Thursday, January 5, 2012

Corey Robin on "Ron Paul's Two Problems"

See Robin's piece here. His argument is that "Ron Paul has two problems, one his and another ours". By "ours" he means "the Left" (more on that below). The problem "we" have is that our side doesn't "really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating."

Paul's problem is that he is, well, Ron Paul. Set that aside.

Does Robin have a point regarding the need for a strident anti-imperialist voice on "the Left"? Yes and no, depending on what we mean by "the Left". Robin, to his credit, is quite clear what he means by "the Left": "I mean a left that's social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it". He doesn't come out and say so, but it's possible he also means to say electoral Left and, more specifically, the Left wing of the Democratic Party. He might also mean to say that he wishes that there were a presidential candidate who was both "Left" (in his sense) and also vociferously anti-imperialist.

Now, there is a sense in which I agree with Robin here. All of the political confusion generated by the 2012 campaigns presents challenges for the Left. Anyone who is against the wars, who is attracted to principled anti-imperialist positions, cannot be satisfied with the bellicose, empire-expanding, drone-loving Democratic Party (or its representative in the White House). Thus, in the context of a media that vastly over-inflates the importance of the Republican primaries, some (otherwise left-leaning) people are attracted to Ron Paul's arguments against the wars. It is a shame that some people—who may not have any contact with the organized Left—may be tempted to conclude that Ron Paul-style hard-Right politics are the only anti-war politics on offer. Robin is also surely correct to say that Paul doesn't oppose war and imperialism for the right reasons. He is coming from a pro-nationalist and pro-isolationist (and, I would add, racist) position that informs his anti-immigrant xenophobia as much as his stance against foreign interventions.

I also agree with Robin that it would be nice if there were a visible "Left" figure who had the opportunity to make principled anti-imperialist arguments to a mass television audience. I wish there were a Left figure of this sort who was given the light of day by the media in order to bludgeon the lousy Democrats from the Left. I've even thought a couple of times recently that it would be nice to have a third-party Left candidate who was able to at least get a critical message out via the Presidential media frenzy (although this strategy has its limitations as well). On this much I can agree with Robin.

But there are several deep problems with his analysis.

First, there already is a principled, intellectually rigorous anti-imperialist Left in the US, although it is marginalized by the two-party system and the media. Moreover, the Occupy movement has adopted generally anti-war positions and has frequently made use of slogans such as "end the wars, tax the rich!" and "money for jobs and education, not for wars and occupations". In Chicago, the Occupy movement joined in marching against the occupation of Afghanistan. But Robin seems less interested in these developments than he is in having a "strong national state" that can "ally" with movements. Set aside the problems with this view about the relationship between movements and the State for the moment (I concede that I not have yet not read Robin's elaborations on this topic on his blog). Robin's main lament here seems to be that there is no visible figure or candidate (in the mold of Ron Paul except left-wing) making anti-imperialist arguments on prime time television. That's not, in the first instance at least, a lament that there's no movement—it's an expression of frustration that there are no electoral candidates making use of the "proper channels" to make anti-imperialist arguments. As far as it goes, I wouldn't mind if there were a Nader-like figure making anti-imperialist and anti-austerity arguments on prime time TV right now. But I hardly think that's the be-all-end-all of politics. I'm far more interested in the promise of Occupy, that is, in the power of strikes, mass demonstrations, workplace actions, occupations, mic checks, community pickets, direct actions, and all the rest of it. What's more, it is no exaggeration to say that the resistance of extra-electoral social movements are the key to explaining virtually all progressive changes in his US history. The Democrats, on the other hand, are a graveyard of progressive social movements, not a force for progressive change. The Democrats started every war that the US was involved in during the 20th century—they've never been and never will be anti-imperialist. Movements are the way forward, and the State and the two-party system are nothing but obstacles.

Second, one answer to Robin's complaint that the liberal Left isn't anti-imperialist would be to say, "well, what does that say about the politics of the liberal Left in the US?" He complains that the "welfare state liberal" Left doesn't have enough staunch anti-imperialists, but I would reply that that simply speaks ill of the liberal Left in the US. Paul Krugman, a liberal if ever there was one, has consistently spoken out against the Iraq War. But he's no principled anti-imperialist and doesn't offer wide-ranging "pungent" critiques of imperialism. Neither do the editorial board of the American Prospect or The Nation. Why might that be? One reason has surely got to be that anti-imperialism is, at least in its classical form, generally anti-capitalist. Imperialism is the violent military form that international economic competition takes in a global capitalist system. It makes little sense to impugn one without criticizing the other, given their intimate relationship.

