Author Archive | Roderick

It Takes a Village

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

We have within our ranks Communists of both varieties, socialists
of all sorts, 3 or 4 different kinds of anarchists, anarchosyndicalists,
syndicalists, social democrats, humanist liberals, a growing number
of ex-YAF libertarian laissez-faire capitalists, and, of course,
the articulate vanguard of the psychedelic liberation front.

– Carl Davidson, SDS vice-president, 1967

We can only stand in awe and admiration at the clear-sightedness,
the gallantry, and the astonishing courage of the kids of SDS.
But where, for the sake of all that is holy, are the adults?
Must we always endure an America where the adults abandon
their youthful radical vision in exchange for a comfortable and
even prestigious seat at the trough? Are there none to dare,
and dare mightily? If we had adults with one-tenth of the
courage of SDS, we would be well on the way to achieving
that free society that America always boasts of being.

– Murray Rothbard, 1967

Almost from its inception, SDS was the heart and soul of the
New Left, the bearer and carrier of its best libertarian and
revolutionary instincts. … [The New Left] created the most
intense, the most notable, and the most far-flung anti-war
movement in the history of protest against American imperial
wars. The New Left anti-war movement was begun by SDS
in early 1965, and spread to almost an entire generation,
and beyond. It succeeded in toppling an American President,
and in forcing a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.
It managed to use that war, furthermore, to bring a
consciousness of the imperialist nature of American foreign
policy to millions of people. And it also managed to use the
war to radicalize countless numbers of Americans, to reveal
the imperial corporate state nature of the American system.

– Murray Rothbard, 1970

The schedule for next week’s MDS-Inc conference in Greenwich Village is now (finally) available online here.

SDS MDS-Inc is the corporate face of Movement for a Democratic Society, which in turn is the “old folks’ auxiliary” of the recently revived Students for a Democratic Society or SDS.

SDS was a leading force in the 1960s student rebellion against imperialism, corporatism, white supremacy, et hoc genus omne; and free-market anarchists were part of it from early on. Now SDS is back, in a political environment remarkably like that of the Vietnam era, and the prospects for reviving and extending the left/libertarian alliance (though for those of my ilk the goal is better described as a reunification than as an alliance) are looking better than they have at any time since ’69.

So I’ll be heading for the MDS conference on February 17th. (I’m also a nominee for the MDS-Inc board, so keep your fingers and toes crossed.)

Dare mightily!

Addendum, 2/13/07: An updated schedule is available here.

Remembering Corporate Liberalism

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The main plotline of the Star Wars prequel trilogy concerns an apparent conflict between the central government (the Senate) on the one hand and a coalition of mercantile interests (the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, etc.) on the other. As events unfold, however, it quickly becomes obvious to the audience (though much less quickly to the protagonists) that the conflict is largely a ruse, with the leadership of the two sides (Chancellor Palpatine and Count Dooku, respectively) secretly working hand in glove.

Everything is going as planned .... Which isn’t to say that all is rosy between them. Each wants to be the dominant partner; witness Dooku’s failed attempt to betray Palpatine in Episode II, and Palpatine’s successful backstabbing of Dooku and his corporate allies in Episode III. Still, the partnership is stable enough to succeed in manipulating the protagonists into unwittingly undermining the very liberty they have been seeking to protect. As the pseudo-conflict escalates, there are, in the words of Episode III’s opening crawl, “heroes on both sides” – but the good guys on the two sides have been duped into fighting one another, each side grasping the evil of the other side’s leadership but not yet that of its own.

Unfortunately, this is not just science fiction.

During the first half of the 20th century, there was a widespread perception that big government and big business were fundamentally at odds. Free-market individualists generally regarded themselves as defenders of peaceful business interests against the rapacious state. Those on the left saw the same opposition though with the reverse evaluation; for them government, especially (in the U.S.) the federal government, was the champion of the common people against rapacious business interests. To be sure, the libertarians would periodically complain about businesses seeking subsidies and protectionism, and the left would periodically complain about governmental violations of civil liberties – but by and large each side saw these problems as embarrassing deviations from the mostly noble record of their favoured allies.

