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Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins

While I've been posting songs regularly for my "Summer Dance Party," I don't want to give the impression that I'm sitting home fiddling while Rome (or Charlottesville, Virginia) burns. Nero, I am not.

I just wanted to say a few things about the conflicts we are witnessing across this country. For the record, I actually agree with President Trump on one issue: there is a lot of "fake news" out there. One example of "fake news" is that Confederate monuments were erected in the years after the Civil War exclusively to commemorate the fallen. With all due respect to those who honor the memory of the dead in that War, especially my southern neighbors, most of those monuments were erected predominantly in the era of Jim Crow and while I personally understand why Southerners mourn the loss of their relatives in the Civil War, which took the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, both Blue and Gray, I'm not convinced that all of these monuments were innocent expressions of commemoration. Some were clearly intended as symbols of intimidation during a period in which many Southern state governments maintained laws that were designed to enforce racial segregation.

I live in Brooklyn, New York, an unreconstructed libertarian American. But even here, in Brooklyn, New York, there are streets named for both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee at the still-active army base, Fort Hamilton, where both men were stationed in the 1840s. I don't see the point in changing the names or the history of any of the streets of this fort, whose roots can be traced all the way back to the Revolutionary War. (In fact, I had my own book party back in 1995, upon the publication of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and the first edition of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, at the Officer's Club of the celebrated fort).

There is one Civil War image that has always resonated with me, however---though its validity has been questioned. It is a symbolic story of reconciliation that occurred at Appomattox, when the Confederate forces surrendered to the Union forces, effectively ending the Civil War. The men of the Blue and the Gray had been overwhelmed with battlefields that knew no color, save one: blood red. And it is said that on that day, April 12, 1865, they departed, saluting one another, giving expression to Lincoln's maxim "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Two days later, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in Lincoln's head.

Unlike the imagery of Appomattox, the imagery coming out of Charlottesville has more in common with the events at Ford's Theatre. When I check out the Vice documentary on Charlottesville, watching White Supremacists march through that Virginia city, chanting "Jews will not replace us" and criticizing Donald Trump for not being racist enough because "he gave his daughter to a Jew . . . that [Jared] Kushner bastard", I am utterly disgusted. Any administration that earns even a modicum of respect from these folks is already running out of time.

Nevertheless, why should any of this surprise us? After years of witnessing the identity, tribalist politics of the left, we're now seeing an administration that is clearly emboldening the identity, tribalist politics of the right.

Friedrich Hayek once wrote, in The Road to Serfdom that the more politics came to dominate social and economic life, the more political power became the only power worth having, which is why those most adept at using it were usually the most successful at attaining it. That's why, for Hayek, "the worst get on top." Well, I don't know if we have yet seen the worst, but one thing is clear. It is in the very nature of advancing government intervention that social fragmentation and group balkanization occurs; indeed, one might say that the rise of statism and the rise of group conflict are reciprocally related. Each depends organically on the other.

Few thinkers understood this dynamic better than Ayn Rand. As I wrote in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical:

Rand argued that the relationship between statism and tribalism was reciprocal. The tribal premise was the ideological and existential root of statism. Statism had arisen out of "prehistorical tribal warfare." Once established, it institutionalized its own racist subcategories and castes in order to sustain its rule. The perpetuation of racial hatred provided the state with a necessary tool for its political domination. Statists frequently scapegoated racial and ethnic groups in order to deflect popular disaffection with deteriorating social conditions. But if tribalism was a precondition of statism, statism was a reciprocally related cause. Racism had to be implemented politically before it could engulf an entire society: "The political cause of tribalism's rebirth is the mixed economy---the transitional stage of the formerly civilized countries of the West on their way to the political level from which the rest of the world has never emerged: the level of permanent tribal warfare."

