh yeah, then there’s the whole police state thing. And what are we worried about? The Hutaree.

The terror wave of 1974-1977, unlike that of the 2000’s, was a “noncrisis” because terrorism doesn’t work if you don’t become terrorized.

June 10, 2010

Follow-Up on Property Rights and Racism

Filed under: Anarchy,State,Utopia — rmangum @ 8:28 pm
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This article by Sheldon Richman, inspired by Rand Paul’s infamous appearance on Rachel Maddow, is almost two weeks old now, which is like two months in blog time, but since it covers (more articulately) many of the same points I made in my last post, plus one important elaboration, I ought to mention it. Previously, I had mentioned that the bulk of what was accomplished by the civil rights movement had nothing to do with government legislation, but I failed to mention one notorious feature which almost certainly conflicts with the libertarian theory of property rights: the sit-in, which is a property-violation almost by definition. Richman admirably addresses this point:

Isn’t a sit-in at a private lunch counter a trespass? It is — and the students who staged the sit-ins did not resist when they were removed by police. (Sometimes they were beaten by thugs who themselves were not subjected to police action.) The students never forced their way into any establishment. They simply entered, sat well-behaved at the counter, and waited to be served. When told they would not be served, they said through their actions, “You can remove me, but I will not help you.”

So without resisting forcible removal and without damaging any property, the violation is minimal enough that owners would not even be due recompense (and if the force used to remove the protesters exceeds what is necessary, they might be liable for damages themselves). So with the costs of such action being so low, we might expect more of this type of demonstration in a libertarian society, not less. A comment by Brad Spangler elaborates:

It’s also important to understand that the libertarian theory of justice is that violation of the non-aggression principle justifies compulsory restitution for damages. In some cases, it will make sense to voluntarily assume those costs and approach it as a matter of calculation — rather than holding a pseudo-religious view in which one is either in state of grace or held to have fallen from same.

For example, in a stateless society of private law and security, there would be no such thing as a “search warrant”. No private arbitrator would be empowered to license burglary or home invasion. Searches for evidence would still happen, though. Investigators would have to do enough of the serious, hard work of a conscientious investigation first in order to make a rational gamble that they could commit a crime to search for evidence and wind up owing less restitution than the subject of the investigation would.

Lunch counter sit-ins were trespassing — but so what, if the restitution owed was trivial in comparison to the larger issue?

Indeed, and the logic applies to any other form of civil disobedience directed at private property, such as the sit-down strike. Spangler is right to bring up the example of police investigations, since it emphasizes that in a free society, the law applies to the cops just as well as to the rest of us, whereas in our society they are “the law.” Police violate the property rights of the poor pretty much every day and are never required to pay restitution, even if it turns out that they harmed innocent people. (And of course it is no accident that state police are the primary aggressors against peaceful protests throughout the history of civil disobedience as a political tactic.) Murray Rothbard addresses the issue in a different context in The Ethics of Liberty:

Take, for example, the police practice of beating and torturing suspects—or, at least, of tapping their wires. People who object to these practices are invariably accused by conservatives of “coddling criminals.” But the whole point is that we don’t know if these are criminals or not, and until convicted, they must be presumed not to be criminals and to enjoy all the rights of the innocent: in the words of the famous phrase, “they are innocent until proven guilty.” (The only exception would be a victim exerting self-defense on the spot against an aggressor, for he knows that the criminal is invading his home.) “Coddling criminals” then becomes, in actuality, making sure that police do not criminally invade the rights of self-ownership of presumptive innocents whom they suspect of crime. In that case, the “coddler,” and the restrainer of the police, proves to be far more of a genuine defender of property rights than is the conservative.

We may qualify this discussion in one important sense: police may use such coercive methods provided that the suspect turns out to be guilty, and provided that the police are treated as themselves criminal if the suspect is not proven guilty. For, in that case, the rule of no force against non-criminals would still apply. Suppose, for example, that police beat and torture a suspected murderer to find information (not to wring a confession, since obviously a coerced confession could never be considered valid). If the suspect turns out to be guilty, then the police should be exonerated, for then they have only ladled out to the murderer a parcel of what he deserves in return; his rights had already been forfeited by more than that extent. But if the suspect is not convicted, then that means that the police have beaten and tortured an innocent man, and that they in turn must be put into the dock for criminal assault. In short, in all cases, police must be treated in precisely the same way as anyone else; in a libertarian world, every man has equal liberty, equal rights under the libertarian law. There can be no special immunities, special licenses to commit crime. That means that police, in a libertarian society, must take their chances like anyone else; if they commit an act of invasion against someone, that someone had better turn out to deserve it, otherwise they are the criminals.

