The glue which gums Rothbard’s libertarianism, with its supposed veneration of personal liberty, to the politics of tyranny (white supremacy, anti-semitism, etc) is the baked-in project of conservatism, according to Corey Robin: the defence of privilege and hierarchy which is, or feels itself to be, threatened.
Libertarianism, via its ideological justifications for the hierarchy of employees and employers (as worked out in Hayek, for instance, in a passage we looked at), is also a general theory of capitalist hierarchy. It full-blooded libertarianism (which nonetheless takes its cues from the more polite and measured coded-savagery of Hayek) tells a story of supermen and parasites. Rand – much mocked as if she is a uniquely bizarre irruption – is just an idiosyncratically unhinged, pathological, and libidinous version of this. It’s a form of panglossianism, in that everyone gets what the deserve – or at least the best any world is capable of affording them (in general). Hierarchy thus isn’t just something apologised for – it is something rhapsodised. It isn’t just unavoidable – it’s actively good. Laudable. A mark of civilisation (in the moral sense). Libertarianism fetishises commodity relations to the point where it makes its politics from an aesthetic category error: confusing the value form (in its ascendancy) with value in the moral sense (as we’ve seen elsewhere).
As we’ve seen, in ‘Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature’, Rothbard makes the quintessentially reactionary jump from the widespread historical fact of womens’ subordination to the implied conclusion that they are inferior. This same manoeuvre is practiced again and again – with sex and class and nationality – by reactionaries. Indeed, Rothbard practices it several times in the same essay.
Libertarianism is just one mode of a wider approach which is common to all forms of bourgeois thought, but which is most vociferously practiced by the right, and more vociferously the further right you go. Celebration, reification, defence, and extension of all forms of existing hierarchy and privilege is the sine qua non of reactionary thought. Libertarianism is thus revealed (as if anyone were in any serious doubt) as a species of conservatism, or reaction. Indeed, in its degree of vociferousness it is the close neighbour to fascism. And this is hardly surprising because of libertarianism’s roots. Libertarianism draws many of its currents not only from Austrian thinkers who made accommodation (on anti-Marxist, anti-socialist grounds… i.e. counter-revolutionary grounds) with authoritarian regimes including various species of fascism (i.e. Mises and Dollfuss’ ‘austrofascism’, Hayek and Schmitt, and his alignments with Pinochet, etc.). But it also – as noted elsewhere – draws on the economic policies of the racist imperialist Andrew Jackson, and upon the rhetoric and ideology of the Old South and the Confederacy. (Remember Rothbard’s defence of John C. Calhoun, and Rothbard’s own invocations of ‘states’ rights’, and the links between today’s Mises Institute and various neo-confederates, etc.). The Confederacy was one of the precursors to fascism, just as surely as were the counter-revolutionary White armies unleashed on Bolshevik Russia by Churchill, Wilson, and Western ‘democratic’ capitalist regimes. Again, note the base note of counter-revolution, of ruthless antagonism to any threat to entrenched privilege and hierarchy. Libertarianism is uniquely placed in American conservative culture. It is able to straddle the divide between mainstream conservatism and the outlying gutters of white supremacism from which other conservatives try (with varying degrees of sincerity) to distance themselves. Again, this very straddled position is one reason why libertarianism has been able to partially mutate into the alt-Right.
But might the same mechanism give rise to begging for the supposed strong hand of the lawless market instead? The cruel, unforgiving mother market. Firm but fair. Weeding out the weak. Of course, between the libertarian’s public claim as to who deserves to be weeded out, and who actually gets weeded out by the stern gardener Market, falls the shadow into which every claim laid by libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism to being just – or to even permitting the concept of justice – must tumble. Much of the social sadism Miéville talks about is sadism towards the poor, but he remembers capitalist imperialism’ perennial direction of sadism towards the colonial subjects. And what are Rothbard’s fantasies about putting ‘the blacks’ in their place but yet another iteration of the familiar violent fantasies of the colonialist, redirected towards the subaltern ‘colonial’ subject at home?