Ever the dialectician, capable of seeing the larger context, Rand was adamant about this reciprocally reinforcing relationship. Indeed, "she maintained that every discernable group was affected by statist intervention, not just every economic interest. Every differentiating characteristic among human beings becomes a tool for pressure-group jockeying: age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, and race. Statism splinters society 'into warring tribes.' The statist legal machinery pits 'ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting.'" Ultimately, the emergent

mixed economy had splintered the country into warring pressure groups. Under such conditions of social fragmentation, any individual who lacks a group affiliation is put at a disadvantage in the political process. Since race is the simplest category of collective association, most individuals are driven to racial identification out of self-defense. Just as the mixed economy manufactured pressure groups, so too did it manufacture racism. And just as the domestic mixed economy made racism inevitable, so too did the global spread of statism. Rand saw the world fracturing into hostile ethnic tribes with each group aiming to destroy its ethnic rivals in primitive conflicts over cultural, religious, and linguistic differences. Rand called the process one of "global balkanization."

The fabric of this country has been unraveling for years. Advancing statism both depends upon and emboldens the tribalism, inter-group warfare, and "identity politics" on all sides of the political divide.

The Trump administration is neither the cause nor the solution to the problem; it is yet one more sign of how the chickens are coming home to roost. All we can hope for is that open Civil War remains off the table, for the stakes are too great for the survival of life, liberty, and property. And no matter what the color or identity of the victims, the battlefields will still run blood red.

Postscript: My comments here generated some response. For example, on Facebook, Wyatt Storch claims: "You're drinking from the same cesspool you're complaining about the smell of. The idea that the policy and actions of the government of the U.S. should be guided by the goal of not getting praised by some obscure group of idiots is absurd and insupportable. Check your premises." And Anoop Verma makes the fair point that "we can only judge Trump on the basis of the success of failure of his economic agenda. If he passes tax cuts and healthcare reform, then he will be judged fairly by history, and do a great favor on not just US but the entire world (because if the reforms succeed in US then there will be reforms in Asian countries too). If not, then we will see..."

I responded:

I'm simply stating a fact: [Trump is] earning the respect of groups that I do not wish to associate with. And in any event, no conservative, and no pragmatist--such as Trump--is in any way, shape, or form, an advocate of the free market. They are all apologists for the status quo no matter how much they claim to oppose it. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will grasp that nothing is going to change fundamentally under Trump, or anyone else for that matter.
The statist mixed economy is so entrenched--from the "Deep State" of the National Security apparatus to the Fed's control over money--that no individual is capable of altering it.

To which Wyatt responded: "Chris, I understand your point. But that statement is absurd and insupportable. You should take it back. Else because your article didn't disavow cannibalism, if some cannibal approves your article, then it reflects badly on you, would be the ad absurdum analogy."

Responding to both Anoop and Wyatt, I added:

All agreed, but right now, it's not very promising. [Trump] can't even run the Oval Office or the West Wing without it appearing like a weekly installment of "The Apprentice" and he has a fractured Republican party that, though in control of both Houses of Congress, 26 governships, and 32 state legislatures, can't seem to do one fundamental thing to alter the course that this country has been on for a hundred years or more... a "road to serfdom" paved by both Democrats and me-too Republicans, which is why Rand repudiated the conservatives so fervently.

I added:

For the record, I predicted Trump would win way back in July 2016; I was not a Clinton supporter, and I did not vote for either major candidate. But I expressed my reservations about Trump's political project back then; I am still reserving judgment on where this administration is going, but I'm not encouraged. Here is what I said back in July: "The Donald and Mercer's 'Trump Revolution'."

Wyatt admitted that we disagreed on very little, but warned me against the "histrionics" of the blood-in-the-streets metaphor that I used in this post. To which I responded:

To which I will say: From your lips to God's ears (whether or not one believes in a deity). As a student of the Holocaust, who actually took the first course offered on the subject for high school students (by my teacher Ira Zornberg), I get the willies anytime I see a bunch of neo-Nazis chanting anti-Semitic slogans. What started as laughable brown-shirted rallies during the Weimer Republic became one of the worst catastrophes in human history. Indeed: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." And that vigilance must be maintained against both leftist and rightist hooligans.

Wyatt replied: "OK, so you're triggered and you have an excuse for hysteria. Thanks for the confession." To which I replied:

I just think it's called being aware of one's surroundings; I'm not hysterical, but I'm not going to put blinders on. . . . I have had cannibals write nice things about my blog, and I've also had cannibals write lousy things about my blog. I could not care less what the cannibals say either way; I'm just calling it as I see it. I don't like hooligans or tribalists of any kind, and if the shoe fits, they should be called out on it. The only problem is that the left has typically been blind to its own hooligans, while pointing fingers at the right, and vice versa.
I will hold onto your optimism that nobody has the balls to do anything more stupid than they have already.

