|We all float down here, Georgie… no government to hold us down, you see…|
With thanks to@gerofalltradesfor creating this post’s accompanying cursed image for me.
This article has been amended to remove an inaccurate claim that Reason magazine gave Milo’s book Dangerous a flattering review. I got them mixed up with Skeptic magazine. My bad. Sorry. BTW, for interest’s sake, the review in Skeptic was written by Dr. George Michael who received his degree from George Mason University.
Whereas many of today’s libertarians and ‘classical liberals’ like to present their doctrine as somehow above or beyond the left-right divide (even as they enable fascists and agree with everything they say), Rothbard indulged in little such pretence. He was cynical and opportunistic. He was inconsistent and incoherent. But he wasn’t confused. For him, libertarianism was, essentially, a reiteration of what he called ‘the Old Right’.
For more on this, see a flatulent, blithering essay he wrote in 1992 called ‘A Strategy for the Right’. You can read it at LewRockwell-dot-org. I won’t link to it (because, while the SPLC might not come right out and say it, as far as I’m concerned LewRockwell-dot-org is basically fash) but you can find it… if, y’know, you want to.
In this essay he praises the extreme libertarian anti-New Dealers such as Garet Garrett and H. L. Mencken. Garret was a conservative who thought the New Deal was a neo-Marxist revolution against American individualism. Praised by Mises, one of his books – an anti-government, pro-gold standard screed – was chosen to be one of the ‘twelve candles’ of the John Birch Society. (The JBS, in case you don’t know, is an ‘anti-communist’ and ‘limited government’ advocacy group, co-founded by the Koch Brothers’ dad. These days it gets classified as paleoconservative, but has always been as close to being American fascism as makes little odds.)
Rothbard is enamoured of the Old Right partly because, according to him, “they would have been horrified and incredulous at the accredited victimology that has rapidly taken over our culture”… which is presumably why Garret, as Executive Editor of the New York Tribune in 1918, was furious at one of his reporters for sending the paper to press featuring a photograph of a lynching in Georgia. Too victimological, no doubt.
Mencken, of course, was – amongst other things – a social Darwinist, a militarist, a racist, and an anti-semite who admired Hitler. Mencken disdained democracy in similar – if more vociferous – terms to the ones that would later be used by Ron Paul, saying it was a form of domination of the superior by the inferior. He also considered all higher mathematics to be “hogwash” – a very Austrian sentiment.
Rothbard manages to work the essay around to… well, um…
And while I’m on this topic, this is the year 1992, so I am tempted to say, repeat after me: COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA!
Even though a fan of diversity, the only revisionism I will permit on this topic is whether Columbus discovered America, or whether it was Amerigo Vespucci.
Poor Italian-Americans! They have never been able to make it to accredited victim status. The only thing they ever got was Columbus Day. And now, they’re trying to take it away!
Plus ça change.
He then goes on to praise John C. Calhoun, possibly the most fanatically pro-slavery politician of the pre-Civil War era, for pointing out the horrific injustice of… er… taxation. Rothbard never mentions slavery in the essay.
Libertarianism always had issues in this area but, as the Washington Post pointed out in an article tracing the line from libertarianism to Trump’s rhetoric:
it was Rothbard’s founding of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1982 that enabled the fledgling political movement to establish affinity with the neo-Confederate Lost Cause movement.
Almost immediately after its creation, the Mises Institute (headquartered in Auburn, Ala.) began publishing criticism of “compulsory integration,”…
…Rothbard even published a chapter in his book “The Ethics of Liberty” in which he said that “the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children,” although he didn’t specify the races of the children who might be sold.
Rothbard’s Old Right heroes may have been against the ‘revolution’ of the New Deal, but Rothbard himself was after a revolution of his own. The leaders of this revolution would be the libertarians and the minarchists, and the troops would be the masses, spurred to fight the elites. And the spurring would take the form of appeals to racism. That’s the paleo strategy in a nutshell, and it was openly expressed by the nutcases who invented it. The masses would need to be informed by the libertarian vanguard (in a model resembling nothing so much as the standard crude caricature of Bolshevism) of the need to overthrow the “unholy alliance of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.” (Ron Paul, much as he’s softened his rhetoric and distanced himself from the racist stuff, called one of his books – an attack on big government, the ‘establishment’, inflation, and war – The Revolution: A Manifesto.) Rarely has the nature of far-Right rhetoric as a doggerel co-optation of left-wing anger – but with the anger redirected downwards – been more plainly demonstrated.
