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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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March 15, 2010

Libertarian Literary Kicks

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 2:53 pm
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To be conscious of the social context of art seems automatically to entail a leftist orientation. But a theory is possible that is both avant-garde and capitalist.
-Camille Paglia

I forget who said that though libertarians defend the right to bear arms, the average libertarian is far more likely to pick up a book than a gun. At the core of the libertarian world there is an intense book culture, which is one of its glories. In short, we are nerds. But when we think about the literature of liberty, who do we have in mind? Depending on your particular bent, you might think of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard; or Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman; or maybe Benjamin Tucker, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Lysander Spooner; perhaps someone more outré like Max Stirner, or a newcomer like Kevin Carson. But what about Shakespeare? Dostoevsky? Cervantes? Percy Shelly? Joseph Conrad? Probably not. Those named in the former group, for all their differences, are political and economic thinkers who took up the issue of human freedom as their primary concern. The latter are all entertainers. Brilliant ones, sublime ones perhaps, but what can they as artists contribute to the conversation about liberty?

Marxism long ago took a cultural turn, and hence there is a voluminous supply of books on art and culture from a Marxist perspective, but from a libertarian one its just slim pickings. True, many libertarians are converted first through novels, by Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlen, but its time to get out of the sci-fi ghetto and take up the Canon. (Not that I’m putting down sci-fi as such. I’m a big fan myself, though not really of those particular authors.) Pioneering work here has been done by Professor Paul Cantor, and I am greatly excited to learn from the recent Austrian Scholars Conference that he has co-edited a book with Isabel Paterson biographer Stephen Cox, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which is available online. Some of Cantor’s essays have been around in different forms for a while, but its nice to have them all collected in one place, along with some intriguing new works by other writers on Whitman, Willa Cather, Cervantes, and especially Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. And Cantor’s ideas on the arts and the market have been presented in a great lecture series from some years back at the Mises Institute.

As a libertarian and an English student, I’m always interested on hearing libertarian perspectives on art and culture, but also I have some additional concerns to add. My literary taste was formed before my politics, and I’ve always enjoyed literature that is apolitical, such as Wallace Stevens’ poetry, the stories of Jorge-Luis Borges, and the plays of Oscar Wilde. But I know Cantor’s work well enough to know that he isn’t creating anything like a libertarian version of culture-studies, which politicizes everything. He respects the autonomy of art. And yet I do happen to agree with the cultural-Marxist rallying cry that “art is not created in a vacuum”. When I inspect the politics of the authors already mentioned, I find they have sympathies with my own. Stevens by many accounts was an Old-Right Taft Republican who opposed the income tax, and Borges often called himself a “Spencerian anarchist” in a Latin American milieu whose politics were mostly divided between Nazis and Communists. As for Wilde, while he espouses some misguided social-democratic views in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he was an admirer of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and once said “The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” So what does this mean? That we cannot escape ideology, that there is no autonomous aesthetics? George Orwell took up this issue in an essay on Swift, appropriately titled “Politics vs. Literature”:

For a great deal of his waking life, even the most cultivated person has no aesthetic feelings whatever, and the power to have aesthetic feelings is very easily destroyed. When you are frightened, or hungry, or are suffering from toothache or sea-sickness, King Lear is no better from your point of view than Peter Pan. You may know in an intellectual sense that it is better, but that is simply a fact which you remember: you will not feel the merit of King Lear until you are normal again. And aesthetic judgement can be upset just as disastrously—more disastrously, because the cause is less readily recognized—by political or moral disagreement. If a book angers, wounds or alarms you, then you will not enjoy it, whatever its merits may be. If it seems to you a really pernicious book, likely to influence other people in some undesirable way, then you will probably construct an aesthetic theory to show that it has no merits. Current literary criticism consists quite largely of this kind of dodging to and fro between two sets of standards. And yet the opposite process can also happen: enjoyment can overwhelm disapproval, even though one clearly recognizes that one is enjoying something inimical.

It is often argued, at least by people who admit the importance of subject-matter, that a book cannot be “good” if it expresses a palpably false view of life. We are told that in our own age, for instance, any book that has genuine literary merit will also be more or less “progressive” in tendency. This ignores the fact that throughout history a similar struggle between progress and reaction has been raging, and that the best books of any one age have always been written from several different viewpoints, some of them palpably more false than others. In so far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be something blazingly silly. To-day, for example, one can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, pacifist, an anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction.

