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Saturday, July 20, 2013

American Libertarianism Is Racist Through and Through

One of the (many) frustrating things about arguing with supposedly "good faith" market libertopians and the supposedly "reasonable conservatives" who sympathize with them is that they will earnestly argue for "less government" or for "smaller government" and yet will rarely indicate at what point government would arrive at less enough government or small enough government to be good enough, and hence they are really merely circumventing the hard questions concerning what government uniquely, indispensably, properly does and how one manages to ensure instituted governments are doing that as well as can be done.

Of course, one suspects that lurking beneath the avowed libertopian shrinkage program is the usual facile anarchist fantasy that Grover Norquist famously gave vent to when he declared small enough government to be "small enough to drown in a bath tub."

Anarcho-libertopians like to crow about their adherence to the principle of "the non-iniation of force" while advocating a social formation consisting of nothing but explicit contractual obligations, and yet they demonstrate little to no awareness of the extent to which contractual arrangements made and maintained in societies stratified by irrational prejudices and inequitable distributions of reliable knowledge, indispensable resources, infrastructural affordances are always inevitably contracts made under duress, and attest to the very force the libertopians presumably disavow. It is precisely the work of democratic governance -- and for citizens and activists working to further democratize the governments to which they are beholden -- to provide nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes (including disputes over what constitutes violence) by providing access to law, by securing rights, by providing welfare entitlements that maintain a legible scene of informed, nonduressed consent, and by administering public and common goods for all in perpetuity.

The problem here is not unique to the right-wing market libertopians and neoliberals: left libertarians and the older socialist traditions of anarchism exhibit the same sort of problem, at once aspiring to "smash the state" as well as to promote "voluntary associations," indifferent to the imbrication of the very accomplishment of "voluntary" practices only through the workings of sufficiently equitable, accountable, democratic governance. While the various anarchisms like to tout themselves as alternate political visions, they always seem to me more or less pre-political visions, often legitimate expressions of distaste for ugly and unfair present states of political affairs, but too often indifferent to the substantial histories out of which irrationalities and injustices actually emerge and almost inevitably indifferent the substantial heartbreaking processes of education, agitation, organization, participation, legislation through which reforms of these irrationalities and injustices actually emerge.

Anarchist visions across the political spectrum from left to right exhibit this same stubborn insubstantiality (and I tend to think this has the entailment that even left anarchism enables right wing reaction in substance far more often than good faith left anarchists should be comfortable with), and I think anarchist and so-called minarchist positions are treated far more generously than they deserve to be as a general matter. Even though libertarian views have never had any real life in American politics except to the extent that they have provided rationales for various white-racist patriarchal plutocratic Republican initiatives, right-wing pundits need only wrinkle their noses in distaste at GOP racism, sexism, and profiteering and declare themselves "more libertarian" in their own personal politics and far too often they get a free pass in conversations or televised roundtables among otherwise comparatively decent, sensible, politically serious people.

In a piece in The Economist Will Wilkinson has highlighted the extent to which, in America at least, genial libertarian generalizations have long been deeply implicated in the terrible substance of white-racist politics in particular. This is a point I often insist on with my own students, and it is enormously important to expose these connections more generally. Wilkinson writes:
[R]ight-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics, which is why the only notable libertarian-leaning politicians to generate real excitement among conservative voters have risen to prominence through alliances with racist and nativist movements. Ron Paul's racist newsletters were not incidental to his later success, and it comes as little surprise that a man styling himself a "Southern Avenger" numbers among Rand Paul's top aides. This is what actually-existing right-wing libertarian populism looks like, and that's what it needs to look like if it is to remain popular, or right-wing... There's a reason we see Republicans resort again and again to a fusion of racially-tinged American-nationalist Christian identity politics, empty libertarian rhetoric (an integral part of traditional white American identity), and the policy interests of high-tax-bracket voters. That's what works! Well-meaning, libertarian-leaning, small-government conservatives must find this awfully frustrating. I find it frustrating. Yet it seems to me a plain fact that there is no significant electoral faction in American politics that demands the joint reduction of government and corporate power. A subset of libertarian ideas has functioned historically with some effectiveness as a stalking horse for white identity politics, which has brought a few authentic and salutary libertarian ideas to public attention, but the integrated principled substance of the libertarian philosophy has never been very popular. Moreover, if it is ever to becomes truly popular -- and I very much doubt it will -- it won't be on the right.
Of course, everybody knows that the selective advocacy of "states rights" functions comparably as code for white racism defended as an abstract opposition to "big government," everybody knows that "welfare queens" "culture of dependency" "food stamp President" and "socialized medicine" function as code for white-racist hostility to programs that value the lives and potential of "unworthy" people of color (even when these programs disproportionately help most people who identify as white) and are all defended as abstract championing of individualism, entrepreneurship, and liberty.

Notice that despite all this, Wilkinson still feels the need to foreground the supposed "frustration" of "well-meaning, libertarian-leaning, small-government conservatives" in exposing these incessant, ineradicable links of "empty libertarian rhetoric" (that recognition of their true emptyness is a possibly accidental revelation that the ones he is excusing actually have no excuse) with "white identity politics"! How frustrating it must be for the poor libertarians to realize that their vacuous ideology has no substance except as a facilitation of white-racist patriarchal corporate-militarism! Won't somebody please think of the privileged white people?

Of course, Wilkinson also genuflects at the end of his piece to the possibility of a more viable left than right populist libertopianism -- but he doesn't even make the least effort to substantiate that absurdity. Of course, there is no substance in left anarchisms either, it is only those self-declared left-libertarians and left-anarchists who are really fighting not to smash but to democratize states that have any future at all, and indispensable to that future is an insistence on education in democracy, non-violent protest, and efficacious reform that Wilkinson seems too nice, I guess, to insist on here. I can certainly attest to the fact that many left anarchists of my personal acquaintance are fine artists, liven up a street protest, know how to throw a good party, and are a good lay. Unlike the right anarchists most of them have no truck with racism, thank heavens (although there are strains of primitivism and fetishism in anarcho-left precincts that can be quite uncomfortably masculinist and orientalist in my estimation). In any case, it is only when left anarchists are attached to labor organizing, civil rights struggles, sustainability education, police accountability politics, and that sort of thing that they do much good, and anarchist theory has nothing of substance to contribute to any of that real democratizing work. Making government more democratic, equitable, diverse, accountable, consensual, sustainable is making government better not smashing government.

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