The result of victory would be the slashing of welfare, the end of affirmative action, “racial quotas”, and the generally poisonous (to Rothbard et al) legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and thus the end of the oppression of whites. Whites are the real oppressed group these days, you see, because modern elites insist upon giving unfair advantages to non-whites, who just don’t deserve to do as well because genes or something. (Naturally, Rothbard loved The Bell Curve, Murray and Hernstein’s infamous Clinton-era sociobiology potboiler, which claimed that racial inequalities persist because black people are innately less intelligent.) And goodness could we go into what he has to say about the Civil Rights movement and its leaders! Especially the terrible, awful, no good, very bad Martin Luther King. Rothbard had more time for Malcolm X because, as he explained in the manner of an indulgent plantation owner, Malcolm acted white. (One is almost tempted to praise Rothbard’s willingness to swim against the tide and admit that Dr King was opposed to everything he stood for rather than sanctimoniously trying to co-opt his memory, as is now de rigueur.)
As is by now drearily predictable, Rothbard’s vaunted anti-statism goes out of the window when he pontificates about the need to crack down on crime. He explicitly does not mean “white collar criminals” but rather… well, various dogwhistles for Scary Black People. This will be done by giving the cops free reign. “Get Rid of the Bums” he announces as an imperative. “Where will they go? Who cares?” It’s worth clearly stating that this is as good as a call for the destitute to be culled. If they’re to be gotten rid of – to be not present ‘here’, wherever ‘here’ happens to be in any given instance – then presumably they are intended and expected to be nowhere. This is pretty clearly what is meant.
Elsewhere Rothbard seems happy to countenance police using torture… because it’s all in the good cause of, um, anti-statism. These are his cruder versions of the ‘exceptions’ that Hayek pontificated about so high-mindedly… and remember where Hayek got that idea from: Nazi intellectual and jurist Carl Schmitt.
Various social issues, particularly the ones that are controversial because the Right want to use them to bash women, will be devolved to the local level, where federal courts can’t institute the tyranny of national guarantees of people’s rights. (This is barely a particular indictment of Rothbard given that such practice is now operative policy in many instances in the United States.) But we shouldn’t be surprised that someone who showed such sympathy for the Confederate cause should be in favour of ‘state’s rights’, no matter how much he ostensibly hated ‘The State’ (whatever that might be).
Then there’s the Jewish Question, as it is sometimes called. Let’s glide over some outrageously anti-semitic statements made by Rothbard (who was himself Jewish, as it happens), and his defences of anti-semites and holocaust-deniers (not to mention David Duke and the KKK), and go straight for his apparent belief that the welfare state started as (at least partly) a Jewish conspiracy, and his description of himself (already quoted in a previous essay) as a “a pro-Christian Jew who thinks that everything good in Western Civilization is traceable to Christianity”.
Rothbard is far from unusual as a libertarian anti-semite. Libertarianism was never exactly unattracted to anti-semitism. We’ve already mentioned Mencken. There’s also the issue of Reason magazine from 1976 entirely devoted to ‘historical revisionism’, in which Holocaust denial is taken seriously. “The German concentration camps weren’t health centers, but they appear to have been far smaller and much less lethal than the Russian ones,” said Reason.
(Reason Magazine – backed by the Koch brothers – is a can of worms all to itself. It now denies or repudiates its former racism.)
In all this morass we have – not so coincidentally – a potted summary of most of the obsessions of the alt-Right. The fetishization of ‘Western’ and/or ‘Christian civilisation’. The conspiracism masked as revisionist history. The tactical flip-flopping over the supposedly principled hatred of the state, and elites, etc, when they can be used to crack down on the rights and freedoms of the oppressed, especially women and blacks, and especially women and blacks in any kind of revolt. The upsidedownism of the wailing cry of the oppressed white man who is constantly being done down by all these ‘special interests’, which never really – for all the vague complaints about nebulous ‘Big Business’ – refers to the capitalist class or any of their associates. The spurious appeals to science and scepticism and rationality and disinterested reason to justify all the old oppressions and bigotries. The loathing of ‘the 60s’ and everything they bring to mind. Talking about taxes and regulations like they’re the Nuremberg Laws. Etc.