As a corollary, police can never be allowed to commit an invasion that is worse than, or that is more than proportionate to, the crime under investigation. Thus, the police can never be allowed to beat and torture someone charged with petty theft, since the beating is far more proportionate a violation of a man’s rights than the theft, even if the man is indeed the thief.

The upshot of all this is that in situations which may involve rights violations for which restitution would have to be paid, such as searching a home for evidence or interrogating the suspect, the libertarian police would tend to be far less violent than the state police. Doubly so, for there is not only no sovereign immunity for their actions, but they would be either a for-profit firm disinclined to pay out reparations and lose business to competitors, or they operate are at the behest and under the watchful eye of some kind of autonomous community who may deny their legitimacy at any moment.

But while what we are now obliged to call “the authorities” have the incentive to mind their manners or pay the price, the calculation might be quite different for the oppressed and marginalized.

May 25, 2010

My two (dialectical) bits on the Rand Paul thing

Filed under: Philosophy,State,U.S.A — rmangum @ 7:48 pm

As you probably know, Rachel Maddow recently grilled Rand Paul on whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights act, and whether a strict enforcement of property rights would lead to a segregated society. You can read a transcript, along with a defense of Paul here. Of course an anarchist cannot agree that only federal legislation can stop racism, but I want to critique the defenses of Rand that have been offered by some libertarians as well. First of all, Paul’s responses were not at all straightforward, but incredibly evasive. Other defenses have taken the following form: “Segregation and discrimination were the fault of Jim Crow laws, which come from government, and not private business, which have a natural economic incentive not to discriminate.” There is some truth to this, but it is limited and fails to see the whole picture. Of course Jim Crow laws made things much worse, but laws do not come from nowhere. Laws which have no broad popular support do not last long, and often cannot be passed at all. And while the profit motive does indeed offer an incentive against discrimination, since black or gay money spends as well as any other kind, we know also that human beings are more than homo economicus, or what Dierdre McCloskey has named “Max U”, a kind of rationally self-interested calculating machine. In other words, culturally-inculcated prejudice is often more than enough to overcome economic self-interest. Anxious to exonerate markets and property, libertarians who make these arguments are also letting the racist culture of the South off the hook. (This is not to say that the North was not also racist in its own way.)

I’ve been reading Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy. I just finished Marx, Hayek and Utopia, and am now a good ways into Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. While I’m not fully convinced by Sciabarra’s arguments, I am finding that taking a dialectical view can often be illuminating, and Rand Paul’s gaffe is a case in point. Sciabarra sees “internal relations” as fundamental to dialectics. In social systems, all parts are related to each other in essential ways. Remove any part, and you effect the whole. In contrast, “external relations” view at least things as being independent of each other. The libertarian defenses I mentioned before view culture and government as being externally related, so that all things bad can be ascribed to government. Here’s the crux of these kind of debates: liberals and libertarians fundamentally agree on this externalist view of the state, only with opposite value-judgments about government intervention. Here’s an excerpt from the Maddow interview:

MADDOW: But it could be brought up at any moment. I mean, if there – – let’s say there’s a town right now and the owner of the town’s swimming club says we’re not going to allow black kids at our pool, and the owner of the bowling alley in town says, we’re not actually going to allow black patrons, and the owner of the skating rink in town says, we’re not going to allow black people to skate here.

And you may think that’s abhorrent and you may think that’s bad business. But unless it’s illegal, there’s nothing to stop that — there’s nothing under your world view to stop the country from re-segregating like we were before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —

PAUL: Right.

Unacknowledged Legislators

Right? Let’s just repeat what Maddow is saying, and Paul is agreeing to: without federal legislation, there is “nothing.” Nothing. So, no boycotts, no marches, no protests? Since the legislators who passed the bill were not black, we can assume that blacks were really helpless. Either white oppressors or white saviors. Now you can see why blacks on the radical left in the 1960’s like Malcom X and the Black Panthers had nothing but contempt for white liberals.

