Sunday, March 02, 2008

BOOK REVIEW! RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM (A FREEWHEELING HISTORY OF THE MODERN AMERICAN LIBERTARIAN MOVEMENT) by Brian Doherty (B.B.S., 2007)

As time crawls on there's certainly no doubt in my mind that the "l" in front of my own particular brand of libertarianism (or perhaps "paleo-libertarianism") is shrinking smaller and smaller, perhaps at this point in time even more miniscule than that "c" that Pete Seeger says keeps shrinking in front of his own communist allegiance. The reason why really isn't that difficult to discern, especially when the entire genus at this stage in the political game seems to be anything but libertarianism as I knew and understood it with various high-profile members of the movement (most notably the staff of REASON, the flagship periodical regarding just about anything and everything libertarian or so it would seem) alienating me more than a few times with what seems to be a severe confusion between "libertarianism" proper and "libertinism". I really don't know if I can count all of the occasions when it seemed that a good portion of the magazine's staff (the usually annoying Cathy Young as well as equally odious Nick Gillespie come to mind) went out of their way to dig into people like myself and my social strata for going against what they now consider the libertarian-bearing standards of the day whether it be various aspects of gay rights (read: "marriage") or certain matters regarding the lives (and deaths) of people that seem to woosh away a good two-thousand years of solid Western values. It only goes to remind me about a certain bunsnitch (no names please) who once claimed that I certainly wasn't a "libertarian" but a reactionary (golly!) because I stood firm against those special "rights" that have been given to politically protected classes whom I believe, nay, know do not deserve them no matter how hard they stamp their feet in self-righteous indignation.

But then again, what can I say about a movement that is so fractured and can go just about any way anyone wants it to go (for their own personal purposes) that yet another internet scoundrel, a "man" who claims to be a tip-top libertarian and gosh, he even used to read books by movement biggie Murray Rothbard during his days of adolescent self-discovery, actually went out of his way to endorse not a staunch libertarian in the truest sense like Ron Paul but Rudy (I am tempted to say "Benito") Guiliani for the Presidency of These Here United States! A guy who seemed so transparantly New York liberal republican that I was so glad my prayers were answered when this career-ruining deca-phony was flushed out of the race long before he could cause any real damage. But as for myself, although I still will admit to having a clear libertarian "streak", my sympathies lie a lot closer these days with the paleoconservative movement (which does overlap with libertarianism, only not the kind that the aforementioned bozos bank their pseudo liberal beliefs on) and the likes of Paul Craig Roberts, Charley Reese, Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan, the late Sam Francis and the people at CHRONICLES magazine as well as the TAKI'S TOP DRAWER site where you can read a more traditional Old Right view of today's miasma with a load of commentary from people who may come off too "racist" (not honest appraisals of modern day race relations) and "anti-Semitic" (not fair critiques of Israeli policies) for my own personal tastes. But they sure read, venom and all, a lot more honest and in-tune with where I as some mid-Amerigan wastrel stands on the issues than a bunch of these new libertarians trying to outdo each other by seeing just how many mid-Amerigan holy cows they can take out in the name of "freedom".

Anyway there's this relatively new (last year) book out that might just add a few more controversies to the "what is and isn't libertarian" brouhaha that has been going on, but nevertheless it's still a wonderful, perhaps the first concise history of the Amerigan libertarian scene that I at least can recall and for that maybe we should all give it a read before we make any more self-congratulatory pronouncements as to our own breed of rugged individualism. Author Brian Doherty, besides being a senior editor at REASON and long-time contributor to a number of libertarian and conservative magazines (as well as MOTHER JONES) is also a rather well-rounded writer in the non-political world, perhaps even a modern-day renaissance man or about as close to one as you can get in the 21st century. Regular BLOG TO COMM readers might remember Doherty not only for his tenure in the Sawdust Caesars (way-above-par modern application of sixties garage aesthetics filtered through late-eighties Amphetamine Reptile sonics) but his late-eighties/early-nineties SURRENDER 'zine (this was way past the fanzine era, ifyaknowaddamean...) as well as for being the author of a book on the hippydippy Burning Man phenom, but like I said Doherty sure knows how to cover all the bases no simple punk he! Of the two issues of SURRENDER I have gazed upon, the first seemed more or less like one in a million of the CONFLICT imitations of the time (in the sage words of Spiro Agnew, "no comment") while the last one was a marvy mix of extended essays passing as multi-functional reviews, a funny Faust article, thorough interviews with various under-the-underground figures and even a large book section touching on many of the libertarian and even paleocon aspect of today's subject at hand. (And add to that the man's very own Cherry Smash record/cassette label which released a number of items that I probably would pass on in favor of cruddy-sounding Syd Barrett outtakes, but that's just my horse-blindered vision of music.) But it sure was a joy reading Doherty's smart-set assessment of everything from the Hampton Grease Band and a wide range of Milton Friedman books, all topped off with a current playlist that had everything from the standard "hip" underground rock to late-sixties psychedelia, classical and big band (a genre I probably would love to this day if only my father hadn't pushed the stuff on me heavy-like in an attempt to keep me away from that evil rock & roll when I was barely into the double digits!). If anything, Doherty was the intellectual punk descendant of the likes of Russell Desmond of CAN'T BUY A THRILL and the MIA Tim Ellison, and although SURRENDER will probably be remembered in the same sordid back-pages of eighties/nineties 'zinedom as BLACK TO COMM I'd certainly rate it, at least from the final issue, as one of the highlights of those rather tepid despite what anyone says times.

