In my opinion, any account of the rise of the alt-right, especially one which emphasizes the role of libertarianism, and thus the distal causal role of the Austrian School of economics, must begin with Ron Paul.
In his essay ‘On Social Sadism’, published in the journal Salvage, China Miéville recounts an occasion when
[a]t a debate between Republican candidates in September 2011, Wolf Blitzer, the chair, mooted the case of a hypothetical thirty-year-old uninsured man who becomes sick. ‘[C]ongressman,’ Blitzer asks Ron Paul, ‘are you saying that society should just let him die?’
‘Yeah!’ comes a shout from the audience. A smattering of applause. The shout is repeated, and again, and the applause grows.
Paul retired from politics in 2013, but his shadow is long on the libertarian Right. After the above exchange, Paul – a former medical doctor and a fervent libertarian, indeed a ‘paleolibertarian’, a follower of the syncresis of libertarianism and far-right conservatism invented by Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell – suggested that the hypothetical man in the question should have a private medical plan. “We’ve given up on this concept that we might assume responsibility for ourselves, that our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it,” opined Paul sententiously. He later clarified his position on Twitter saying that “[t]he individual, private charity, families, and faith based orgs should take care of people, not the government.” Recognisably a species of the same weaselly ‘Big Society’ argument employed around the same time by the coalition government in the UK as its Tory leaders tried to find a way to reconcile lethal austerity with their claim to no longer being ‘the nasty party’. Charity as a moral imperative, supplanting the need for socialised care. Chilly Victorian workhouse morality, dressed up as a plaintive cry for us all to be nicer to each other (so no surplus value has to be diverted anywhere useless). Paul’s iteration has a more overtly Christian flavour, as befits American politics, and a tang of his ostensible anti-authoritarianism, but it boils down to the same thing: a thoroughly neoliberal impulse to relieve the state of its responsibilities to its subjects, while framing this as asking the subjects to take back control of their responsibilities. In Cameron’s version, the emphasis was more on countering a supposed culture of dependence, whereas in Paul’s the emphasis was more on encouraging individual liberty. But we’re splitting hairs. The difference here is, as I say, a matter of emphasis. And we learn a lot from the fact that the same argument, with tweaks for tone, can be advanced from what are supposedly ideologically distinct varieties of conservatism.
Neoliberalism is a broad church. This has been true since its birth, since the Mont Pelerin Society included Austrians and monetarists, neoconservatives and ordoliberals. It is key to its success. The collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas speaks to its status as a class project rather than a distinctly ideological one. It’s one of the tragic ironies of history that the revolutionary projects of the ruling class are (or at least can be) marked by tolerance and cooperation between different branches of ruling class ideology, whereas the revolutionary projects of the working class have tended to be marked by the exact opposite. The structural reasons for this are outside our scope here.
There are several interesting things about the example cited above. One is the way it showcases how the broad church of neoliberalism includes also some of those on the outside, those listening to the sermon from the graveyard, those who feel that they are critics of the system from the Right. In that instance, Paul and the heckler are allies, even if Paul wants to distance himself publically from that kind of overt sadism, and even if the heckler imagines he is goading someone he’d probably now call a cuckservative (which would be ironic, as we’ll see). They both fit nicely into the same sadistic system, as Miéville implies. But it’s interesting to ponder the dynamic, which is probably best described as ‘dialectical-escalating-sympathetic-mutual-goading’. What my Mum used to call (with reference to my toddler self and my fellow tartrazine-crazed little friends): ‘winding each other up’.
If Paul is somewhat caught in the crossfire there, then he only has himself to blame. His is a polite, mannered, besuited, oddly-Ian-Mckellen-lookalike variety of exactly the same savagery. For all his raging at the machine, he rages from within the machine. And he is implicated in fostering the culture which produced and encouraged the heckler. He is directly implicated via not only his policies and ideological pronouncements, but also via his more behind-the-scenes involvement in the ecology of the US Right, and its means of ideological production.
Paul – quondam Randian, like so many of them (it’s almost as if Rand is baptism of nonsense they have to go through in order to accept the ostensibly saner versions of the same thing) – is a ‘Senior Fellow’ of the Mises Institute, an avowedly Austrian institution which promotes praxeology, and which was co-founded by Rothbard. He is vocal a supporter of Austrian economics and has advocated Austrian ideas in several books. He is, as I say, a libertarian. His variety of libertarianism is paleolibertarianism, which stems directly from Rothbard and Rockwell.
Paul’s defining principle is his open opposition to democracy, even bourgeois democracy.