The reality is that the impact of the Civil Rights act was positive, though not quite positive enough to counteract the evil done by Jim Crow. But it was itself the result of a social movement involving heroic actions taken by individuals acting in solidarity to raise consciousness and fight oppression. And the enforcement of Jim Crow was legal oppression, but it too was the result of social forces, enabled by the fact that a majority of southern whites viewed segregation as desirable.

Government is evil, but it is not the root of all evil, merely the apotheosis of evil, the codification of evil. And there is plenty in a worldview that rejects government to fight bigotry, as virtually the whole history of the civil rights movement demonstrates: boycotts, strikes, peaceful demonstration, acts of solidarity in the face of intimidation, and yes, even market forces.

The view that social change springs fully formed out of the head of government legislation, with lawmakers observing and adjusting from some Archimedean point outside society, is ahistorical, undialectical, and condescending to the groups it proposes to help. Furthermore, once this view gains hold, it has an insidiously self-fulfilling effect. Groups who before were able to spontaneously organize to fight for freedom and equality, and become ennobled by the struggle, (“I am somebody” as a young Jesse Jackson once told a crowd in Watts) are now encouraged to seek help only from government, settling into a mediated client-patron relationship which is something like an extremely attenuated form of a master-slave relationship (and dialectics enters the picture once more).

Too many libertarians seem to think that because we view the state as on balance evil, we can never admit that it does any good, as if that would be to admit it is the only way of doing good. That is of course statist nonsense on stilts.

May 16, 2010

Sir Patrick Spens

Filed under: Literature,State,War — rmangum @ 11:52 am
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The Scottish ballad tradition contains some of the most haunting and beautiful poetry ever composed, a fact all the more striking since the authorship of most of it is anonymous. Fans of American folk, bluegrass, and country music will find it the lyrical origins of our most vital body of song, expressing a powerful sense of death and loss. “Sir Patrick Spens” has this, and something more: a protest of political power. It is a powerful indictment of a king’s power to send his subjects off to pointless death’s on fool’s errands.

The king sits in Dumferling town
Drinking the bluid-red wine:
‘O whar will I get a guid sailor
To sail this ship of mine?’
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king’s richt knee:
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the sea.’
The king has written a braid letter
And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick read
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his ee.
‘O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’the year,
To sail upon the sea?
‘Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid ship sails the morn.’
‘O say na sae, my master dear,
For I fear a deadly storm.’
‘Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon
Wi’the old moon in his arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
That we will come to harm.’
O our Scots nobles were richt laith
To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or a’ the play were played
Their hats they swam aboon.
O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
Wi’their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land.
O lang, lang may the ladies stand
Wi’their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
For they’ll never see them mair.
Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
It’s fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
Wi’the Scots lords at his feet.

In the first stanza we meet the king, who “sits in Dumferling town/Drinking the blude-reid wine.” Kings sit on thrones and hold court, but this king apparently occupies the whole town, signifying how places become identified with “great” political figures (think “Washington”). His wine is “blude-reid” because he is a parasite living off of the blood of the people he rules. It is no accident that the tyrannical king Vlad Dracula, famous for his enthusiasm for torture, bequeathed his name to the most famous fictional vampire. The king wants someone to “sail this ship of mine.” The ship of state is considered the sovereign’s personal property. No sooner is the question asked then someone at court pipes up to volunteer someone else for the job, in this case “an eldern knicht” who “Sat at the king’s richt knee.” It’s always the same story, old men sending off younger ones to die. The knicht may have been a warrior once, but is now just another courtier. He is a right-knee man, which is a much lower stature than a right-hand man. Today the knight would be a security adviser or a pentagon bureaucrat.

When we first meet our titular hero, he is innocently “walking on the sand,” which contrasts with the king’s sitting at the seat power. He has received a letter from the king, who “signed it wi’ his hand.” It is the same in Dylan Thomas’ “The Hand that Signed the Paper,” which declares, “Great is the hand that holds dominion over/Man by a scribbled name.” The hand is a metonymn for political power. The signature is proof of guilt in a contract killing. The king is represented by his limbs, his hand and knee. His body is the body politic (an idea illustrated on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan), and his subjects are nothing but a multitude of appendages which may be used, severed, and then disposed with. Other characters in the poem are known by their accessories, tools by which ordinary people live, such as the sailors’ shoes and hats, the latter of which will be found swimming on the water, signaling their fate. At the end of the poem we do find reference to an appendage not the king’s: “thair lies Sir Patrick Spens/Wi’ the Scots lords at his feit.” This is a morbid parody of the opening scene of the king with his knights at court.

