Tag Archives | Left and Right

Cause vs. Context

Proudhon and Spangler Brad Spangler’s blog is one of the most articulate voices for left/libertarian reunification. I’d like to draw your attention to several recent posts in particular: one on how disagreements between libertarians and leftists often turn on both sides’s conflating social context with social causation; another on how Proudhon’s views on police and courts were closer to mainline market anarchism than is often realised; and a couple (here and here) debunking the “private-enterprise character” of corporate behemoths like Wal-Mart.

MDS Conference Report

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

As I mentioned earlier this month, the Movement for a Democratic Society met in Greenwich Village this past Saturday to elect the board of MDS-Inc. (My hotel was located, perhaps inauspiciously, right across the street from the building where three members of the Weather Underground accidentally blew themselves up in 1970.) I’m happy and honoured to announce that I was among those elected. (My thanks to Brad Spangler for initially getting me involved!)

MDS board pic - photo credit to Thomas Good - click here for the entire photo I’m also pleased by the enormous diversity of the board in general, not only race-wise and gender-wise but ideology-wise. (Some MDS “dissidents,” about whom more below, have claimed that the election of this board was part of some sort of lockstep centralist scheme. If so, it’s the most diverse set of lockstep centralists ever assembled.) And I must say I relish the irony of the co-editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies being on the board of MDS; the only reason Leonard Peikoff isn’t rolling in his grave is that he isn’t dead. (I hope that Murray Rothbard’s spirit, on the other hand, is smiling to see the editor of his Journal of Libertarian Studies in such a role.) (Incidentally, has anyone noticed how similar Rand’s critique of the New Left in “The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion’” looks like her critique of the libertarian movement?)

Anyway, a chair and three vice-chairs were also chosen: Manning Marable (who gave a great talk on the prison-industrial complex – and whose website logo incidentally bears a curious resemblance to the logo from Red Dwarf), Judith Malina (who gave an exciting performance of an anarchist poem), Paul Buhle (whose Taking Care of Business does for the history of the labour movement what Gabriel Kolko’s work does for the history of capitalists), and Jesse Zearle (who proposed to do MDS outreach to the hip-hop communtiy).

Here’s Tom Good’s report on the conference; here are two of the speeches, one by Tom on the amazing growth of SDS over the past year, and one by Mark Rudd (the best speech of the convention IMHO). Here’s a photo of the board, with names – not the entire board but just those who were present; some members were elected in absentia. (Not sure why I look like an evil psycho in the picture, but they say cameras tell no lies!) And here are some other photos from the conference.

About those “dissidents,” who occasionally disrupted the meeting and were brusquely silenced – some MDS members seem to feel that the MDS leadership has been acting like anti-democratic centralists shoving decisions down the throats of the membership. Most of the MDS leadership, by contrast, seem to feel that these critics are simply troublemakers trying to disrupt the organisation. Those familiar with my posts (see here and here) on the Mises/Cato feud can probably extrapolate my position on this intra-MDS feud as well, namely, that each side has mistakenly painted the other side’s positions as grossly and obviously unreasonable. In any case, one of the decisions taken on Saturday by the “anti-democratic centralists” was to throw the election of MDS officers open to the general membership. If anti-democratic centralism this be, ’tis an odd sort.

Join the Revolution As for the board, part of the point of its diversity, I gather, is to maximise the constituency that such board members might be able to bring into SDS/MDS. In this connection, I suppose my natural “constituency” is left-friendly libertarians and libertarian-friendly leftists, and I hereby encourage all such to consider getting involved in SDS/MDS (most likely SDS if they’re students and MDS otherwise).

Here’s a good online pamphlet introduction to SDS, dating from its glory days; it has the advantages of both brevity and antistate radicalism over the more famous, more reformist Port Huron statement. For what the libertarian / new left coalition was all about, check out the archived issues of Left and Right and the first few years of Libertarian Forum.

Four decades ago SDS played an important role in ending the Vietnam war, ousting two presidents, and popularising a radical critique of the establishment system. What more might SDS have accomplished if it had survived? What more might it yet accomplish now that it’s been revived?