Third, Robin is wrong about the State and gives generally unconvincing arguments against Paul's "federalism". First off, Ron Paul and "libertarians" are not genuine federalists. To be sure, Robin is right that White Supremacists and other reactionaries have inhabited the language of Federalism when it suits them. But it's window-dressing. They aren't for genuine local-level democratic control of anything—just try asking Ron Paul if he'd allow workers in a company town to democratically run the factory themselves without the boss. Paul, after all, is no fan of democracy. He believes that capitalist markets should determine what our society is like—hence his fundamental distrust of the popular will of the people expressed through democratic self-rule. There is a large sense in which a genuinely democratic society would require a massive decentralization of power compared to really existing US capitalism. That point gets lost in Robin's argument re: the need for a strong national state.

Moreover, "libertarians" like Paul are not anti-State. They love the State. Neither are they anti-intervention. They love intervention as well. Everything depends on what the State does and how it intervenes. When workers refuse to obey the authority of their bosses—Ron Paul says call in the authorities to protect the property of the capitalist class. When workers go on strike—Ron Paul says call in the State's bodies of armed men to break the picket. When masses of black people revolt against police brutality and repression
—Ron Paul stands firmly with the racist cops in calling for violence from above. When landless peasants try to occupy the land of colonial elites—Ron Paul and libertarians are for vigorous state intervention to stop the peasants from fighting colonial oppression. When movements arise that challenge the legitimacy of capitalism, you can bet that Ron Paul (and every last "libertarian" on the planet) will be rooting for the coercive power of the State military to put down the uprising by force. The fact is, without a coercive, interventionist State, you simply couldn't have the system—capitalism—that Paul favors. At least Fredrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were honest about this feature of their politics (both, after all, were enthusiastic supporters of the brutal Right-wing Pinochet dictatorship given that it was staunchly neoliberal and anti-socialist). Capitalist property relations require a coercive State that maintains the unequal power of the ruling class.

Of course, when the State is forced—by pressure from below generated by movements—to relent and give concessions to try to undercut challenges to its authority, Ron Paul is against those State interventions. When the labor movement explodes in the 1930s and wins concessions from the State (e.g. Social Security, collective bargaining rights, etc.), Ron Paul is against that kind of State activity. When black people die tearing down Jim Crow and, in the process, win modest gains from the political system, Ron Paul is anti-State. When the womens' movement wins abortion rights and anti-harassment legislation, Paul cries foul and whines of excessive "State interference". When people like Ralph Nader challenge the Big Three and win safety regulations on car corporations, Ron Paul complains of a "tyrannical" State.

What this shows is that he, and other defenders of capitalism, love certain interventions and hate others. They love interventions that protect the privileges and powers of property owners. They hate the interventions that reduce the power and privileges of business—even when these "interventions" vastly increase the freedom of marginalized groups.

The fact is that talk of "limited government" is nothing but rhetoric. Those who extol the virtues of "small government" say one thing and do another—they are all about a government that doesn't limit the freedom of the ruling class but they could give a fuck about the freedom of the rest of us. And when the majority of us get restless, all that "small government" talk is lost in the fray of riot gear, bullets, billy clubs, tear gas, and calls for "law and order". The question of whether government should be "big" or "small" is vacuous. It's far better to ask: who controls the government? Whose interests does it serve? Or: to what extent is our whole society
—including the economygenuinely self-governing? And: to what extent do dominant groups make use of the existing government apparatus to extend and consolidate their power? The talk of "big" and "small" government is nothing but ideological bile. Let's talk about power, who has it, how they use it, and what we need to do to fight back.


Anonymous said...

I hate the term "anarcho capitalist". It is a contradiction in terms. First of all, capitalism is by definition hierarchical (it's based on the private, exclusive ownership of the means of production by a minority of the population). And, as you point out, no defender of capitalism can really condemn the State itself... because the State is necessary to stabilize and maintain the unequal relations of power that are a constitutive part of what capitalism is. So it's fucking meaningless to say one is an "anarcho capitalist"... since that makes it seem like you're against the State but for capitalism, which doesn't make any sense. Capitalism requires a State, and sometimes different parts of the ruling class want that State to do different things at different times. Sometimes the ruling class needs it to invest in infrastructure and fixed capital... sometimes it needs it to intervene in foreign countries to defend US business interests abroad, but it also might want the State to stop regulating and taxing the rich so that they can maximize profit. But when struggle escalates, the minority ruling class knows (even if stooges like Ron Paul don't realize it) that the State is a necessary instrument of repression that is all that is standing between the 1% and the angry 99%.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely stated. I think in the present context 'libertarianism' etc. are just rhetorical poses, operating exactly as you say they are. It's an "individualism" for elites, one that's directly purchased at the expense of everyone else's "individualism" and made pretty (if you can call it that) with Ayn Randian fairy tales. (with excuses to the noble tradition of fairy tales).

