Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Location
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Birthday
September 11
Title
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Bio
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

Chauncey DeVega's Links

MY LINKS
OCTOBER 7, 2010 1:31PM

Gene Cranick and Libertarianism's Dystopian Dreaming

Rate: 7 Flag

 

In a thousand years I never would have imagined that I would write the following:

On September 30, 2010, a family watched their house burn down because they did not pay a seventy-five dollar "membership" fee to the fire department. They pleaded for help as the fire department stood by, while their home, animal family members, and dreams were turned into ashes. A neighbor offered to pay the "fee" and was ignored. The Right and their pied piper Glenn Beck (along with others drunken on the noxious stew that is Ayn Rand infused libertarianism and Tea Party ribaldry) find mocking joy in the Cranicks' loss. Welcome to America in the year 2010.

Americans (whether intentionally or otherwise) frame their understandings of politics around the notion of "freedom dreams." For some, this is a dream of mass mobilization and a return to the "glorious" 1960s. For others, it is a belief in the virtues of "small government" and "freedom to" as opposed to the necessities of "freedom from." In the imagery of the modern myth that is Ronald Reagan's "a shining city on the hill" and his "morning in America," the freedom dream was one of a renewed country that inexorably triumphs over an "evil empire" and where wealth came to all through trickle down economics and the fictional bounties of The Laffer Curve.  The election of Barack Obama under the banner of "change" and "hope" was another type of freedom dream--one where young people along with folks across all boundaries of race and class could come together to heal the economic, social, and political wounds caused by the Bush administration.

Sadly, these freedom dreams seem to have reached an impasse. As America grapples with the Great Recession, a pair of permanent and seemingly endless wars, the contraction of the middle class,  and how to best manage its fall from grace as the preeminent power in the world, we are witness to the rise of alternative framework. Enter: libertarianism's dystopian dreaming.

Here, local and state governments offer mandated furloughs to employees. Basic services such as police, fire, and 911 have been drastically curtailed. Public municipalities are on the verge of bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor is widening while wages remain stagnant and the middle class contracts. One in six Americans receive public assistance. Tent cities have sprung forth for the indigent and semi-homeless, while others wait days at a time for medical care from traveling health clinics. Citizens are tired and exhausted. And ultimately as the inevitable result of the Right's dogma beginning from at least the 1970s and early 1980s that government is the problem and not the solution (where the Great Society is imagined as an abject failure) the public has come to expect little from the State and its elected leaders.

As brilliantly highlighted by Sheldon Wolin in his book Democracy Incorporated, there is a sense on the part of the American people that democracy is a sham, an artifice run by two major parties distinguished only by the degree to which they are beholden to a corporate kleptocracy. In America's managed democracy presidential elections can be stolen with little outcry. Profit is the motive for all things--even the most basic of services such as fire protection, education, and health care that ought to be granted to citizens by virtue of their membership in the polity.

This is a creeping rot. For example, on one day it is the most basic of "public goods"--the non-excludable items that every Introduction to Macroeconomics student learns about the first day of class--that are taken away because of an inability to pay. Tomorrow, it may be police protection. The following day, the exclusion could extend to something as basic as national defense--a service to be outsourced to the highest bidder.

We saw a hint of the selfish egotism and empathy-less madness that is inherent in the libertarian, anti-statism that cheered on the burning down of the Cranick family's home in the moments following Hurricane Katrina. While some rightfully focused on the narrative of race and poverty in that American tragedy where the white racial frame deemed black Americans scavenging for food to be "looters," and white folks in the same perilous straits as "looking for food," there was another narrative at play. For some on the Right, the fall of New Orleans was not a parable about the logistical failures of the federal and state governments. Instead, Hurricane Katrina's enduring lesson was that the poor (read: the underclass and blacks at large) need to get an education, end the cycle of poverty, and then purchase cars so they can get out of town if another hurricane were to strike the city: A cruel calculus that ignores any questions of the common good, or of the obligations, merits, and value of citizenship.