And yes, if a lot of this sounds a lot like fascism, well… there’s a reason for that.
But there’s also a reason why a lot of it sounds like standard rhetoric in the mainstream establishment Right these days. It’s because there are more than two Reactions. It’s because Reaction is on a spectrum. And the various iterations of reactionary politics, for all their differences, all share the core project of defending privilege. As ever, the privilege in question is fundamentally the privilege of private property and the power to exploit labour.
Rothbard himself makes the connection for us. He is open that ideas of ‘natural’ and hereditary racial hierarchies are necessary
as a powerful defense of the results of the free market. If and when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the free market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and “discriminatory” and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance. In that case, the intelligence argument will become useful to defend the market economy and the free society from ignorant or self-serving attacks. In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.
(Quoted by Marxist Marginalia, from Rothbard’s review of The Bell Curve.)
Parenthetically, Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, is doing the rounds again these days. He has been funded by, amongst others, the Koch Brothers; he is feted by the alt-Right. In such circles he is now considered a martyr to the cause of free speech because people have the temerity to publicly object to him being invited to peddle his discredited racist ideas. Sam Harris interviewed Murray on his podcast because, in true disingenuous Harris style, while he says he disagrees with him, he objects to those who want to ‘silence’ him, and wished to provoke them. It’s worth reiterating that The Bell Curve has been comprehensively debunked and abjured by scientists since first publication. Murray has done no work on, or revision of, his ideas in light of the refutations. That isn’t how scientists behave. And there is no Socratic gain to be had from asking someone to repeat discredited claims. The only possible logic here is racist. It’s also worth pointing out that the claims of The Bell Curve are predicated upon, and wrangled to support, Murray’s extreme libertarian political philosophy.
And this leads us back to the point, because here we see the core confluence between the various strands of libertarian reactionary thought and racial supremacism: the need to defend the artificial injustices of capitalism from any challenge. Anti-racism, feminism, socialism, collectivism of any kind, any sort of ideology which places equality and solidarity over hierarchy and injustice is, in the final analysis, intolerable because it inherently challenges private property and the rule of capital. Ironically, here is the tacit (and often not so tacit… Rothbard, for instance, is brazen) admission, on the part of the ‘libertarian’ that the much-vaunted liberty brought by capitalism is actually bought for a few at the expense of many, and especially by the subjugated and the subaltern.
The libertarian fetish for markets as the best – or maybe even only possible – form of efficient social organisation stems from their alignment with the class interests of the capitalist ruling class. This isn’t necessarily because all capitalists always benefit best from free markets all the time, but rather because the capitalist class curates (in a both deliberate and self-organising way) a range of ideological positions which may suit it’s needs at any given time, and then keeps them in reserve until such time as they need to be selected and utilised. The libertarian position is one such member of the capitalist ‘reserve army of ideology’, as we might call it. In a historical era increasingly unwilling and/or unable to tolerate ideas of innate racial hierarchy (at least when openly, formally, and legally-codified), such market-apologia must find ways to justify the racial inequalities of capitalist society in such a way as not to damage their own claims that the market represents a social optimum. They must deny what is obvious to anyone who pays even the scantest attention to the actual facts of how capitalist/imperialist societies operate: that they are unjustly racially stratified and that markets, far from being a way of combating this, are actually a reinforcement of it. There are varying strategies for achieving this denial. But all are built, to one extent or another, and to one degree of honesty or another, on racism. For instance, some libertarians will be found advocating the idea that welfare itself is a form of reinforcement of black poverty, owing to the removal of incentives. (They have, of course, still yet to convincingly explain the most basic question of why giving away money is a disincentive when the recipients are poor and an incentive when they’re rich.) This has the advantage of doubling as an attack on statism as well as a covertly racist attack on the ‘desert’ of disadvantaged minorities. It has another advantage in that its non-theoretical iterations may be adopted by liberals and centrists. Such narratives are far from restricted to outright conservatives and libertarians. Other iterations of the same racist libertarian narrative are, in their nasty way, far more honest. Rothbard’s embrace of racist socio-biology (i.e. genetic determinism as an explanation of social inequality) is a less disingenuous version of the same racism inherent in such dogwhistles as ‘welfare queens’ and ‘culture of poverty’ (not that he was shy of using stuff like that as and when required). But it is also calculated in its aim of appealing to what it takes to be the inherent racism of the rednecks to which it is an outreach. It is a sign of the times that, while racism is still prevalent in American society, Rothbard’s style of open pandering to biological anti-black racism is now only really capable of motivating the palenecks on the internet, and must be expressed in the open alt-right form in a slightly more aggressive variety of dogwhistle. The alt-right’s great attempt to syncretise with the far-right at Charlottesville (to the extent that a syncresis was even needed) has been largely disastrous for them… largely because, however racist many Americans may still be in some ways, they’re not all that keen on actual literal fucking Nazis actually murdering people on the streets of an American city while waving black sun runes and chanting “Seig Heil!”
