His Master’s Voice
One of those long, theory-driven posts that you’re probably not going to read anyway.
A certain approach to ideology never gets much past the question “Cui bono?” — Who benefits? Yet it does pretty well all the same. A lot can be had by that question, and when you consider individuals not as personally motivated, but as driven by the abstract interests of their social class, you can get very far indeed.
By social class, of course, Marx meant a group defined by their common relationship to the means of production. This is not the only kind of class analysis that exists. Still, it’s probably the most common. To simplify the writing a bit, we’ll just call it “class analysis” from here on out, because it’s the only kind I’m considering.
(One more thing before we get down to business: I am not calling anyone a Marxist. Not the people I quote. Not the people I don’t quote. Not anyone. Not even myself — because I, too, find this form of class analysis illuminating, as you’ll see below. To use class analysis is a necessary but far from sufficient criterion for qualifying as a Marxist.)
My thesis here is simply that, while class analysis is very often right about libertarianism (yes, we like lower taxes), it’s much more often completely wrong.
Theory is allowed to be wrong, by the way — that’s how theory progresses, regardless of its ideological hue.
The recent discussions about Benton Harbor brought the hit-or-miss nature of class analysis into sharp relief. It came as a shock to me the assumption that libertarians would (or should) applaud an obviously corrupt, top-down privatization. Good reasons for that stance just didn’t exist, I thought, and the libertarian preference for local government ought to tell against the policy. It was even more of a shock then that some of my presumptive allies clearly did support it. Score one for class analysis.
Yet if you were to take libertarians as sort of a black box, one whose inner workings were mysterious and off-limits, I think you would have to conclude that class analysis has some explanatory power, but that that power has distinct limits. Here are some examples.
Eminent Domain In a recent comments thread, Jay C assumed — I can only infer on the basis of class analysis — that libertarians want it to be easy for the government to seize private property and transfer it to corporations:
I think there was a move in several states, post-Kelo to change their eminent-domain rules to tighten up the definitions of “public use”, although I have no idea how far they have gotten, and where. So legal protection from abuses of the Kelo variety can be “done”; although one would probably have to fight the Koch Brothers and their fronts to do so.
The class analysis writes itself: Libertarians represent the corporate/capitalist interest of the Koch brothers. They therefore want laws that favor their own side economically. And this means making it easy to take private property from ordinary people and give it to corporations.
But what’s true of the corporate interest is not true of libertarians. Libertarians directly opposed the corporate interest here. We fought eminent domain all along. Sometimes, we were completely alone.
Before Kelo? Almost no one cared, except us. Right around Kelo? Everyone cared, occasionally for as long as a couple of minutes. After Kelo? No one cares anymore. Except us. We’re still fighting eminent domain — a dangerous form of corporate welfare that hurts ordinary homeowners, small businesses, and communities:
A Superior Court judge struck down National City’s efforts to extend its power to take private property in a redevelopment zone in a decision property rights advocates called a significant victory for landowners.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Steven R. Denton’s ruling in the closely-watched case means the Community Youth Athletic Center, a popular local boxing gym that deals with at-risk youth, won’t be forced to move.
Victor Nuñez, vice president of the Community Youth Athletic Center, said the ruling is a victory for the gym and the children who benefit from it.
“It allows our kids who use this facility to not have to worry about where they are going to go after school the next day,” Nuñez said at a news conference Friday.
See that? Look at the class interests: On one side, a private real estate developer. (Yay! Corporations!) On the other, a gym for at-risk youth. (Boo! Fuck the poor!) The class interests are utterly clear. And they don’t predict a thing.
Libertarians fought for which side again? We fought for the nonprofit. The one serving at-risk youth. We fought against the developer. We won. And we’re really, sincerely happy about it.
Why? Principle, that’s why. And will we get even a smidgen of credit from left-liberals? Don’t hold your breath.
The Drug War As a class conflict, the Drug War is awesome. Indeed, the Drug War is one of the most important tools of class (and racial) oppression in the country.
It’s the working class that is forced to supply urine on demand as a condition of mere employment. In this, they submit to a bodily discipline that I would blush to impose on a farm animal. Insofar as drug testing works, it denies the working class what’s usually a harmless pleasure. When drugs aren’t so harmless, the Drug War denies them anything like a sane treatment and rehabilitation system.
In the process, it delivers the ruling class a population of docile, reliable, obedient workers. The man who will pee into a cup on demand is as tractable as you could possibly want him. What else will he do? Any goddamn thing you ask.
The discipline of the Drug War is unevenly distributed by class. Me? I’ve never had to pee into a cup to keep my job. That’s because I was born upper-middle class, I went to good schools, I earned the right degrees, and now I have a cushy intellectual job. Of this I am acutely aware, believe me, even if I’m not a drug user. The term for this is “class privilege.”
Those who don’t have class privilege aren’t allowed to get high. If they want to work, they have to pee in the cup. If they screw up — on these arbitrary and often unreliable tests — they get their possessions and even their homes taken away. We can’t allow capital accumulation, can we?
We also use dogs, of course. Not because dogs are terribly effective. They are, however, a clear signal of dominance and submission.
Offenders are separated from their families, perpetuating an underclass in the next generation. They labor in prison, often for the benefit of big corporations. Just for good measure, they get raped in the literal sense too.
If libertarianism were a mere class interest, we capitalist stooges would love the Drug War. And yet we’re virtually the only ones opposing it. By class analysis, this makes no sense whatsoever.