It hadn’t always been so. In the late 19th and very early 20th century, there was a much more widespread understanding among both leftists and free-marketers of the symbiotic relationship between state and corporate power. Just imagine telling William Graham Sumner, or Benjamin Tucker, or Emma Goldman, that the relationship between government and business is one of enmity!

Palpatine and Dooku But this insight seems to have gotten submerged in the triumphant advance of progressivism and social democracy. By the 1920s Sumner was dead, Tucker in voluntary exile, and Goldman deported; and former anarchists like Victor Yarros had forgotten everything they’d once known about class analysis. By the 1930s, it was possible for someone like FDR to cartelise the entire economy under a plutocratic elite and yet have his policies viewed (with admiration in some quarters, alarm in others) as an assault on the business class on behalf of workers and the downtrodden.

But in the 1960s things began to change, with the discovery, or rediscovery, of what came to be known as corporate liberalism. It’s no coincidence that this era saw the emergence of both the new left and modern libertarianism – and both movements differed from their predecessors precisely over this question. The research of new left historians like Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, and William Appleman Williams, and journals like Studies on the Left, revealed that the corporate elite had been both the chief beneficiaries of and the chief lobbyists for the supposedly anti-business regulations of the Progressive Era; and Murray Rothbard and his associates at the journal Left and Right and its successor Libertarian Forum eagerly brought the same message to the libertarian “right.” Free-marketers were discovering that their beloved business class, far from being Ayn Rand“s “persecuted minority,” had all along been in league with the hated state; while those on the left were simultaneously learning that their beloved liberal state, far from being the bulwark of the poor against the plutocracy, had all along been in league with the hated corporate elite.

Carl Oglesby In a famous 1965 speech, SDS president Carl Oglesby spoke for much of the new left in pointing out that the “menacing coalition of industrial and military power” and its “demand for acquiescence” against which he and his fellow radicals were organising were “creatures … of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to be fundamentally liberal.”

The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war – those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. … They are all liberals.

Oglesby concluded that “corporate liberalism …. performs for the corporate state a function quite like what the Church once performed for the feudal state. It seeks to justify its burdens and protect it from change.” 

On the libertarian side, Rothbard was arguing in the same year that the political program of big business had always been to “fasten upon the economy a cement of subsidy, stabilization, and monopoly privilege,” and that the aim and effect of the New Deal in particular had simply been “to impose a State monopoly capitalism through the NRA, to subsidize business, banking, and agriculture through inflation and the partial expropriation of the mass of the people through lower real wage rates, and to the regulation and exploitation of labor by means of government-fixed wages and compulsory arbitration.”

Murray Rothbard Corporate liberalism functions via a façade of opposition between a purportedly progressive statocracy and a purportedly pro-market plutocracy. The con operates by co-opting potential opponents of the establishment; those who recognise that something’s amiss with the statocratic wing are lured into supporting the plutocratic wing, and vice versa. Whenever the voters grow weary of the plutocracy, they’re offered the alleged alternative of an FDR or JFK; whenever they grow weary of the statocracy, they’re offered the alleged alternative of a Reagan or Thatcher. Perhaps the balance of power shifts slightly toward one side or the other; but the system remains essentially unchanged. (Which explains, for example, why the recent much-trumpeted power shift in Congress has resulted in precious little policy change.)

Alas, just as the insights of the 19th century were largely lost by the 1920s, so the insights of the 1960s seem to have become largely lost by the 1980s. Probably Reagan indeed played a crucial role in sowing confusion once more, this time by wrapping fascism in libertarian rhetoric just as the Progressives and FDR had wrapped fascism in leftist rhetoric. In any case, many libertarians today (sometimes even professed followers of Rothbard) have gone back to thinking of business as a persecuted minority to be defended against the creeping “socialism” of the regulatory state, while many on the left (sometimes even professed anarchists, like Noam Chomsky) look to the federal government as a bulwark against so-called “laissez-faire” and indulge in nostalgia for the New Deal.

If the left/libertarian coalition of the 19th century, abortively re-attempted in the 1960s, is to be reestablished, as it should be, it is above all an understanding of the nature of corporate liberalism – its non-accidental nature, given the incentives inherent in state power – that must be revived.