But this isn’t just because open ideological racism is increasingly unpopular with many people. Partly, the wheels were already off any open attempt to turn American fascism into a mass movement on the streets (not that I want to downplay the deadly threat it plays as an aggressive minority current), and this is because variants of the above libertarian market-fetishizing racism are now commonplace in mainstream, establishment discourse. Neoliberalism has seen to that.
But then again, neoliberalism is the child of the Austrians, as is libertarianism. And the prevalence of racist-dogwhistling-as-mainstream-common-sense is partly a result of the fact that a very conscious, deliberate effort was made – by Rothbard and his associates, as well as others – to push this kulturkampf until the centre moved hard to starboard. Is there really any difficulty seeing, in all of this, the seed of Birtherism, and Pepe the Frog, and the vector whereby US Right-wing rhetoric can end up in Anders Breivik’s ‘manifesto’? Neoliberalism opened the door for this, and the crash of 07-08 wedged it open, but Rothbard’s foot was ready to be stuck into the open door. Remember what I said above about capitalism keep a reserve army of ideologies? Such ideologies are structurally selected. And it is by no means necessary that their utility to capitalism depends upon them becoming hegemonic. They may be employed as precarious part-timers and be just as useful.
As suggested, Rothbard’s sadistic fantasies fit quite neatly into a prevailing capitalist culture of sadism. His libidinously cruel daydreams about the police brutally suppressing hoards of bums and black criminals reveal a deep-seated yearning for state power, revealing his supposed antagonism towards it as a manifestation of suppressed fantasy. Can anyone doubt that, were he still alive, Rothbard would be saying Heather Heyer deserved what she got?
Moreover, from this position it follows that the state’s monopoly on violence should be directed towards the undeserving scum who are parasitic upon people like him, the productive members of society – and, if needed, their defenders. That’s how the parasitism of the state is to be defeated. It is to be deflected onto those who deserve it; used against itself. The Rothbards of the world will then be free of the unconscionable violence of being asked to pay their taxes, or being told they may not discriminate against those they loathe… the impositions they interpret as a threat to capital, but which any serious analysis of the history of capitalism will reveal as adaptations in response to class struggle.
And there we have it, really. The garbled understanding they have of class struggle is, perhaps, preferable to those liberal worldviews which denies its existence – but at what cost? The cost is the reification of the historic results of class struggle – the impositions put on capital to stabilise it against its own contradictions and shore it up via concessions to the demands of the subjugated – into a hatred of the state itself. It is, essentially, resentment felt by a child at a father’s stricture stopping him from playing with matches, or bullying his sister. The tactic is to redirect the imagined cruelty of the parent onto others, onto those who deserve it, the other kids, the ones who made him do it. After all, any imposition on his freedom to play is unfair – but they deserve to get in trouble. The irony is that the very real cruelty of an abusive parent is thereby excused and embraced, by the pampered favourite son, when that abuse is trained on the weaker sibling. And, with the father safely occupied victimising the others, the beloved, bounteous mother Market may be embraced. And all the while, the favoured son grows up feeling hard done by, seething with resentment, self-righteousness, and sadism.
The irrepressible Rothbard represents a lot that is repressed. And the repressed always returns. It is just that, in this case, the gothic horror is directed by the repressed upon the oppressed.