Fear Not the Gallows, Ye Radicals

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"If you don't like the way things are here, why don't you just leave?"

"All this talk about government and statism... You're so paranoid!"

"This is a democracy; we have so many rights and freedoms. Stop complaining and vote for change!"

"Hey, at least you're not in one of Stalin's gulags!"

Ah, yes, here we have some of my favorite objections to my pro-liberty positions. I always get a kick out the assumption that I'm only opposed to this particular country's form of government and should seek another that I prefer (as if one existed). But I really like the argument that we are not oppressed under statism's various forms because here in the U.S. we can speak our minds without fear of being thrown into a concentration camp or investigated or blacklisted -- well, most of the time. At any rate, the FBI hasn't yet shown up at my door with truncheons, and this website hasn't been shut down or officially censored Chinese-style, and the writings of Samuel E. Konkin III and Lysander Spooner haven't been burnt publicly. Even the most timid critics of the Keynesian wizards who've ruined our economy with their economic magickry (next time try using more eye of newt!) get invited on Sunday morning talk shows. Sometimes people even take them seriously. So maybe there is some merit to that argument.

If we accept that the State is built on little more than legal violence, power-grabs, exploitation and manipulation, then why don't they and their authorities simply wipe its critics out? Why do modern social-democratic States in the West tolerate radicals even as we ceaselessly preach the truth about them?

Hint: it has nothing to do with their commitment to democracy, "good government," and human rights.

During the Republican primaries, Ron Paul was often a (arguably) libertarian voice of reason in a field filled with chickenhawks, economic engineers, wannabe theocrats, and other candidates very hostile to liberty. Both Rudy Giuliani and debate moderator Chris Wallace insinuated that he was an Al-Qaeda appeaser for his criticism of belligerent foreign policy, John McCain snickered like The Joker as he argued against keeping troops in Iraq for a century, and Fred Thompson sneered at him when he argued against the predatory policies of the Federal Reserve. Even if, like me, you held serious misgivings about his candidacy, do not think this hostility insignificant -- it was aimed squarely at those libertarian positions we defend. Spineless conservative and moderate warmongers insisted that they were the reasonable ones pitted against a threatening extremist.

Likewise, within the status quo, radicals serve the sociological function of sacrificial animals. Libertarian, anti-war, and pro-market concepts often are falsely blamed for all sorts of crises. The Great Depression has been blamed on so-called "free-market" policies (non-existent then and now), the current financial crisis is being blamed on "deregulation", the rise of dictators like Saddam Hussein and genocides in Darfur are blamed on "isolationism", social problems are blamed on our "selfish" libertine attitudes, and the continued spread of poverty is blamed on our "callousness" as well as the free market. Apparently the only thing that can solve or prevent problems is centralizing more power and wealth in the hands of a small elite political and economic class, however "democratic" they may run things. Never mind that it's the resulting cronyism, warmongering, and social engineering that causes so many of these problems in the first place -- by the statist logic, anyone who resists their methods resists solving problems.

These straw-men arguments, misrepresentation, and historical revisionism all function like a frantic defense mechanism. Without it, the failures and crimes of the ruling class would become much harder for people to ignore, like a festering boil on one's face. Can't have that, can we? If you've grown up all your life in that system, it's all you know, everything is framed within its own terms, and your very worldly success depends on playing the system, then the alternatives can look rather scary. Alternatives to statism and corporatism would be more humane, equitable, peaceful, and beneficial to everyone, but no matter how hard we present it that way, the system will always have a need to hide from its failings and contradictions in order to keep itself going. Why would its heralds critically examine their own failings and contradictions when they can just demonize someone else and project their failings onto him? Here lies one reason we are useful to the establishment -- as a scapegoat.

The other reason is that it might pose a problem if the ruling class was more nakedly aggressive in eliminating its radical critics. States based merely on the reckless and open-faced exercise of raw violence, without enough effort made to justify it ideologically, invite political one-upmanship, violent upheavals, and instability. This constant "live by the sword" approach greatly increases the costs of building and maintaining power. Hence Cambodia under Pol Pot, Uganda under Idi Amin, Somalia under Siad Barre, and present-day Burma are all modern examples of such brutal and relatively short-lived states. In contrast, the USSR, Iraq under Hussein, Nazi Germany, Cuba under Castro, and Spain under Franco endured because these states had an ideological basis (Communism, pan-Arabism, cult of personality) that could be used to gain popular support and thus earn political and social durability. More sophisticated states like the US, France, Britain, Japan, Venezuela, and so on, have an even clearer ideological basis -- democracy, social contract, Bolivarism, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" -- and are generally more careful about how they go about their sordid business.

To paraphrase Stephan Molyneux, empires grant a certain amount of liberty to their citizens in order to make us more happy, efficient, and productive, and thus encourage more economic growth -- which they then exploit through taxation to expand their own profit and power. Likewise, it is more efficient to maintain a fa'ade of liberal democracy over other methods. If the people find it favorable, it makes it so much easier for the ruling class to claim and defend a sense of legitimacy -- and thus maintain power and privilege.

Were this the good ol' CCCP, Ron Paul's brains would've been used to paint some prison cell wall red. But in the US at least, such actions on a widespread scale would clash with the official ideology -- the Constitution, due process, government's job to protect people's rights and liberties, blah blah blah. It was more efficient in the long run to keep Dr. Paul in the Republican debates (or allow Jesse Ventura to condemn the two main parties, or allow Ralph Nader to chastise corporate power, or allow the Mises Institute to preach against insane economic policies, or allow any number of activists and journalists to spread the truth about war, occupation and corporate-fascism). If pressed to the fire, the ruling class can just shrug and say: "See? We allow dissent. We're not tyrants, this is a free democracy! These crazy libertarians and anarchists have it all wrong. We're the good guys, really! We're really looking out for you!"

(Pssst...is that bailout ready yet? How's that oil war going? Gay marriage is still banned? Great!)

Sadly, the US government has indeed gotten away with violating many people's civil rights here while committing war crimes and economic terrorism around the world. All that's necessary is to tweak the ideology a little bit -- see the Cold War, the War on Terror, and the Unitary Executive theory for details.

So fear not the gallows, ye radicals. As much as they probably fear us and would love to be rid of us, the statist ruling class (at least in the West) needs radicals, and not because they truly believe in tolerance and liberal democratic values for their own sake. Instead: (1) they need ideological scapegoats to project blame for their hubris, and (2) tolerating our presence, weathering our harsh criticisms peacefully, and even engaging us allows them an air of legitimacy as far as their current "democratic" system is concerned. In the end, it boils down to image. It's hard to defend an arrogant and openly ravenous monster, but a smooth-talking serial rapist might manage to dupe you into thinking he's God's gift. Who do you think would win the battle of public opinion? The ruling class understands this; they ain't stupid.

But neither are you.

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Marcel Votlucka's picture
Columns on STR: 29

 Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY.  His work focuses on the connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics.  Visit his new website at http://marcelvotlucka.wordpress.com/