Sunday, December 23, 2012

Day 2: Jackbooted thugs (response)

Jackbooted thugs (summary) (response)
The Fascist Threat, by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Day 2 of Robert Wenzel's 30 Day Reading List on Libertarianism

Day 0: The Libertarian catechism

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On the one hand, a lot of the same things that concern Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. concern me as well. Like Rockwell, I'm concerned about poverty, and stagnating incomes of the lower and middle classes. Like Rockwell, I'm worried by our crumbling infrastructure. Like Rockwell, I'm appalled the increasing militarism of the police. Like Rockwell, I'm outraged at our nation's murderous imperialism. I don't endorse his wording, and I do believe that most police are sincere, dedicated professionals (one problem is lack of institutional control over the minority of police who aren't professionals), but I share Rockwell's dislike of the "the bullet-proof-vest wearing, heavily armed, jackbooted thugs" patrolling our borders for drugs. And, like Rockwell, I believe these trends can and should be opposed, and I see that people are beginning to oppose them.

On the other hand, Rockwell sounds like, and I can put it no more charitably, a complete lunatic. He is a man who observes the nasty cut on your finger, diagnoses cancer, and recommends the amputation of both arms and both legs. I cannot determine if his lunacy is sincere, if he actually believes what he says, or is simply some sort of cynical calculation to appeal to those in arrested adolescence, but this work is simple craziness.

Rockwell's definition of fascism is at least partially correct: what distinguishes fascism from other objectionable forms of government really is that fascism "exalts the police State as the source of order . . . and makes the executive State the unlimited master of society." Fascism is the location of all civic and public life within the state, which is absolutely controlled by its executive. But fascism requires not just that the state be large, but that the state control, or assert control, over everything, and that those individuals who are members of the executive assert their independence in principle from any restraint. And clearly by this definition, the United States government is not fascist. The government controls a lot, perhaps too much, but not only does it not control everything, it also does not even assert control over everything. The executive branch is very powerful, but not only is our executive not absolutely unrestrained, it also does not assert that it is in principle absolutely unrestrained. Not even Nixon or Bush fils asserted that the President can legitimately override an election. Fascism requires that civic life be explicitly and intentionally rooted exclusively in a state under the absolute control of an oligarchy or dictator, and this is simply not the case anywhere in the industrialized West.

Indeed, Rockwell does not even try to prove that the United States is really fascist. Instead, he names a laundry list of things he doesn't like, names them "marks" of fascism, and then tries to shoehorn modern events into these artificial markers. While his first two markers, unrestrained government power and de facto dictatorship, really are inherently fascistic, and his final two, militarism and imperialism, while hardly exclusively fascist, are at least objectionable, the three more, "immense bureaucracy," cartelism, autarky (economic self-sufficiency) have at best only an accidental resemblance to fascism. The sixth marker in Rockwell's list, government spending and borrowing, is a necessary function of any industrialized economy.

Where his markers are legitimate, Rockwell's case that the United States government actually fits these markers is contradictory and incoherent. For example, Rockwell says that most people would reject the characterization of the United States government as totalitarian "so long as they happen not to be directly ensnared in the State’s web." But the very definition of totalitarianism is that it that even the smallest act is "ensnared in the State’s web"; a totalitarian state is omnipresent and inescapable. Similarly, on the one hand, Rockwell asserts that fascism requires a dictatorship based on the leadership principle. But then he says, "The president is only the veneer, and the elections are only the tribal rituals we undergo to confer some legitimacy on the institution [of the executive branch]." If the president is not actually a "messiah," if he is only a figurehead, then where is the leadership principle? If the people really do consider the president du jour a messiah, then why does he content himself with a subordinate role? Rockwell is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Rockwell's cure for our "fascism," a simple-minded anarchism that could appeal only to the ignorant and deluded person stuck in the mindless, aimless rebelliousness of arrested adolescence, is even more nonsensical. According to Rockwell, "No constitution, no election, no social contract will check" the power of the man with the guns. The only remedy is for "his powers distributed within and among the whole population." By "powers," Rockwell presumably means the actual guns, tanks, artillery, fighters, bombers, battleships, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, and nuclear weapons that the government actually wields. No sane person could endorse such an obviously unrealistic proposal in reality. And Rockwell believes that the whole population "should be governed by the same forces that bring us all the blessings the material world affords us." Other than human beings with guns, he only "forces" we're governed by are physical laws, which we observe permit tyranny, oppression, slavery, imperialism, famine, plague, war, death, mopery on the high seas, and the Ice Capades.