Join us! The struggle against the statocratic/plutocratic empire needs you!

Little House in the Balkans

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The following passage from Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom (1943) will be familiar to many libertarians:

Twenty years ago the Dukhagini in the Dinaric Alps were living in the same obedience to their Law of Lek. I tried for hours to convince some of them that a man can own a house.

Rose Wilder Lane A dangerously radical woman of the village was demanding a house. She had helped her husband build it; now she was a childless widow, but she wanted to keep that house. It was an ordinary house; a small, stone-walled, stone-roofed hovel, without floor, window, or chimney.

Obstinately anti-social, she doggedly repeated, “With these hands, my hands, I built up the walls. I laid the roof-stones with my hands. It is my house. I want my house.”

The villagers said, “It is a madness. A spirit of the rocks, not human, has entered into her.”

They were intelligent. My plea for the woman astounded them, but upon reflection they produced most of the sound arguments for communism: economic equality, economic security, social order.

I said that in America a man owns a house. They could not believe it; they admired America. They had heard of its marvels; during the recent world war they had seen with their eyes the airplanes from that fabulous land.

They questioned me shrewdly. I staggered myself by mentioning taxes; I had to admit that an American pays the tribe for possession of a house. This seemed to concede that the American tribe does own the house. I was routed; their high opinion of my country was restored.

They were unable to imagine that any security, order, or justice could exist among men who were not controlled by some intangible Authority, which could not permit an individual to own a house.

Rather less familiar, I suspect, is the earlier and much fuller account of the same incident in Lane’s hard-to-find travel memoir Peaks of Shala (1922 – about which date more anon).

The differences between the two versions are quite interesting, and generally seem to stem from the fact that whereas by 1943 Lane was a committed free-market libertarian, in 1922 she was still – well, not really the “communist” she would later claim, with typically Lanean excess, to have been, but not definitely anything else either. Thus in the 1943 version the anecdote has been shaped to serve a polemical anti-communist purpose that seems absent in the 1922 version.

For example, in the 1943 version the villagers are described as communists, and their views are explained as the product of a superstitious belief in superhuman authority; but in the 1922 version they seem more like Proudhonians, and the “authoritarian” diagnosis is nowhere in evidence. The house, described as “large” in 1922, has become “small” by 1943. Most strikingly, in 1943 Lane’s reference to taxation is the crucial admission on which her interlocutors pounce to defeat her argument – an effective rhetorical point for Lane the libertarian polemicist, indirectly attacking taxation as equivalent in principle to communism. But in the 1922 version, taxation is mentioned only in passing and the villagers don’t pick up on it at all.  (The woman in the anecdote also goes, for no obvious reason, from having two children to having none.)

Anyway, here’s the 1922 version:

So we came up out of the Wood, and over the next mountain, and there on a slope where the dead grass was splotched with patches of rotting snow, and the soft earth trodden by the sharp hoofs of goats, we came back with a jolt to the problems of reality. For we met a woman, herding the goats, who believes in private property.

She was a tall, dark-eyed woman, handsome, but not beautiful. Her face, as we say, was full of character; and there was independence, even a shade of defiance, in her bearing as she stood watching us approach, her chin up, her eyes cool and steady, one hand grasping a peeled branch as a staff, her ragged skirt strained against her by the wind that blew down from the mountain pass. Her thick, dark hair hung forward over her shoulders in two braids, and from each dangled a charm of bright blue beads, defence against any demon she might meet in the mountains.

“Long life to you!” she said.

Shala “And to you, long life!” we replied, and seeing her glance fall covetously on my cigarette – only the swiftest flicker of a glance it was – I offered her one. She took it, thanked me, lighted it from mine.

“A bold woman,” said Perolli.


“In these mountains the women smoke, but not before men; that is a man’s privilege, and it is unwomanly to smoke in their presence. Are you a woman?” he asked her in Albanian.

“A woman of Pultit, married in Shala. A widow with two children, demanding justice from my tribe,” she said.

I looked about. There was nothing but snow and wet earth to sit on. Well, she must have been standing for hours, watching the goats. I leaned on my staff. “What justice?” said I.