So a book need not be libertarian to be good, which is a relief since few of the great authors of history have been, but Cantor’s work show that there is more libertarianism in great literature than has previously been imagined. Also, when Orwell writes about the “false view of life” I can’t help but be reminded of Ayn Rand’s “sense of life” critical approach. A more expansive perspective that remains libertarian is possible.

Another concern for me is my own affiliation with a specifically Left-libertarian perspective. (One question which occurs to me as a left-libertarian that the basically Mises/Hayek approach of Cantor & Co. does not undertake is why, if the seeming panoply of economic approaches to culture are all on “The Left”, they are all a variant of Marxism rather than some other form of anti-market stance, such as anarcho-socialism or Keynesianism.) I take the Paglia quote above as a truism, but I now view the word “capitalism” is dubious, more likely to describe the corporate fascism we are used to rather than a genuine free market, and do not self-apply it. I do consider my orientation to be leftist, though not the politically correct quasi-Marxist one that predominates academe. My own work, proceeding from here will be founded on the notion that not only is a theory possible that is both avant-garde and left-libertarian, but that a left-libertarian theory can only be avant-garde.

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.

September 9, 2009

Chartier on Left Libertarianism and Socialism

Filed under: Anarchy,Philosophy — rmangum @ 9:59 pm
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Law professor Gary Chartier, who writes the LiberaLaw blog, recently had a pamphlet posted on Center for a Stateless Society entitled “Socialist Ends, Market Means”. Written for Left Libertarians, it addresses the issue of how to frame an ideology that is seen as combining a radical left-wing social agenda with a radical right-wing economic program, as well as a concise statement of what Chartier sees as the particular values that justify the “Left” in Left Libertarianism. He attacks the suspicion of LL as “an exercise in spin” by showing how it is authentically libertarian and left-wing.

“LL is authentically libertarian because it is anti-statist . . . and because it affirms the values of markets and property rights. At the same time LL is authentically leftist because it seeks to challenge privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination– both ideologically and practically- and because it can exhibit a genuine commitment to inclusion, empowerment, and mutual respect.”

I do want to give one critique, however. Chartier offers up the possibility of libertarians claiming, or rather re-claiming, the word “socialism”. At a time when our slightly-to-the-left president is being denounced as a socialist, this would be decidedly audacious announcement of sympathy with the left over the right. Chartier argues that “there’s a meaningful opportunity for education- to highlight existence of a credible tradition advancing a different meaning of ‘socialism’.” There have been those in the past who have argued for a free market and yet embraced the label “socialist”. (In fact, I would argue that anyone who is consistently anarchist is de facto positing some form of free market.) Chartier wants to challenge those who wear the label today “to confront the reality that there is an inconsistency between the state-socialist’s goals and the authoritarian means she or he professes to prefer.” I would recommend a particularly useful essay on this point, Professor Long’s “Immanent Liberalism: the Politics of Mutual Consent”, where he borrows terminology from Marx to distinguish between “Vicarious Liberalism”, where relations of mutual consent is mediated through a state apparatus, and “Immanent Liberalism”, in which mutual consent is immediately realized in day-to-day life. Chartier wants LL to spur socialists to decide whether their socialism is of an immanent or vicarious variety. At the same time that LL makes socialists rethink their means, it ought to make libertarians rethink their ends*. What are the ends of socialism? For this I turn to another essay, “The Soviet Union vs. Socialism” by Noam Chomsky:

[T]he socialist ideal [is] to convert the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom.

We shouldn’t think that the ends/means contradiction of state socialism was thought of by us first- it’s an old debate on the left. (Ironically, Chomsky in practice is something of a vicarious anarchist, or a sort of left-wing minarchist like Bertrand Russell.) But so far, so good. What’s my problem with his suggestion? It’s that insofar as we revision socialism as one branch of the libertarian tree we gain a better understanding of our own intellectual and cultural heritage, but insofar as we say to the world “we are socialists, of a sort” we make a confusion of the most unprofitable kind. The reason is that at this point in the modern history of ideas, the word “socialism”, as well as the word “capitalism”, carries too much baggage to be useful to an up-to-date analysis of our political economy, much less an unorthodox view as Left Libertarianism. Each term is tainted by its association with its “vicarious” as opposed to its “immanent” variety. I prefer terms which create confusion of a positive kind, which seem paradoxical enough to generate curiosity without preconceived attitudes, yet admit of concise definitions and do not deceive. I prefer “liberal anarchist” for myself. But, since at this point “libertarian” is somewhat tainted as well, “left libertarian” fits the bill quite well, and LLs have every reason to be content with it. (I don’t mean to indicate that Chartier wants to abandon that label, or even fully embrace the socialist one.) But perhaps, since even after being an ever-present view over the last 200 or so years, at least as and probably more coherent over time than liberalism or conservatism, it still generates shock and confusion, the simple term “anarchist” works best.

