Archives for posts with tag: liberals

Photo: Ralf, Flickr, some rights reserved

A big problem with the political left is that hard-left illiberality is on the rise. But the bigger problem may be that the moderate left — called “liberals” from Hobhouse and FDR on to about a decade ago — forgot their convictions, and confused themselves into thinking they were close to Marxists (the world’s Most Failed Philosophy). The result? A sharp rise in mob insurrection and social terror in the name of “the oppressed and the (socially) marginalized.”

Jonathan Chait has posted more than one perceptive explanation on New York magazine’s website in which he demonstrated that, unlike his comrades, his moderate left/“liberal” credentials have not fallen prey to the hard left line. “The problem with Marxism,” he wrote in 2016, “lies in its class-based model of economic rights. Liberalism believes in political rights for everybody, regardless of the content of their ideas. Marxists believe political rights belong only to those arguing on behalf of the oppressed — i.e., people who agree with Marxists.”

This sets up a logic that leads to tyranny. Chait argues that the “standard left-wing critique of political liberalism, and all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow” a relentless and rather bizarre dialectic:

These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

When I posted this to Facebook, I got some interesting commentary. Brian McCall wrote this:

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the socially marginalized concept myself, and the way they have so deeply fetishized it. Since no one is ever that marginalized, weak, downtrodden, I wonder if this isn’t some psychological need on their part. It reminds me of a piece I read long ago. . . .

And he refers to a passage from Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine (1942). As always with Paterson, there is much to chew on. But she gets to the point regarding Lenin’s and Stalin’s western supporters, who should have known better:

The Communist regime in Russia gained control by promising the peasants land, in terms the promisers knew to be a lie as understood. Having gained power, the Communists took from the peasants the land they already owned — and exterminated those who resisted. This was done by plan and intention; and the lie was praised as “social engineering,” by socialist admirers in America. If that is engineering, then the sale of fake mining stock is engineering.

Why would anyone accept such criminal behavior? Certainly, many in America did — and not just self-designated socialists. The question lingers. Paterson has an answer:

The philanthropist, the politician, and the pimp are inevitably found in alliance because they have the same motives, they seek the same ends, to exist for, through, and by others. And the good people cannot be exonerated for supporting them. Neither can it be believed that the good people are wholly unaware of what actually happens. But when the good people do know, as they certainly do, that three million persons (at the least estimate) were starved to death in one year by the methods they approve, why do they still fraternize with the murderers and support the measures? Because they have been told that the lingering death of the three millions might ultimately benefit a greater number. The argument applies equally well to cannibalism.

Once you accept the sacrifice of some for others — most commonly, in rhetoric, anyway, a few for the many — there is no enormity you will not commit.

And “modern liberalism” — the one that L.T. Hobhouse, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Jonathan Chait adhere to — fully embrace such sacrifice, if on a low  level, the level where lives are not necessarily on the line. Fortunes are enough. Take just enough from the rich to give to the poor. And next year take more! Paterson argues that this principle has ineluctable consequences. One of them may explain why these “liberals” were always soft on the murderous communists, and why, in recent years, they have mistaken folks of the hard left for people who care — and not the murderous, thieving, bullying thugs they are.

Economist Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan noted a “failure of those on the left who are not an active part of the problem to have a sense of a need for self-policing of the left.” This blind spot was noticed by Clancy McMurtrie: “It’s a conscious and explicit camaraderie based on shared principles. ‘No enemies to the left,’ as I understand it.”

The self-policing issue is a fascinating one, since some might call it “in-fighting.” I noted that “the right” — by which I meant “the conservative movement in America —

doesn’t seem have that problem. Which may be why it is politically imbalanced and inchoate. National Review purged its extremists, and kept anti-Semites, anti-imperialists, et al., at bay.

Why would the moderate left feel better about its “radicals” than the moderate right feel about its “extremists”?

Well, note the two words: radicals and extremists. The former sounds better, and that is traditionally what far left extremists are usually called. This is not just a parallel to the popular put-downs: on the right it is “wing nut” and on the left it is “moon bat.” Those two seem equally derisive to my ear. But other designations, left and right, tend to form a pattern: the leftists get more respect.

From the relentlessly “liberal media,” anyway. And from rank-and-file “liberals.”