Wyatt added that I should simply retract my statement that seems to "back-paint immorality" from the neo-Nazis to the Trump administration. To which I responded:

But I stand by that statement; Trump is not distancing himself enough from the cannibals. To this extent, he is becoming a politician, because he knows that a certain constituency of disaffected, disenfranchised white folks voted for him, and he is not going to alienate them when he needs their support.
And I don't take your comments as a personal attack. I'm just concerned that the administration is not being vigilant enough about the thuggery that exists among some of its supporters. To that extent, yes, he is running out of time. It's not even a question of back-painting their immorality to him; it's that he will be stained by their immorality in terms of public perception, and it will undermine any good that he may have been able to achieve (at least from the standpoint of those things that I could support, like his original intent for a less-interventionist foreign policy, etc.)

I added:

I'm not reading his mind, Wyatt; I'm just looking at his actions. He's starting to look more and more like a politician to me. Time will tell.
And no, I do not believe that he is a secret Nazi; I think he is a full-on pragmatist who has tapped into legitimate fears and offered some awful solutions (like high tariffs, protectionism, building walls, amping up the War on Drugs, and now, even back-tracking on the promises of a less-interventionist foreign policy).
As for Rand: Anoop, you are correct. We should not judge Rand based on those who praise or reject her. But I've spent an awful lot of time on Notablog for years having to defend her precisely on those issues, most recently by those who implied that just because a few Rand fans were in Trump's administration, we should be prepared for a "New Age of Rand". Hogwash.

I added another note about the subject in the Facebook thread:

Wyatt, let's take Ayn Rand as an example. She wasn't a politician, to say the least; she was certainly uncompromising. She missed no opportunity whatsoever in making it very clear who she supported as well as those whose support she didn't want. She denounced folks that at times praised some of her writings, and that included everyone from William F. Buckley (who thought The Fountainhead had its moments of sublime beauty) to Ronald Reagan. She dissociated herself from conservatives and from libertarians, whom she called "hippies of the right"; she pulled no punches in telling folks that she repudiated various individuals and movements that claimed her as an influence.
Trump came in as an outsider, not a politician, or so he claimed. He certainly had no trouble using various phrases, like "Islamic terrorists", to describe people who fit the bill.
But it was like pulling teeth to get him to denounce the neo-Nazis, the White Supremacists, and the KKKish thugs who were carrying torches through the streets of Charlottesville, like they were a bunch of brownshirts. Perhaps the man should put the freaking Twitter down for a moment, stop focusing on attacking every little slight that has been thrown his way by anybody anywhere, and call out these Nazi pigs for what they are.
I'm not calling him Hitler, I am not calling him a full-fledged fascist (not yet, at least)--though the system he heads remains the same "neofascist" one that Rand condemned. I'm just saying that he seems to be less enthusiastic about dissociating himself from these white nationalists and white supremacists. And I think the reason he is less enthusiastic is because his pragmatist approach is now geared toward the same goal that all politicians seek: getting re-elected and retaining power.
That is just the nature of politics. His response to these folks has been tepid, at best, because he knows that they are among the constituencies that heavily supported him, and they are a part of a disaffected constituency that he needs to maintain if he wants to be re-elected. He is fully a politician now; he is part of the very system he condemned.
And as I pointed out in my "New Age of Rand" essay, even among the most enthusiastic of Rand acolytes, even a man who was part of Rand's inner circle, who once favored the abolition of the Fed---like Alan Greenspan---becomes corrupted once he becomes a part of the system, indeed, part of the very Fed he sought to extinguish. And he used all the levers of power to bring forth an inflationary expansion and housing bubble that was bound to burst; and in the end, it was the so-called "free-market" that took the blame, not state intervention.
Trump has a long way to go to prove that he can drain the swamp; right now, in my view, he's swimming in it.
Well, he already did one good thing: He threw Bannon out on his ass.