*This latter strikes me as the basic project pursued by Kevin Carson, as he attempts to drive a wedge between the free market and “actually existing capitalism”. He challenges libertarians to decide whether they are defending the former or the latter. His writings have led at least one anarcho-capitalist, myself, in a leftward direction. If I have the right-libertarian’s learned aversion to the word “socialism”, I have certainly also reevaluated my stance toward historical “capitalism”, and generally no longer prefer to self-apply the latter term.

September 1, 2009

The Right and Wrong way to be Politically Incorrect

Filed under: Uncategorized — rmangum @ 3:47 am
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I have a good deal of admiration for Paul Gottfried as a scholar. I not only thoroughly enjoyed his book After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State– which tells the story of how modern liberalism emerged as a horse of a completely different color than its ostensible predecessor, classical liberalism, and how the idols (‘scuze me, ideals) of “democracy” and “pluralism” served as a cover for the ascent to power of an essentially elitist managerial ideology- but felt like I emerged as a more educated person after reading it. And listening to his speeches at Mises.org reveals that he is an engaging personality with an active and lucid intelligence. Of course he is an unapologetic man of the Right and I am a nascent Left-Libertarian, but that is really neither here nor there.

I agree generally with the assessment of conservative critics like Gottfried that the egalitarian sentimentality that has come to be known as “political correctness” has become a totalitarian ideology in late-imperialist America. However, the whole “the animals have taken over the zoo- even the Republicans!” theme that is obsessively sounded in Gottfried’s column at Taki’s Mag is beginning to tire me. And even more . . .

It shouldn’t be hard to guess that a libertarian and a conservative would have different reasons to oppose political correctness. The conservative bemoans the loss of a stable order in a formerly great civilization. Gottfried offers us a bit of that, even if he is too smart to go in whole-hog in the misty-eyed romanticism of 1950’s-worship of lesser Rightists. My own main beef is that, in the rush to usher in the millennium of equality, the evangelists have created a hostile environment for free thought, and for the honest pursuit of truth for its own sake. The started out with good ends, but adopted the most bullying and stupid means to achieve them. All intellectual life is degraded in this atmosphere. A recent Gottfried article illustrates what I’m talking about:

talking about politics and history is rarely “scientific” and less so in our frenetically progressive and anti-traditional age than in the older bourgeois age that preceded it. It was once possible for the devoutly Lutheran German historian Leopold von Ranke to write about the Renaissance Papacy with detachment and even sympathy, because historians in 19th-century Europe were expected to write that way. (Of course in practice not all historians met such a demanding standard, but at least they knew what the standard was.) In our age, by contrast, any failure to dwell on sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in one’s account of the past will likely result in the kind of career that I and other academic mavericks of my acquaintance have had to endure.

This sort of threat to objective inquiry has led many intelligent people to oppose politically correct ideas. But this becomes a problem if the bigots become to look like freethinkers. Totalitarian liberalism has led many libertarians into the arms of the Right, where in my opinion they have no business whatsoever. The end of that same Gottfried article gives a good example of the kind of callousness that can result from the wrong kind of anti-PC attitude:

I once listened to an Ashanti cab driver in Washington boasting about how his tribe had sold the black slaves who would be used to construct the U.S. capital. Whether it was true or not, I found this boast to be refreshing. The African cab driver did not suffer from the choking sense of guilt I encounter in American WASPs.

I also oppose “the politics of guilt” as Gottfried keeps calling it. In the first place, it doesn’t erase any past wrongs, in the second, as an individualist I disbelieve in collective guilt, and finally, it’s just no way to live your life. But come on, dude. There’s nothing refreshing about actually being proud of slavery. That doesn’t mean I want to put the cab driver in prison or force him into a sensitivity training course, as the most zealous “anti-racists” would. But sometimes you have to call a racist idiot a racist idiot. Some things aren’t politically correct, they’re just correct.