But my initial charge (stated in the first paragraph of this page, repeating my Facebook post) was that moderate leftists/center-left liberals have largely forgotten their differences with Marxism (once again, “the World’s Most Failed Philosophy”) and Marxists (the world’s worst economists and most dangerous cultists) puzzled another of my friends, Mr. Lee C. Waaks:

In what sense did moderate liberals see themselves as “close to Marxism”? Marx would have rejected their ideas, no? It seems moderate (or did you mean “modern”?) liberals are just interventionists, although, at one time, many were sympathetic to varieties of socialism but now recognize the need for markets. But milquetoast socialist is not Marxist. Am I missing your point?

I should say that by “moderate left” I meant recent “liberals” — that is, “modern liberals” not “classical liberals” — and readily express my usual vexation, that nomenclature is a messy business in politics. Which Mr. Waaks knows full well, admitting to its “topsy turvy” nature:

I don’t interact with many of these folks on the left but they seem to identify “socialism” with Sweden, as does Bernie himself. I don’t have a clue what most self-identified Marxists think of Sweden, although I did see one blog post by a Marxist/socialist who explicitly repudiated Sweden as socialist. I doubt he is anything like the typical Fannie pack-wearing Bernie supporter.

Mr. Mc Kiernan clarified matters (I am the “Timo” he refers to):

Sanders has pointed to a number of other nations, which are not as he describes them to be. When it comes to actual prescriptions, he has shown himself either still to be a Marxist or to be close to one. And people who imagine themselves as close to Sanders thus imagine themselves as close to Marxists. (Timo did not say that they were close to Marxists; he said that they had come to think themselves close.)

The Twentieth Century forced the Marxists either to abandon Marxism, or to become still more absurd. Those who stayed Marxist made more use of the always ill-defined word ‘capitalism,’ and moved fascism and the programmes of states such at the Soviet Union from the Socialist column to the Capitalist column. The world may or may not be topsy-turvy, but Marxism does not describe that world accurately, and its topsy-turvy features should be understood as confined to its incompetent description.

Mr. Waaks questions this account, noting that even “if Bernie has an affinity for Marx, he may not accept any of Marxism’s tenets (e.g., labor theory of value, historical materialism, etc.). I assume if Bernie and Marx had been contemporaries, Marx would have loathed Bernie. Bernie & Co. seem like welfarists to me.”

Mc Kiernan elaborates:

It’s possible to have protracted controversies about what is and is not essential to Marxism. For example, the importance to Marxism of the labor theory of value is disputed by Ian Steedman and others, who propose to graft Sraffan economic theory into Marxist economics. I don’t propose to wrestle with that issue here or anywhere else, merely to note it.

Sanders’ practical policy goals have generally been those shared across Marxist parties; he was for a time an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite organization. Marx himself might well have despised Sanders, but Marx was given to despise people more generally, including those of very similar political disposition. Had Engels not been his patron, Marx probably would have openly despised him. My point about Sanders, though, is mostly to illustrate one possible line of defense for Timo’s claim, though he might offer others.

I long ago lost track of people on the center-left who really knew almost nothing about Marxism and couldn’t identify what its distinctive content were or might be, but were quite sure that he’d had some very insightful things to say, because some teacher had told them as much. I’ve observed other people in the center-left who did know a fair amount about the content of Marxism and did know about some of its deficiencies, but wanted to be fundamentally sympathetic to something that they could associate with an essence of Marxism; even if they couldn’t coherently explain what it were.

It strikes me that the progressive and liberal left are both just watered-down socialists when it comes to wealth. The question is just how far the watering goes. Modern “liberals” used to accept the necessity of some private property and some scope for markets — anathema in Marx’s “scientific” utopia, of course, but one must make do with the tools ready at hand.

In my experience, having talked with many a liberal in my day, they are the kind of people who say that “communism is good in theory but bad in practice.” I have heard something like this hundreds of times. I regard it as puerile and unlearned nonsense, at best. I do not see anything good in coerced community, and that is what communism is. Socialism, argued Yves Guyot, is communism is collectivism. They all rest on force. Proponents of these ideas, when in power, cannot take a “no” (or an “I prefer not to”) for an answer. You must comply with their demands, the demands of the Central Committee, Big Brother, Politburo, or what-have-you. Because, without compulsion, there is no socialism, communism, or collectivism.

But both liberals and progressives pretend that government is a wondrous creative instrumentality, benevolent in nature — when run by them. When run by conservatives, of course, they see it in all its brutality. But when run by them — oh, what vistas open up. What possibilities for “caring”!