True to the Scots ballad tradition, “Sir Patrick Spens” highlights the experience of women, who are as affected by the adventurism of government that sends young men out to die as the men themselves. Two stanzas are given to the ladies, wives and mothers who bear the brunt of the loss when the state demands sacrifice. In the poem they represent an alternative body politic which, sitting or standing, may not be made whole because their men have been severed from them.

The poem leaves out a great deal of the story, such as the nature of the mission and how the crew died, but we can imagine any of the innumerable suicide missions a king can dream up. The point is that the brave knight met Leviathan and was destroyed. But Sir Patrick has the last laugh: we know his name, which is immortalized in the ballad, but not that of the ruler.

December 31, 2009

Rockin’ in the Free World

Filed under: Contra Keynes,Economics,State — rmangum @ 11:24 pm
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Hey, have you noticed that we never hear the phrase “Free World” applied to Western Democracies anymore? Maybe it’s because the U.S. doesn’t have another superpower to wage a propaganda war against, or maybe such a lie is just too damned obvious these days. Maybe we don’t really care if we are free or not. At any rate, it’s interesting to see articles not written from a radical perspective employing the term “Authoritarian Democracy” to our society. I agree with the article’s basic premise, that we (or rather that section of the bourgeoisie whose matter) have traded economic well-being for liberty. The main evil is identified with the neoliberal economic policies that came in with Thatcher and Reagan, which fits in nicely with the journalistic zeitgeist. Not that this is wrong, but rather too narrow. First of all, Keyensian macromanagement (or “macromancy” as the witty Sean Corrigan has called it) offers perpetual GDP expansion (and of course Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!) engineered at the commanding medium-heights while holding their nose at the “free market”. “Liberal” administrations have been as much gung-ho globalizers as “conservative” ones. Secondly, just because the power elite offers a trade-off between a charge card and what certain of our forebears knew as the “Rights of Englishmen” doesn’t mean that that the choice is real or necessary. And the article’s seeming conclusion that the whole mess is just a big tax dodge by the rich surely misses the point by a long shot.

But the takeaway message here is to not define freedom narrowly. It is worth considering, for liberals, that mass elections don’t mean freedom in any sense that matters in our daily lives. And libertarians who feel that their main job is forever spinning apologetics for “capitalism” ought to ponder the “Singapore model”, where lax economic regulation is mixed with extreme moral authoritarianism.

Nothing is allowed that the government fears might threaten public order or social stability; and the government’s sensitivities on this score are very delicate indeed. Spitting, chewing gum, yelling, or failing to flush a toilet in a public place; overstaying your visa; depicting (never mind engaging in) certain sexual acts; rashly employing irony or sarcasm; and, most important, criticising the government in ways the government deems not constructive – all these are swiftly and severely punished. Petty offenders are fined or caned; overzealous opposition politicians or trade unionists tend to be imprisoned for long stretches. Indiscreet newspapers or blogs are served with defamation suits. The local media is almost entirely under the control of state-owned companies, and even international publications like the Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review watch their steps very carefully to avoid being charged in court. As Kampfner observes, Singapore “requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a very good material life.”

December 9, 2009

Know Your Limits

Filed under: State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 8:29 pm
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I have just finished The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich, an excellent critique of American foreign policy, specifically the ideology of “National Security” as rooted in our political culture. I believe the book’s flaws have been adequately pointed out by David Gordon in his review back in the Spring, so I’ll avoid the temptation to criticize and highlight what is most valuable about this short but potent book.

First, while Bacevich is by no means any sort of political radical, his critique is stringent and quite amenable to radicalism. Consider this assessment of our recent middle-eastern adventurism in the broader context of American history:

We’ve been down this path before. After liberating Cuba in 1898 and converting it into a protectorate, the United States set out to transform the entire Caribbean into an “American lake.” Just as, a century ago, senior U.S. officials proclaimed their concern for the well-being of Hatians, Dominicans, and Nucaraguans, so do Senior U.S. officials now insist on their commitment to “economic reform, democratic reform, and human rights” for all Central Asians.

