How to Kick Your Friends in the Teeth

Naomi Klein, in an October speech at the University of Chicago, said:

I think all ideologies should be held accountable for the crimes committed in their names….  Now, of course, there are still those on the far left who will insist that all of those crimes were just an aberration–Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot; reality is annoying–and they retreat into their sacred texts….

But lately, particularly just in the past few months, I have noticed something similar happening on the far libertarian right…, and it comes from the fact that the Bush administration… adopted so much of their rhetoric…. But, of course, Bush is the worst thing that has ever happened to believers in this ideology, because while parroting the talking points of Friedmanism, he has overseen an explosion of crony capitalism, that they treat governing as… an ATM machine, where private corporations make withdrawals of the government in the form of no-bid contracts….  The Bush administration is a nightmare for these guys–the explosion of the debt and now, of course, these massive bailouts.

So, what we see from the ideologues of the… far economic right… frantically distancing themselves and retreating to their sacred texts:  The Road to Serfdom, Capitalism and Freedom, Free to Choose.

Some of us left-wing free market advocates have repeatedly come to Klein’s defense, extolling the value of Disaster Capitalism (despite its theoretical incoherence on the difference between free markets and corporatism) as a concrete account of the Washington Consensus policies adopted around the world.

It’s only fair to give her the benefit of the doubt.  After all, one can’t turn on the television without seeing some neoliberal politician or journalist equating corporate capitalism to the “free market.”   The Internet is full of commentary by mainstream libertarian think tanks, defending everything from Wal-Mart to resource waste and pollution to income inequality to corporate power as a natural outgrowth of “our free enterprise system.”  Under such circumstances, it’s hard to blame a casual observer on the Left from taking the mainstream rhetoric at face value.  After all, if I thought the “free market” meant what Tom Friedman meant by it, I’d hate it too.

On the other hand, Klein is no longer what you’d call a casual observer, after all this time.  She herself has explicitly distinguished the corporatism prevailing in the American (and global) corporate economy from a genuine free market.  So her quoted remarks are asinine.

First of all, it’s an insult to her left-wing free market defenders, who have publicly and vocally expressed our opposition to corporate rule, to hold us morally responsible for the fact that Dick Cheney and his ilk have misappropriated our rhetoric.

Second, does Klein really blame Pyotr Kropotkin and Rosa Luxemburg for Stalin and Pol Pot?  I hope not.   And it is just as foolish to blame libertarians for George Bush.

It’s true that the Bush adminstration adopted free market rhetoric.  And no doubt some libertarians are scurrying about in embarrassment, fearful lest this will be used to “discredit” free market ideas in the same way that the fall of the Soviet Union was broadly used to discredit the Left.  But the people who thought the fall of the Soviet Union discredited all attacks on corporate capitalism were either dishonest or stupid.  And the same is true of those who think AIG and Citigroup discredit the free market.

Every ruling class in history has adopted a legitimizing ideology; and since to stay in power it must justify itself primarily to the ruled, to the people it’s exploiting, its legitimizing ideology generally borrows heavily from the belief systems of–guess who?–the ruled.

The Federalists, for example, managed to squeak their trojan horse through the state ratifying conventions by packaging it in the anglo-republican rhetoric of the Anti-Federalists.

Stalin legitimized his rule in Russia by misappropriating the language and symbolism of the classical socialist and movement and falsely appealing to its values.

And neoliberals, similarly, misappropriate the language and symbolism of “free enterprise,” “free markets,” and “free trade.”

And guess what else? The symbolism and language of Progressivism were appropriated by FDR to sell corporatist policies drafted by GE’s Gerard Swope and the Business Advisory Council.

If anything, it’s fairer to blame Progressives for Swope and the NIRA, because Progressivism (the movement founded at the turn of the 20th century by Herbert Croly, the National Civic League and the editorial circles at The New Republic) really was corporatist.  From its beginning, it was a managerialist ideology, and its class base the new middle class of managers and professionals who ran the new giant organizations that dominated society in the wake of the corporate revolution.  It’s a huge jump from Luxemburg to Stalin, or from Rothbard to Halliburton.  But it’s not much of a jump from Croly to Swope.

So there! There’s nothing clean.  Any belief system with a high level of currency among the ruled populace is likely, in the natural order of things, to be misappropriated by the rulers, in order to secure popular compliance with their rule.

But this is only one side of the picture.  On the other hand, such belief systems–of all kinds–are contested terrain. They are grab-bags of values and symbolism to which rulers can appeal, true enough. But the very same values and symbolism can be reclaimed by the ruled and used to undermine their authority of the ruling class.

For example, working class resistance to the Soviet-imposed regimes in Eastern Europe commonly justified itself in libertarian socialist terms, and relied heavily on socialist symbolism and rhetoric. In East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967, the Solidarity movement in Poland–in every case, the aim was workers’ power, workers’ control of industry, etc., and the instrument chosen was self-mangement through workers’ councils in the factories and self-government through direct democracy at the neighborhood level. In other words, the working class of Eastern Europe resisted the Soviet Union with a battle cry of “All power to the soviets!”

This concept–using the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house–should be familiar to most people on the Left. I’d be surprised if Klein wasn’t aware of it.

The parallel to the free market ideology should be obvious, to anyone who isn’t deliberately obtuse.  One of the most powerful weapons against neoliberalism and corporate rule is to demonize the big business interests in terms of their own “free market” rhetoric.  Dean Baker does this regularly.  Baker skewers the “free trade” rhetoric of Tom Friedman by pointing out the real mercantilist nature of phony “free trade agreements,” in which so-called “intellectual property” plays the same protectionist role for transnational corporations as tariffs did for the old national industrial trusts.  RFK Jr. regularly points out that all the “free market” rhetoric conceals a real-world practice of externalizing costs on the taxpayer.  And we on the libertarian left, who really believe in free markets, are doing this kind of thing every day.

There is an enormous potential, among Progressives and the free market left, for entente and common action against the corporate state.  Noam Chomsky frequently refers to “privatizing profit and socializing risk and cost,” and “socialism for the rich and free market discipline for the poor.”  Murray Rothbard, at his best, referred to the ways in which “our corporate state uses the coercive taxing power either to accumulate corporate capital or to lower corporate costs.  Whatever that process may be called, it is not ‘free enterprise,’ except in the most ironic sense.”

Is that not the basis for a common agenda?  So why the gratuitous insults?

It’s precisely because we on the free-market left see the value in Klein’s work, that we cringe at the sight of reprehensible remarks like those quoted above.

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