Oxymorons and the American Radical
“Why do Beft Always Go to the Left?” — Dr. Seuss
Tonight, we plunge back into performances of The Iron Heel after a hiatus of several days and so it seemed a good time to tuck some stray political thoughts into a post. This was original designed to be several posts; we’ll see how well we do at integrating them.
I had made some small, unnoticed noises in previous posts about a personal shift back to the Left, but those words are probably too well-defined for what I am groping my way through. I am an artist; I am attracted to ideals and to creative solutions and I have always been attracted to the radicalism of previous eras, historical eras. When it comes to casting a ballot in the here and now, I tend to be extremely cautious. And yet I believe in the Rights of Man and working in real time to achieve them for people of all births and orientations and identities and situations.
It’s just that many or most of the positive solutions people and their parties put forward come with unforeseen negative consequences, and prove to be dead ends, wrong turns or worse. I’m thinking of the old style Revolutionary Left. It’s never been politically popular to say so in the U.S., but the fact is, in hard numbers the Soviet Union and its vassal states were responsible for a far greater number of deaths than Nazi Germany, perhaps by an order of magnitude. I was greatly influenced by F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which was written at a time when both spheres were oppressing millions, though here in the U.S. plenty could see the evil of one but not the other. Now that the U.S.S.R. has been in our rear view mirror for a quarter century there may be temptation to be bolder in the policies we propose in an attempt to blast past the gridlock that has paralyzed our forward momentum as a nation for decades. Certainly both Sanders and Trump (for good and for ill, in that order) both pitched ideas widely outside the playbooks of the two major parties. Given the plot of The Iron Heel, Sanders is the more interesting phenomenon to me at the moment.
Americans, in their bubble, have little idea how skewed the political conversation has gotten in recent decades. Extremists on the Right have driven the dialogue into a place where up is down. The rhetoric made more sense during the Reagan years when there was a real Left in the world, not just in the Soviet Union, but domestically as well. In 1980 and 1984 for example, Angela Davis was the U.S. Vice Presidential candidate on the COMMUNIST PARTY ticket. Can you imagine such a thing at any time since then? A true shift seemed to happen in the late ’80s and ’90s, when George H.W. Bush had to reinvent himself and run to his own Right to be deemed worthy of his purist, radical Republican base. The Democrat strategy to defeat that force was to tack to the Right itself, making the centrist Clintons their standard bearers and snuffing their own Left wing. At this historical moment, in the face of reality, Fox News and the Republicans moved heaven and earth to paint these moderates as Leftist extremists, and this is where our political rhetoric truly ceased to have any sensible meaning. The actual Left was dead on the vine. There were, and remain, a small handful of Left wing parties in the U.S., with membership in the hundreds. And candidates like Howard Dean and Ralph Nader ran slightly to the left of mainstream candidates. But a true, muscular radical Left wing had actually been dead for years and years. What does language even mean when you are comparing a woman a who garners huge fees for Wall Street speeches to Joseph Stalin?
It has always been hard to make a Left in America. I have been to the occasional march or rally or panel discussion since the 1990s, and when I synthesize the overall political vibration I took away from the experience I would have to say that I’ve always picked up more anarchism per se than socialism. People in America are AGAINST things. When it comes to creating an apparatus for actually BUILDING things, that spirit is largely absent.
But what would such an apparatus be but a party, and we hate parties, don’t we? We’re individuals in America. The very idea of a party fills me with anxiety. The Nazi Party. The Communist Party. The notions are intrinsically ominous. There are those great scenes in the movie Reds when Warren Beatty as John Reed very reasonably wants to go see his wife, and yet his leaders tell him that “party discipline” forbids it. Party discipline? For what!? Isn’t the goal the freedom and happiness of humankind? And experience has taught us that “the Party” has no intention of relaxing that “discipline” once it gets into power. So screw discipline. Screw that from now until Doomsday.
This is one thing both Left and Right in America have in common, by the way. We hate authoritarianism. We are both the squabbling children of Jefferson. And say what you like about “libertarian extremists” (I know that you will), the entire history of humanity has been about small numbers of people oppressing large numbers of people and the instrument of control is always government. You may say “Well, the government I empower won’t do that”, and you’ll just have to forgive me for snorting in your face.
And yet the last several decades have shown that other forces, no more benevolent, are all too happy to step into the breach where government is absent. If I don’t want an American politician deciding my child’s future, I really don’t want an American CEO having that power.
Like many Americans, I think, I find myself confused, forever trying to reconcile some sort of balance between the twin, contradictory American ideals of freedom and equality. I am for empowering the disenfranchised, or, if it makes you feel any better “The Little Guy”. The way I jumped at the chance to do The Iron Heel is symptomatic. I love Jack London. While I often can’t think of much good to say about socialistic policies, I LOVE to read socialist and progressive writers. I have found that while I may respect the abilities of someone like Henry James , for example, I have very little use for the characters or events or situations in most of his novels. Whereas I have formed deep, strong bonds with writers like London, Carl Sandburg, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Clifford Odets, Theodore Dreiser, and John Steinbeck. I am wired to care about the people who are struggling, not the idle rich. And so I always vote Democrat, though invariably with reservations and distrust. If there was an instrument besides a centralized, cold, distant, corrupt, inept and inefficient government that could level the playing field, I would be most receptive. People who work on devising those kinds of solutions are my heroes.
