Don’t Participate in the Power Ritual
Campaign season is upon us. You may have noticed its sudden arrival. Like leaves changing color, your Facebook feed transfigured after the first Republican Presidential debate. Since then, it has been dominated by comments, links, and memes about the candidates: offering up analysis, support, and (chiefly) outrage. “Can you believe he said that?”
The American groundhog saw its shadow — representatives of its darkest impulses — and instead of turning away in disdain, gazed into the abyss. Political season had begun.
And, as in Nietzsche’s epigram, the abyss is gazing back at us, and is pleased at what it sees. For this is how the State maintains its power over us in the Age of Democracy.
“Oceania” in George Orwell’s 1984 had its annual Hate Week. The build-up to the Presidential election is America’s quadrennial Hate Season, lasting a year and a half. And the two have roughly the same function.
The modern State’s electoral ritual is a safety valve. The pent up rage and frustration of years of misrule is directed away from its appropriate target — the regime itself — and safely vented at bogeymen and scapegoats, including the most odious opposing candidates (Trump, Sanders, Jeb, Hillary, etc.) as well as the population subsets they are perceived to represent (businessmen, immigrants, etc).
Oceania’s annual Hate Week and daily Two Minutes Hate focused on Emmanuel Goldstein as the figurehead bogeyman and scapegoat, representing nebulous threats foreign (Eurasia/Eastasia) and domestic (the Brotherhood). One such figure was enough for Oceania’s one-party system. But the American multi-party Hate Season requires multiple personified menaces: at least one for each faction.
That is because the power of the modern State depends on factional animosity. As Randolph Bourne said, “War is the health of the State.” And that includes the “orderly and procedural” civil war of mutual plunder that characterizes modern democracy. That kind of war too is the health of the State.
By giving its subjects access to the mechanism of “legal plunder” and coercion, the democratic State stimulates and gives free reign to their cupidity and cowardice toward each other. They huddle into “herds” (factions, interest groups, political parties, etc) in order to gain the strength in numbers and unity of purpose necessary to plunder and persecute by proxy, and to defend against like treatment at the hands of enemy herds.
The menace of rival herds causes each herd to huddle even tighter and become even more hostile to outsiders. But really accentuating this effect requires the menace to be personified, to have a face and a name: thus the importance of each faction’s “Goldstein” (Obama, Trump, etc).
This is how the State divides and rules. The herds become too preoccupied with their war against each other to face their true nemesis, the State itself. Indeed, each herd becomes positively devoted to the State as its chief weapon against its foes, just as the people of Oceania were devoted to the Party as their chief defender against its enemies.
The accentuation of this effect also requires personification. Each herd needs at least one champion “shepherd” with a face and a name to be the focal point of its filial piety to the State (as Big Brother was for the Party): a prospective or current officer of the State (Obama, Trump, etc) who will lead his herd’s victorious stampede once in power. So each faction’s Goldstein does double duty for the State by also serving as another faction’s Big Brother.
The State-fomented factionalism worsens when the herds grow hungry, as is happening now in Great Recession America. This explains the mirror image Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders phenomena. Each candidate’s constituency is flocking around the shepherd it sees as most likely to deliver a feast at the expense of a rival herd. The Trump herd is bleating at immigrants “stealing” their jobs, while the Sanders herd is lowing at businessmen who won’t cough up enough taxes.
The electoral “changing of the guard” has still another safety valve function. The previous office holder leaves, taking with him or dissipating much of the opprobrium heaped up throughout his administration, thus removing its burden from the State itself. The new office holder’s “honeymoon period” then begins, and power gets a fresh face with less baggage. There is a shiny new “smiley face on the lapel of the oligarchy,” to use Lew Rockwell’s phrase.
If you are a principled libertarian, you might object, “I run in no herd. Yet shouldn't I focus on denouncing enemies of humanity in general, including both Trump and Sanders, Jeb and Hillary?” I’m sorry to say it, but you too are participating in Hate Season and contributing to its malign effects.
You are playing a part in the State’s grand distraction by helping shift attention toward personalities and away from ideologies, the institutions which such ideologies spawn, and the atrocities which such institutions systematically engender.