In an article entitled ‘Democracy Isn’t Freedom’, which can be read at LewRockwell.org (more on this gentleman later), Paul says:
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.
He goes on to defend this view on constitutionalist grounds. The Founding Fathers and their founding documents were not, he correctly notes, concerned with democracy but with defending private property from the mob.
Paul is a crucial and liminal figure, and an embodiment of certain connections.
Paul is a Senior Fellow at the (tax exempt, thank heaven) Mises Institute – founded by Rothbard and Rockwell, and financially backed by, among others, Hayek and Mises’ widow. He’s probably the most high-profile and widely respected of all the libertarians in American politics, even if he is routinely marginalised by the US media owing to his vocal opposition to overseas military adventures – a stance which puts him outside the range of what the ideological mainstream of an imperial system considers as sanity.
He is also probably the best known public advocate of Austrian economics. He’s written several books puffing Austrian ideas and his version of the philosophy of ‘classical liberalism’. He is famously committed to the policy of scrapping the Federal Reserve. His critique of the Fed has superficial appeal for many on the Left in US politics, including Paul’s friend Bernie Sanders. He’s also famously committed to the policy of returning to the gold standard, a standard obsession among America’s libertarian reactionaries. This he inherits more-or-less directly from Rothbard, via what the Economist once called Rothbard’s “reflexive opposition” to inflation and his advocacy of gold. Whatever one thinks of Paul’s critique of the Fed – as elitist, unconstitutional, corrupt, a mechanism for wielding inflation as a regressive stealth tax, a way of funding wars, etc – it functions as a distraction from the more fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system. As noted, such arguments have attracted soft-left social democrats (Jon Stewart is another admirer) but also earned the approbation of far-Rightists like Pat Buchanan. One of Paul’s most bizarre claims is that ending the Fed would bring an end to capitalist crises… though he, of course, talks about it ending the “business cycle”. But, as even Time managed to point out:
Paul utterly fails to back this claim up in the book, because he can’t. We’ve had recessions and depressions in the U.S. both with central banks (the Fed and its two predecessors, the First and Second Banks of the United States) and without them. It’s true that Fed backers have repeatedly claimed through the decades that wise central bankers had figured out how to stop the business cycle, and repeatedly been wrong about that. There’s also an argument to be made—although the evidence is mixed at best—that central banks exacerbate the business cycle. But saying that we would have no more economic ups and downs if the Fed were shut down is utopian fantasizing.
As is customary with Austrians, Paul fails to address the issue of what caused crises before the invention of central banks. Paul cites President Andrew Jackson as instituting various Austrian – or at least libertarian – policies avant la lettre. Paul is mysteriously less ready to talk about the fact that the US was almost immediately thereafter plunged into one of the worst panics and depressions in its history. Jackson – slave-owner and genocidal foe of Native Americans – implemented proto-Austrian economic measures, and completely failed to avert the curse of the ‘business cycle’. So this kind of theorising is all very well in theory (as long as you’re a white racist imperialist) but doesn’t work in practice because of… well, that’s the question isn’t it.
Paul is a populist, at least in form, and his anti-Fed obsession is a revival of an old populist demand. But, in practice, his aims would result in the exact opposite of the aims of old-style populism.
19th century populism – for instance in the person of William Jennings Bryan – was opposed to central banks for the very good reason that they feared central banks would be the tools of financiers against ordinary people. They hoped that the dire effects of capitalist competition on small farmers and small businesspeople would be reduced by raising commodity prices and lowering interest rates, which would be achieved through paper money backed by gold and silver. But the difference is that the aims of Bryan and his kind of populism were all about trying to ameliorate capitalism for the ordinary folk, the petit bourgeoisie and small yeoman farmers, who they took (following the Jeffersonian tradition) to be the backbone of America. Paul’s brand of populism, drawn as it is from Austrian dogma (which is, as we’ve seen, inherently a brand of ruling class ideology), aims for higher interest rates (the ‘natural’ rate of interest) etc, to effect the sacrifice such people to the system, to hasten their demise in the crisis, and to thus hasten the system’s self-correction.
Those reactionaries and libertarians in the US who go in for making a fetish of the gold standard and demand an end to the Fed – almost all to be found in the squeezed middle, the petty bourgeoisie, etc – are actually demanding their own fast-motion annihilation, as opposed to the slow-motion annihilation that has been wrought on, say, independent farmers in the US by neoliberalism. Yet another irony is that such people formed a large core of Trump voters. They allowed the pseudo-populism of people like Paul, itself a resurrected version of old populism that was once embraced by people like them but which is now irrelevant, to guide them towards the arms of another pseudo-populist, one even less principled.
