Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On the Wisdom and Folly of Libertarian Philosophy

The phrase positional ideology refers to any set of beliefs that is shaped by opposition to some other set of beliefs. In the United States, and much to the detriment of meaningful and productive political discourse, mainstream political thinking is determined by simple binary oppositions:

Big Government vs. Small Government
Nationalism vs. Internationalism
Free Markets vs. Regulated Markets
Urban Values vs. Rural Values

Liberals are inclined to believe that the government is valuable in defending the people against the predations of large corporations. As such, even when they see the government moving against the people, they believe that the solution consists of expanding government. They passionately support men such as Barack Obama. Because he is of humble origins, says the right words, and belongs to the Democratic Party, liberals see a champion of the people where there is nothing but a Wall Street golem.

Conservatives view successful businesses as edifying examples of the opportunities available to a self-made man in a free-market economy. Thus, they laud people like Steve Jobs and Sam Walton, who were born into modest circumstances and became wealthy. Even when these self-made men poison government with campaign bribes and ship American jobs overseas, conservatives admire and vote for their ilk. The most recent example is Mitt Romney, a child of inherited wealth and vulture capitalist. Conservatives believe that success in business (no matter how venal and anti-democratic the business) is a qualification for public office. 

The Wisdom of the Libertarians

Many libertarians or “free-market populists” wish to “smash the alliance of K Street, Wall Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue” and to “end the incestuous relationship between big government and big business.” They wish to “close the revolving door and tear down the political privileges that accrue to the wealthy and powerful (source).” Many libertarians (source) understand the perils of imperialism, crony capitalism, and the practice deceptively referred to as “free trade.”

The Folly of the Libertarians

Although some libertarians are aptly described as free-market populists, some libertarians fall onto the far right end of the political spectrum. Their brains have been addled by exposure to the grotesque views of Ayn Rand. Until they distance themselves from her crypto-fascist ideology, they will remain alienated from conservatives and liberals alike who might otherwise find common cause with them. 

Who is John Galt?
And libertarians on the far left likewise recuse themselves from an honest, respectful, and constructive discussion of political reform by espousing the views of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is constrained by the sacrosanct premises of his own political philosophy and can see no good in the American political system, even if it means sympathizing with the perpetrators of 9-11. This brings to mind an apocryphal story about Karl Marx, in which the communist philosopher opined that the best way to deal with petit-bourgeois intellectuals is by beating them with a stick.

Redeeming Libertarian Wisdom

According to Rand’s philosophy, human beings are either producers or parasites. According to Chomsky’s equally cynical philosophy, human beings are either victimizers or victims. The sources of this either/or thinking are not mysterious. Worries about the future and a sense of grievance, when inflamed by anxiety, hostility and egoism, will excite the reptilian mind and cause human beings to think in terms of “us versus them.” But politics ought to be pragmatic, and as satisfying as it is to create villains or assign blame, these are backward-looking pursuits. What is needed is a political philosophy that unites rather than divides. 

Mohandas Gandhi has left us with a unifying political philosophy that is as relevant today as it was in his day. Gandhi lived in India at a time when it was under British colonial rule. India was a de facto oligarchy in which a wealthy few subjugated millions of hard-working men and women with the sole aim of swelling their already vast riches. The people of India were forbidden to produce salt for their own consumption, and the only legal means of coming by salt was to purchase the item from the British, and pay the British tax on salt. 

In one of his early acts of peaceful rebellion, Gandhi marched with a small band of followers for over 200 miles to the sea, where he and his followers would make their own salt. Stopping along the way to speak at small villages, the number of people who followed him on his march swelled into the thousands. Satyagraha – mass civil disobedience – became one of his signature achievements.

A second powerful idea of Gandhi’s was Swadeshi.  “The word Swadeshi derives from Sanskrit and is a conjunction of two Sanskrit words. Swa means 'self' or 'own' and Desh means 'country,' so Swadesh would be 'own country', and Swadeshi, the adjectival form, would mean 'of one’s own country,' but could be loosely translated ... as 'self-sufficiency (source).'” It is a concept not so far removed from what is meant by patriotism.

Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote. Thus ... In the domain of politics I should make use of the indigenous institutions and serve them by curing them of their proved defects. In that of economics I should use only things that are produced by my immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they might be found wanting.”
As applied to the American political order, Swadeshi implies reverence for the United States Constitution, coupled with the desire to improve and revitalize it. As applied to the American economic situation, Swadeshi implies that American consumers ought to be judicious in their purchasing decisions, and where possible, ensure that the money spent supports the livelihoods of their neighbors. 

The reader may recognize a seeming resemblance between the idea of Swadeshi and contemporary “green consumerism” or “localism.” However, the resemblance is only superficial. Items such as garlic that used to be grown in the United States are now sourced from China, thanks to United Natural Foods Incorporated, a multinational distributor whose clients include Whole Foods (source). Whole Foods’ CEO, John Mackey, is known for espousing Randian crypto-fascism, being complicit in forced labor and child labor (source), and for making the claim that global warming is actually a good thing (source). But I digress.

Swadeshi also addresses the role of intellectuals in the political life of a country. According to this principle, it is not enough for intellectuals to take a stand about localism or green consumerism. It is not enough for intellectuals to dig a little deeper and reveal frauds such as Whole Foods. What is required is that intellectuals look inward, and recognize their own elitism, and learn how to talk to ordinary Americans. In the following quote, Gandhi reflected on his British education and his struggle to speak to ordinary people in a way that is compelling to them:

We have laboured under a terrible handicap owing to an almost fatal departure from the Swadeshi spirit. We, the educated classes, have received our education through a foreign tongue. We have, therefore, not reacted upon the masses. We want to represent the masses, but we fail. They recognize us not much more than they recognize the English officers. Their hearts are an open book to neither. Their aspirations are not ours. Hence there is a break. And you witness not, in reality, failure to organize but want of correspondence between the representatives and the represented (source).
Gandhi unquestionably overcame this perceived handicap, but would not have done so if he hadn’t recognized and grappled with the issue. To aspire to Swadeshi, one must practice self-criticism, humility and a willingness to respect and listen to people whose educational attainment, values, and life experiences differ from one’s own. The intellectual who espouses the principle of Swadeshi accepts that it is his or her responsibility to represent the people. This means that one must not hector the people, mock their naivet√©, or view them as adversaries.

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