The Enlightenment was always a dark enlightenment. Viciousness and brutality in their most unmediated forms were still – and are – deemed appropriate for the colonies. Today, our everyday and surplus sadisms are inextricable from capitalism’s history of racist violence.
Capitalist social sadism is still, of course, a racialised, colonial logic. Its victims are by no means always non-white, nor are those who apply it always white, but it’s intrinsically derived from these techniques of colonialism, its social Darwinism and naturalisation of hierarchies, and the racialising drive is irrepressible. New configurations of viciousness illuminate this, as neoliberalism stretches the boundaries of quotidian sadism.
Miéville quotes Mirowski’s claims that a newly “unabashed” theatre of cruelty in neoliberal culture serves to “reinforce the neoliberal self”; and goes back to Nietzsche’s detection of sadism in the creditor/debtor relation, quoting the crucial observation that “[b]y means of the ‘punishment’ of the debtor, the creditor participates in a right belonging to the masters”.
What could be more “the neoliberal self” than Rothbard? Or rather, given history, mightn’t we best conceptualise this neoliberal self as a corporate entity, a sort of trinity, comprised of Hayek the father, Trump the Son, and Rothbard the Unholy Ghost. More than the others, his is the spectre haunting neoliberal culture, and yet he can’t take all the credit… even if, as per the above definition of sadism, he is the best manifestation of the soul of the master/creditor. (The name of the Son is, at best, interchangeable. Hillary the Son would work at least as well.)
Miéville notes a catalogue of sadisms proliferating as ‘surplus cruelty’ in neoliberal culture, directed mainly downwards. Sadism, note – as distinct from callousness or disregard.
Some virtuoso racialised sadisms have been displayed in the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. Arrested for selling cigarettes, his last moments are filmed as he’s choked by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, desperately and repeatedly gasping, ‘I can’t breathe!’
Jason Barthel, a corporal in the Indiana Police with a sideline in clothing, promptly releases a t-shirt bearing the words ‘Breathe Easy: Don’t break the law’. ‘[P]lease understand’, he writes online, with palpable twinkle, ‘when we use the slogan “Breathe Easy” we are referring to knowing the police are there for you!’
Rothbard’s writing on social issues, especially in his later years, seethes with just this kind of lubriciously smug spite. Is he disease or symptom? Yes, is the obvious answer. He is the patron intellectual saint of such ingenious neoliberal cruelty. He formulates, and with infectious glee, the scholarly underpinnings of it. It would be rank idealism to imagine a deterministic line flowing from the ideas to the practice. And yet a key insight of historical materialism is precisely that very ability for ideas – once they have arisen from material circumstances, ultimately from economic bases – to themselves become material, social forces. (This is, ironically enough, more or less exactly what Marx thinks value is – a socially-constructed mental construct, arising from material conditions, which itself takes on material form because of its social reality, and which then dialectically socially influences material reality.)
The apparent paradox in the embrace of state authoritarianism by those who profess to hate the state is, in fact, indicative of far more than just confusion or mere hypocrisy. It is a tacit admission that the real, underlying imperative is the satisfaction to be gained from vicarious sadism, from watching the power with which one is allied (whatever one says) kick downwards. As Miéville says,
[p]art of the ‘civilising process’ has traditionally been the meandering historical growth of the state’s function as a repressive superego, battening down various egoic drives, such as that to sadism, deemed, for various social reasons, impermissible. So repressed, they will dutifully return, as indeed the superego state needs them to.
Always eager to instrumentalise the worst human drives, the modern state has tended, officially, to relax the superegoic repression of sadism mostly to circumspect degrees and at specific moments – for the embattlement and carnage of war; in fascism; during times of ‘exceptionality’.
The notion of ‘exceptionality’ is, as we’ve seen, central to Hayek’s thinking (via Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, whom he admired and from whom he took great scobs of his ideas) about the whole concept of state intervention, which is about the state’s capacity to use violence with singular authority against those whose subjugation is the basis of liberal civilisation.
