Critics of libertarianism on the Center-Left sometimes depict it as a radical ideology that would turn upside down everything we know — a doctrine of such thorough-going change that the critics are compelled to ask “what society in human history was ever organized along libertarian lines?” Not so! Nick Gillespie (“Why an 1852 Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne is More Relevant Than Ever & Should Be Your Next Beach Read,” Reason Hit&Run, Aug. 2) shows that this radical stereotype of libertarians is made entirely of straw. Like Homer Simpson’s Reader’s Digest, Gillespie isn’t afraid to tell the truth: “Things are just fine the way they are!”
In polemics, framing is everything. If you’re engaged in apologetics for an existing system of power, the best thing you can do is portray it as normal, natural and inevitable, and imply that things are the way they are because that’s just pretty much how everybody likes it. It’s critics of the system who want to impose their will on everybody else and force radical changes on the regular, ordinary way everybody prefers to do things. The irony is, it’s usually those on the mainstream Center-Left and Center-Right who present themselves as the defenders of normality and consensus, and accuse radical critics of the system like libertarians or socialists as the authoritarian social engineers. But this time it’s Gillespie.
Specifically, he recommends Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance as a humorous indictment of anyone (like “progressives”) engaged in systematic critique of the form of actually existing capitalism we live under, comparing them to utopian communities like Brook Farm (which is satirized in Hawthorne’s novel).
And if you’re a progressive or neo-con reformer, put down down your slide rule or whatever instrument you’re using to create the parameters of your nouveau Great Society and pick this up immediately….
It reminds us that even the best intentions are rarely strong enough to overrule either the longings of the human heart or the basic laws of economics.
As the quote suggests, Gillespie tries to position himself in the “just right” happy medium between left-wing critics of corporate capitalism and “neo-con reformers,” but in fact the system we live under is completely a product of neoliberal intervention, just as much as the earlier New Deal model of Consensus Capitalism was a result of “progressive” intervention. The neocon “reform” of Iraq under Bremer and the CPA, far from an outlier or a dramatic departure from some preexisting model of “regular” capitalism, was a direct continuation of long-term neoliberal trends that are defended at Reason every single day. Going further back, the American model of corporate capitalism that has prevailed since the late 19th century required an even more massive state intervention to establish, and capitalism itself as it emerged from late medieval times more massive still.
In every case, the capitalist system as we know it was imposed on societies from the top down by some party in control of the state. In industrial Britain it was the outcome of late medieval enclosure of open fields and the nullification of peasants’ traditional rights in the land, social controls like the Poor Laws, the Parliamentary Enclosure of common pasture and waste in the 18th century, and police state controls in the early 18th century like the Combination Laws, laws against working class friendly societies and the internal passport system created by the Laws of Settlement.
In the United States it required two civil wars. Not only the first Civil War in which the industrialists and financiers of the north decisively defeated the slave-based agricultural capitalism of the south and secured a monopoly on the national polity, but a second civil war in which they defeated all challenges to their agenda from the Left. In his history of the American cooperative movement, For All the People, John Curl refers to the political triumph of industrial capital in the Gilded Age as the Great Betrayal. This seizure of power relied first on the use of military Reconstruction to politically neutralize the slave-power and its regional economic model as a rival to northern-style industrialism, and second on the electoral bargain of 1877 (for which the Betrayal was named) in which Hayes and the plutocratic interests he represented were given a deadlock on the national government despite having an electoral minority, in return for giving the Redeemer class a free hand in imposing regional Apartheid in the former slave states). The industrial capitalists took advantage of their uncontested political power to impose corporate capitalism by a revolution from above. The statist means they used included the railroad land grants, a high industrial tariff, a national banking system and the pooling and exchange of patents.