It is true that it is the holders of such power-hungry personalities that actually commit such atrocities. But what a politician promises or threatens to do on the campaign trail often has little bearing on what he actually does in office. And even if he does intend to follow through, the personality of an office-holder has far less impact on the scale of atrocities committed than the ideology of his subjects.
There is only so much oppression any population is willing to put up with. Try using Federal troops to round up at once all the guns in Texas or all the pot in Colorado and see what happens. Every citizenry has red lines which, if crossed by the State, will trigger mass evasion, civil disobedience, and even armed resistance. Governments, if they know what’s good for them, are extremely wary of such red lines.
Governments are, by their very nature, vastly outnumbered by the governed. Their power depends on the resignation and acquiescence of the preponderance of their subjects. They can’t afford to cross too many red lines, and so they try not to even approach them (especially since they’re difficult to precisely locate).
Public ideology concerning legitimacy determines where these red lines lay: whether they are so far advanced that the government is only allowed to exist (if at all) as a minimal “night watchman state,” or if they are so far receded that the government is allowed to run rampant as a totalitarian state.
It is red lines of resistance, and the buffer margins sensible governments give them, that are responsible for whatever attenuated rights we still enjoy. It is not laws and constitutions; at best these are State policy guidelines for prudentially keeping off the red lines, to be loosely reinterpreted once ideology becomes more government-friendly and the red lines recede.
Neither is it lawmakers and office holders. When an office holder restrains the government from within, he does not do so out of deference to the imprescriptible rights of man. He does so because he can detect where the ideological winds are blowing. He knows that the storm front of public intolerance for oppression is advancing, and that he had better steer the ship of state away from it, lest it be lost in the squalls.
The bookish Woodrow Wilson campaigned on keeping America out of war, and ended up having a much more disastrously warlike foreign policy than his bellicose, tough-talking rival Theodore Roosevelt did during his Presidency.
Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned against the profligacy of Herbert Hoover and promised to keep American boys out of foreign wars. In office, he launched the New Deal and embroiled the country in World War II.
Jimmy Carter was a big government, left-liberal Democrat. Yet his administration saw a considerable degree of deregulation at home as well as detente abroad. Rockwell has rightly called him, “the least bad President of my lifetime.”
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was a Freeman-reading, small-government-touting Republican. Yet his actual administration was a government-engorging catastrophe.
Talk is cheap, and this goes doubly for both political promises and threats. Political science should take it as a cosmic constant that politicians will basically plunder and persecute as much as they can get away with. And what they can get away with is circumscribed by the red lines of resistance, which in turn are marked out by ideology.
For example, the surprising innocuousness of Carter and his predecessor Gerald Ford (a big-government Rockefeller Republican) can be explained by the spirit of the times.
The horror and failure of the Vietnam War (especially as revealed by the Pentagon Papers), the gross excesses of the Hoover-era security state (especially as revealed by the Church Committee), Nixon’s disastrous economic policies, Watergate, and other developments had all conspired to greatly tarnish the government’s reputation. It is probably no coincidence that the libertarian movement’s first “Takeoff” (to use the term Murray Rothbard used at the time) occurred in this era.
The sheen was off and the spell was largely broken. The disenchanted public had little appetite or tolerance for grand new wars and social engineering projects. The red lines advanced, even without the widespread adoption of spelled-out libertarian ideals. The State had lost its mojo because its thralls were losing their faith. This was the “malaise” that Carter incautiously spoke of.
But by Reagan’s Presidency, the public was ready for “Sunrise in America.” Ironically, the man who famously said “government is the problem” helped restore faith in government for many, so long as there was a “pro-freedom” President at the helm. The oligarchy had a new smiley face disarming the public with talk of freedom.
To Rothbard’s dismay, even many libertarians fell for it and clamored for jobs in the new administration. The libertarian movement wouldn’t fully recover for decades. The reputation of capitalism, smeared by its unjust association with Reagan’s policies and results, still hasn’t recovered.
Disenchantment gave way to re-enchantment. Spirits were up and guards were down. The red lines receded. This is why Reagan got away with doing so much damage.
As Larken Rose has wisely written:
“I’m not scared of the Maos and the Stalins and the Hitlers. I’m scared of the thousands of millions [sic] of people that hallucinate them to be ‘authority’, and so do their bidding, and pay for their empires, and carry out their orders.”