The blind eye that the moderate left gives to the state when run by their kind is the blind eye that they give progressives, who want even more state dominance of society. They feel the affinity in their bones. In their heads, they used to realize that Communism was pure poison. The lessons of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot taught them that. But in their hearts?

In their hearts they have long defended — and in practice they have coddled — commies. There were indeed communists in FDR’s regime. Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent. According to David Horowitz, Barack Obama was raised by communists and (because Obama never repudiated communism) remained a communist — luckily constrained by popular anti-communism.

Whatever the reason, the linkages are there: in history, in today’s reality. Even when demanding individual rights to freedom of speech, press, association and religion, modern liberals’ heartstrings strain towards the Utopia described by Marx. And, perhaps because of this fantasy, and no doubt because of fading memories of the Soviet Union’s gulag, China’s Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot’s killing fields, more and more moderate leftists tip the hat to Marx. Almost no one reads the sour old revolutionary. But they have read about him. From what I can tell, they think that though Marx erred in the positive prescription — it turns out that normal politics and compromise work in favor of ever-bigger government, whodathunkit — his analysis of the contradictions of capitalism still have something for today.

This attitude is all over the progressive left, and Jeremy Corbyn in England has stated it explicitly.

Hence the lack of patrolling the mobocracy amongst far left radicals, er, extremists.

The God of Socialism failed. Again and again. But that God was what post-christians wanted, He fit the bill. So they never cease mourning the death. And, perhaps secretly, hoping for His rebirth.

With a socialist every day is a Christmas, with goodies to be distributed all around, allegedly equally, but somehow with special treats for the very best boys and girls. Which means the cognitive elite that leans towards socialism. This tension is there in socialists, the dissonance between equality in theory and favoritism in practice, and it is part and parcel of the inevitable false consciousness that statists ineluctably succumb to. It is a Law of Power.

Still, it is good when we discover someone on the left, such as Mr. Chait, recognizing that there is a problem here.

Oh, and what a problem!

twv

P.S. I confess that I wrote this a year-and-a-half ago, closer to the time when Chait wrote his columns, but for some reason did not publish it. I have been in sort of an intellectual coma. Now that I have re-branded this blog as Wirkman Comment/wirkman.com, I am cleaning up the backlog, even as I take on new writing projects. Maybe readers will see more here in the days to come.


Photo of Karl Marx Monument, from Ralf on Flickr, some rights reserved.

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Many libertarians and a few conservatives fondly flaunt the word “statism.” It often serves as an accusatory word, and those accused do not like it. They often make fun of it, not uncommonly as an example of ill-mannered jargon. And in the course of the ensuing banter quite a few people have lost sight of its meaning.

Indeed,  during my sojourn in Port Townsend, Washington, working for R.W. Bradford and on his little magazine Liberty, the term came to seem less an anchor for rational discussion and more a piece of flotsam unmoored by several passing ideological storms.

I remember Jesse Walker (now of Reason magazine) mocking the term, and its over-usage by libertarians. And I remember Bradford declaring himself a “statist.” I thought I understood Walker’s vexation, but was truly vexed by Bradford’s absurd misuse. What did he mean? That he was no longer a libertarian? Statism is the opposite of libertarianism, right?

Right. And Bradford was wrong. He was simply declaring that he was not an anarchist. He supported the institutions of limited government as instantiated in a minimal state. That, he said, made him a “statist.”

No it didn’t. It was a clear misuse of the term.

So: What is statism?

Consult Ludwig von Mises. He favored the French variant of the term, etatism. And he was not at all unclear as to its meaning:

The most important event in the history of the last hundred years is the displacement of liberalism by etatism.

Etatism appears in two forms: socialism and interventionism. Both have in common the goal of subordinating the individual unconditionally to the state, the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion.

Statism, he goes on, “assigns to the state the task of guiding the citizens and of holding them in tutelage. It aims at restricting the individual’s freedom to act. It seeks to mold his destiny and to vest all initiative in the government alone.” This is the common thread running through nearly all variants of “socialism,” and “fascism,” “social democracy,” and “progressivism” as well. The idea that the state must be limited in scope, and that individuals should have an actionable claim against both majorities and governments to prevent certain kinds of interference was lampooned as “old fashioned” and certainly “regressive” and even “inhumane” by the rising tide of statists in the late 19th century, in Britain, in Europe, and in America:

From England penetrated the ideas of Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Fabians, from France Solidarism. The churches of all creeds joined the choir. Novels and lays propagated the new doctrine of the state. Shaw and Wells, Spielhagen and Gerhart Hauptmann, and hosts of other writers, less gifted, contributed to the popularity of etatism.