She told us with a calm precision; none of her people’s rhetorical flourishes. Even through the barrier of language I could see that she was stating her case as a lawyer might who was not addressing a jury.

She had been married five years; she was twenty-one years old. She had two children, boys. While she was married her husband had built a house. It was a large house; two rooms. She had helped her husband build that house. With her own hands she had laid the slate on the roof. She liked that house. She had lived in it four years. Now her husband had been killed by the Serbs, and she wanted to keep that house. She wanted to live in it alone with her two children.

“But it is impossible!” said Perolli. “A large house, with two rooms, for one woman?”

By the Virgin Mary, she said, yes! She wanted that house; it was her house. She was going to have that house. She was not going to stop talking till she got that house.

“By Jove! I like her spirit!” said Betsy. The woman stood looking from one to the other of us, defiant, superb.

“Well, but what’s become of the house?” Alex demanded.

Her husband’s brother, head of the family now, had taken it. He was living in it with his wife and children and brothers and cousins and – I forget exactly – seventeen of them in all. The family – which comprises all the village at the foot of the slope on which we stood – had decided that the house should be used for them. She and her children could live with them. But she would not do it. She wanted that house all for herself; she said again that it was her house. Until she got that house nothing would content her or keep her silent. Her sons she had sent to the priest’s house in Plani – to the same “macaroni” who had refused us shelter. He had taken them in and promised to educate them for the priesthood. For herself, she remained in this village, clamouring for that house. If she got it before her sons were grown and married she would bring them back to live with her. She might do so, even when they were married. That did not matter; what she wanted was the house, her house, all for herself.

“Well,” said Perolli, “I pity the chiefs of that village.”

“But where do you suppose she got the idea?”

“Heaven knows! Who can tell what women will think of?” said Perolli.

We left her standing on the cliff edge, still superb and still defiant, the cigarette in her hand and the blue beads twinkling at the ends of her braids. A bright scarlet handkerchief was twisted around her head, and her wide belt, thickly studded with silver nails, shone like armour. A picture of revolt, and I thought what a catastrophe she must be in the peaceful village to which we were descending, clinging and dropping from boulder to boulder.

“Will we see her again?” I asked.

“Oh, she’ll probably drop in during the evening. She looks like a woman who would,” said Perolli.

After that our host handed over the making of coffee to one of the village men and went out to help his wife cook the dinner; there was a built-up place of stone outside where the cooking fire was made. All this time we had been talking, making courteous speeches that accompany coffee-drinking, and exchanging cigarettes.  

One of the empty cigarette boxes – the little ten-cigarette, tinfoil-lined ones – I handed to a little boy, perhaps four years old. He took it gravely, thanking me like a man, and retired to look at it. But hardly had he opened the flap when I saw the hand of a chief come over the boy’s shoulder and quietly take the box. The boy gave it up, nor even a shade of discontent on his face, and it passed slowly from hand to hand, inspected, marvelled at, discussed. The cunningness of the folding, the beautiful design of printing and picture, the delicacy of the tissue paper that had been around the cigarettes, the pliability of the tinfoil – of metal, and yet so thin – engrossed them all. When they had satisfied their curiosity and admiration, it went back to the boy, who took it with his hand on his heart, bowed, and sat for a long time looking at it.

“Have you ever seen such perfect courtesy?” said I, marvelling. “And from such a baby?”

Perolli looked at me in amazement. “Why, what’s strange about it?” he asked.

Undoubtedly, we were among the most courteous people in the world, I thought, but the next moment that idea was completely upset, for out of the darkness walked that rebel woman who believes in private property.

She came quite calmly into the circle of the fire-light, her beautiful hands low on her thighs, below the wide, silver-shining marriage belt, the blue beads twinkling at the ends of the long black braids of her hair, her chin up, and a light of battle in her eyes.

“May you live long!” said she to the circle, and “To you, long life!” we responded. But the chiefs looked at her sidewise from narrowed eyes and then again at the fire, and hostility came from them like a chill air. The children looked at her with wide, attentive eyes, chins on their hands; the sprawling, graceful, handsome youths seemed amused. Beyond the firelight the women of the household went about their tasks; one came in and lowered from her shoulders a large, kidney-shaped wooden keg of water.