August 29, 2009

Anarchaos!

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Philosophy — rmangum @ 10:54 pm
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51im4tz656L._SS500_The biggest stumbling block to anarchy is a linguistic one. What causes the average person (and hell, let’s admit it, the above-average, the intellectual and cultural elite, just about 99.9 percent of all thinking humans on Earth) to view Anarchism as being in the same category as Satanism in terms of respectability is that the word is taken to be a synonym for chaos. Of course, the only thing one has to do to dispel this notion is to read almost any actual anarchist writer from Proudhon on, but still the conflation continues.

This thought came to me when I spotted this 1967 novel by Donald E. Westlake (under the psuedonym Curt Clark) in the Science Fiction section of my local used book store, Ken Sanders Rare Books.  One description from Amazon.com describes Anarchaos as a place “where the government is based on a philosophy that combines anarchy with corporate greed.” Hmm . . . uh . . . okay. How would the government combine the philosophy of anarchy with anything? I guess you might say this is a bit like the approach of the Libertarian Party, but not even in science fiction could you imagine them being in power. Of course, the idea that government is actually a kind of anarchy was introduced by Alfred G. Cuzán in a notorious paper in the 1979 Journal of Libertarian Studies, where he insisted that “we always live in anarchy, and the real question is what kind of anarchy we live under, market or non-market (political) anarchy.” And the late paleocon writer Samuel Francis coined the term “Anarcho-tyranny” for a government that is both negligent and out of control with power.

Of course it’s clear that the dystopia of Anarchaos is supposed to be of the market variety. Here’s a more lucid description:

Anarchaos is a planet, inhabited by humans, where anarchy is the only law; where each man protects himself as best he can; and where the weak are soon dead. Malone’s brother had died that way, and Malone has come to Anarchaos, carrying a small arsenal of weapons, to find the man who killed him, knowing that he is facing an entire planet of enemies.

In other words, it’s pulp Hobbes. If Anarcho-Communism usually brings to mind molotov cocktails being thrown in the street, then Anarcho-Capitalism brings to mind a world run by Goldman Sachs and Blackwater (never mind that their “customer” is the world’s most powerful government).  Anarchy will make no headway until it drives a permanent wedge between it and chaos. Proudhon’s phrase “Anarchy is order” should be more well known, and it should be clear that by “order” we mean not the conservative sense of compulsory adherence to traditional values and behaviors, but rather the reign of liberty, prosperity, and peace.

July 8, 2009

The Death of a Technocrat

Filed under: Dylanalia,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 3:26 am
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How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

-Bob Dylan

The hand that signed the paper felled a city
-Dylan Thomas

robert-mcnamaraSynchronicity: My girlfriend had never seen The Fog of War, the fascinating Errol Morris documentary portrait of Robert McNamara as he reflects over his life as a statistical analysis expert during World War II, as the head (briefly) of Ford Motors, as Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense during the Cuban missile crisis and the early days of Vietnam, and as head of the World Bank. We got the film from Netflix more than a week ago, but were away last week for the Shakespeare festival in Southern Utah, and only got a chance to watch it last night. McNamara was already into his eighties when it was filmed, and Jane marveled at how much younger he seemed, how lucid and animated. “Is he still alive?” she asked me. “I’m actually not sure,” I admitted. Well, he was. Until yesterday.

Superficially, McNamara’s career boasts a string of successes beyond belief. He was known in the early, pre-Vietnam years as a “whiz kid”, a genius technocrat out of Harvard Business who made cars safer and bombs deadlier with his mastery of numbers, his gift of analysis. Closer inspection shows someone who engineered a series of blunders as he moved from one institution he had no experiential knowledge of to another. He gave Ford the Edsel, and helped bring America its most traumatic and divisive war of the modern era. But he was blind to the source of his failures because of his ideological commitment to abstract planning, number-manipulation, and managerialism. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things lately as a result of reading Kevin Carson’s Organization Theory. I had to stifle a guffaw when I heard McNamara boast about how he transformed Ford Motors by bringing in his carpetbagging comrades from business schools. You see, Ford had fewer than 10 college graduates among its managers and directors (remember that this is the company which virtually invented the whole industry- and without the help of Harvard!): I’m sure Carson would have a laugh at that one too. McNamara is the “Man of System” famously written of by Adam Smith and (in a more mean-spirited vein) much of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” fits him like a “T” as well: “You that hide behind walls/you that hide behind desks”; “You play with my world/like its your little toy”.  In these aspects McNamara’s career is an exemplary one for the twentieth century (“I could pick a better century out of a hat!” says a character in the movie Sabrina- the one with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, not the one with Greg Kinnear). For further analysis of McNamara along these lines I suggest John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, a book I don’t entirely agree with but well worth reading nonetheless. And of course, The Fog of War. Watching it, even a committed anarchist such as myself must feel some sympathy with the man, who on the one hand has genuinely tried to do good in the world and cannot understand why he has wrought evil, and on the other has the candor to admit that he is a war criminal- or would be, if his side lost.