Richard said...

It is hard for some people on the left to accept that any space that may have existed for anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist expression within the mainstream since the 1960s or 1970s evaporated a long time ago. Based upon what happened to Nader and Kucinich, we have a pretty good idea of what would happen if anyone attempted to do what Robin suggests. Nader was vilified and than ignored, partially because of his own inability to reach working class voters, and Kucinich always served the purpose of keeping people inside the Democratic Party, which was conclusively proven when he voted for Obama's health care bill.

The real issue of 2012 is the loss of the legitimacy of the political process for millions of Americans. That's why Occupy emerged. The 2012 campaign will be striking in terms of the lack of any engagement with issues of concern for most Americans, poverty, foreclosures, lack of jobs, seemingly interminable occupations abroad like Afghanistan. Instead, it will be mostly about deficit reduction and attacking Iran. Obama has exposed the illusion of the American political process and the consequences will play out for many years.

t said...

-sf said...

I'm glad Richard said it, but reading your post I was thinking, "now what about Kucinich?" Sure he never approached Paul's level of fandom, but I remember voting for Kucinich in 2004 precisely because he was the only anti-imperialist candidate. Paul's appeal is a factor of the circus sideshow like quality of this primary, not his isolationist politics. I doubt Paul will get many votes outside of Iowa, and I expect we won't be talking about for much longer... well there's always four years from now...

Jon said...

Richard, I understand that the circumstances surrounding Kucinich's flip flop on health care are a little odd, possibly mitigating. Apparently he vowed to oppose it because it lacked the public option and he received a lot of monetary support from individuals for that stance and to give him support in his efforts to demand a public option.

Obama then told Kucinich he needed to take a ride with him on his plane. Kucinich did so. When they landed reporters asked him what happened. He declined to comment. He returned the money sent by supporters. He announced he would support the bill. Something happened on that plane that obviously had a big effect on Kucinich. Either a big carrot or a big stick. Or both. Kucinich refuses to say so far.

Notice also that Kucinich didn't run for the Democratic primary. I think he'd have made a big impact if he did so, the left being so outraged at Obama. Why didn't he?

t said...

@sf I think you're right that we won't be hearing about Paul after a few weeks. I was hesitant to even bother writing about him, given that I think he is way out of step and that his neoliberal politics are very far from where most people are at right now. Part of me wanted to simply refrain from giving him (and the goons on the Right that he tends to associate with) the time of day. But given the media attention he seemed to be getting, I thought it might we worth using him as an occasion to get clearer on what the Left should stand for.

If anyone is interested in my musings on the Kucinich thing, see here: Be curious to know what you think. I agree with the analysis of the plane ride. But Kucinich has always capitulated to the Democrat mainstream. That seems to be his basic function: to rope in progressives and then to send them to hold their noses and vote for the "lesser evil". He advocated a vote for Kerry in 2004 even though Kerry was pro-war and anti-single payer.

t said...

@Richard I think you're right that the 2012 elections will further disenchant Americans with the broken electoral system. My hope is that this further erodes its perceived legitimacy so that people will feel more confident and empowered to stand up and engage in collective struggle (rather than trusting the Democrats and organizations/groups subservient to them). This seems most likely to happen if it is Romney vs Obama, because they are so close ideologically. With Gingrich or Santorum liberals will have an easier time making Obama look like a lefty. But even if it is Santorum vs Obama, I think we're looking at tweedle dee and tweedle dum. Sure, it's easy to focus on Santorum's wildly homophobic statements and paint him as an extremist (and, to be fair, on those issues he is). But the amount of political ground that he and Obama share together dwarfs the areas where they choose different rhetorical strategies. And, on the front of LGBTQ liberation, it's not as if Obama (or his party) is a genuine ally. That battle will be won by hard-fought struggle from below, not by Democrat politicians.

t said...

More shameless self-promotion:

On a primary challenge to Obama:

On Bill Fletcher-style Lesser Evilism: