What About the 'Real' Left?

Article by Anthony Gregory.


Every time I criticize the left for being soft on the police state and war machine, I’m chastised for confusing moderate Democrats with the “real left.” I’m told that the true left is consistently antiwar and holds no brief for Barack Obama or his party. I heard this again in response to my recent LRC column, “Why the Left Fears Libertarianism.”

It sounds good, and there is a whiff of truth to it. The civil libertarian lawyers taking the administration to task for his detention policy, many journalists exposing the evils of the war and corporate state, and radical scholars in academia see themselves as being on the left, and they are often critical of the regime for sound reasons. Tom Woods estimates, perhaps jokingly, that the number of principled folks on the left must be somewhere around 37. I let him know that I found this to be an optimistically high figure.

Certainly, the principled voices on the left are a distinct minority. If a handful of liberal bloggers, seditious historians, criminal defense attorneys and ex-Marxist journalists are all the “true left” is reduced to, then I suppose this country is over 97% conservative.

Some will respond, as they often do, that this is an unfair characterization of “true conservatism”! Indeed, every time I condemned Bush’s profligacy and foreign aggression, I was taken to task for calling his administration “conservative.” You see, “true conservatives” oppose unprovoked wars, violations of the Bill of Rights, state intrusion into personal affairs, big government programs of all kinds, corporate welfare, and everything else the Republican Party has dedicated itself to for 150 years.

Give it up, guys. According to common use, and in actual practice, conservatism loves the military and police state and leftism loves leviathan, and ultimately this means both camps accept the fundamental premises and key policies of the modern state.

Many libertarians have tried to put our philosophy on one side of the spectrum or the other. Are we, like the Old Right, the true conservatives? Or are we the real left, as Rothbard suggested in his very important essay, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty“? I am more open to the latter interpretation as a matter of historical dialectics, but what is its relevance today? My friend Jeff Riggenbach has carried the flame of this interpretation, making as good a case as has been made in recent years. He writes in his great book American History is Not What They Say:

[A] brief look at the history of the relevant political terms – Left and Right, liberal and conservative – will persuade us that libertarianism has absolutely nothing in common with anything on the Right. For it is as the anarchist Murray Bookchin said back in 1978: “People who resist authority, who defend the rights of the individual, who try in a period of increasing totalitarianism and centralization to reclaim these rights – this is the true left in the United States. Whether they are anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, or libertarians who believe in free enterprise, I regard theirs as the real legacy of the left […].” And what about the socialists, the Maoists and Trotskyites, and the liberals of the Democratic party? Bookchin was asked. What about the people most Americans regarded as “the Left”? Those people, Bookchin replied, were “going toward authoritarianism, toward totalitarianism.” They were “becoming the real right in the United States.”

Bookchin was referring here to a conception of Western political history in which, as Karl Hess had put it a few years earlier, on “the far right […] we find monarchy, absolute dicatorships, and other forms of absolutely authoritarian rule,” while the Left “opposes the concentration of power and wealth and, instead, advocates and works toward the distribution of power into the maximum number of hands.” Just as the farthest Right you can go is absolute dictatorship, Hess argued, so “[t]he farthest left you can go, historically at any rate, is anarchism – the total opposition to any institutionalized powetary social organization […].”

This is all well and good, but does anyone today go about his day as though this schematic held ground? How useful is it to say Ron Paul is to the left of Nancy Pelosi, that Barry Goldwater was to the left of Fidel Castro, that Pat Buchanan is to the left of Rachel Maddow?

I think the problem arises in assuming leftism or rightism pertains primarily to what one thinks of state coercion. A better, richer explanation of left and right, one that reconciles Rothbard’s exposition with our understanding of today’s political spectrum, can be found in Brian Patrick Mitchell’s 8 Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at Left and Right.