But this is mere camouflage. The truth is that the United States is engaged in an effort to encorporate Central Asia into the Pax Americana.


The striking thing about this passage, as with so many in the book, is that it can apply equally to this administration as well as the previous one. Bacevich understands that the ideology of National Security is a bipartisan faith, even if American voters don’t. And he understands the nature of that ideology, which has little to do with the actual safety of the American people.

The ideology of national security does not serve as an operational checklist. It imposes no specific obligations. It functions the way ideology so often does- not to divine truth or even make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rationale for action. In the American context, it serves principally to legitimate the exercise of executive power. It removes constraints, conferring on presidents and their immediate circle of advisers wide prerogatives for deciding when and how to employ that power.

Speaking of the executive, Bacevich is particularly scathing about how the focus of mass politics has been reduced down to that office, indeed it seems to be solely about our emotions regarding the man in power:

Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the occupant of the White House has become a combinaiton of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of hopes. Pope, pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander in chief, agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation’s charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes- regardless of personal attributes and qualifications, the president is perforce all these rolled into one.

The president also serves as an important cultural shibboleth. How you feel about Obama or Bush will determine who your friends are, what social circles you can participate in. But in practice they all serve the same function. In a recent Young American Revolution article on the antifederalists, Bill Kauffman quotes the pseudonymous Philadelphiensis’ objection to the executive proposed by the recently proposed constitution: “Who can deny the president general will be . . . a king elected to command a standing army?” Our revolutionary forbears were as suspicious of standing armies as we are enamored of- and dependent upon- them.

Bacevich follows his thorough critique of the national security state’s failures with a question that points in the right direction:

When considering the national security state as it has evolved and grown over the past six decades, what exactly has been the value added? And if the answer is none- if, indeed the return on the investment has been essentially negative- then perhaps the time has come to consider dismantling an apparatus that demonstrably serves no useful purpose.

“Dismantling the apparatus” is the starting point, though it will mean different things to different groups. But I think that everyone outside of the hegemonic center of American politics, from left-libertarians to post-paleos, social anarchists to anarcho-capitalists, even disaffected liberals and conservatives, has a common interest in dismantling it. For a somewhat centrist conservative like Bacevich, the purpose is to insure a more cautious and moderate foreign policy that attaches a different, more humble, meaning to American freedom and prosperity. This is worth considering, too. Though I don’t think the word “hubris” ever comes up in the book, it’s clearly what Bacevich identify’s as the country’s greatest sin. And it’s not just that our use of military might is immoral, or that it has been incompetantly exercised: there are actually objective limits on what force as such can accomplish.

October 16, 2009

The mainsream American Left is ignorant and naive: some recent evidence

Filed under: Economics,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 6:46 pm
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Let’s go from least to most egregious. First, Rachel Maddow, a prime example of what Kevin Carson terms “goo-goo” liberalism. He writes:

Recently Rachel Maddow mentioned Congressman Jim DeMint’s planned trip to Honduras, where he intended to encourage coup leaders to defy the U.S. government.

Maddow prefaced her remarks with a long homily on how badly the U.S. government hated military coups, because they ran counter to everything the U.S. government stands for, were so abhorrent to American values that the U.S. government cut off all ties to such repugnant pariah regimes, and blah blah woof woof.

This is amazingly stupid—almost as stupid as the Congressman I saw back in the ’90s, speaking in regard to Clinton’s Balkan wars, who said he’d learned in school that the U.S. never went to war to obtain a square foot of territory or a dollar of treasure. The U.S. government is opposed to coups, especially against democratically elected leaders? Yeah, maybe in the Bearded Spock universe. Um, ever hear of Armas? Suharto? Mourão Filho? Pinochet? I’m sure all those nice folks in the U.S. government cried over such coups, just like Iron Eyes Cody watching somebody litter Central Park—or rather just like Lewis Carrol’s Walrus, weeping even as he polished off the last of the oysters.

Maddow also suggested it was “treason” to encourage another government to defy the policies of the United States government.