SURRENDER, the Sawdust Caesars and even Cherry Smash are not mentioned in Doherty's dustsleeve profile which did disappoint me a tad (THIS IS BURNING MAN naturally is), but that doesn't mean RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM is going to be a stodgy textbook case history of a political movement most BLOG TO COMM readers would probably care less about. Au contraire, RADICALS does live up to its freewheeling subtitle with Doherty mapping out a more thorough than one would expect history of American libertarianism, starting with the early roots of the likes of Lysander Spooner (a New England abolitionist who believed that the South had every right to sucession) up through the early pre-form movers and shakers such as the irrepressible H. L. Mencken and John Flynn (who didn't get as much space as I would have thought probably because they were more Old Right than libertarian) and onto the big guns of the twentieth century who, if anything, were the guiding lights of a movement that was extremely fractured then and will remain so given its inherent nature and perhaps inherent irritability for all I know!

Naturally all of the libertarian high and mighties are trotted out, starting with Albert Jay Nock whom I guess Doherty considers perhaps the first true jumpover from Old Rightism into the libertarian (and perhaps anarchist-right) camp, with the Austrian Schoolboys (von Mises, Hayek) and Chicagoans (led by Milton Friedman) firmly in tow. Especially enlightening is the section which Doherty calls the "Three Furies of Libertarianism" dealing with the femme torchbearers Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE fame) and the infamous bulwark of reason Ayn Rand, a person whom I guess I can be ambivalent over (and my opinion hasn't budged a bit even after reading the massive amount of space RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM allots her). And from there the story goes on and on through more twists and turns and in-fights than even I could stand. But even with the back-stabbings and banishments from the Ayn Rand camp, you can still hear the cry of freedom throughout this book as these libertarians were fighting a good fight against not only what many thought was a losing battle against Government, but the stupid lackeys that kept the Machine well-oiled. After all, it was a fight for freedom against all manners of incursions via regulations and all sorts of "do-gooderisms" that today seem to be loved only by surviving New Deal chowhounds still buying the old line about benevolent leviathan, as well as their spiritual (and flesh and blood) children who somehow think it's a God Given DUTY of Big Government to satisfy their every whim and need because they were born East/Southern European blue collar workers which somehow entitles them to something. I dunno exactly what or even why the blind faith has lasted so long other than a sick form of tradition ("My pappy voted democrat and so did his, and I ain't gonna change!"), but its kinda strange hearing kids who were only being hatched when Big Nemesis Ron Reagan (not "quite" a libertarian icon) was prez still muttering vague obscenities over his cold body.

And like I said, this book does live up to the "freewheeling" nature of libertarianism with the strange ins and outs that this philosophy was capable of producing in a wide array of up-and-coming new minds whose ideals on the basic tenents of freedom certainly made strange bedfellows. Take the aforementioned Rothbard, a New York boy genius who shocked his typical-for-the-times liberal relatives by sticking up for Francisco Franco as a kid (good enough start) before campaigning for Strom Thurmond in the '48 presidential election (not because of Thurmond's staunch segregationist policies but because of his support of State's Rights, a concept Rothbard thought was much to be preferred over the Federal Government's encroachment into way too many facets of life via the New Deal), only to end up hobnobbing with the likes of Tuli Kupferberg and other hip radicals in an attempt to find "common ground" between the libertarians and the anti-Marxist youth rebels of the day! (And to make things even more confusing, Rothbard pretty much ended his political life working for the '92 Pat Buchanan campaign once again reconciling the libertarians with the paleocons, although he and his cohort Lew Rockwell never could get Pat to accept the tenents of free trade!) Perhaps Rothbard was the true cheerleader of a libertarian anarchism that transcended the usual boundaries to the point where hey, maybe some free-thinking kid who grew up reading his works could somehow metamorph into a Guiliani supporter. Stranger twists in the political evolution of people have happened...just ask me!

