Summing Up, Part 3
Last time in ‘Summing Up’, we talked about how the right-libertarian “views the horror of socially-arranged altruism as worse than the horror of letting people die for want of medical care” because “libertarianism is against individual freedom for all because it depends upon collective liberation”. This, of course, raises another issue. Where does one draw the line? If socialised medicine is totalitarianism for doctors, why is the tacit threat of destitution which lies behind the wage labour system not considered equally bad? The answer to this question is the same brute and vulgar answer we gave already. It comes down to which side you’re on… which, most of the time, in an instance of capitalism creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of the selfish and cynical actor of its own ideological account of human nature, comes down to which class you’re in, or which class your interests are aligned with.
Let’s pause again to notice all those ‘vons’ in the names of the great Austrians. And let’s also pause to again notice that, in applying such cynicism about human nature, such distrust of democracy, such a strategic splitting of the concept of freedom, and such naked class interests, the libertarians are, indeed, the heirs of the Founding Fathers – not just of the United States but also, as we’ve seen, of Ireton and Cromwell and the equivalent bourgeois revolutionaries in England. They carry many of the most fundamental imperatives of the founders of the bourgeois state into the present era.
The libertarians’ philosophical rationale for this partiality to the rights and privileges of the ruling class, and the attendant indifference to those of the working class, is that private property is the basis of liberty (to the extent that some have taken to rechristening them, far from unjustly, ‘propertarians’). But this philosophical rationale manages the impressive feat of being both a tautology and a contradiction. It’s a tautology because it assumes the point under question. It’s a contradiction because if private property, while conferring liberty on its possessors, also structurally curtails the liberty of the propertyless, then whither the concept of liberty… except as a luxury to be enjoyed by a few? From here the libertarian is inescapably pushed towards somehow justifying the inequity, towards explaining why yes, liberty is a luxury to be enjoyed by a few – and quite right too! And hence we get the various distinct but similar ways in which the different strands of this tradition of bourgeois thinking (libertarianism, classical liberalism, etc) have imported justifications in from outside, from conservatism. The justifications are easy to find. You need only look at the many and drastic specific inequities generated by capitalist society, generalise from them, and amputate history and context so that they appear to have no cause. That’s how you end up with libertarians and liberals enthusing over The Bell Curve, etc.
(The necessary amputation of context is actually especially striking in the case of the libertarians, because a whole host of the inequities they seize upon to justify hierarchy are based on the imperialism – or at least war – they profess to be against. It helps that one can be against today’s racist wars – though not on the grounds of anti-racism, except of the most specious variety – while quietly accepting and utilising the racial inequities inherited from the racist imperialism and colonialism of the past. As usual, reactionary thinking is dependant upon amnesia.)
And again, this is an echo of the processes which can be seen unfolding during the era of the rise of capitalism and bourgeois states. Modern biological racism is the legacy of slavery. Modern slavery – i.e. the global trade in Africans treated as commodities – was developed as an economic imperative, and was foundational to the rise and expansion of capitalism. The ideology of racism, as we know it today, arose as an ideological expression of the political needs of this economic system. Capitalism was rising on the backs of bourgeois revolutions, which overthrew the last declining remnants of feudal economies and their political expressions. These revolutions were led by – and ultimately in the interests of – a rising propertied middle class, the pioneers of today’s capitalists. But, in every case, they could only be carried through with the backing of the insurgent common people. Each revolution of this kind was generated by – and in turn generated – radicalism from below, which went further than the demands of the middle-class rebels at the head. Such radicalism was necessary before becoming a nuisance. In each case, it was eventually put down. Just look at what eventually happened to the Levellers and the Diggers, etc. But key to each of these revolutions were degrees of class compromises between the leaders and the people below, compromises which were expressed in grand rhetoric. In many case, such rhetoric was also a genuine expression of the progressive ideology of the middle-class leaders. But the same rhetoric means different things to different people. It’s notable that, in each case, the rhetoric can often be found being very carefully worded so as to retain a certain nebulous core which is open to eternal interpretation and reinterpretation. Famously, Jefferson’s high-flown words about “all men” being “created equal” are not nearly as sweeping in intent as they sound – and in all such cases, the openness to interpretation was deliberate. Elsewhere in the founding documents of the United States we find the framers deciding how much of a white man a black man is worth. Such caveats had to exist because the entire system was based on the enslavement of black people. If “all men are created equal” then how can you justify keeping some men as farm machinery? It must be because some men do not actually qualify as men at all. Similarly, none of the Founding Fathers actually thought that gentlemen and working men were “equal”. The rhetoric hems and haws, permitting us to interpret that what is meant is that all men have an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which turns out to refer to the equal right of all men to do the best he can for himself on the market.
(We’ve already looked – here and here – at the idea that the market is the place where all virtue is found, the origins of this idea in versions of the Protestantism of the period of early capitalist development, and the centrality of it to the main strand of Austrian thinking.)
This is the liberty that is being sought and prized – the liberty that comes from the ascendancy of market relations. That is nothing to be sniffed at historically. It is, looked at one way, a hard-won triumph over the rigid hierarchies of feudalism. But it opens us up to the horrifying inequities of a system based on private property, not least of which the foundational inequities of race and sex. Hence the new system, which is – from one angle – an explosion of freedom, a victory over the repression of feudalism, also requires a vast edifice of ideological, social, and political control. Such an edifice accretes atop, and then fixes firmly in place, the economic inequality and exploitation of capitalist relations. Scientific racism and sexism emerge. Indeed, they are produced as one part of an entirely new network of concepts about the world, this network itself a social production of the emergent system.
As the American ‘Political Marxist’ Charles Post summarizes it (in the course of a short piece about David Roediger for Salvage):
…most historians and theorists of race acknowledge, the notion of race—that humanity was divided into distinct groups with unchangeable characteristics, making some groups superior and other inferior—emerges in the process of English capitalist colonization of Ireland and colonial Virginia. The notion of race arose to explain and justify slavery and other forms of bondage in societies where legal freedom and equality was becoming the norm. In societies before capitalism, where exploitation takes place through non-economic coercion, inequality was assumed to be the ‘natural’ condition of humanity. Only with capitalism, where exploitation takes place through the ‘dull compulsions of the market,’ can the notion of legal-juridical freedom and equality become the ‘common sense’ of society. Put simply, it is only with the development of capitalism that race becomes a necessary means of explaining and justifying inequality.
Once capitalist social property relations become dominant, the production and reproduction of race is rooted in the dynamics of labor-market competition. Robert Brenner and Johanna Brenner argued in a 1981 essay, that “workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.” As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of politics that pit them against other workers—especially workers in a weaker social position…
In other words, the reproduction of capitalist social property relations through the “dull compulsions of the market” – through accumulation and labor-market competition—that creates the social matrix for the production and reproduction of race.
This isn’t a matter of conspiracy – not even at the formulation of highly convenient theories of scientific racism. It’s an example of ideology arising from, and expressing, the economic base, and thus the interests of the ruling class, and thus interpreting the reality of society. The class with hegemony interprets the facts of its own rule. Its rule is based on the subjugation of non-white races and women, it takes this for granted, so its representatives – who share material interests with it – develops ideas which also take such things for granted. The inquiry starts with ‘why is it necessary?’ rather than ‘is it necessary?’, so the questions asked determine the answers found. Ideas which perform satisfactorily fit snugly into a common sense which legitimises that which already seems legitimate because it exists. Such ideas are selected by the culture because that culture is based on the same economic base. Such processes also generally winnow out the different varieties of such ideas, granting ideological hegemony to the versions most useful at any given time. Ideas which do not satisfactorily justify the existing relations of society are not selected by those who wield power and influence in those existing relations of society. Why should they be? They seem implausible precisely because they do not account for the basic assumption that the existing relations of society are justifiable – which, to the ruling class, they must be. The alternative is to question their own material interests. And people have an amazing capacity to simply not comprehend things which are not in their own material interests.
Generally speaking, the ideology of the capitalist ruling class – while always insistent upon certain basic assumptions, which are solidified until they become methodical approaches – is capable of evolution and change. It needs to be, because society constantly changes and evolves, because capitalism is inherently based on the constant revolutionising of the means and methods of production. Market competition, caused by and serving the self-expansion of capital, demands this. Society being an expression of the economic base, if the economic base is in a constant state of flux, so is society. At a crude level, capitalist societies have been drastically changed by the arrival of the internet, which was the result of an expansion in the capacity of technology. Admittedly, and as is so often the case, the internet was actually invented largely by the state (in the person of the military), using state funds, and the tech was subsequently handed over to the private sector. The private sector is actually nowhere near as good at developing new technology by itself as it, and its supporters, like to claim. Such research and development is hugely expensive and risky. It prefers to let the public sector take such risks for it and then cream off the profits later. But firstly, the separation between the public and private sectors in a capitalist system are nowhere near as foundational and fundamental as many – left or right – will claim. The existing state is inextricably integrated with the private property system on a number of crucial levels. As much as it’s tempting to wave the state origins of the internet in the faces of the private sector’s champions, actually the more fundamental victory over their ideology lies in understanding that there is a dialectical unity between private and public interests in capitalist societies which simply cannot be disambiguated in the crude way they like to claim. Secondly, going back to the specific instance of the internet, while the original technology was developed by the state, it was under the private sector – with its restless and unending drive to revolutionise the means of production in order to expand capital – that the internet changed society almost beyond recognition. This is not, to be sure, entirely down to the genius and vision of the people who run Microsoft and AOL, but it makes the point that capitalist society changes deeply and rapidly owing to capital’s innate drive to revolutionise in order to chase profits. The social changes brought by the internet have had profound effects on the ideology of capitalist society. Not just in the content but in the form, and also in the speed with which ideological change occurs, in the diversification of levels at which different ideologies function and evolve simultaneously, etc. We are not even close to being able to see the full ramifications yet. But we can see some of them, and they’re already having significant effects on our culture – not least in the very growth of the alt-Right as a distinct and disproportionately effective new iteration of fascism.
And here we come back to where we were. Because while the alt-Right is an illustration of how things change, they are also an illustration of how, under capitalism, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Because the alt-Right are a new iteration of some very old ideas. Distinct and with their own quiddity, no doubt, but also clearly a scrambled and mutated resurrection of forms of reactionary ideology going back to the beginnings of capitalist society. Part of the alt-Right’s particular shape is that it comes to us via a particular lineage. It is the offspring of a liaison between the covert forms of white supremacism which have lurked in Western society since the gains of the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s and 70s, and libertarianism – most especially paleolibertarianism – which occupies a position halfway inside the mainstream owing to a few people who exist as dissidents within the establishment (most especially Ron Paul), and is a direct descendant of Austrian ideology via Rothbard. It is thus a meeting of the descendants of fascism and classical liberalism.
And it will be to the such issues that we’ll turn next in this series.
John G. Wood
September 22, 2018 @ 6:35 pm
Thanks for that – this is another of your essays where you clarify a subject I’ve got a vague handle on, but not enough to explain my thoughts to myself, let alone other people. It’s very helpful!