And so I want to have my cake and eat it, too. And this is true of most Americans, I think. Once, relatively speaking, this country had no services and no taxes. Then for a while in the 20th century, there were services and taxes. And then, since Reagan, the vast majority of Americans seem to want services, but no taxes. That’s not a good place to be in. Something’s got to give. Bernie was the first politician to talk straight to the American people in a long while. Greater taxation is coming. It has to. If not that? War: war for plunder or war with our creditors. Or SURRENDER to our creditors. It’s either reduction in spending or one of those outcomes, because what else is there? Crack a history book!
But we live in this dream world of escapism and illusion and pleasure. Americans have always been Utopians. It has driven each stage of progress, and it almost always comes with self-contradictions and willful blindness about same. I love reading about 19th century radicals because their naivete allowed them to dream big about solutions — bigger than we’ll ever be able to dream. In the wake of the Reformation and the American and French Revolutions you had all these movements brewing in the same cauldron: Feminism, Abolitionism, Spiritualism, Transcendentalism, Free Love, the Second Great Awakening — and Socialism was one of these. Countless thinkers espoused one or more or all of these often at the same time. People formed societies, lived in Utopian communities like Oneida and Brook Farm or, for that matter, the State of Utah, all to one degree or another revisitations of the original idea of Plymouth. (Such communities have generally failed historically because no one wants to do the work or pay the bills or follow the rules — or they run afoul of outsiders). The descendants of all these movements are all around us, and occasionally they stir up trouble, but for the most part the mainstream steers clear of their more radical expressions.
But the thing that especially interests me about that period was their ability for their heads to contain those perennial contradictory impulses: utopianism and ani-authoritarianism, socialism and anarchism. To read 19th century free thinkers like Josiah Warren or Benjamin Tucker or Lysander Spooner or Voltairine de Clayre is to have your head expanded about possibilities. I feel like Abbie Hoffman was in their mold. He knew that he hated the Vietnam War, which enriched the privileged and disproportionately hurt the poor. He knew that he wanted fairness and civil rights. But this man, this activist (essentially a performance artist), had he lived to a ripe old age, was never going to, say, sit in Congress or run a foundation or an agency or something to effect his changes. He detested those trappings. The difference is the difference between Thomas Paine or Sam Adams…and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Centuries down the line (and much as de Toqueville had predicted) all imagination has been boiled out of our governing class. Mainstream politics has gotten farther than ever away from the deep American strain of idealism in recent years, to the point where the public doesn’t even seem to know it existed any more.
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Left libertarian? Isn’t that a contradiction?” Uh, nope, at least not in my heart. I just haven’t figured out HOW. There’s property rights, the foundation of all our freedoms, i.e. The Pursuit of Happiness. And there’s the goal of philosophy for the Benthamites, “The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number.” I want ’em both, but like matter and energy in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle they can’t be observed to exist at the same time, at least in their pure form.
One possible solution for a compromise between intrusive, distant government and individual rights (because we have an open mind) is anarcho-syndicalism, or communes or mini-states of the type we described above. But that quickly raises the question of what, in practice, is to stop them from being mini-tyrannies themselves? I think we have had our answer in recent years: nothing. And thus all manner of human rights abuses can happen in such communities (against women, against children, against laborers) and then you get a conflict with the state in which I am chagrined to find myself 100% on the side of the state. There are certain standards for human rights which aren’t just Federal, they’re Universal. Who is going to enforce them (and I want them enforced)? If you want the Gummint off’n your back just so you can hit your kids and womenfolk and sech because you think that’s what a “Man” gets to do, well, that ain’t happenin’.
Yet, whether you like it or not the Right has ideas as well, often good and important ones, however much you care to deny it. Often many on their side hold the ideas for the wrong reasons, but that’s just guilt by association. For example, I’m someone who believes that bureaucracy (from multiple sources: each layer of government, each regulatory agency, unions etc etc etc) amounts to a human rights issue, once you tally up its toll in lost productivity, harm to the economy, etc. Jobs are lost, businesses fail, and scarce resources (something you should care about, environmentalists) are squandered due to outmoded, contradictory, obsolete, and merely unduly burdensome regulations. Almost without fail, the intentions of the regulations are coming from a good place, so summarily deregulating probably isn’t the answer. But that doesn’t mean the concern ought to be dismissed. It is a legitimate, even an urgent concern. Solving this problem, essentially a problem of structure and organization and thus theoretically solvable, would free up billions of dollars in lost wealth and resources.
I believe in being open to solutions, whatever their source, Left, Right, or in-between. Bernie and others started a buzz recently about the “Nordic Model”. In response came a gleeful counterpunch from the Right, in which they pointed out that the Scandinavian nations and Finland aren’t strictly socialist — in many respects, their economies are even freer (i.e. more capitalist-friendly) than ours are. And then — like a bunch of Ptolemys — the commentators went on to take that as a REFUTATION of holding the Nordic systems up as a model. Uh…shouldn’t those facts make you guys MORE amenable to learning from what they do? Some kind of mixed economy seems the inevitable thing we are striving for. All we are looking for is a better mix. Unless, you’re not. Once upon a time, we were a forward looking nation. Personally, I would never want the word “paleolithic” attached to my name. And in that spirit of moving on, I now put this rambling radical rumination to rest.