When I was hanging out with the youth element of the Revolutionary Unions (RU) back in the early to mid-1970s, there was a fellow member who attended American University and was part of our branch. While returning from a meeting in Washington, DC one afternoon, our conversation turned to what brought us to leftist politics. During the course of the conversation, she related that she was originally interested in libertarianism until Alex-an RU organizer and member of our branch-explained via the use of history that even if capitalism could exist as the libertarians envisioned, it could not remain within that vision because capitalism requires profit to survive. Since profit requires a continual expansion (or atomization) of markets and the accrual of profit by some capitalists means that other capitalists would not be able to make a profit since the amount of capital (money) is finite. This creates intensified competition among the capitalists, which in turn causes the less predatory businesses to fail, thereby creating monopolies and inequality in their wake. In other words, a fair capitalism that depended completely on the fairness of the market could not exist for any amount of time because the market can not remain fair. That’s the only verifiable outcome of the capitalist economic experience.
But this piece isn’t about libertarianism in the general sense of the word. In fact, it is about the current campaign run by Ron Paul and his supporters for nomination to be the GOP’s standard bearer for the 2008 presidential election. More specifically, it is about a growing trend on the left side of the spectrum to support that campaign. Naturally, I am in total support of Mr. Paul’s call to end the war and occupation of Iraq immediately and I applaud his ability to make that call something that other politicians must respond to. I also support the standard libertarian call for legalization of marijuana. In addition, there are other elements of Paul’s campaign that are quite appealing. However, the Libertarian hatred of labor unions and public education, opposition to universal health care and their generally objectivist (as in Ayn Rand) approach to human societal relations leaves me cold.
When one reads most left/progressive calls to support Mr. Paul, they tend to dismiss these and other libertarian aspects of Paul’s program by stating that these extremist views will never succeed because the moderate and progressive voices in Congress won’t allow them to. This argument is politically naïve and potentially dangerous. After all, who would have ever thought that the moderate and progressive voices in Congress would have passed the PATRIOT Act, given the White House blanket permission to wage war whenever and wherever it wishes, and steal billions of dollars from working Americans to hand to their wealthiest countrymen? In essence, what I’m saying here is that Congress can be convinced to do almost anything contrary to the majority of its constituents’ interests.
The solution Ron Paul appears to provide is inviting if for no other reason than its sheer simplicity. Vote for Paul in the GOP primaries and get him into the presidential race. Then elect him president. Then he will end the war. That alone is reason enough for many fervent (and not-so-fervent) anti-warriors. Hell, a half-dozen of my old leftie friends are seriously considering the idea and I have to admit there are times it even appeals to me. After all, not too many other candidates have consistently opposed allowing electronic surveillance without a warrant or continuing intelligence gathering without civil oversight. Even fewer said of the 2001 attack on Afghanistan while connecting it to Unocal’s desire to build a gas pipeline through the country: “The terrorist enemy is no more an entity than the “mob”or some international criminal gang. It certainly is not a country, nor is it the Afghan people…. The Afghan people did nothing to deserve another war.”
However, I can’t give my vote to Mr. Paul. I can’t ignore the repercussions of the libertarian capitalism Mr. Paul espouses, especially in a world where corporate monopolies have been ruling the market for over a hundred years and, by doing so, have made any possibility of a free, much less fair, market absolutely impossible. I can’t ignore his musings about preventing people from so-called terrorist countries from visiting the United States. I can’t ignore his yes votes on building a fence along the Mexican border, or his vote against tipping off immigrants about the Minuteman Project, or on reporting undocumented residents who receive hospital treatment. Furthermore, his calls to find and deport every person living in the United States with an invalid (or no) visa and to end the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship of every person born in the United States are just plain wrong and would increase the police state he claims to oppose. I can’t ignore his votes against restricting employer interference in union organizing or his opposition to increasing the minimum wage. I couldn’t ignore Ronald Reagan or George Bush’s fundamentally anti-labor positions and I won’t ignore Mr. Paul’s. Nor can I ignore Mr. Paul’s position against women’s reproductive choice. His vote to ban gay adoptions in DC ticks me off as does his vote against continuing the moratorium on drilling for oil offshore, his vote for continuing military recruitment on college campuses, and his support for the Star Wars weaponry plan (SDI).
What the support for Ron Paul among potentially progressive voters signifies to me is the failure of today’s left to enunciate an anti-imperialist position better than that put forth by the libertarian right. This is not a new phenomenon in US history. Indeed, some of the members of the Anti-Imperialist League of the late nineteenth century were much closer to the Ron Paul philosophy than anything Marx, Lenin, or Luxembourg ever wrote. This is not necessarily because that philosophy is a better one, but it is certainly better received in a capitalist nation like the US. The most positive thing I can pull out of the Ron Paul phenomenon is that the people of the United States want something radically different. In a capitalist society, radical capitalism is as far as many folks will go–and that’s essentially what libertarianism is.
But, say the supporters of Paul who consider themselves progressive or left, he has promised to end the war. My immediate response is, so have Kucinich and Mike Gravel, so why not lend them your support? At least on the slight chance they got elected they wouldn’t want to turn the country into a greater paradise for predatory capitalism than it already is. My more thoughtful response is that nothing-especially nothing as important as ending the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan-can be solved simply by voting another face into the White House. Getting rid of the current one and replacing him with someone who has at least expressed a desire to end those adventures is certainly a step in the right direction, but only a widespread and mobilized movement willing to use a multitude of tactics is going to accomplish that. On the other hand, do I think it’s the end of the world if Ron Paul gets your vote (or gets elected)? Of course not. In fact, a vote for Ron Paul is certainly a better use of the franchise than a vote for almost any of the other candidates currently running. For better or worse.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org