Unchain the Smoke

The following letter appeared in yesterday’s Opelika-Auburn News:

To the Editor:

Nobody forces anyone to enter a particular restaurant. If the owner of a restaurant voluntarily allows smoking in his or her establishment, and nobody who dislikes smoking is forced to enter, then what is the problem? Going into a privately-owned restaurant where smokers voluntarily associate and then complaining about the smoke makes as much sense as going to a rock concert and then complaining that they won’t turn off the loud music.

Humphrey Bogart Yes, smoking is dangerous to one’s health. So is mountain-climbing. Whether it’s a risk worth taking or not should be up to the individual to decide. I don’t smoke, but I can’t see that it’s any of my business whether others do.

What happened to the idea of free choice? Why can’t some restaurants allow smoking and others not allow smoking, and let everyone choose which restaurants to patronize? Why inject the violence of the state into a peaceful situation?

Other people will often make decisions in their personal lives that annoy us. They will worship the “wrong” god, have sex with the “wrong” people, buy the “wrong” things, forget to fasten their seatbelts, etc.

But they are human beings like us, not subordinates under our authority. So long as they’re peaceful, their choices are not ours to direct, just as ours are not theirs to direct.

Some of your readers appear to have forgotten the basic principle of civilized life: that other people are not our property.

Roderick T. Long

On a related subject, here’s a letter I wrote to Dear Abby (not published):

Dear Abby:

Your readers who supported the mother for turning her son and his friends over to the cops for drug use are confusing the legal with the ethical. Laws against drug use are profoundly immoral, since they treat human beings as though they were the property of the state; and this country was founded on the principle that an immoral law is not binding. “Second Guessing” should be ashamed of herself for siding with armed enforcers against her own son and injecting governmental violence into a peaceful situation.

Roderick T. Long


Ayn Rand and the Capitalist Class

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Although I rejected Rand’s right-wing economics
and political philosophy by the time I was fifteen, certain elements
of the novels, which had more to do with psychology than with
social ideology, stayed with me for many years.
The
Fountainhead had planted in me the idea that bombing a
building could be a morally legitimate form of protest.
Atlas Shrugged portrayed the social revolutionary as a hero. 

– 60s revolutionary Jane Alpert, Growing Up Underground

Last year for Ayn Rand’s birthday I wrote about the “left” and “right” strands in Ayn Rand’s thought. This year I want to write about how it may have come about that the right-wing strand, and in particular the pro-business aspect of that strand, eventually dominated the left-wing one.

Let me start with a suggestion that Charles Johnson made last May. Charles’ post was devoted primarily to considering why Rand might have chosen the term “capitalism,” rather than, say, “socialism” (à la Benjamin Tucker) for her radical anticonservative, antimercantilist free-market position.

Now that question I don’t find terribly mysterious. Even apart from the kneejerk reaction to “socialism” that Rand was understandably left with as a result of her Soviet upbringing, “capitalism” was simply the standard term for a pure free market in the libertarian wing of the Old Right, where Rand found her first intellectual allies; witness Carl Snyder’s Capitalism the Creator or Ludwig von Mises’ Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Rand’s chief mentor, Isabel Paterson, likewise used the term in God of the Machine. Tucker’s Liberty had long since closed its doors in 1908, by which time Tucker had already largely abandoned the term “socialism” as a label for his own view. I doubt that it even occurred to Rand that there might be any term other than “capitalism” for the system she favoured.

Ayn Rand But terminological issues aside, the more substantive question remains as to why Rand was led to hail big business as America’s persecuted minority, and to denounce the best aspects of the New Left. And Charles’ suggestion is relevant to that question:

[Rand’s] aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie – big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly – as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the “world’s motor”, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. … Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices … on the basis of class solidarity.

And Charles of course considers such solidarity a mistake, given that in fact “the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and … their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims.”

I think there’s something importantly right about Charles’ diagnosis – but more nevertheless needs to be said. Because in Rand’s fiction the overwhelming majority of capitalist bosses are precisely “busybodying mediocrities, cunning predators, or petulant grafters.”

Consider the architectural firm of Francon & Heyer, later Francon & Keating, in The Fountainhead. The head of the company, Guy Francon, is a gladhanding fraud who takes credit for work actually done by his draftsmen, and who cares more about the colour of his employees’ neckties than about the quality of their work. And most of the businesses portrayed in the novel are similar. There are exceptions, most notably the case of the self-made millionaire Roger Enright; but most of the admirable characters are working-class.