“When am I going to get my house?” said the woman. She stood there superb, holding that question like a bone above a mob of starving dogs, and they rose at it.

Shala I have never seen such a pandemonium. Three chiefs spoke at once, snarling; they were on their feet; all the men were on their feet; it was like a picture by Jan Steen changed into the wildest of futurist canvases. I expected them to fly at each other’s throats, after the words that they hurled at each other like spears. I expected them to strike the woman, so violently they thrust their faces close to hers, clenching quivering fists on the hilts of the knives in their sashes. She stamped her foot; her lips curled back like a dog’s from her fine, gleaming teeth, and she stood her ground, flashing back at them words that seemed poisoned by the venom in her eyes. “My house!” she repeated, and “I want my house!” These words, the only ones I recognised, were like a motif in the clamour; Rexh and Perolli were both too much absorbed to translate, and we added to the turmoil by frantic appeals to them.

Then, suddenly as the calm after an explosion, they were all quiet. They sat down; they rolled cigarettes; the coffee-maker picked up his flung-away pot and went on making coffee. Only the eyes of the chiefs were still cold and bitter, and the woman, though silent, was not at all defeated. There was a pause.

“Ask him what she wants,” said I quickly to Perolli.

“Who can say what the avalanche desires?” replied the chief contemptuously. “She would break our village into pieces. She has no respect for wisdom or custom. She says that a house is her house; she is a widow with two sons, and she demands the house in which she lived with her husband. She wishes to take a house from the tribe and keep it for herself. Have the mountains seen such a thing since, a hundred hundred years before the Turks came? She is gogoli.” [Gogoli – bewitched by a demon of the mountains; insane.]

“I helped to build that house,” said the woman. “With my own hands I laid the roof upon it. It is my house. I will not give up my house.”

Betsy and I hugged each other in silent convulsions of delight. My pen spilled ink on my excited hands as I tried to capture their words in shorthand. I was seeing, actually seeing with my own eyes, the invention of private property!

“What are they going to do about it?”

The question was not too tactful, nor too happily received, but they answered it. “They have already called a council of the whole village four times,” said Perolli. “They will do nothing about it. Houses belong to the tribe. It is a large house, and the people have decided that her dead husband’s brother shall have it for his household. She has been offered a place in it. If she does not want that, she can live wherever she likes in the tribe. No one will refuse shelter or food to her and her children. She has friends with whom she can live, since she quarrels with her husband’s brother. All this is absurd, and they will not call another council to satisfy a foolish woman.”

“I want my house,” said the woman.

Then the oldest man – one of the little boys was playing with the silver chains around his neck, and another hung heavily against his shoulder, but his dignity was undisturbed, and he was obviously chief of the chiefs – appealed to me :

“In your country, what would you do with such a woman?” And I perceived that I was obliged to explain to this circle of eager listeners a system of social and economic life of which they had never dreamed, of which they know as little as we know of the year 2900 A.D.

The woman sat impassive, as unmoved as a rock of her mountains ; the younger men turned, propping their chins on their elbows and looking at me attentively, and the chiefs waited with expectation. The children, settled comfortably here and there in the mass of lounging bodies, stopped their quiet playing to listen.

“Go on,” said Alex with friendly malice, “just tell them what private property is.”

“I expect sympathy, not ribald mirth,” said I. “Well,” I said carefully, “tell them, Perolli, that when I say ‘man’ I mean either a man or a woman. It isn’t quite true, of course, but I’ll have to say that. Now then. In my country a man owns a house.”

Po, po!” they said, shaking their heads from side to side in the sign that in Albanian means “Yes.” “It is so here. A man owns the house in which he lives.”

“No, it’s not that. In my country a man can own a house in which he does not live.”

Then they were surprised. “You must have many houses in your tribe if some are left vacant.”

(“Shades of the housing situation!” murmured Alex. “Shut up!” said I).

