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By George, I think he’s got it!

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 19 years ago, in 2005, on the World Wide Web.

To put things mildly, there’s just not a hell of a lot that you can say our Prince President has done that made the world better. But if there are any dregs to be salvaged from his trainwreck of a regime, it may be this: his resolute efforts to kill any illusions that anyone might have had about the conservative movement may finally be paying off. Jeffrey Tucker’s break with the conservative tradition last August was a major development; hazy dawn began to break in the paleolibertarian world:

This is conservatism. There’s no use in denying it. The war party and American conservatism are interchangeable and inseparable. They are synonyms. The same thing. They co-exist. How many ways can we put it? Militarism and violence is at the core of conservatism.

Some protest that conservatism once meant resistance to the welfare-warfare state. That is a fascinating piece of historiography, as interesting as the fact that liberalism once meant freedom from the state. Glasses were once called spectacles too, but in our times, language has it own meaning.

In our times, the meaning of conservatism is violence. It means violence against foreigners and violence against political dissidents. It means celebrating violence as the right and proper method of government policy. It means soundly rejecting the views of those who doubt the merit of violence as the omnipotent tool of domestic and international order.

Back then I welcomed the development but urged Tucker to go farther. It’s not just that conservatism now means glorified violence and domination even though it used to mean something different. It never meant anything different. For all the railing against neo-conservatives that you hear these days in libertarian and paleoconservative sectors, there never was a “real” conservatism that was anti-war, anti-state, or pro-freedom. Conservatism as a tradition of political thought began in Britain in the wake of the French Revolution; it was made for an explicit assault on classical liberalism and defense of the Crown. Its content was the rejection of “abstract” demands for universal freedom and specifically of the use of those universal standards to criticize the allegedly traditional power of the King. Its methods were brute force. (And an even nastier story could be told about the history of the Right, which arose in post-Revolutionary France in defense of the doctrine that the absolute power of the State was ordained by God Almighty.) American conservatism has fared no better–whether “paleo” or “neo” in form, it has always been marked by its glorification of power and its exultation in the use of violence to crush dissent.

Given his long search for the pro-freedom “true” conservatism that he has been sure was out there somewhere, I was shocked–pleasantly–to see Ol’ Lew hisself make just this point a few days ago:

Since I am one of the guys who helped turn neocon into the sweet pejorative it is, this may sound funny: but is it time to drop the neo?

Though the neocons are a self-identified group from the 60s, postwar conservatism as contructed by Bill Buckley and company (and Company) has always been ideologically neocon. It is no coincidence that when the ex-Trotskyites migrated to Republicanism (not a long trip), they found an instant home with Buckley.

That is, conservatism has always been messianic, militarist, nationalist, bloodthirsty, imperialist, centralist, redistributionist, and in love with the hangman state.

–Lew Rockwell, Neo No More?

And he seems to be provoking sympathetic discussion, and driving the point home elsewhere. There’s still too much riding on the idea of “neoconservatism” here–even if he agrees to project it back to Buckley and Kirk, that still leaves the viciously reactionary program of xenophobia and racism so often practiced by what we would call “paleoconservatives” today–the Eastlands and Wallaces of the world–mostly undiscussed. But this is certainly at least fifteen steps in the right direction.

By George, I think he’s starting to get it. During the 19th century, libertarians usually called themselves liberals, and allied themselves with abolitionism, anti-racism, feminism, the labor movement, and revolutionary movements of the Left. (Some of the most radical libertarians even described themselves as voluntary socialists.) Libertarians did quite a lot of immensely valuable work over the course of the 20th century, but the horrific rise of monster state socialism drove all too many–alas!–into the arms of an opportunistic and violent Right and an alliance that left many of them fundamentally deluded about the nature of conservatism. Some of us have been trying to urge a return to the radical vision of the 19th century Left libertarians, as a profoundly important development for both libertarians and the Left–when you bring together the demands for freedom and justice, revolutionary things can happen.

The crowd around Lew and the Von Mises Institute certainly wouldn’t agree with many of the things we would urge. But they do seem to be heading straight into a recognition that is an essential part of the whole: recognizing the conservative tradition for what it is and tossing out the delusory notion that conservatism has ever been the party of limiting the State and protecting individual liberty. It never has and it never will; reveling in brute force and responding to rational criticism with bayonet points out is essential to what conservatism is.

The more antiwar radical libertarians recognize this, the better. The conservative tradition is the face of the enemy; quit trying to save it from the neos. It isn’t worth your efforts. Just toss the rotten thing out.

