In an article entitled ‘Democracy Isn’t Freedom’, Ron Paul wrote:
Americans have been conditioned to accept the word “democracy” as a synonym for freedom, and thus to believe that democracy is unquestionably good.
The problem is that democracy is not freedom. Democracy is simply majoritarianism, which is inherently incompatible with real freedom. Our founding fathers clearly understood this, as evidenced not only by our republican constitutional system, but also by their writings in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere. James Madison cautioned that under a democratic government, “There is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” John Adams argued that democracies merely grant revocable rights to citizens depending on the whims of the masses, while a republic exists to secure and protect pre-existing rights. Yet how many Americans know that the word “democracy” is found neither in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence, our very founding documents?
Now, an important thing to note here is that Paul is absolutely right. Most of the Founding Fathers did not envisage their new republic as a democracy. Indeed, Madison (as Chomsky is fond of reminding us) explicitly saw the task of designing the new government as one of designing a system which would protect “the minority of the opulent against the majority”. Chomsky also likes to quote John Jay as saying “The people who own the country ought to govern it”. As he writes in The Common Good,
Madison feared that a growing part of the population, suffering from the serious inequities of the society, would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings.” If they had democratic power, there’d be a danger they’d do something more than sigh. He discussed this quite explicitly at the Constitutional Convention, expressing his concern that the poor majority would use its power to bring about what we would now call land reform.
So he designed a system that made sure democracy couldn’t function. He placed power in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who hold “the wealth of the nation.” Other citizens were to be marginalized and factionalized in various ways, which have taken a variety of forms over the years: fractured political constituencies, barriers against unified working-class action and cooperation, exploitation of ethnic and racial conflicts, etc.
This is nothing surprising. We can go back to the dawn of bourgeois democracy in England, the Putney Debates, and see the bafflement which enveloped Ireton and the other Parliament Men when Rainsborough and the Levellers demanded that every man should have a say in the government that ruled over him, even if he lacked a “permanent interest” (i.e. property). Ireton and his fellow propertied gentlemen not only didn’t agree with such a concept – they couldn’t even comprehend it. It was utterly alien to them. The very radical ideas thrown up by the revolution they had led were now confronting them, shouted from the mouths of the common men they’d relied on as their muscle, and they might as well have been speaking a foreign language. The lions were suddenly talking, and the men of property could not understand what they were saying. There is something almost funny about reading the debates and, as it were, watching Ireton et al repeatedly bang their heads against the brick wall of the Levellers’ democratic demands. It would be something like what the French call a dialogue des sourds (literally: a conversation of the deaf), in which two people talk at each other without ever understanding each other… but for the fact that the Levellers seem to have a fairly good handle on the intransigence of the landed gentlemen.
The point is that, from the first, the social form which became modern bourgeois democracy was always, at root, a project of the ascendant property-owning middle-classes to protect and project their own property and power, and has only secondarily been about the rights of all men (still less all people). To the extent that it has ever come to be about the rights of all, including the unpropertied, this has only happened because of the pressure put on the property owning classes by the relatively propertyless, and because of the advantages brought by concessions. What democracy there is in democracy as we know it is the product of the very sighing for a more equal distribution of life’s blessings that Madison feared, coming from those Alexander Hamilton called collectively “the great beast” and whom Edmund Burke would later call “the swinish multitude”.
Whereas Chomsky is rueful when he talks about the Founding Fathers’ desire to stave off democracy, Paul is admiring:
Simply put, freedom is the absence of government coercion. Our Founding Fathers understood this, and created the least coercive government in the history of the world. The Constitution established a very limited, decentralized government to provide national defense and little else. States, not the federal government, were charged with protecting individuals against criminal force and fraud. For the first time, a government was created solely to protect the rights, liberties, and property of its citizens. Any government coercion beyond that necessary to secure those rights was forbidden, both through the Bill of Rights and the doctrine of strictly enumerated powers. This reflected the founders’ belief that democratic government could be as tyrannical as any King.
Note the reliance on the Hayekian ‘freedom from’, i.e. the conception of freedom as negative, the null or neutral state in which everyone is assumed to exist in the absence of government interference, as distinct from ‘freedom to’, freedom to develop which is provided positively and actively by society.