The Forever War Mitt Romney may have forgotten it, but we have not: Our nation is at war on three fronts. Guess who fights these wars? That’s right! It’s our old friend, the working class.
Supporters of the Forever War get some wiggle room here, because all our soldiers are volunteers. We don’t have a draft anymore (thank a libertarian for that!), and I think not having a draft is a very good thing: If we did have a draft, the upper class would just find some way to evade it, as history shows that they have always done.
But draft or no, the sacrifices of war are real. They are borne disproportionately by the working class, and I’ll be damned if I can say what national interests we’re serving by staying in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. The latter we’ve symbolically withdrawn from more times than I can count (next scheduled phony withdrawal: this December 31). The cameras get fewer, but the ordinary people still pay the costs.
In the meantime, we’re spending big on defense. This graph says it all. It represents, do note, defense spending outside appropriations for the wars themselves. Cui bono indeed.
Who has been demanding that we slash our military spending? Who has asked for all of the troops to come home? That would not be the left or the right. It would be libertarians. Sites like antiwar.com, think tanks like my employer the Cato Institute, and of course Reason magazine.
Again, the class analysis just doesn’t hold up. If we were mere defenders of the capitalist class, we libertarians ought to love the war. We ought to be grateful for every day that we’re still at war, because war enriches the defense contractors while consuming only the expendable lower classes.
And Others We could easily continue. The corporate interest tells us to favor strong, long-lasting intellectual property rights. To be honest about them, these are monopolies that usually end up in the hands of big corporations, making them a fat pile of money in the process. Yay corporations! Yay money!
But libertarians have very often criticized IP, starting with “Mr. Libertarian” himself, Murray Rothbard, who opposed all forms intellectual property. Today, IP skeptics like Roderick Long, Timothy B. Lee, and Tom W. Bell champion free music, open source software, and cheap drugs to the developing world. (Random link: Matt Welch of Reason, on the best jazz you’ll probably never get to hear. Thanks a lot, intellectual property!)
There are lots of others. Occupational licensing? Anticompetitive rules for small businesses? Jury nullification? Some progressives support jury nullification. We wrote the book on it. And the other one too.
So what’s going on here? Why do libertarians deviate so strongly from our supposed class interests? These interests, remember, demand that we (1) love eminent domain (2) love the Drug War and (3) love the Forever War. Among others. For a devotee of class analysis, the choices are few. We seem forced into some combination of the following:
- Libertarians say that they oppose policy x, but everything they do ultimately supports the Republicans anyway, so they frustrate any chance of real reform.
- Activism on policy x is futile. It only diverts resources that should be spent elsewhere. (Optionally: Your evil overlords know this and encourage it.)
- Activism on policy x is not as helpful to the working class as activism on policy y. (Optionally: The same.)
- Activism on policy x is done merely for obfuscation. (Optionally: Ditto.)
- Not all libertarians are as great as you are, Jason
…and to take one or more of these on every single issue, no less. A complicated balancing act. But even in isolation, there are problems with each.
(1) presumes there are no independent vectors in American politics, and that all advocacy benefits one of the two main parties. This is, to put it mildly, an abandonment of class analysis in favor of party analysis. It’s also demonstrably untrue. We libertarians tremendously annoy the Republicans. Exhibit A: Ron Paul, whom the Republican establishment still despises. Exhibit B: The Libertarian Party, which often acts as a spoiler, denying Republicans elected office.
(2) implies that nothing could ever change policy x, but empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Other countries, including the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Portugal, have greatly moderated their drug laws. They did so in response to activism that favored decriminalization. Wars can and do end. As we’ve already seen, there are ways even post-Kelo to fight against eminent domain and win. If we really believe what we advocate, then we need to keep fighting, even if some evil overlord — gosh, who could that be? — is maybe supporting us out of some complex, apparently payoff-free machination.
(3) is hardest to answer, because it does not admit of a final disproof. We can always find some other policy y. (In turnabout, I could do the same to you.) But anyway, the weighing of policy priorities is usually a matter of intuition.
(4) implies that things like eminent domain, the Drug War, and the Forever War are essentially unimportant — that their payoff in terms of class struggle is nil, even if the activism does come to fruition. Otherwise they can’t be mere cover. This line leads proponents into stranger and stranger territory the longer they maintain it. (Saying that the massive lockup of black youth for drugs is unimportant? Seriously?)
(5) may be flattering personally, but it just isn’t true. You’d find it impossible, I think, to find a libertarian who supported easy eminent domain or the Drug War. It would be very hard to find many of them who supported our international adventurism much past 2005, and it certainly can’t be called a defining issue for libertarians. Unlike, say, ending the Drug War.
There may be other answers than these five. I would be interested to hear them. But the simpler explanation of libertarian belief isn’t about class at all — whether for or against the working class, or any other. It’s about a set of ideas that are different from yours. Possibly a lot better. Possibly a lot worse. Either way, class analysis doesn’t capture it at all. Nor does class analysis capture the progressive ideology, or that of centrist Democrats. Yes, I’m ready for the pushback on that one, but really, I can only think of one group where class analysis works almost all of the time.
 At some point I will have to write about classical liberal class analysis. This type precedes Marx and, although quite different, Marx acknowledged some inspiration from it. But that’s not my project today.
 Of course, if you want to own up to being a Marxist, that’s also fine. No implications either way.