Mitchell has written, in my opinion, the best explanation of the political spectrum. It makes sense of all the major mysteries: why left-liberals are opposed to the major threats to liberty in one instance, then switch over to the side of tyranny, allowing conservatives to seemingly fill the gap in the power dynamic; why conservatives favor some liberties and not others; where libertarians fit in all this. He surveys the history of Western politics, shedding light on centuries of shifting alliances and political orientations from antiquity through the Protestant Reformation to the American Revolution, the 1960s, and modern times.

What is most illuminating is that left and right are not actually defined in terms of how much one favors the state. Rather, the conventional spectrum relates to views toward social hierarchy, tradition and egalitarianism. Defining “archê” in terms of social hierarchy and “kratos” in terms of state power, Mitchell writes: “As it happens, our conventional distinction of Left and Right is mostly a matter of archê and not kratos.” Mitchell explains:

The groups that matter most to the Right are inherently archical and paternal: family and church for republicans, commercial corporations and government itself for plutocrats. Among government agencies, the Right is more inclined to trust rank-conscious agencies like the military and the police, and the executive branch in general.

By contrast, the Left is more at ease with the free-for-all of democratic politics and less comfortable with archical agencies, which it disdains as authoritarian.

So there is the traditional spectrum of left and right, which used to coincide well with those who favored liberty and those who opposed it, since all hierarchical groups – the church, clan, the economic centers of authority – were more closely identified with political power. In the last couple hundred years, the state has become conceptually and materially separated from these institutions, especially the church, which has led to the shifting meanings of left and right. Mitchell builds a vertical axis to complement the horizontal one, a new spectrum that signifies one’s support for or opposition to coercion, especially state coercion, orthogonal to his regard for social hierarchy.

Thus when a radical leftist supports using the state for ends he deems appropriate, just like his mirror image theocon on the right, both of whom are on neither extreme vertically regarding state power as an end it itself, it all makes internal sense:

Like the Theocon, the Radical justifies the use of force by its ends. If it frees us from the tyranny of tradition, greed, and archy, it is good; if it strengthens the hand of the repressive social or commercial order, it is bad. Prayer in public schools is bad, but sex education in the same schools is good. Campaign finance reform is good, but “censorship” in public funding of the arts is bad. Again, the inconsistency only exists for the more politically minded, who see the world quite differently than both the Theocon and the Radical.

The left tends to favor those rights that are “new” – such as sexual liberties – and look upon older freedoms, like the right to bear arms, with suspicion. The conservative reverses this predisposition. The policies advocated by both left and right are not guided primarily by a concern for liberty, or statism for its own sake, but by a desire to shape society along the lines they envision, whether through expanding government or retracting it.

Mitchell’s book explains communitarians, paleocons, individualists, and left anarchists so as to bring logic to all these seemingly inexplicable groups. The paleolibertarian, Mitchell explains, is primarily concerned with opposing the state. Unlike the radical left he is not necessarily hostile to social authority and unlike the right he is at peace with letting voluntarism sort things out.

While always darkly critical of existing governments, the Paleolib is confident of man’s ability to live without government. He believes that virtually everything that governments have tried to manage – from lighthouses to law enforcement – can be better managed by private persons or groups. . . .

The Paleolib is. . . inclined against using force to defend traditional religion and morality. Although close to the Paleoconservative in overall outlook, the Paleolib trusts that the social order will not need defending once the threat of government is removed.

During the Bush years, the biggest governmental threat in America was the right – the red-state fascists, as Lew Rockwell aptly called them. The threat of modern conservatism is still about as stark as it was back then, and it can always seize power and once again become the principal and pressing danger to freedom.

But under Obama we have seen the reinvigoration of the progressive left – perhaps the worst element of the left. It distrusts social authority, but not as much as the radical left, and not when that social authority – corporations, unions, even religious institutions – can be co-opted for the purpose of advancing the state. The progressives truly are the tradition that destroyed liberalism in America, erected a national police state, embraced corporatism in the disingenuous name of egalitarianism, and turned the U.S. into a global empire.