Few Americans understand that all government action is inherently coercive. If nothing else, government action requires taxes. If taxes were freely paid, they wouldn’t be called taxes, they’d be called donations. If we intend to use the word freedom in an honest way, we should have the simple integrity to give it real meaning: Freedom is living without government coercion. So when a politician talks about freedom for this group or that, ask yourself whether he is advocating more government action or less.
The political left equates freedom with liberation from material wants, always via a large and benevolent government that exists to create equality on earth. To modern liberals, men are free only when the laws of economics and scarcity are suspended, the landlord is rebuffed, the doctor presents no bill, and groceries are given away. But philosopher Ayn Rand (and many others before her) demolished this argument by explaining how such “freedom” for some is possible only when government takes freedoms away from others. In other words, government claims on the lives and property of those who are expected to provide housing, medical care, food, etc. for others are coercive — and thus incompatible with freedom. “Liberalism,” which once stood for civil, political, and economic liberties, has become a synonym for omnipotent coercive government.
Let’s briefly pause over what Paul says about the Left in the above quoted passage – though it’s actually by no means clear that Ron Paul and I have a common understanding of that term. (In fact, from the context, it’s unclear to what extent he separates the Left and the liberals. He wouldn’t be the first to get into a muddle on that point.)
In this connection, please note – yet again – the telltale inability to conceptualise any idea of socialism which does not rely on a massive state. This inability is hardly even a historical priority for this particular Austrian acolyte, as it was for various of his mentors. He – Paul – is not in a situation where he has to constantly battle a live and dangerous socialist movement. Yet the same old tactical inability to see socialism clearly is preserved in his thinking, as an artefact inherited from his Austrian legatees – and one which he, like so many of his co-thinkers, lugs around and displays as a matter of course. This clung-to and constantly-rehearsed misapprehension is a sign of the dogma’s reliance upon its pet monster as a source of self-definition. It is the same misapprehension which lies at the heart of the Hayekian horror of ‘socialism’, and his elision of that term with any form of statism. It is the same basic assumption underlying the Calculation Debate, and ultimately shared by Hayek’s opponents in that argument – as indeed it was ultimately shared by almost all ‘actually existing leftism’ in the modern era, which allowed its own conception of socialism to be overly dictated by bourgeois civilisation, a fault which even Marx can be found slipping into. And yet there is another version of socialism. The version implied by Marx’s critique of the law of value. The version Marx intimates in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. Civilisation without capital, and consequently without the drive to capital accumulation. (Remember, when Marxists talk of ‘capital’, we are referring to social relations of production and their material embodiments, not simply to money and/or property.) Socialism as the destruction of value – that is, the destruction of social relations embodied as private property, private production, market exchange, etc. The destruction of the commodity form itself, of production geared to profit rather than need. Such a destruction, an actually Marxian Marxism holds, would lead – slowly or quickly is a vexed question which we’ll defer – to the death of the state as it exists: a separated part of society which exists to forcibly express and protect the interests and power of the class of owners. This is the unthinkable version of socialism that seemingly no Austrian (or whatever) can even conceptualise – much as Ireton et al couldn’t even conceptualise the Levellers’ idea of democracy without a property qualification.
The Austrians are not, of course, alone in being unable to conceptualise the stateless and marketless version of socialism. But they have done as much, if not more, than any other ideological variant of reaction to propagate this very conceptual impossibility – and for the same reason that their own inability to conceptualise it is so startling: they have been, apparently by nature and by perpetual fascination, right up close, almost since day one. Born in a counter-revolutionary impulse, they have been hugging Marxism on the brink of the Reichenbach Falls for more than a century, staring into its eyes and struggling intimately for just as long, and have never really seen it. They have spent a long time grappling frantically and hatefully with that which they do not, and will not, look at. The essence of neurosis, of denial.
To be fair, Marxism has spent much of its own lifetime cloaked in the masks draped across it by supposed friends, masks which make it look like the phantom its enemies conjure up in their minds… but even so.