Neither should we fear or focus on the Hillarys, Jebs, Bernies, and Donalds either. Rather, we should fear and focus on what the people will let any of them get away with once in office: of the extent of the authority ceded them by the public.
A moderate-minded President plus an accommodating public with faith in the system is far more dangerous than a totalitarian-minded President plus an unruly and disenchanted public that is fed up with the whole thing.
A greater predictor of the future of freedom is not who people vote for, but whether they vote at all, and whether they let themselves get caught up in the electoral folderol: in the power ritual of Hate Season.
The only election that really matters is the attitude the public elects to adopt toward the State.
Boycott hate season. Stop being drawn into their circus sideshow. Stop denouncing personalities; get back to denouncing the system, the crimes which it enables, and the ideology on which its based.
And especially don’t strive to put a “libertarian” in office. If such an outright fraud as Reagan could do lasting damage to the reputation of the “small government” philosophy, imagine what the Presidency of a more authentic “champion” of freedom would do to the reputation of the libertarian ideology, especially if that Presidency fails (as it is almost certain to) to accomplish the radical retrenchments necessary to defuse the coming economic and geopolitical crises made virtually inevitable by recent policies.
The libertarian ideology is finally getting a wide hearing. If it takes the blame for future political failures, that hearing could be over permanently.
And the good standing of libertarian ideology is everything. It is the only thing that can lastingly achieve real freedom. And it would be cataclysmically foolhardy to put something so indispensable to the human project at risk by yoking it to a naïve, hopeless effort to infiltrate and hijack the world’s most corrupt and powerful empire: to lash the spirit of liberty to the sinking hull of the State.
Moreover, the US government is, as M.L. King famously said, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Longing for a libertarian President of the United States should be just as repellant and ridiculous to the moral soul as longing for a libertarian Caliph for ISIS.
The Nazi Party of Hitler is rightly seen as the butchers of Auschwitz: and the Communist Party of Stalin, the butchers of Holodomor. With equal justice, the Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson should be forever despised as the butchers of the Far East: and the Republican Party of the Bushes, the butchers of the Middle East. Never mind actually representing these parties in office: in a world with moral balance, mere membership in either of the latter two should be just as shameful as membership in the former two.
Even if achieving liberty through office-seeking were possible and not so horribly dangerous, it would still be unnecessary.
Pro-politics libertarians often say that education and ideological change are all well and good, but such ideological change can only translate into actual political change through ballots or bullets: elections or revolutions. If we don’t want the dangerous tumult of revolution, they say, then libertarian office-seeking is where the rubber must meet the road.
This is false. Indeed, even if libertarians only engaged in successful education for ideological change — eschewing both the worthless endeavor of politics and the worthy endeavors of evasion, civil disobedience, and rightful resistance — that alone would be enough to progressively and lastingly achieve liberty. And it can do so without widespread violence.
This is because, as discussed above, ideology marks out the red lines of public resistance. As public ideology becomes more libertarian, those red lines advance. The more (but not yet completely) libertarian general public will then engage in evasion, civil disobedience, and rightful resistance if the government insists on continuing encroachments that are now deemed intolerable.
Imagine, for example, what would happen if Texans came to feel about all gun regulations whatsoever the way they do now about outright confiscation: or the same scenario with Coloradans and pot.
In their own interest, to retain what power and legitimacy it still has, the government will then reverse-march to avoid tripping over the advancing red line of resistance. If the public clearly broadcasts its growing iron intolerance for oppression, and if the regime is smart enough to avoid immediate violent overthrow, this process can occur without widespread clashes. Eventually the advancing, constricting red lines of resistance will strangle the State altogether.
Yes, it will be office-holders who actually enact the reforms in this process. But there is absolutely zero need for these to be libertarian office-holders. As Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Similarly, the State doesn’t need libertarian office-holders to know which way ideological winds are blowing. Regular careerists will do just fine.
The harbingers of liberty are not office-seekers, but educators, activists, and whistleblowers: spreading truth, shattering icons, and breaking spells. And the deliverers of liberty will not be office-holders, but regular people standing up for their rights and thereby inducing the State to stand down.