Rothbard’s particularly sadistic inflection of libertarianism, like Rand’s, has come to be particularly compatible with current neoliberal culture. Its greasy, jocular, venomous brio succeeded in the marketplace of… well, we can hardly say ‘ideas’… of styles. We needn’t search for smoking guns proving his influence because we needn’t postulate an easy cause-and-effect scenario. Cultural evolution doesn’t work like that. Rothbard, via his open project of agitation to push American conservatives in his direction, and to promote the idea of radicalising “the masses” to take up their ideas, has helped prepare the way for the general climate. The general climate then feeds back into the ability of Rockwell-dot-org etc to wield influence. The ideas taken up by any given culture will be those that express its needs based on how its economic base is being developed. Neoliberalism has selected certain beliefs for open adoption and influence, and other for more tacit usage. Those beliefs have then fed back into the praxis of neoliberalism. This happens as much though contradiction and opposition as through compatibility, as the ideas and the politics and the economics interact dialectically, throwing up counter-movements. One of the most significant of recent years has been Obamaism, that blip of enthusiasm for a waning Democratic Party, with its anomalous support from a ruling class wary of the legacy of Bush II and the aftershocks of the 07-08 financial crisis. Obama then paved the way for a cultural counterattack based on racial loathing, but also couched in terms of anti-statism, with its hysterical claims that Obama is a Muslim Marxist tyrant in the waiting. (In a confusion which is very telling, great swathes of the bottom-feeding Right now unthinkingly equate Islam with statist authoritarianism. If there’s a rational kernal to this it’s the fact that the Middle East and Central Asia have played host to several Islamic or quasi-Islamic dictatorships, all of which – one way or another – resulted from American imperialism’s meddling in the Muslim world, destroying democratic nationalist or Left movements.) The surest sign of the tessellation is in the conspiracy theorising about Obama’s birthplace and religion. This wasn’t just pure race-baiting. It was the vector by which Obama’s race, religion, and his supposed authoritarianism could be tied together. The crucial word is ‘sharia’, and its many placeholders. And the most prominent ‘birther’ (the current Son) was propelled into the White House, at least partly by the generation of trolls who, knowingly or unknowingly, were influenced by the climate of white-supremacism and market-fetishizing pseudo-anti-statism personified in Rothbard, and pushed by the various foundations and websites which promulgate his ideas… and, even more importantly, the general atmosphere of his outlook, which is sadism, loathing, hubris, and a libidinously-relished sense of persecution. The supposed Muslim-Marxist totalitarianism of the Kenyan President was always a projection of a deep fantasy – exactly the same kind of projected sadism as the persecution delusion. The Right imagines itself victimised because it longs to victimise, just as it imagines the state to be a tyrant precisely because it wishes to tyrannise. It is the same psychological mechanism whereby some abused children grow up to become abusers… except that, in this case, the child in question was usually less abused than everyone else in the family, and only felt singled-out because he was also spoiled.
“The sadism of capitalism is a deep grammar, and it is always functional. And/but it is never only functional. With the jouissance comes the surplus, what Bataille might call its accursed share.” (Miéville again.) In the ‘irrepressible Rothbard’, always salivating and snickering at the thought of repressing those who deserve it, we can see the jouissance in question, made quivering jowly flesh. Look into the face of liberty, my friends. It ain’t a pretty sight.
None of this just happened. Nor is it an example of spontaneous order. (Few things are – as Kevin Carson commented under the last essay, most of today’s inequality is the legacy of theft.) It was done deliberately, and with very definite aims in mind.
Paleolibertarianism is the name given to the political strategy very consciously devised by Rothbard and Rockwell in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s aim was, as we’ve seen, ‘outreach to the rednecks’ (their words)… i.e. to deliberately pander to, and hopefully exacerbate, the racist and sexist and homophobic resentments of people who would then flock to the libertarian economic ideas (down with the Fed, away with the welfare state, etc.) they otherwise tended to find uninspiring.
Steve Horwitz (himself a libertarian and an Austrian economist) writes at BleedingHeartLibertarians-dot-com that
the attempt to court the right through appeals to the most unsavory sorts of arguments was a conscious part of the “paleolibertarian” strategy that Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard cooked up in the late 1980s.