Carson adds that “It’s usually Olbermann who’s prone to this kind of liberal mirror-imaging of right-wing know-nothingism”, and I have noticed a more critical attitude toward Obama, however tepid, on her show than on others. Still, she’s part of the choir for sure.

Then there’s our good friend Michael Moore, always playing trenchant critic of the status quo while stumping for what is in effect a slightly more left-wing version of it. From what I have read of his new film Capitalism: A Love Story (no, I have not seen it), he shows an American government owned by Wall Street, and yet peddles the line that the election of Obama is a sign of Hope and Change. And yet who do we find right near the top of Obama’s campaign contributors? That’s right, Goldman freakin’ Sachs! You can rest assured that if McCain were president, Moore would have mentioned this fact in his movie. But Democrats just can’t be corrupted like that. Even the NPR review I heard pointed out that Obama’s policies are largely the same.

Thomas Naylor of the left-secessionist Second Vermont Republic likes the critique of Capitalism, but not the Big Government conclusions.

Moore is fully cognizant of the fact that the American economic machine is driven by money, power, speed, and greed. Unfortunately, he is a lot less savvy in his grasp of the problem of size in America. Moore appears to be oblivious to the fact that our country, our government, our cities, our corporations, our schools, our churches, our military, and our social welfare system are all too big, too powerful, too intrusive, too insular, and too unresponsive to the needs of individual citizens and small local communities.

The reason Moore is blind to the “problem of size” (and the problem of power) is that he is obviously not some anti-establishment rebel, but an authoritarian progressive. Another NPR reviewer, Kenneth Turan, points out:

In the end, perhaps the most startling thing about Capitalism is that Moore stands revealed not as some pointy-headed socialist, but as an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat. He admires Franklin D. Roosevelt, believes in increased democracy and opportunity, and feels that the decades-long weakening of unions has fatally weakened America.

For my money, I’ll take a pointy-headed socialist any day, many of whom actually believe that it was FDR’s incorporation of unions as a people’s movement into a managerial-capitalist structure that led to their ultimate weakening. Naylor’s article also quotes Moore as saying his major hero is Abraham Lincoln, which is quite revealing if you know anything about Lincoln’s economic policies, which were essentially mercantilist, and defined by Murray Rothbard as “a system of statism which employed economic fallacy to build up a structure of imperial state power, as well as special subsidy and monopolistic privilege to individuals or groups favored by the state.” If I may do a bit of shotgun revisionist economic history here, one could argue that the Hamilton-Henry Clay-Lincoln economic nationalist and pro-big banking philosophy led in a direct line to the Goldman Sachs’ America we have now. But could you make a hit movie about that?

Finally we have the selling out of the liberal anti-war movement in the Obama feel-good age (and isn’t he really like the Reagan of the left?), as Code Pink goes to Code Yellow. Founder Medea Benjamin is now thinking it might be a good idea to keep the war in Afghanistan after all, after former Karzai “Minister of Women” Masooda Jalal told her they needed more aid and more troops. Well, if the Minister of Women for a U.S. puppet says so! Medea may have just realized, along with authoritarian progressives all across the country, that this is the perfect war for her. As Anti-War.com’s Justin Raimondo writes:

This is a project sure to warm the hearts of “progressives” who long to do the same right here in the US – lift up the starving masses and pull them (forcibly, if necessary) into modernity. In the meantime, however, they’re content to settle for Afghanistan as a target of opportunity, and a kind of experimental laboratory in which to perfect their social engineering skills.

Added to this “humanitarian” impulse is the tremendous pull of identity politics, which dictates that something must be done about the status of women in Afghanistan – and if the US army does it, well then, Benjamin will hold her nose and overcome her distaste for the flag they fly long enough to applaud the “liberation” of Afghan women. Has a more appalling hypocrisy ever been conceived?

You may have noticed a theme in all these stories: a naivete in the face of power on the part of liberals, as long as that power says it is working for “democracy and opportunity”. At least, I only hope it is naivete. It could be that they know full well what they’re doing. It’s worth quoting again one of the most insightful points about the contemporary liberal mentality I have read, from Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State:

Like other contemporary social democrats who call themselves liberal, Rawls fails to discuss power. . . . The real reason, I would argue, is that liberals do not want to be seen as imposing their will upon others. They are philosophically and temperamentally uncomfortable with the power they both exercise and expand.

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