I have not read any of the mainstream obituaries. I’m sure most will be politic. Many will be laudatory. Lew Rockwell.com was characteristically, and I think justly, acerbic:

Robert Strange McNamara, a brilliant bureaucrat and important member of the US power elite, has died at 93. A key planner of  the terror bombing of civilians in WWII and of the terrorist war on Vietnam, he later continued his service to the empire as head of the World Bank.

and:

If the prosecution of war criminals by the United States was ever taken seriously, McNamara would have been one of the leading candidates for the gallows. Instead, as we have been informed, the man died peacefully in his sleep, further evidence that, indeed, there is no justice in our world.

Is this a bit much? I don’t think so. Bernie Madoff just got the proverbial 99 years (or whatever) and would have been strung up and pummeled with stones like Mussolini if let loose amid the angry mob- and yet he never killed anybody, but merely proved the old saw about fools and their money. McNamara on the other hand- well, just watch the video. So I’ll leave off with another Dylan quote from “Masters of War”, even though I don’t think McNamara was a master of anything.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

June 11, 2009

Bureau crack-up

I’ve only been a member of the libertarian activist and social networking site Bureaucrash for a few months, but it has been nice to have discussions about liberty on-line, make some like-minded friends, and promote this blog a little. I haven’t actually been on Bureaucrash for a couple of weeks because I’ve been swamped with writing for my other job. Suddenly, I hear that all the radicals are fleeing from Bureaucrash. It seems that the new “Crasher in Chief” is a conservative named Lee Doren who voted for McCain, favors continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and is hostile to the “utopian” notion of anarchy. This unfortunately echoes the Bob Barr/Wayne Allyn Root takeover of the LP last year, the rise of “libratarian” talking head Glenn Beck on Fox News, and the whole Tea Party/Teabagging fiasco. With the Obama victory conservatives, after eight years of heedlessly pursuing fascism in America and imperialism abroad, are suddenly discovering their inner-libertarians, or else using libertarianism as a cover because the GOP is so obviously in shambles. Folks, I don’t mind making alliances with anti-state conservatives and non-anarchists, but they must be intelligent, serious, and the genuine article (Young Americans for Liberty, for instance), not shills for the Republican party. When I go onto Bureaucrash now I see not a principled anti-statism and positive vision of a just and free society but reactionary anti-liberalism and an unhealthy fixation on Barack Obama. Enough is enough. I don’t agree with everything everybody that I put on my blogroll says, but I put a link to them here because I feel there is more worthwhile there than not. But Bureaucrash is coming down, because all the intelligent and passionate people are getting out, and that is surely a sign of things to come, and because we don’t need any more statist and conservative takeovers of our movement. A lot of folks are gathering at Anarch.Me, and Brad Spangler is putting together something specifically for Market Anarchists called Black Vanguard (ought to be better by some orders of magnitude than BCS’s Furries for Milton Friedman, or whatever).

So that’s it. I’ll part with some words from libertarian historian Ralph Raico:

It’s an unfortunate fact that we Libertarians are still sometimes viewed by the press and the public as a “right-wing” party. The Washington Post, for instance, recently referred to us as an “extreme right-wing” organization. This is a pity, and it can do us nothing but harm. Among perceptive people, conservatives are known for their blind nationalism, their readiness to engage in military adventure throughout the world, their envious Puritanism. This is why I have said that one of our most pressing tasks is to draw the line between us and the conservatives, and to etch that line into the public consciousness. One good way to do this would be to emphasize our principled concern for the people the conservatives habitually treat with neglect or with contempt: women, blacks and other racial minorities, gay people. The conservative movement is intellectually bankrupt and morally moribund. Any identification with it would be the kiss of death.
-“Conservatism on the Run”, Libertarian Review, January 1980

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