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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tell Me Something I don't Know

Tell me something I don't know as they say on CBS's Chris Mathews Show.

What the hell is a populist-libertarian or libertarian-populist?

In his book The Populist Persuasion Michael Kazin traces "two different but not exclusive strains of vision and protest" in the original US Populist movement: the revivalist "pietistic impulse issuing from the Protestant Reformation;" and the "secular faith of the Enlightenment, the belief that ordinary people could think and act rationally, more rationally, in fact, than their ancestral overlords." - Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, pp. 10-11.

- Producerism-the idea that the real Americans are hard-working people who create goods and wealth while fighting against parasites at the top and bottom of society who pick our pocket...sometimes promoting scapegoating and the blurring of issues of class and economic justice, and with a history of assuming proper citizenship is defined by White males;

- Anti-elitism-a suspicion of politicians, powerful people, the wealthy, and high culture...sometimes leading to conspiracist allegations about control of the world by secret elites, especially the scapegoating of Jews as sinister and powerful manipulators of the economy or media;

- Anti-intellectualism-a distrust of those pointy headed professors in their Ivory Towers...sometimes undercutting rational debate by discarding logic and factual evidence in favor of following the emotional appeals of demagogues;

- Majoritarianism-the notion that the will of the majority of people has absolute primacy in matters of governance...sacrificing rights for minorities, especially people of color;

- Moralism-evangelical-style campaigns rooted in Protestant revivalism... sometimes leading to authoritarian and theocratic attempts to impose orthodoxy, especially relating to gender.

- Americanism-a form of patriotic nationalism...often promoting ethnocentric, nativist, or xenophobic fears that immigrants bring alien ideas and customs that are toxic to our culture.

The resurgent right-wing forms of populism borrow from these traditions. (1)

These six characteristics above mark the establishment academic critique of populism as a proto-fascist movement.

I disagree. As I see it, the essential root of populism in the U.S. is debtor revolt against a creditor elite which has seized control of government to extract rents from the general population by debt and taxes. All the other characteristics cited by establishment academics are transitory contigenicies of historical circumstances. Secondary details, not irrelevant, but secondary consequentials.

Libertarian-populism is rooted in Austrian School economic analysis of money and credit. Populism is like an immune response to the parasitical effects of inflation and debt. The social immune response of populism can cause symptoms that are uncomfortable and even dangerous to an entire society of individuals. But criticizing those symptoms evades the core of disease. That core is best understood by Austrian/libertarian economic analysis.

In a nutshell, libertarian-populism is an accurate explanation of the sentiment for revolt held by the vast majority of people in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries against the Wall Street-Washington 'Axis of Evil'. It is a revolt against the elites' manipulation of money and credit.

Even more bluntly, it's all about the money, stupid!

1) This list is a compilation of points made previously by Canovan and Kazin, as well as John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1972); Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965); and David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement, (New York: Vintage Books, revised 1995, (1988)).

1 comment:

G. Branden Robinson said...

D. Frank,

You wrote:

As I see it, the essential root of populism in the U.S. is debtor revolt against a creditor elite which has seized control of government to extract rents from the general population by debt and taxes. All the other characteristics cited by establishment academics are transitory contigenicies of historical circumstances. Secondary details, not irrelevant, but secondary consequentials.

This comes "dangerously" close to a Marxist dialectic of class struggle. ;-)

Which isn't to say I disagree. But I think Austrian School economics get too much emphasis, and are impotent to explain the new insurgency of left-libertarianism in American politics (which is admittedly sloppily commingled with a self-described progressive movement).

The next baby boom in in full roar right now; there's an entire generation of kids--now voters--who have no recollection of Reagan or Gorbachev, let alone the majority of the Cold War which I'm too young myself to remember.

The Austrians have never commanded the academy, and given the negative growth of their adherency, I daresay never will. And I suspect the looming economic crisis--if that's what it is--will be the death of Greenspan, the Chicago School, and a lot of other theory within the blast radius of the cratering GOP.

The LP, as far as I can tell, has always struggled with relevance. I think this has more to do with the narrowness of its message. The 1984 platform said a lot of things but the conversational themes among Libertarians are disappointingly narrow. If one is a frustrated middle-class entrepreneur who's certain he'll become a captain of industry if only you didn't have to fill out so many forms, maybe the message works.

But the Republican Party co-opted the anti-government message, stripped it of whatever nuance might have been there in the first place, and rode into Washington determined to prove by example their thesis that the State cannot get a single god damn right.