This is why it is so funny to hear lefties complain that my condemnations of the left are only accurate for liberals, and not progressives. Liberals have a proud heritage. So do radicals. Progressives, on the other hand, have always been enemies of individual freedom and peace, and they are unfortunately the dominant strain on the American left today.

Back in 2007, running to be president, Hillary Clinton had a very insightful comment when asked if she would define herself as a liberal:

You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual.

Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

I prefer the word “progressive,” which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.

What Clinton failed to mention was that it was progressivism that dirtied the name of liberalism forever, turning it into a synonym for big-government enthusiasm. This is the party and agenda of Barack Obama and the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters. The self-styled progressives say they are somehow more principled in their opposition to Big Brother and empire than are the liberals, but we can understand why so many of them caved and supported the war in Libya, the corporatist health care scheme, even some of the extreme violations of civil liberties: Like Teddy Roosevelt, a man most of today’s progressives seem to think was a great president, they are dedicated to centralized social engineering, executive supremacy, and military power abroad. They distrust these apparatuses in the hands of conservatives, but would rather risk that fate than do anything to retract their power.

As for the liberals who are moderate enough not to be completely partisan, they also tend to be softer on the state and more comfortable with the status quo than their comrades further to the left. They are not as anti-property rights as anyone else on the left, but they are not as anti-corporatism either. They have a tendency to talk up “good government” and “respectability” that renders them weak critics even of Republican rule.

And the radicals? They are perhaps the best in opposing the police, the military, and crony capitalism, but their hostility to property rights makes them unreliable bulwarks against state oppression. Social hierarchy can be dangerous, and it becomes a total nightmare when it is in bed with government. But it can also be instrumental in organizing society without violence and protecting liberty against government. Also important, the anti-hierarchical left, while it can be libertarian in some circumstances and makes wonderful contributions to our understanding of liberty through its critiques of the interventionist status quo, can also become an outright terror to society, for nothing has been more totalitarian than the forced abolition of traditional order through the state, from the Cultural Revolution to Pol Pot’s program to destroy modern civilization completely.

In the United States, the left’s animosity toward social conservatism leads them to miss the boat all too often. With the exception of a few radicals, most of the left either looked the other way or were outright supportive of the Clinton regime when it unleashed the worst law enforcement atrocity in the last couple generations: the mass murder of 83 civilians just outside Waco, Texas, in 1993. The fact that the victims were a religious minority with guns clouded the judgment of all of the left – progressives, radicals, liberals and Democrats – except for those of the utmost integrity. The common left-liberal reaction to Waco should remind us of the limits to leftist civil libertarianism.

So it is no surprise that most of the left, ambivalent at best on private property rights and opposed to the right for cultural reasons, has allowed the progressives to rule their side of the spectrum for so long, despite the state capitalism, corporate welfare, civil liberties violations, militarism and sellouts even on some of the social issues. Since the left sees itself as being opposed to the right, since the Democrats and their progressive supporters have come to corner the market on large-scale national opposition to conservative politics, and because it is always easier in the political arena to push for programs that expand power rather than shrink it, the ascendance of the iron-fisted left should perplex no one.

In the end, Mr. Libertarian himself, Walter Block, has it correct: The natural party of liberty is neither on the left nor right. Jeff Tucker made the crucial point as it concerns our eternal enemy, the right, on April 2004. There might have been a few anomalously good conservatives in the past, Tucker wrote:

But today? If you favor liberty, if you oppose the rise of the total state in our times, call yourself something else. If you understand the central point about social organization and civilization – namely that society can organize itself on its own in the absence of a central state – there is a tradition of thought for you, and it doesn’t call itself conservatism.

This is true as well of leftism. If you oppose war, corporatism, monopoly privilege, theocracy, and the police state, you might be a liberal of the old sort, but give up calling yourself a leftist. Even better, recognize that the free market is the only economic system compatible with human rights, anti-violence and mass prosperity, and take the red pill of libertarianism.

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