Monthly Archives: January 2012

Libertarianism and Utopianism

I read the comic pages every day because they contain the best writing and art in the newspaper, but I have to take issue with journalist Roland Hedley in Saturday’s Doonesbury, who, in his interview with Ron Paul, claims that the ideal of libertarian government is “pure utopianism.” Actually, libertarianism is the only form of government that isn’t utopian. The modern Western democracies, including America’s, try to create an ideal society. Libertarianism is content with maximizing individual freedom, protecting private property, and defending against foreign aggression. What’s utopian about Ron Paul’s proposals is not his libertarianism but his foreign policy isolationism, which is naïve regarding our enemies in the world.

The Day of the Locust

In Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, he poses the serious question, whether modern society is capable of deferring the violence that it provokes. Describing a mob scene at a Hollywood movie premiere , he writes,

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The ensuing riot scene in West’s novel, as well as the protagonist’s painting-in-progress titled “The Burning of Los Angeles” suggest that West is not optimistic about the fate of America, exemplified here by Hollywood. The anthropological insight of the passage above is first of all that their violence is provoked specifically by representation (as opposed to simply things, facts, or any particular state of events), and especially the mass media. He also points out that ” Nothing can ever be violent enough” to satisfy the desires of the mob. The expectations raised by consumer society are so grandiose that no satisfaction, within its own terms, is possible. West is an acute psychologist of group dynamics, and various scenes in his novel demonstrate a fine understanding of desire as mimetic, that is, competitive.

West’s novel provides us with one of the best models for understanding Occupy Wall Street and other leftist movements. First of all, their (admittedly inchoate) desires are created by the mass media, which is dedicated to finding “scandals” everywhere. Second, that no reform can possibly satisfy their demands. This becomes virtually conscious with OWS, whose members admit that their purpose is primarily “occupation” or protest itself, rather than any particular reform. Third, that political correctness is essentially a competition for the moral high ground. As we saw in Zuccotti Park, PC has a tendency to fragment, because any particular position is subject to a more radical critique, and one’s PC “credentials” are likewise vulnerable to attack. It’s not an overstatement to say that national and international politics have become largely a battle for the moral high ground. How and why this is so deserves further consideration.

Elitism in Zuccotti Park

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgMwUV1wnYo

This segment from the Daily Show records how the Zuccotti Park occupation was geographically divided by class into “uptown” and “downtown”; a division exemplified by the split between those who owned iPads and those who didn’t. When the TV journalist challenged one of the Protesters to share his iPad2 with those on the other side of the Park, he affably refused, saying that his iPad was a “personal possession,” and that he was only opposed to “private property.” (See 4:40 of the video) The show also discovered that the OWS leaders were holding their decision-making meetings in the lobby of the Deutsche Bank! away from the hoi polloi. The segment demonstrates nicely that the OWS movement is essentially elitist, despite its socialist facade. Who has the leisure to spend months camping out (with expensive camping gear) in the park  except modern aristocrats? The socialist opposition to private property, apart from its moral self-righteousness, is really only the desire to appropriate the private property of others. When my students start proclaiming the justice of socialism, I can only wonder, where are the angels who will govern and inhabit this utopia? (I was informed that the state will “wither away,” magically leaving no need for government.)  Are we really willing to trust the government to distribute wealth fairly and produce an “ideal society”? Who will get to decide what exactly constitutes the “ideal”? And who will pay for it? The latest issue of The New Criterion has an important article by Kevin D. Williamson (“Everybody Gets Rich”) in which he comments:

The welfare state isn’t a very good buy. The average Social Security benefit runs just over $1,100 a month—peanuts, hardly enough to keep you in cut-rate butter once your median rent of more than $800 has been paid. For that, you’re taxed 12 percent of your take- home pay. Compare that to this: A married couple, each earning the minimum wage, investing only 10 percent of their earnings at a modest 7 percent return, retires with an annual income of more than $100,000 a year—even if they never touch the $1.5 million principle they’ll leave to their children. President George W. Bush was mocked for calling his proposal to cultivate such minimum-wage millionaires the “Ownership Society,” but it was the most important initiative of his presidency.

And even the entitlement system we have now is unsustainable for more than a few more years at most. Ultimately, people vote their self-interest. Government union employees and welfare recipients will vote Democratic because they hope to benefit financially. But that’s actually short-sighted, because our attempt to create an ideal society of wealth and equality is leading us to a financial crisis of epic proportions. Read Williamson’s article. Government exists to protect our liberty, not to enslave us to a socialist pipe-dream that’s more elitist than the aristocracy we left behind in Britain so many years ago.

The problem with liberalism as it exists today and political correctness in particular is that it truly is a slippery slope. As Eric Gans has pointed out, there’s no conceivable reform that could satisfy the OWS protesters. And it’s the same with multiculturalism, feminism, animal rights, environmentalism, and gay rights. The great advances we have made in the last 50 years have only resulted in more discontent and escalated demands. Modern liberalism is an existential condition that will suffer no remedy. Samuel Beckett’s comment about the “syndrome known as life” applies well:

“I greatly fear,” said Wylie, “that the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation. For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse. The horse leech’s daughter is a closed system. Her quantum of wantum cannot vary.”