And of course all of the other latterday (anti)-movement heads from Boaz to Browne show up as does the birth of the Libertarian Party ending in what I would call a pretty accurate discussion of just where libertarianism stands in the here and now. Many of the plusses and minuses as to the state of freedom in the late-oh-ohs are contrasted and compared, and Doherty's assessments do seem fairly balanced even if you may personally disagree with the general "outcome". (And I should say that I do take issue with a few points here and there but I won't bring 'em up else this book review might just turn out to say more about me than it does its subject.) But really, the concept of "freedom" in general (at least in the United States, and perhaps a good portion of the world) is looking a lot better than it has in some respects...after all, the recent Ron Paul presidential campaign brought together disparate factions almost as diverse as the people Rothbard courted throughout his career. However for the most part I think the average Amerigan is so hooked on the big boobie of Benevolent (hah!) Government happily swapping freedom for security to the point where the upcoming presidential election is gonna be nothing more than a contest to see which side can offer up more goodies to the "Average American" dolt who pulls the lever for either major party. A hundred-year war to make the world safe for "democracy" (or whatever it passes for these days) for the Republicans and massive government door prize New Deal redux giveaways for the Democrats. Wow. And true, more freedoms have evolved over the years (perhaps in some ways to detrimental effect) and generally there are more choices and more opportunities for the everyday common man available now than ever, but my guess is that most people would be glad to chuck it all away in order to get whatever handout they can from their pal Big Brother. It looks as if libertarians of both the big and little "l" variety are going to have their work cut out for them for a very long time.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Odd that Rothbard supported Thurmond in '48 because Thurmond's positions on economic issues were identical to that of Truman's. The States' Rights Party's platform only significantly differed from the Dem platform that year on the issue of race - about 80% of it was identical to the Democratic platform. Thurmond as governor of South Carolina was a fervent believer in government projects to put South Carolinans (at least white South Carolinans) to work and obtaining as much pork from the feds as possible - positions one would not associate with Rothbard. Granted, Rothbard was young at the time - but in retrospect does he regret supporting someone who was hardly an economic "Austrian"?

Christopher said...

Doherty doesn't say what Rothbard thought of Thurmond's other positions outside of States Rights, though it was known that Rothbard at least disagreed with Thurmond on segregation and probably was not too keen on any of his economic policies. As you said, this was "young" Rothbard who expressed his libertarian views by traipsing all over the political map (which the man always did come to think of it), athough I will say one thing and that is he was a lot more firm in his opinions and views as time went on. After all, in '64 he wouldn't endorse Barry Goldwater while most of his libertarian compadres were fawning over the Senator because of Goldwater's hawkish overtones. And he did write an article for RAMPARTS of all mags back in '68 that explained his views succinctly enough for the New Left clientele in an attempt to find common ground with the more sensible peaceniks, a move which predates the likes of Raimondo and Doherty writing for MOTHER JONES these very days.

Christopher said...

...come to think of it, I do recall reading about Rothbard's avid support of Adlai Stevenson in the fifties, something which helped alienate him from WFB and the other Eisenhower forces at THE NATIONAL REVIEW even further. According to an article I copped on lewrockwell.com a while back, Rothbard was even uncharacteristically mirroring some of the less free-market ideals of the Stevensom camp, something he would certainly not be doing as time goes on so yes, support of Thurmond in '48 could have been the younger, still searching Rothbard speaking. Fortunately by '60 Rothbard's presidential pick was some beatnik whose last name was Smith who upon being elected was going to dismantle the entire nation (!), and in '64 he was not jumping on the Goldwater bandwagon like many of his libertarian cohorts solely because of G's pro-war sabre-rattling that went against the antiwar strain of Rothbard's not-that-peculariar strain of anarchy. And then, without missing a beat, he wrote that RAMPARTS piece saying that although he was against the Vietnam war he was the same man he was twenty years earlier, perhaps another attempt to find common ground with the less Marxist amongst the young radicals and to an extent it worked!