In the meantime, crony capitalism promised much more immediate and tangible rewards to the wannabe Carnegies and Gates--and one has to admit the GOP was much better at being in a position to deliver patronage than any LP politician, whatever his inclinations in that department.

Whatever the excuse for the racist nativist element that crept into Ron Paul's newsletters is, it's not a good one. Timothy McVeigh was not a Libertarian, but one could be forgiven for thinking some of his claimed motives sounded kinda familiar, especially if one heard right-wing talk radio when Clinton was in office.

Now, certainly, an LP libertarian can with perfect justification claim distinctions between himself and the wingnut authoritarians; trouble is, where has the LP been placing the emphasis?

From my vantage point, LP libertarians have been able to tolerate not being listened to on the Drug War or abortion rights, as long as the GOP promised another tax cut.

It might be time to stop fighting against LBJ's Great Society, 'cause we sure ain't in any danger of achieving it. In the meantime I hold the LP responsible in part for the glorious Republican Revolution of 1994. Boy, didn't that turn out great for smaller government?

I think LP libertarians should take a hard look in the mirror and decide if maybe being rhetorical bedfellows--even if only on economic issues--with the premier champions of authoritarianism in America today wasn't an awfully big mistake.

Hey, everyone accuses the Democratic Party of being rudderless and not standing for anything--how about finding some issues they can poach from ya, as the Republicans did so successfully?

An important place to start would be throwing over the Onanistic fascination with Big Business that the LP inherited from Ayn Rand. There's a slim chance that one can grow a company really huge through relatively minor transgressions like systematic violations of antitrust law (see: MSFT), but
everybody knows how Big Businesses stay that way--through government largesse, and legislation customized such that one need never fear one's economic rents drying up.

The demographics are not looking good for the GOP for a while; Ron Paul couldn't be bothered to run on the Libertarian ticket, and the most promising potential "third party" candidate looks to be, uh, Mike Bloomberg. The electorate doesn't appear to be experiencing hunger pangs for a third party. Can the LP afford to wait another generation for things to reconfigure?

I think today's disgruntled voter has had enough of authoritarians both in his government and in the business park. To be gratuitously crude, you don't need Bob Dylan to tell you which way your ass is getting fucked.

Shouldn't diagnose the ills that affect American society today, and go about prescribing solutions? Is today's potential libertarian more furious about the Bush administration wiretapping his phone, torturing people, and killing thousands upon thousands of Americans and Iraqis in a useless war, or is it the prospect of welfare payments, single-payer health care, or government-subsidized student loans that really gets his blood boiling?

Having been born to the LP viewpoint and having lived through
the last eight years, I know what my answer is. At least with taxes I can quantify what I've lost. The ruin that conservatism has wrought on this country cannot be measured.

What I want to see out of libertarianism is a movement tuned to the problems of the 2000s, not the excesses of the damned old New Deal. To that end, I'd like to see a contemporary example of shrewd libertarian thought that doesn't just acknowledged that it's learned something from the fruits of the rhetoric that Ronald Reagan appropriated so casually, but embraces what it's learned.

I tried to chew through Man, Economy, and State a long time ago, but got stopped really early when Rothbard, in building up from microeconomic foundations, casually tossed off a remark about some resources being "free, like air". "Jeez," I said to myself, "here's a guy who hasn't heard of externalities". And sure enough, the subject is nowhere to be found in that gigantic work. Perhaps, as a person with hypersensitive lungs, I am not Rothbard's ideal reader. Maybe the CEO of Massey Energy Company is, but he likely doesn't need Rothbard as an authority to leaven his instinct that mountaintop removal mining is all right with Jesus.

I suspect that the instant a political movement ordains a Holy Book, it's dead. This probably explains why Objectivism never was one, smothered to death at the very moment of its birth under the weight of Atlas Shrugged.

Political movements need books that inspire people to develop their own solutions rather than dictating policy prescriptions.

Forty years ago, Barry Goldwater brought us The Conscience of a Conservative. Last year, Paul Krugman countered with The Conscience of a Liberal.

Let's not have to wait another forty years for the Libertarians to present a compelling case for their own conscience.

In the meantime, I have no finer prescription for myself or anyone else than unalloyed anti-authoritarianism, a principle which knows no creed, and whose adherents are joined only by their visceral opposition to concentrations of power. Government? Church? Business? Irrelevant. Flatten all the hierarchies and let us do!

Iconoclasts of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your illusions!