Blood and the Treasury
Forgive me: another post born from the intellectual wellspring that is Ron Paul’s Iowa boomlet. But this one has little to do with the man himself. Instead, I want to take a closer look at Paul’s anti-militarism; and, more specifically, I want to explore what Paul’s significant leftist support on these grounds says about American liberalism, past and present.
Although his opposition to the War on Drugs plays a large part in Paul’s appeal to left-of-center voters, it’s Paul’s opposition to America’s post-war policy of endless war, of being the so-called global policeman, that really excites leftists. Our own chastised — and beloved! — Ryan is a good case-in-point. But he’s hardly alone. Many of Obama’s most strident critics have railed against him not only for the ways in which he’s concretized Bush policies like indefinite detention and Executive Privilege, but also for how he’s expanded upon once-nascent Bush initiatives, most notably the use of unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen.
In response, many potential and former Obama supporters have embraced Paul, often with an intensity indicative of their belief that Obama’s militarism is a fundamental betrayal of liberalism. On the surface, this makes sense; Democrats are the “soft” ones, right? The party of dirty peacenik hippies, Jane Fonda, and a bunch of other long-defunct clichés of the Baby Boomer era (like zombies, they refuse to die). But if we look at the history of liberalism in America, at its high-points and its sainted heroes, can this sacred cow of conventional wisdom withstand closer scrutiny?
This is the central question addressed in a recent, brilliant post by Matt Stoller at Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism. It’s a long post and it’s quite well-argued; I can’t really do it full justice with a few block-quote. But, in short, Stoller presents a compelling — and, for liberals, unsettling — narrative that the great liberal eras in American history have always, always coincided with a significant increase in the size and score of the nation’s war machine. Lincoln, Wilson, FDR: these Presidents established many of the foundational planks of American liberalism’s ideological and historical infrastructure — but they also all presided over what was, at their time, the largest mobilizations for warfare in human history. As Stoller puts it, “What connects all three of these Presidents is one thing – big ass wars, and specifically, war financing.”
Modern liberalism is a mixture of two elements. One is a support of Federal power – what came out of the late 1930s, World War II, and the civil rights era where a social safety net and warfare were financed by Wall Street, the Federal Reserve and the RFC, and human rights were enforced by a Federal government, unions, and a cadre of corporate, journalistic and technocratic experts (and cheap oil made the whole system run.) America mobilized militarily for national priorities, be they war-like or social in nature. And two, it originates from the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam era, with its distrust of centralized authority mobilizing national resources for what were perceived to be immoral priorities. When you throw in the recent financial crisis, the corruption of big finance, the increasing militarization of society, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse of the moral authority of the technocrats, you have a big problem. Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore, but it also has a profound challenge insofar as the rudiments of liberalism going back to the 1930s don’t work…
Ron Paul’s stance should be seen as a challenge to better create a coherent structural critique of the American political order. It’s quite obvious that there isn’t one coming from the left, otherwise the figure challenging the war on drugs and American empire wouldn’t be in the Republican primary as the libertarian candidate. To get there, liberals must grapple with big finance and war, two topics that are difficult to handle in any but a glib manner that separates us from our actual traditional and problematic affinity for both. War financing has a specific tradition in American culture, but there is no guarantee war financing must continue the way it has. And there’s no reason to assume that centralized power will act in a more just manner these days, that we will see continuity with the historical experience of the New Deal and Civil Rights Era. The liberal alliance with the mechanics of mass mobilizing warfare, which should be pretty obvious when seen in this light, is deep-rooted.
While I might quibble with his lumping the odious Wilson in with Lincoln and Roosevelt (though I suppose it may be that Wilson is included only insofar as his legacy pertains to the Federal Reserve, not because he’s a liberal icon) I think the thrust of Stoller’s argument is extremely insightful and deserving of serious contemplation by anyone who cares about liberalism in America. There may have been a time when the power of the state offered great opportunities for the left in America to achieve its primary goals of equality and justice; but in an era in which liberalism has internalized many of libertarianism’s most trenchant criticisms it’s far from a given that that time is now.