But surely much of the popularity of statism came from the recent history of the effectiveness of the state. In America, the central, general government had abandoned federalism and squelched a secession of southern states, and in the process freed the slaves. The costs of the war were immense, but, by golly, it sure changed America. And a lot of people thought that the result of the war was progress, even if the war itself was one of the bloodiest the world had seen.

Earlier this year, President Obama intoned that he believed “what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” And it is obvious that the institutions of the centralized state can do some things much easier than people can without state coercion, expropriation, and subsidy. For instance, it is preciously hard to fight a total war. It is also much easier to carry on a policy of genocide by government: Americans did treat the Indians quite badly, but if it weren’t for the federal government, many more Indians would be alive today, and probably on their ancestral grounds (think of the Cherokee). It is also very difficult to get people to “invest” in a vast pension safety net that, in turn, does not invest a dime of its holdings — without the federal government, such schemes would be prosecuted as Ponzi frauds by the several states, but with the federal government, it’s called “Social Security.” The list can go on and on.

Statism is, then, the doctrine that a powerful central government should make policy based on targeted outcomes and not be limited by hard-and-fast rules about individual rights to property, or even security in their personal affairs. All of the major statist movements from 1880 to 1950 worked mightily to curb the scope and effectiveness of the old idea of “rights.” Often, they supplanted the old notion of rights as limits to government, and as guarantees of freedom, with rights to more specific and “positive” goods, such as “economic security” and “a living wage” and “access to health care” and the like. The very word “freedom” got redefined.

In America, the linguistic legerdemain went to the extreme of inverting the very meaning of the most basic of terms. Liberalism, which Mises defines as the opposite of statism, came to mean a sort of warmed-over progressivism, a statism with a smiley face. The new liberals chose a few areas where they would defend individual liberty — a few of them (but by no means the majority of them, at first) fought racist statism, for instance, and pretended they were for emancipation (in actuality, they merely tinkered with state policy, shifting emphases a bit here and there). But for the most part they carried on the progressive tradition of relentlessly undermining the notion of rights as side-constraints that would limit government as well as criminality.

The American transformation of statism into “liberalism” had British forerunners, particularly philosophers T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, the latter who attempted to wrest “freedom” from its traditional meaning “independence backed by force” and “absence of interference” to more “positive” conceptions, in the meanwhile making hash of the work done by individualistic liberals. He worked to make “liberalism” fit with collectivism. He was a surprising success.

Of course, these “moderate” statists, the kind that dominated in America and tended to influence the conservative parties in Britain and elsewhere, were helped, in their trickery and deceit (and, in some cases, surely, ignorance and honest confusion) by the intellectual predominance of socialists in the first half of the last century. The popularity of the notion of a total state, and the great success of its supporters’ clichés, made it easier for moderate statists to abandon most of the last vestiges of true liberalism, of limited government. It came to be politically acceptable to pay lip service to the great triumphs of liberal constitutionalism by advocating slight decreases in government spending as heroic instances of “sticking to limited government.”

Statism, then, is the abandonment of limited government as a basic idea. Statists extol government as a progressive force for good, and tend only to talk about its dangers when an opposing statist party is in control. Statists push for constitutional limitations and procedural reform only as secondary, strategic goods. Not as fundamental. Statists tend to talk more about groups of people than individuals: an individual’s rights are said to depend on which group he belongs to. In America, today, it somehow is the case that the proudest opponents of racism affirm the absolute centrality to policy the listing of a person’s race on state college applications and in distributing social benefits. For these people, race has become an obsession, an excuse to lump people into categories and treat people differently according to the lumped categories.

They often blanch at attributions of individual achievement. They use social co-operation as an excuse to attribute to the state most or all the advances of civilization. They glorify the state. They dethrone the individual as a focus of value and rights, and set up “society,” and in this way upgrade the state from one institutional conglomerate to the supreme authority over all.

It has its prehistory in the ancient empires, of course. Much of the history of the state is the history of attempts by small numbers of people to take for themselves supreme authority. The bulk of ancient states identified their leaders with the gods.