Atlas Shrugged of course has heroic capitalists at its center; and as we’ll see, I think something does begin to change with Atlas. But even here, for every heroic entrepreneur like Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden, there’s a slimy rent-seeking plutocrat like James Taggart or Orren Boyle. Indeed James Taggart is, let it be remembered, Dagny’s boss, who takes credit for all her achievements while blaming her for all his mistakes. (And interestingly, the labour organiser Fred Kinnan, though technically a villain, is presented far more sympathetically than are the businessmen and bureaucrats with whom he colludes.) Perhaps it is mainly because Rand’s heroic characters are generally more vividly memorable than her villains that Atlas is remembered as a book that glamorises capitalists generally.

It’s certainly true, though, that in Atlas Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination” favours the heroic capitalists. Indeed, Atlas is torn between two different readings of the “strike” that forms its central plot device. On one reading, it’s the exact reverse of the standard Marxist ideal: it’s a strike by industrious capitalists against parasitic labourers. On another reading, it’s a strike by the industrious of all economic classes against parasites of all economic classes, in the style of the French industriels.

Now the second, more left-wing reading is clearly the “official” one, both because the novel draws its heroes and villains from capital and labour alike (and even the über-hero John Galt is a proletarian of sorts) and because in her nonfiction works Rand always insisted that the greatest conflicts between producers and parasites occur not between but within economic classes. But the novel is nonetheless heavily and unmistakably flavoured with the first, more right-wing reading. Why so? Is it just because Rand the creative novelist couldn’t resist the attraction of what she would have called the “gimmick” of reversing the conventional picture of a strike? Surely it’s more than that.

What of class solidarity as an explanation? It seems to have something going for it: while Rand lived a proletarian life during her early years in the U.S., she had come from a bourgeois family (albeit more petit than grand) who had been expropriated by a proletarian revolution – so it might seem only to be expected that she would identify with capital rather than with labour. But this doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why the strong identification with the capitalist class emerges relatively late in her career, first with Atlas and then with her nonfiction essays.

We the Living Of the three main sympathetic characters in her first novel, We the Living, Kira is a bourgeois, Leo an aristocrat, and Andrei a proletarian. (We are shown plenty of unsympathetic characters from all three classes as well.) While Leo and Andrei are presented as flawed in comparison with Kira, there’s no suggestion that their flaws owe anything specifically to their class; Rand seems to have deliberately decided to present the best of all three classes. (Similar class diversity actually shows up in Atlas too, with Francisco d’Anconia the aristocrat, Dagny the bourgeois heiress, Hank Rearden the self-made bourgeois ex-proletarian, and John Galt the – in some sense – still-proletarian.) Likewise in her early play Ideal the heroine is betrayed by, inter alia, a businessman, an aristocrat, and a proletarian – and is also finally rescued by a proletarian.

There’s not much picking-sides-in-the-class-war in The Fountainhead either. As part of her journalism job, the heroine Dominique Francon spends a few weeks living in the slums and reports on her experiences. Here’s what she tells an audience of wealthy landlords:

The house you own on East Twelfth street, Mrs. Palmer … has a sewer that gets clogged every other day and runs over, all through the courtyard. It looks blue and purple in the sun, like a rainbow. … The block you control for the Claridge estate, Mr. Brooks, has the most attractive stalactites growing on all the ceilings.

And here’s what she tells an audience of radical social workers:

The family on the first floor do not bother to pay their rent, and the children cannot go to school for lack of clothes. The father has a charge account at a corner speak-easy. … In the fourth floor front, the father of the family has not done a whole day’s work in his life, and does not intend to. There are nine children, supported by the local parish. There is a tenth one on its way ….

When her supervisor complains, she replies, “They’re true, though, both sides of it, aren’t they?” Again, Rand seems to be studiously avoiding taking class sides, in order to reinforce her moral that the important divide is between creators and second-handers, not between rich and poor. (And of course Dominique is rich and Howard Roark poor ….)