The paleo strategy, as laid out… by Rockwell, was clearly designed to create a libertarian-conservative fusion[.]
It was about appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism: one built on cultural issues. With everyone broadly agreeing that the market had won, how could you hold together a coalition that opposed the left? Oppose them on the culture. … And it doesn’t take a PhD in Rhetoric to see how that strategy would lead to the racism and other ugliness of newsletters at the center of this week’s debates.
Indeed not. Horwitz calls this strategy “a horrific mistake” and previously referred to it as “a fascist fist in a libertarian glove”, at which time he says he asked to be taken off the Mises Institute’s mailing list… though he seems to think things are better now, despite the continued presence of extreme right-wing material on Mises-dot-org (which he acknowledges), and the Mises Institute’s continued connections to extreme reactionary politics. For Horwitz, the paleo strategy was a nasty error that was mothballed. Yet we live with its consequences, and few of its former brazen strategists seem able or willing to properly repudiate it. (Again, Horwitz acknowledges as much.) As noted, Paul has repudiated the newsletters, and Rockwell denies having written them, but you’ll find stuff almost as bad at Mises-dot-org and LewRockwell-dot-com still. And neither Paul nor Rockwell seem to have given back the mountains of cash they made from the newsletters. If the paleo strategy was a mistake that was ended, it seems that its surviving acolytes are content to live with – and on – its continuing proceeds, in both money and influence.
Chillingly, Horwitz writes of the old paleo material that “[w]hat the media has in their hands is only the tip of the iceberg”.
Says he of those dark days:
Through it all though, Ron Paul was a constant. He kept plugging away, first at the center of the paleo strategy as evidenced by the newsletters. To be clear, I am quite certain he did not write them. There is little doubt that they were written by Rockwell and Rothbard.
Clearly genuinely troubled by all this, Horwitz writes
Even after the paleo strategy was abandoned, Ron was still there walking the line between “mainstream” libertarianism and the winking appeal to the hard right courted by the paleo strategy. Paul’s continued contact with the fringe groups of Truthers, racists, and the paranoid right are well documented. Even in 2008, he refused to return a campaign contribution of $500 from the white supremacist group Stormfront. You can still go to their site and see their love for Ron Paul in this campaign and you can find a picture of Ron with the owner of Stormfront’s website. Even if Ron had never intentionally courted them, isn’t it a huge problem that they think he is a good candidate? Doesn’t that say something really bad about the way Ron Paul is communicating his message? Doesn’t it suggest that years of the paleo strategy of courting folks like that actually resonated with the worst of the right? Paul also maintained his connection with the Mises Institute, which has itself had numerous connections with all kinds of unsavory folks: more racists, anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, the whole nine yards.
More pertinently here, Richard Spencer – along with many others in the alt-Right, including some very high-profile individuals, as we’ll see – was a Ron Paul fan, even hosting the Congressman (as he was then) at a Robert Taft Club event in 2007. But then Paul-donors Stormfront hailed Trump too.
The opportunism in all this is obvious. Indeed, it runs through the right-libertarianism. As The Atlantic points out:
Rothbard and Rockwell never stuck with their alliances with angry white men on the far right. They have been willing to shift alliances from left to right and back again. Before this “outreach” to racists, Rothbard aligned himself with anti-Vietnam war protestors in the 1960s. In the 2000s, after the “outreach” had failed, Rockwell complained bitterly about “Red-State fascists” who supported George Bush and his war. So much for the “Rednecks.” [This is a reference to a strategy Rothbard called ‘Outreach to the Rednecks’.] The anti-government theories stay the same, the political strategy shifts in odd and extreme directions.
All true. But you can’t create a massive output of material and argumentation designed to forge an alliance with the ‘angry white men’ and expect that to just go away. Nor did it. It fed directly into the alt-Right, the new nascent form of fascism we are seeing emerge today. The cynicism, opportunism, and incoherence of the paleolibertarian strategy was – ironically enough – as large a part of how paleolibertarianism successfully bred with fascism to create the alt-Right as was its actual ideological content.