Thus statism, as a pscyhological phenomenon, bleeds into statolatry, the worship of the state. A sadder, less forgivable religious vice could hardly be imagined, but its rationale is pretty easy to see. Whereas the worship of idols and vacant temples depends on the imputation of great powers to something either very different from what is directly in front of the worshiper, or else not even there, statolaters can bow before a very powerful thing. The State. Sure, it is “just a bunch of people” behaving in a particular (and mighty peculiar) set of ways, but the consistency of those patterns of behavior make for an institutional presence. It is not reification to speak of the State. It is a realism of human practice, realizing that much of social reality is socially constructed.

The basic nature of the state — of the set of actions, expectations, and habits that its members engage in to instantiate the institution’s very existence — is no mystery. The state, after all, is  (as Mises put it) “essentially an apparatus of compulsion and coercion. The characteristic feature of its activities is to compel people through the application or the threat of force to behave otherwise than they would like to behave.”

Because of the problematic nature of coercion as a human practice, individualists — in Mises’ old-fashioned terminology, liberals — characteristically seek to limit its scope and power, in a variety of ways. The most radical of those ways was suggested by Gustave de Molinari, and by the American individualist anarchists who were his contemporaries: abandon the concept of sovereign territory and disallow those who would provide us with the protective services of “government” from forcing us to pay for those services. Get rid of taxation and borderlines. In their place, establish explicit contracts for protection, recovery and retaliatory services. Put adjudication into the voluntary sector. Let competition for contracts limit the prices offered, and the services offered, and let the threat of loss of clientele and financing restrain these providers’ in their perennial proclivity for warfare.

It’s an audacious idea. There is much to say in its favor. And it is a total repudiation of The State as an institution, for along with compulsion and coercion, the state declares a monopolistic stance within a territory.

But the institutions of police, courts, bailiffs and bondsmen would remain, and continue to coerce and compel. But only in limited circumstances. The theory goes, anyway, that the incentives to increase size and scope  of  government beyond protective and retaliatory services would be limited by contract and competition. At present, state  agents oppose criminals but become, in the process, super-criminals themselves, because they are given something that no other group is given: sovereign authority within a territory. Without this key concept, the impetus for resolving conflicts through combat and indiscriminate coercion (a statist staple, “the moral equivalent of war” when not war itself) evaporates.

Or so the proposal runs. It has not been tried, for the simple reason that advocates of the state have yet to allow much competition: they prohibit and regulate most contracts that would nudge such a scheme into widespread usage.

What do we call these people, these  opposers of the state-as-such? Anti-statists? No; the name already means something  else.

Well, they themselves use terms like “anarcho-capitalists” and “libertarian anarchists.” But the aptness of these terms is somewhat dubious, since the institutions of coercion and compulsion remain, if shorn of sovereign territory. They represent a subgroup of individualism (classical liberalism) just as socialism represents a subset of statism.

Advocates of the nightwatchman state, of liberal constitutionalism, of even (say) limited transfer-state liberalism (the position of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, as near as I can make out), are definitely not statists merely because certain people calling themselves “libertarian anarchists” oppose an idea that they accept, the idea of sovereignty within within a territory. Self-described anarchists may rightly identify territorial sovereignty as the sine qua non of statehood. And statism may sound like a good term for the ideology that supports this idea. But that is not the term’s history. That is not its traditional usage. And there is more than adequate reason to stick to tradition when defining this term.

I prefer to employ the term “individualism” as statism’s opponent. Hayek used the term that way, as did the British liberals following Herbert Spencer, especially J.H. Levy and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. The meaning of the term seems clear: a focus on individuals and the boundaries appropriate to individuals, and the regulation of groups, including the state, based on the notion of individual rights. That is, individualists form groups and institutions, and study these groups and institutions, but do not allow for “special rules” to emerge for groups that individual do not have themselves, as building blocks. Individualists do not enthuse about the power of institutions, nor do they concoct elaborate convolutions of rules to accommodate double standards, one rule for a man, another for an institution.

Individualists always hark back to this singular idea, of simple principles that apply up and down the institutional array of human society. The rule of law, for individualists, means rules understood as applying to individuals no matter what institutional cover they may take.

Statists abhor such ideas. It seems obvious to statists that the rules of “one’s station and its duties” vary radically from person to person because of their divergent stations within the institutional matrix. A government functionary has more discretion and power than a citizen. To pretend differently is mere pretense. The rule of law is merely the rule, at this point, of legislators and lawyers. Its universality is solely a function of the power of the state.

Which they hope and seek to increase. Always.

And we individualists oppose such a stance. We, in the words of philosopher John Hospers, “challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of individuals.”