It would normally be depressing to think that even one’s closest enemy is unable to see one clearly. It would normally make one doubt one’s own distinctness. But actually, in this case, it is perhaps encouraging. If even our most radical opponent cannot even conceptualise the extent of our radicalism, then just possibly we have an idea radical enough to change the world to the extent it needs changing. We might just be scary enough if we scare them that much.
Of course, as noted, it isn’t really that the project to destroy value can’t be seen, it’s that it is seen but is so existentially terrifying that it must be denied – much the same way that the Weird suppresses with incomprehension the very horror of modernity which it is based upon refusing to face. But it would have to be that way. As noted, we’re talking about neurotic denial. Well, you don’t – can’t – go into denial about things you actually don’t know. Just as Ireton et al actually did secretly understand the unthinkable proposals being put to them by the Levellers, so the Austrians – some of them anyway – probably could conceptualise the unthinkable version of socialism. You have to know what you are taking care to not be able to understand.
But, just as socialism would actually have to be all about democracy (true economic democracy being the whole point of the destruction of value), so democracy is what cannot and must not be seen. It is thus fetishized even as it is denied. Absolutely central to the entire project of the Austrian School, and to Paul, is opposition to democracy. Democracy is the “great beast” and the “swinish multitude” threatening the liberty of the “minority of the opulent” or, in Ireton’s terms, ‘those with an interest’. Liberty is the key. Democracy is a threat to it. This is present in Ron Paul, the kindly Mr Magoo-like figure who talks a good game about freedom and all that. In fact, it is central to him. For him, freedom is the freedom of property owners to do what they please with the property they own, regardless of the needs or opinions of the propertyless. To put it another way, freedom resides in the individual rather than the social, and the individual rises above the social via property. This is the point at which Paul’s conservatism meets his libertarianism. In this he is paradigmatic rather than atypical. He simply looks atypical because he is atypically ideological about it.
This is not the place to put a full debunk of libertarianism. The world doesn’t need another one of those from me. Nor is it the place to go into my own (rather different) critique of (bourgeois) democracy.
I’ll just say – because it has a wider application – that the libertarian overstatement of the tyranny of the state is based on a negative fetishizing of it. The state is over-separated from the rest of society. Its power is overestimated. This is not to say that the modern state doesn’t have enormous power, but the libertarian idea of the state sees its influence as all-pervasive, even in non-authoritarian societies. It is forgotten that it is only part of a larger matrix of social relations – the vast majority of which, on a day to day level, are to a large extent voluntary, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial. This in no way refutes the Marxist view of the state as part of the rule of a class. Even most relations of control and domination in capitalist societies these days are, at least on the day to day level (and under normal conditions) not directly enforced. Indeed, Marx points out the silent, dull compulsion characteristic of capitalism as distinct from the more direct and violent compulsion intrinsic to feudalism. Even so, the threat and capability of enforcement lurks as a perpetual guarantor. It is just generally not needed on the level of the normal functioning of bourgeois society. The violence is structural. (Again, the reasons for this take us out of our scope, but it’s worth noting that such general consent and cooperation is not something artificial which capitalism creates as a sort of ‘trick’. Rather, capitalist society both generates it and relies on it – in order to facilitate the greater flexibility it requires, owing to the fact that it must run to the anarchic tune of the market.) Paul starts his essay talking about how Americans don’t notice the tyranny of the state. We might pause to note that many Americans have to worry about being shot by police if they go out at night wearing a hoodie, or worry that they will be unable to get an abortion when they need one because the state considers their reproductive organs its business… but of course they’re not the ‘Americans’ Paul is thinking of here. Beyond these ignored realities, it doesn’t seem to occur to Paul that Americans don’t notice the tyranny because this tyranny simply doesn’t exist in most people’s day to day relations. Certainly, the power of the state always exists as a latent potential. But that’s the point – for the most part, most of the time, in most aspects of people’s lives, the latent potential of state enforcement remains just that: latent. This is precisely because, most of the time, people don’t need to be forced to not stab each other, or to provide services for each other within socially-agreed arrangements. Paul talks about the coercion of taxes. And yes, to reframe this idea in Marxist terms, taxes paid to the capitalist state are another