The libertarian moment in U.S. bourgeois politics is quickly passing today. It was burning bright in the spring, when Ron Paul banners were hung from every overpass. Soon his books will be remaindered. Libertarians have nothing to say that will get a hearing in a period of crisis. Libertarianism can rationalize the economic success or defeat of middle-class individuals to themselves based on explanations of how detrimental government is in holding back greater prosperity and political freedom, but only in periods of relative stability.
This comet of libertarianism appears in our skies episodically in U.S. politics. 2008 was an election year, and this time the comet was called Ron Paul. Unusually on this occasion, the pull of the comet caused some disturbance on the left. Electoral opportunists among the anti-war punditry made some motions toward Dr. Paul during the primary season, when the opportunist necessity of electing the Democrat was not yet their central focus. In other years, these cretins would have promoted a supposedly simon-pure anti-war Democrat; in Dr. Paul they embraced the novelty of what seemed like genuine anti-interventionism. The fact that Dr. Paul approves of government assaults on immigrants and abortion rights made no difference. Such is the loathing and contempt for workers among the aforementioned opportunists that they thought a Ron Paul would appeal to our class due to some elitist idea of appealing to “blue collar” and “lunch pail” interests. These are the same middle class radical thinkers who say there can be no “change” in this country because workers want to watch TV or drive gas-guzzling cars more than support the cause of said radicals. We are just a pawn on the board to them, expendable in the final analysis and held in disapproval.
Libertarianism is many things to many people, as are all these petty bourgeois rationalizations parading as political philosophy. Fundamentally, it is the cry of the professional middle class for justice. Affronted, offended, and repelled by the extremes of both the imperialist state above them and the infuriating proletarian rabble below them, the professional middle class yearns to free itself of the social costs of capital.
The social base for libertarianism has long been eroding. The middle class aspires to the life of their ruling-class role models, at the same time scrambling to save itself from pauperization.
Ron Paul’s libertarianism tries to be all things to all people, as do most petty bourgeois schools of thought. For civil libertarians Dr. Paul is against the Patriot Act. For people who hate Washington’s wars abroad, he is opposed to those, too. He thinks they are a fiasco (p. 19). For racists, he hates the current Black leadership because they demand “special privileges” for their race. For the Minutemen, Dr. Paul thinks immigrants produce nothing in this country. He also thinks, for some reason, that there is free health care somewhere in the U.S. for the poor.
The Revolution‘s critique of government is all “no taxes” and “no interventions,” drawing the tax kooks, conspiracy theorists, and Art Bell fans to the rallies and the website. Dr. Paul is big on Reason, too. “Government is force, not reason,” he writes. The Iraq War is “one of the most ill-considered poorly planned, and just plain unnecessary military conflicts in American history” (p. 21). He is also big on another great old piece of lumber from the attic of bourgeois thinking (can you guess already?): returning to the original intent of the Constitution’s framers.
We must “act as the framers wanted us to act based upon what they wrote” (p. 48). This is the kind of daring recycling of antique Robert Taft style manure that earns a hearing and respect from people craving something beyond the canned heat of today’s Republican and Democrat shell games. It also epitomizes the dead and deadening end of every-four-years politics, where we are stampeded into thinking these lesser-evil parties and programs are worth a look.
War crimes? Racism? Jim Crow? These are chalked up to government abuses of power. Racism? “A disorder of the heart” that only a change of heart can resolve (p. 63). Black rights fighters? Just reverse-racists: people must be treated without preconceptions; there is no “society,” only individuals.
“Everyone seeks to use the government to enrich himself at his neighbor’s expense,” Dr. Paul says. Trade unionists, civil rights advocates, bankers wanting bailouts, all get the same answer: “stop robbing each other” (p. 70).
What grand political impartiality: to castigate both bankers and sharecroppers for making demands on the government. Let the sharecroppers go to the church soup kitchen; let the bankers pay for their own bailout. What could be fairer than that? Let the local church busybodies and Chamber of Commerce Napoleons lord it over the community poor chest, too. How far we slaves have come!