“No,” I said. “You don’t understand. In my country a man owns a house. It is his very own house. He owns it always; he owns it after he is dead. He owns it when other people live in it.”

“In your country dead men own houses? Dead men live in houses?”

“No. Living in a house has nothing to do with owning a house. A man owns a house; it is his house; other people live in that house, and they pay him money to be allowed to live in his house.”

“We do not understand. In your country do men of the same tribe pay each other money for houses?”


There was always a pause after I had spoken, while they pondered.

“Ah!” they said. “In your country a man can build a house all by himself. You have one man who makes all the houses for the village, and the others divide with him the money they earn outside the tribe?”

“No,” I said. “In my country many men must work to build a house.” And I tried to think how best to go on.

“But it is so here,” they said. “Many men of the tribe build a house, and then the house is a house of the tribe.”

“But it is different in my country,” I insisted. “In my country the house does not belong to the tribe. It belongs to the man who owns the land on which it is built, and he pays money to the men who build it for him, and then it is his house. Even if he lives somewhere else it is still his house. Now, in the case of this woman, the house would belong to her husband, and when he died he would give her the house, and then it would be her house. It would belong to her. The tribe would not own the house, but she would pay money to the tribe from time to time, because she had the house.”

(“Don’t tell me you’re going to explain taxation, too!” chortled the joyous Betsy. “For the love of Michael, do this yourself then!” said I).

But the chiefs passed over the taxation idea; they stuck to the main point, though their eyes were clouded with bewilderment.

“How can a man own land?” said one, more in amazement than in question. And, “But how can a man pay another man for helping him to build a house, except by helping him as much in building another house? And when all have helped each other equally, then no man would have two houses unless every man had two houses, and that would be foolish, for half the houses would be empty,” reasoned another, slowly.

It was then that the remarkable intelligence of these people began to dawn on me. For, given the experience from which he was reasoning, I consider this one of the most intelligent and logical methods of meeting a new idea that I have known. A case of almost pure logic, given his starting point.

But my delight in this discovery of their intelligence received a violent blow almost at once, for another man – tall, keen-featured, black-bearded, his face framed in the folds of a white turban, red and blue stones gleaming dully in the links of the silver chains on his breast; I will never forget him – leaned forward in the firelight and said, “Such things can never be. Even a child knows that it would be foolish to own a house in which he did not live. Of what use is a house except to live in? As it is, each man has the house in which he lives, and there are houses for all, and they belong to the tribe that built them. It is impossible that a man can own a house. It is not the nature of men to own houses, and we will never do it, for the nature of man is always the same. It is the same to-day as it was before the Romans came, and it will always be the same. And no man will ever own a house.”

“Glory to your lips!” they said to him. “It is so.”

The woman, who had been sitting quietly listening to this, now rose and very quietly, without saying farewell, slipped out of the firelight, and in a moment, by the sound of the closing door, I knew she had left the house. But there was something about my last glimpse of her back that makes me believe she is still clamouring for her house, and will be, until long after her baby sons are grown and married – unless she gets it sooner.

There was a little silence after the woman had gone, and then one of the youths, compressing his ears with his thumbs, began to sing. He sang softly, for an Albanian mountaineer, but the high, clear notes filled the house like those of a bugle. He uttered a phrase, and paused; Cheremi repeated it, and paused, and so singing alternately, repeating always the same musical phrase with changing words, they chanted long songs of war and adventure, old legends of men whose lives had been worn into myths by the erosion of centuries.

The music, strange and nostalgic, was pitched quite differently from ours. Thin and vibrating like a violin string, the notes struck somewhere off our scale, so that our throats could not repeat them. 

Damn, the woman could write.

Now about that date: I’d always thought that Peaks of Shala fell on the wrong side of the 1923 copyright line, since its publication date is usually listed as 1923. But it turns out that 1923 was only the date of the first American publication; a British edition came out the previous year. That means the book falls into the glorious public domain, and its entire contents can be posted on the internet without fear of state violence. And so I plan to do – after I first get done with Francis Tandy, and the Proudhon-Bastiat debate, and that Molinari translation ….

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.

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.
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 ….

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