way of redistributing value back into the system, using that value to prop up the capitalist system, and – especially in neoliberalism – to redistribute value paid back to workers in wages back to capitalists. However, this isn’t the existential horror of taxes seen by people like Paul. They generalise from their idea of property to the idea of taxes as theft. In the process they not only fail to see the essentially class-based nature of the process, but also fail to see the basic social utility of any form of state. A new socialist society would need a state, and the reason why is nascent within the capitalist state, for all its capitalist orientation: the reproduction of society, by which I mean of the people in society. To be sure, this reproduction is not just done by the state. Nor is it currently done especially well, or disinterestedly. But the fact is that, even in capitalism, the state keeps a lot of people alive and safe. The capitalist state doesn’t do this out of the goodness of its heart, to be sure. It does it for the same reason farmers feed their pigs. The socialist project, initially, needs to harness and generalise this power, to democratise and collectively own it. This is because a socialist state could generalise and extend the function of the capitalist state which, even as it restricts some ‘freedom from’, does so in the course of providing some ‘freedom to’. People like Paul see only the restriction of ‘freedom from’, because their focus is the supposed right of the propertied to be free from any infringement upon their prerogatives. They don’t see the state’s ability – in capitalist society so often only nascent or potential, but extendable if repurposed – to provide ‘freedom to’ to the masses. To this extent they are right to conflate social democracy with socialism or communism. Marx saw the lower or earlier phase of socialism or communism (again, he used the terms interchangeably) as a system with a radically democratic state which provided a massive expansion of ‘freedom to’ to the masses via the abolition of the very relations of production – encapsulated in the social construct of ‘value’ – which currently restrict it far more fundamentally than the state does. And the social democratic project, while deeply imperfect because it did not actually abolish value, was a movement in that direction, because it recognised the potential of the state – even in capitalism – to provide some ‘freedom to’, even if it did mean some intolerable restriction of ‘freedom from’ for the propertied.
This isn’t a defence of capitalism or the capitalist state, simply a recognition that libertarian anti-statism misses the complexity of the issue, precisely because it focuses on any infringement on the prerogatives of capital by the state as tyranny, while missing the more pervasive infringement of capital on the human freedom of labour. Where the state directly infringes on the freedom of the mass of propertyless working people, this is either ignored or co-opted.
This overstatement of the tyranny of the state, which is also a redirection of attention away from the deeper structure of hierarchy and domination in capitalist society, is characteristic of libertarianism. The blindspot seems, to me, to be based on a profound and rather adolescent cynicism about human beings. The idea that the state must tyrannize doctors in order to arrange socialised medicine seems to be based on the unspoken foundational assumption that people will not help each other unless they are forced to. It is simply that the libertarian sympathises with such selfishness. He thus views the horror of socially-arranged altruism as worse than the horror of letting people die for want of medical care.
On what basis is this choice of priorities made? It seems unavoidable that it comes from a prejudice towards the rights and privileges of the well-off over those of the poor… which, to a Marxist, is another way of talking about class struggle, waged for the ruling class. It can hardly be an accident that wittering about the way the state coerces the individual by forcing them to pay tax is a very good way to direct attention away from the more profound exploitation going on at the site of production, which is also collective rather than individual. The libertarian anti-state argument is the exact inversion of the socialist argument. Not because socialism is inherently statist, but because socialism stresses the collective exploitation and structural coercion of the many by private interests, whereas libertarianism stresses the exploitation and direct coercion of the individual by public structures. At every point, libertarianism is an inversion of socialism. This isn’t to say that socialism can’t be ‘libertarian’ in the sense of being concerned for individual freedom; it’s rather to say that actually-existing-libertarianism is a consciously and deliberately anti-socialist project. It isn’t that libertarianism fails to understand that socialism thinks individual freedom can only really come about as a result of collective liberation; it is that in practice, rhetoric aside, libertarianism (right-wing libertarianism anyway) is against individual freedom for all because it depends upon collective liberation. Once again, the way the dogma is formulated leads us to suspect a large degree of unconscious acquiescence to the points supposedly being disputed.