If there’s any “class” with whom Rand appears to identify in her early works, it’s neither capitalists nor labourers but, well, criminals. Bjorn Faulkner, the hero of Night of January 16th, is a wealthy businessman … and a con man. Danny Renahan, the hero of her unfinished story The Little Street, is a proletarian … and a murderer. Kira’s Viking is a military conqueror who “walked through life, breaking barriers and reaping victories” (purely defensive ones? I doubt it). The short story “Good Copy” is a sympathetic portrayal of a kidnapper. In another short story, “The Simplest Thing in the World,” the protagonist, a novelist, imagines his literary hero smashing through a window, leaping onto a neighbouring roof garden, and encountering the heroine:

She sees him for the first time – and this is the miracle: for once in her life, he is what she had wanted him to be, he looks as she had wanted him to look. But he has just committed a murder. I suppose it will have to be some kind of justifiable murder … No! No! No! It’s not a justifiable murder at all. We don’t even know what it is – and she doesn’t know. But here is the dream, the impossible, the ideal – against the laws of the whole world. Her own truth – against all mankind.

Despite her early fascination with Nietzsche, this glamorisation of criminals needn’t be taken literally. As Rand later explained in the introduction to Night of January 16th: “I do not think … that a swindler is a heroic character …. But for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal – a social outcast – can be an eloquent symbol …. of the rebel as such.” (See also Rand’s discussion in The Romantic Manifesto of the common literary phenomenon of writers smuggling the forbidden “fire of self-assertiveness” into their works in the form of the “fascinating villain or colorful rogue, who steals the story.”) But this is all rather ironic in light of her later, more conservative period – what might be called her “respectable turn” – when one of her many charges against modern literature was its sympathetic portrayal of criminals.

In any case, my point is that Rand’s identification with the capitalist class seems to emerge fairly late in her career – not really before Atlas. So it must be explained by something other than, say, her own personal bourgeois background. Could it be her association with Old Right libertarians? Probably to some extent, since many of those thinkers did occasionally veer in the direction Kevin Carson calls “vulgar libertarianism,” that is, exaggerating the extent to which the case for free markets constitutes a case for the prevailing economic order. But – despite her insightful critique of the neofascist system of government-business partnership (on which see Chris Sciabarra) – she often tended to go beyond her Old Right colleagues in her rhetorical veneration of the capitalist class – speaking of big business as a “persecuted minority,” calling the military-industrial complex “a myth or worse” (despite having analysed its dynamic herself), and so on. Paterson, her chief Old Right influence, had a much more jaundiced view of big business, and thought of herself as a “working stiff.” So how did Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination” come in her later works, more than in her earlier, to identify itself with the capitalist rather than the working class, despite all she knew to the contrary?

Calumet k Probably the causes were many. But there’s one cause I haven’t seen anyone mention, and I think it’s important – namely Samuel Merwin’s and Henry K. Webster’s 1901 novel Calumet K – which according to Barbara Branden’s biography was given to Rand by Cecil B. DeMille. While Rand did not say much about this book or its influence on her, she did note that it was her “favorite novel” – an accolade not bestowed lightly.

If ever a work glamourising the managerial class and denigrating workers and the labour movement (although, like Atlas, it has businessmen villains too) were tailor-made to appeal to Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination,” it’s Calumet K. With its cool, rational, single-minded protagonist, its “portrait of an efficacious man,” it’s almost like a virus specifically designed to infect her mental and emotional software. It was not through her class membership but through her artistic sense of life that she was won over.

Cecil B. DeMille If she had the book from DeMille she must have been familiar with it as early as the 20s or 30s – and one can see its influence in The Fountainhead – but I suspect it achieved its biggest influence when she was preparing to write Atlas Shrugged. How could her favourite novel, a novel about the world of business and industry, fail to come to mind as she was beginning her own magnum opus set in the same milieu? And might this not be when the heroic creator and the heroic capitalist began to become fused in her subconscious?

Yup, it’s all Cecil B. DeMille’s fault. It came from RKO ….


Phantoms of Lost Liberty

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Libertarian Nation Foundation A number of my correspondents have noticed that the Libertarian Nation Foundation website is currently inoperative. Fear not, the webmaster is aware of the problem and is trying to figure out what’s causing it. (Contrary to appearances, the domain has been renewed.)

In the meantime, you can still access the archived version here. The two most popular pages are the collection of articles from past issues of Formulations and the linkroll of free-market alternatives to the state.


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