So, we’ve established his Austrian sympathies, his drawing on their ideas. This isn’t exactly a major revelation. He isn’t shy about it. He used to have portraits of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard on his office wall.
Paul has run for the Republican Presidential nomination several times, and though he never got close to winning, he always attracted millions of dollars of donations and a fanatical fanbase. A report by ABC News described the “young, anti-establishment, insurgent style” of Paul’s 2007 campaign, and the fact that “[n]early 70 percent of the more than $5 million Paul raised in the past three months came from the Internet, according to Paul’s fundraising director, Jonathan Bydlak”. Despite spending time during the campaign hobnobbing with his friends at the Mises Institute, Paul relied on a viral buzz generated by his passionate, rebellious, iconoclastic tone. He pitched himself to the young white men of the internet as a rebel right-winger, using libertarian ideas. His was to be a ‘Ron Paul Revolution’, storming the barricades for a paleolibertarian manifesto. A concoction of small-government, ‘taxation if theft’, free-market rhetoric with hardline conservative stances such as opposition to abortion. The signature of paleolibertarianism is the superficially logical fusion. Be anti-war for the same reason you’re anti-immigration, i.e. it’s not America’s job to help the world (a stance which, far from making him a rebel, puts him in bed with the liberal mainstream in that it accepts the claims of empire at face value). Be anti-socialised medicine for the same reason you’re anti-authoritarian, i.e. only markets bring freedom and state intervention is authoritarianism. All of it flavoured with yet more points that flow with apparent logic from the first premises: populist opposition to ‘wasteful government spending’, etc.
In his voting record, Paul is intensely conservative when it comes to economics – which basically means he is committed to never raising taxes. When it comes to social issues, he is considered ‘moderate’, which means he occasionally takes what the trad-con and Right-Christian ethos dominating the GOP sees as eccentric deviations, i.e. his opposition to the death penalty. Paul’s perennial opposition to America’s foreign wars, including the ‘War on Drugs’, was both his major stumbling block within the political establishment and one of the things that made him most attractive to disaffected conservatives and libertarians on the outside. To the liberal mainstream of the US imperial system, marks him out as incipiently insane – which only makes him more attractive to his online fanbase of right-wing wannabe rebels. There is a strong strand in the alt-Right and alt-Lite – and perhaps especially in their many useful idiot ‘classical liberal’ fellow travellers – of pride at the idea of themselves as non-doctrinaire and non-ideological. This is specious, but it is also powerful. It is one reason why Jordan Peterson – with his basic shtick of presenting himself as an opponent of ideology – has been such a hit with them. It stems from the same internal logic which has led to the strong crossover from the supposedly ‘sceptic’ community, etc. The very idiosyncratic incoherence of people like Paul is part of the aesthetic logic backing up such ideas. It is part of how such people can imagine themselves to be rebels or non-conformists – which is a vital part of the allure. It is, as is so often the case here, the very smothering hegemonic group-think of modern mainstream neoliberalism which opens windows like this for the far-Right.
For instance, Paul’s adherence to ideological libertarianism also leads him, paradoxically, into opposition to neoliberal institutions like NAFTA and the WTO. Another sign that, though neoliberalism is unquestionably the child of Hayek, today’s Austrians and libertarians can’t help but be disappointed by his child. Their dogma fails to understand the actual historical practice of capitalism, so ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ is inevitably disappointing to them in many respects – even as it fulfils much of the spirit but not all the letters of their incoherent and ahistorical ideas. In practice, it is all Hayekian ‘exceptions’, and so falls short of the soaring rhetoric he uses elsewhere – the rhetoric his followers continue to take seriously, while refusing to reckon with his contradictions. Similarly, they refuse to reckon with the same contradictions as they manifest in his child. But the escape logic is built in. It’s the state’s fault, socialism’s fault, etc. If neoliberalism isn’t what they wish it was, that’s not because Hayek’s vision was incoherent, it’s because socialism has snuck back in and screwed things up. Such are the comforts of the ideologue.
Paul also embraces the neo-confederate adjacent principle of the constitutionality of secession. Neo-confederate ideas are indulged by Mises.org and LewRockwell.com. ‘States Rights’ rhetoric – which you can find in Rothbard – is a perfect illustration of how paleolibertarianism melds racist conservatism with libertarian noises about liberty. That was always, of course, the point of ‘States’ Rights’. The stance could’ve designed to appeal to the alt-Right. In fact, given paleolibertarianism’s origins in strategy, one can reasonably say it was designed for the alt-Right – before the alt-Right even existed.
This is another way of saying it helped bring the alt-Right into existence.