When responding to literature this obviously unrealistic, it's difficult to determine the most charitable assumption about the authors intentions. If we presume Rockwell is sincere, then he must be so profoundly deluded as to approach actual clinical insanity. If he's sane, then he must be intentionally insincere. I'm not a psychiatrist, so if he's insane, there's nothing I can do. On the chance that he's simply insincere, I can at least speculate on his hidden motivation.

Rockwell is explicitly attempting to delegitimize the United States government at the institutional and constitutional level. As a revolutionary communist, I'm sympathetic to that position; although for reasons probably very different from Rockwell's, I consider our present government, while not precisely illegitimate, certainly far from ideal. On the other hand, what precisely does Rockwell want to delegitimize? One clue is the persistent Libertarian fetishization of money. Rockwell's article is the text of a talk delivered at the 2011 conference, "When Money Dies." In the article, Rockwell bemoans the end of the gold standard in 1973, with the result that "the money was destroyed and American savings were wiped out and the capital base of the economy was devastated. Rockwell denounces "the rise of fiat money that depreciated the currency, robbed savings, and shoved people into the workforce* as taxpayers." Indeed, Rockwell claims that fiat money is the foundation of fascism, it is
the wicked power to create the money necessary to fund this executive rule. . . . No government in the history of the world has spent as much, borrowed as much, and created as much fake money as the US. If the US doesn’t qualify as a fascist State in this sense, no government ever has.
All the other ills are incidental, what matters to Rockwell is money.

*I don't understand why a Libertarian would deprecate more people working as being "shoved into the workforce"; I suspect Rockwell is just chalking up talking points without being too worried about internal consistency.

But money requires government. Without government, money is both unnecessary and untenable. Without money, people can operate in quite sophisticated ways* using only social credit, which is, ironically enough, the fundamental example of a fiat currency: Any individual with social credit can create locally circulatable currency by simply signing an IOU. Indeed, this sort of ad hoc private fiat money resting on nothing but the good faith of the issuer was the primary medium of exchange during the height of the Islamic commercial empire (and the origin of the word, "check"). But circulating IOUs are not money in the sense of the gold standard that Rockwell refers to.

*Probably not sophisticated enough, however, to support a modern industrialized economy.

For money to be money in the gold standard sense, it must be be ubiquitous. If someone is going to pay me in seashells (or feathers, glass beads, portraits of dead presidents, or hunks of metal), I want to be absolutely certain that I can then use those seashells or whatever to pay the grocery, the hardware store, the lumberyard, the shoe store, and all the people I rely on to survive. (Remember that self-sufficiency, i.e. autarky, is a mark of fascism.) If I personally know them and they know me, then I don't need seashells; I need the seashells only if we don't personally know and trust each other. Thus I need someone I trust to make sure my seashells are good everywhere I go. Governments implement this ubiquity to some extent by legal tender laws, declaring that all debts may be satisfied by seashells. To a greater extent, governments implement ubiquity by collecting taxes in seashells. If (most) everyone needs to pay taxes in seashells, then they have an obvious motive to accept my seashells for food, nails, wood, shoes, etc. I have no need of seashells with people I know and trust, and without a government, I have no reason to believe that people I don't know and don't trust will accept my seashells. There's absolutely nothing about gold that magically makes it ubiquitous; a gold standard is a gold standard only if a government enforces legal tender laws coercing me into accepting gold in payment and enforcing taxation in gold.

Furthermore, for money to be money in the gold standard sense, debts in money must not only be enforceable but also differentially enforceable. Again, the whole issue with money is that it allows me to trade with people I don't personally know and trust. If I loan someone money, and he refuses to pay me back, I need to be able to send some "jackbooted thugs" over to his house and collect my money. Without the jackbooted thugs, I won't lend to anyone I don't know and trust, and I don't need money to lend to people I do know and trust: I'll lend them what they need directly, and trust them to give me what I need. On the other side, if I can simply arbitrarily enforce my will, I don't need actual money: I'll just send over the jackbooted thugs to enslave people directly. If there are jackbooted thugs collecting debts, I need to know they will only enforce their will only to collect money. Thus to have money we need to have coercion moderated by a social process, i.e. a government.

Even a more-or-less democratic republic such as the present-day United States doesn't need a "hard" currency; we've been doing well enough for about forty years on an explicitly fiat currency, about eighty years on a de facto fiat currency, and several centuries on private fiat currency, i.e. fractional reserve banking. There's only one kind of government that needs the appearance of a hard currency, and that's a plutocracy. They need it both to legitimize their own rule, and manage conflicts within the ruling class of the owners of money: instead of counting votes, they count gold bars.

Thus, if Rockwell is not simply deranged, we have to see his underlying motivation not as delegitimizing "the State" in general but rather delegitimizing the democratic foundation of the current state, even in its primitive, superficial form. As with Hazlitt, the foundation of Libertarianism is plutocracy.

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