Further reading

5 replies to By George, I think he’s got it! Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Gabriel Mihalache

    Libertarianism is reliant on justice, but we’ll contest to the death that justice implies redistribution of wealth, or other forms of group interests, as practiced in Socialism.

    Socialism fails to see individuals, but only groups. Class warfare is cannibalism –the idea that a man can only live at the expense of another– and there’s no redeeming value in it, in its Economics of “playing favorites”, rejection of unrestricted and unregulated private property, and its insistence to inject the State and its bureaucrats in the free dealing of any 2 free men.

    The Libertarian agenda and vision doesn’t require –or can accept– any degree of Socialism. That being said, since it is a doctrine of collaboration, trade, and prosperity, no one will squirm to agree on particular matters.

    Libertarians and Socialists might share the same opinions on war, and the practices of neo-cons, but other than these practicalities, the intellectual structure –the root of all ideas– is diametrically opposed.

  2. Rad Geek

    Your comments, Gabriel, deserve a much fuller reply than I can offer in the cramped format of a comment box. So here let me just say that there are two distinct points being made here:

    1. The point about the Right: conservatism and the Right are movements that were made to defend the power and prerogatives of crownèd heads of Europe in the early 19th century; political violence and glorying in domination are at their essential core. It’s a good thing that even those libertarians who have been most likely to identify themselves with conservatism in the past are beginning to see this; 20th century libertarians’ frequent willingness to place themselves on the Right or describe themselves as conservatives or to portray themselves as the real conservatives trying to save a valuable tradition from neo imposters, was a mistake, and a mistake that involved a substantial misunderstanding of what conservatism was and is all about. Conservatism is, essentially, closed to insights that are essential to libertarianism. The sooner libertarians–and radical libertarians especially–see that and say Goodbye to all that, the better. That is why I was so pleased to see Lew’s comments.

    2. The point about the Left: I also would argue that there is, contrary to appearances, an openness to libertarian principles within the tradition of the Left that doesn’t exist within the conservative tradition. (Bastiat sat on the Left; Benjamin Tucker called himself a voluntary socialist.) Explaining how this works out without contradiction requires a lot of unpacking of the concepts involved, and a lot of history that State socialists (whether Marxist radicals or milksop “progressives”) have systematically tried to erase from our memories. (Among the concepts that need to be unpacked are class warfare, redistribution of wealth, and economic intervention; it’s clear that state socialists have linked these with collectivism in theory and coercive violence in practice, but it’s not clear that that connection is necessary. For a start on how libertarians might do the work of unpacking and disentangling, see e.g. Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved? by Roderick Long and myself, or Roderick’s Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class in Social Philosophy and Policy 15.2.) Libertarians have sometimes made furtive attempts to reclaim the word liberal from welfare statists; I think that’s a worthwhile project, and I’d just add that there are many theoretical and historical reasons for libertarians to also work to reclaim the word Leftist from its statist abductors.

    Making the point about the Right is necessary but not sufficient for making the point about the Left; you might think that libertarians should rhetorically divorce themselves from conservatism without jumping into the Left’s bed. I think that gives too much credit to the way statist butchers have tried to frame the political debate, and too little credit to the real importance (historical and theoretical) of liberation movements on the Left. But whether you think libertarians should reclaim their position on the Left or spurn it, you still can (and ought to!) agree that conservatism is rotten to the core–and so that the former paleos’ emerging break with it is a development to be welcomed.

    I’ll have more to say about this, and about the point about the Left in particular, later.

  3. Sergio Méndez

    Excelent post Charles. I couldn’t agree more. I just hope more people on the left also started to look into the libertarian tradition and see what they can learn from it (and is a lot).

  4. Labyrus

    From my perspective as an anarchist, I’m going to have to agree with Gabriel Mihalache. I see some value in working with libertarians, but the values are indeed diametrically opposed. The points you make about American political traditions is interesting, but Libertarians still advocate a society where someone can starve to death because they can’t compete.

    Certainly in times like this, it’s important for everyone who’s anti-war and anti-state to work together, but in idealogical terms, I don’t think the libertarians and the left have all that much in common. Livertarianism is essentially the same as the 18th century liberalism that classified private property as a god-given right.

  5. Laura J.

    “but Libertarians still advocate a society where someone can starve to death because they can’t compete.”

    They also advocate a society where other someones are perfectly free to have compassion on their fellow human beings and give to them as much as charitable sentiment inspires and ability allows. To advocate that personal greed in the husbandry of one’s own resources should be legally PERMISSBLE is not the same as advocating that everyone SHOULD act in such a manner.

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