For political purity and ideological rectitude, the Ron Paul Revolution meets its match in the implacable duo Penn and Teller. They are extreme magicians based in Las Vegas. A far cry from chaps in tuxedos producing rabbits from top hats or cutting showgirls in half, they are descendants of punk-era performance art, raucous and in-your-face.
And they also have some opinions. Their Showtime series is called Penn and Teller: Bullshit! It goes down smooth after cocktails and a good dinner. The skeptical and snarky egos of atheists and secularists and partisans of contrariness are tickled when the boys take on the UFOs, ghost hunters, astrologers, flimflammers, and apple-knocking Bible drivers. Penn and Teller come across as hipsters and score beautifully against these hapless and often patently phony targets. Want to start a business helping women give birth in the ocean surrounded by dolphins? Don’t let Penn ands Teller find out; they’ll send out a camera crew and let you describe your plan until you’ve made a complete fool of yourself.
Prior to the 2008 season of the show, they did take on some political issues. They attacked the impudence of Mount Rushmore and other indignities suffered by Native Americans; they let Michael Parenti vent for a few minutes against “super-patriotism.” The Alexander Cockburn Brigades could enjoy their expose of “climate change hysteria,” an ailment of middle class suburbanites according to these cable TV intellectuals.
But then they got to what they call “world peace.” Here some of the uglier depths of the libertarian iceberg are revealed. The levels of intellectual dishonesty and double-dealing in the “world peace” episode reached Fox News heights. The episode is used as an opportunity to unceremoniously dump a hefty load of petty bourgeois derision and outrage on anti-war demonstrators, anti-war demonstrations, and an anti-war group called CodePink.
“Everyone wants world peace,” Penn intones glibly over footage of anti-war demonstrations on the East and West Coasts. “Teller says he will dance a jig if everyone in the U.S. is not pro-peace.”
Of course, all the “peace” activists Penn and Teller’s camera crew interview are actually participating in very concrete protests against Washington’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The names of these two countries, and the consequences of war on cable viewers in these countries, are totally ignored. Anti-war demonstrators are portrayed as proponents of world peace in general, using ineffective mass action tactics. To Penn and Teller they are sadly misguided dupes of out-of-control socialist front groups like the ANSWER Coalition. “Socialism doesn’t stop war, comrade. Remember the USSR?” Penn asks. The profit machine of capitalism drives war? “We doubt it’s that simple,” says Penn. Carlos Alvarez, a young spokesman for ANSWER, is given short shrift, as is a CodePink potluck dinner. You can tell the CodePink activists trusted the Penn and Teller crew to give them a fair shot. CodePink must not subscribe to Showtime. These activists (whatever one’s opinion of the group’s politics) get a fine old load of Las Vegas millionaire magician muck dumped on their heads. “No one takes them seriously. Who would?” Penn tells us contemptuously as we are treated to images of CodePink people he calls “peace hobbyists.”
The U.N. is set up in the same episode as a stalking horse, presented as a “world peace” organization, and then knocked down for its small-time abuses of power amid marginal scandals. The real crimes of the U.N., and its real role in the world as an imperialist instrument, have no place in Bullshit!
The show hosts ask us at the beginning: “How to achieve world peace?” After all the bashing of proven anti-war methods, Penn and Teller’s answer turns out to be . . . free trade. “The only proven way of stopping war long-term is letting people buy and sell from each other. . . . If we trade long enough maybe we will start to give ourselves the chance to be friends.”
In the long history of petty bourgeois self-righteousness among the privileged, this statement takes the cake. “Free trade,” whatever that means to Penn and Teller, is a cat’s-paw for Washington and Wall Street, an election campaign sound-bite, a topic for think-tank papers by academic pen-wipes. All that correct disdain by Penn and Teller for the war on drugs, the Patriot Act, and faith healers and fake mediums and New Age entrepreneurs, and where does the libertarian philosopher end up? Shilling for day traders’ idea of liberty: freedom to buy and sell.