This statist transformation provoked a response from the Left–what Curl calls the Great Uprising–by the labor, cooperative and farm populist movements. In the end, the leaders of the new nationwide monopoly corporations used state power to defeat the Great Uprising. Between the state-created railroads’ ability to impose rates at will, and the financial power of the state-enabled banking system, monopoly capital declared war on consumer cooperatives and drove millions of farmers into debt and bankruptcy. The labor movement was broken on the front lines by Cleveland’s use of federal troops in the Pullman Strike and by governors’ use of martial law and state militia in the copper and coal wars. In addition the labor and socialist movements were politically liquidated by the police state uprising after Haymarket, and by the ideological offensive of “loyalty” and “100% Americanism” culminating in the mass arrests and vigilante violence of Wilson’s War Hysteria and Red Scare.
The neoliberal revolutions around the world over the past three decades have all followed Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.” In every case–Pinochet’s Chile, Yeltsin’s Russia, Iraq under Paul Bremer, the European periphery in today’s Euro crisis–either a coup, military invasion or large-scale financial crisis has been seized upon to “break” a system in order that transnational financial elites might reconstruct a country in their own image. In every case, this has resulted in the large-scale enclosure and looting–aka “privatization”–of taxpayer-funded services and assets, the diversion of state revenues to repaying odious debt at face value as the priority for spending, and rubber-stamping “free trade” accords whose main real function is to enforce the new, draconian levels of “intellectual property” protectionism that corporate control of outsourced production depends on.
The neoliberal transformation of the past three decades has been possible only through a series of interventions starting with Volcker’s use of the central banking system to destroy the bargaining power of labor through the biggest recession since WWII. Clinton set up a legal framework in the ’90s–the “intellectual property” components of the Uruguay Round of GATT, the WIPO copyright treaty and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act–without which corporate globalization would have been impossible.
Taken all together, then, the system of power we live under is the result of a series of revolutions from above imposed by the state with a level of coercion comparable to Stalin’s first Five-Year Plans.
And far from being a movement to unilaterally impose ideologically-driven controls on a spontaneously-arising system that reflects ordinary people’s desires, the twenty-year cycle of uprisings that began with the EZLN insurrection in Chiapas has been (as Immanuel Wallerstein describes it) a long-overdue counter-offensive by the global Left against a previous twenty-year statist offensive by the forces of corporate neoliberalism.
Far from requiring the seizure of state power or authoritarian social engineering to stop it, the only thing required for global corporate power to go down in flames is for states to stop what they’re doing now. Stop enforcing patent and trademark protectionism that enables corporations to outsource actually making anything for someone else, yet still be able to charge a 10,000% markup from retaining a legal monopoly on disposal of the product. Stop the looting of taxpayer-funded public services by politically connected insiders. Stop enabling neo-feudal landlords to evict peasants from land that is rightfully theirs so it can be used for cash-crop export production in contract to global agribusiness companies. Stop enforcing the music and movie industries’ copyrights.
Everything that’s being done in the way of creating a genuine successor society to corporate capitalism is being done horizontally and cooperatively, in open-source software development groups, neighborhood gardens and Permaculture operations, hackerspaces and open-source hardware development groups, community currencies, open-source sharing software, vernacular self-built housing. The most promising models for a post-capitalist society are all based on autonomism, on self-organized peer production based on the commons, on exodus and secession by the producing classes, and on prefigurative politics and the creation of counter-institutions. Compared to the waves of corporate capitalist and neoliberal revolution from above, the waves of resistance starting with the Zapatistas and running through Seattle, the Arab Spring, M15 and Occupy are incomparably more spontaneous and libertarian than the system we’re fighting.
So to sum up, Mr. Gillespie. I know one thing about the “basic laws of economics” — the global corporate economy we live under now couldn’t survive for a day without massive and ongoing intervention by the state. The corporate capitalism you defend was put into place by an all-out war on the longings of the human heart every bit as much as the Iron Curtain, as evidenced by our slogans of “Ya Basta!” and “Another world is possible”–and every bit as doomed to fall. And we’ll put down the slide-rule just as soon as we take it from the cold, dead hands of the people who created the system you defend.