Libertarians judge the failure of “government” by performance yardsticks provided by libertarians themselves. They dismiss the horrific results of the rule of capital with a simple verdict: They aren’t doing capitalism the right way.
Economic freedom for Ron Paul and Penn and Teller is perfectly reasonable, you see. It is a magic potion made of uncurbed choices and Rabelaisian “do what thou will” individualism. It is also a keen expression of the longing for middle-class revolt (and “revolution”) against the working class and the ruling class, both of whom appear despotic and un-Reasonable in different ways to middle layers.
The dream world of Ron Paul and Penn and Teller is the fanatic’s dream of a Robinson Crusoe island run by unchecked personal despotism, a Farnham’s Freehold next-door-neighbor to that other great middle-class marching tune: fascism.
Libertarianism’s promise of Crusoe-like primacy of the individual, of autonomy and freedom from coercion, is fool’s gold. Freedom from coercion, state violence, the wage system, unbearable racism and sexism, and unremitting war on all forms of solidarity, will only come when communists lead our class to settle these questions in favor of the proletariat and its exploited allies.
When the general election season began, libertarianism was given back to the cranks, crackpots, and super-purists who keep its flame burning beyond the election years.
The growing acknowledgement among bourgeois figures that another great depression is building means there will be more adamant demands for government money and intervention by Wall Street. And not only Wall Street. It is fine for members of the Hayek Book Club to say “Let the invisible hand of the market deal with all economic issues” in normal times. It is fine for Dr. Paul to tell us there are only individual solutions to foreclosure and ruin in normal times, too. But even the middle class turns its back on this clever substitute solution when the crunch comes and the bailiff is knocking at the front door.
Communists have a lot to say about this crunch, and about making demands to safeguard and expand wages and social wages while putting the onus on the bosses, their Wall Street, and their Washington. We reject the atomized individualism which is the fantastic premise of middle-class politics. We reject couching struggle in terms of “consumer rights” and “taxpayer rights.” We say: defend and expand affirmative action and institute dual seniority lists. We say: unemployment benefits should have COLAS just like wages should, and be pegged to a union wage scale, too. We say: lift all tariffs unconditionally, and demand this of Washington and no other government. And, we say: open the books.
How close our class gets to these goals depends on how organized and self-confident and conscious we are as a class, and how hard we can push. Marshalling the confidence, organization, and unselfishness of our class to build a mass-action political program will increasingly fall to communists. We are the only ones with a history of knowing how to do it. The more militant the response to Washington’s march to depression, fascism, and war, the more effective rank-and-file leadership will be needed to move the reformists, opportunists, and collaborationist union bureaucrats out of the way. Communists can play an irreplaceable role on these questions as we work to build a party capable of overthrowing capitalist rule and building a workers’ republic in North America.
Libertarianism? The Ron Paul Revolution? It is the old desiccated lumber of a bygone age in the development of capitalism. It is useless in today’s struggles and has nothing honest or pertinent to say in building a fightback. It is regurgitated by a panicked middle class that has not yet chosen which side of the class divide it will ally with. Millionaire entertainers like Penn and Teller can preach trade and commerce all they like, but one day their broker may not answer the phone. That will be an episode of Bullshit! well worth watching.
Prosperous times give these libertarian ideologues energy, as the normal workings of capital seem to verify their nostrums. Times of default by traditional political parties (war, attacks on democratic rights) swell the ranks of libertarian supporters for a time. During depression and the coming American Earthquake, such political curiosities as libertarian presidential campaigns and cable TV shows will be put away: the ruling class needs authoritative reformists or street-fighting fascists on their side as our own class begins to resist and test its strength.
That is the starting point today in the struggle for socialism.
Paul, Ron. The Revolution: A Manifesto. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008.
Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Showtime Networks.
Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.