Ultimately, the dismantlement of the State, and a breaking of the expectation that the government has obligations to all citizens (and we to our democracy) serves only the rich, the privileged, and the powerful. They can wallow in the sophomoric musings of Ayn Rand and libertarian philosophies best suited to the drunken meditations of college age trustifarians because those with resources simplistically imagine that they are islands onto themselves with little to any need for the government. The Rand Pauls of the world can muse poetically about a repeal of the Civil Rights Act because to them it is an odd historical factoid, not a law that governs their treatment as full citizens. Beck and company can harp on about the evils of unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and "progressives" because they are rich off of their unique brand of faux-populism and its appeal to the tea party, astroturf lemmings. More generally, the New Right and its supplicants can harp on about nullification and "second amendment" remedies precisely because the repeal of the federal government's power serves their politics of "us" as opposed to "them."

As a function of our freedom dreams, we often spend a great deal of time talking about American exceptionalism. What is a core tenet in American society, held in different and varying ways by folks on both the Left and the Right, that America is a unique place, almost singular in destiny, origins, and claims to the greatness of its democracy. But one must also ask the hard questions: How "exceptional" is a country where citizens are deprived of basic services? Where folks like the Cranicks can be made to stand and watch while their home burns to the ground over a membership fee? Is America exceptional because of its infant mortality rate? The educational achievements of its students? The longevity of its citizens? Her status as a debtor nation? The amount she spends on the military?

The burning of the Cranick's home is a sign of a deeper malaise. In total, their loss was an object lesson in the Right's libertarianism infused dystopian dreaming, where empathy and sympathy are trodden over by selfishness and a pure profit-loss calculation.

Nevertheless, I remain a dreamer. Thus, I must ask the following: Is all truly lost? What can we do as Americans on the Left, in the middle, and on the responsible Right to regain our freedom dreams? Are these dreams now and permanently in the dustbin of history, never to be reclaimed? Or is there some undiscovered country that awaits us all?

 

Your tags:

TIP:

Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:

Comments

Type your comment below:
A totally awesome post! Carcalla is wrong, however. We have a toxic mix of selfish greedhead plutocrats in an unholy alliance with fundie Christers, not so latent Nazis and bigots, and the F*x News Network.

Remember what Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time."

And that appears to work well enough for the great Amerrrkkkan white wing conspiracy.
This is required reading. Period.
You are dead right on every count.

As for this --"where the Great Society is imagined as an abject failure". Yes, here in the mountains of East TN, I often hear that ignorant racist refrain. And my reply is that the Great Society was victim of its success, not it's failure. It gave the best and the brightest a way out, and thereby removed most of the responsible voices from poor communities.

That problems became more intractable in their absence was an unintended consequence. but it was hardly a failure. The failure was on the part of those who abandoned those communities to the worst elements in them, and chose instead to recklessly pursue their own greedy ends.

Whenever I'm confronted by Libertarians or others on the Wacko Right, I ask them if they are respecters of the Constitution, and when they inevitably answer in the affirmative, I ask if that includes the preamble which places only two demands on us citizens -- to provide for the common defense, AND to promote the general welfare.

Seems to me inarguable that providing education, roads, and police and fire protection are necessary to promote the general welfare. And I would add healthcare to that list, as well.
@Caracalla--A fellow traveler through sci-fi. Wonderful. I was actually thinking of Soylent Green and City of Men when writing this piece. In your comparison to Europe, you are close to something very powerful--all Americans are "middle class" regardless of income, and we don't have a language to even discuss class and income inequality--the rot at the heart of this country--thus, the allure of these types of politics for the Right and their minions.

@oldnew--Does this have to be a "conspiracy"? Could it just be a conspiracy of self-interest hidden in plain sight?

@Jeanette-Thanks. This is really synthetic in most ways and I am trying to work through some of what others have said far better than I.
@Tom--You wrote: "
Whenever I'm confronted by Libertarians or others on the Wacko Right, I ask them if they are respecters of the Constitution, and when they inevitably answer in the affirmative, I ask if that includes the preamble which places only two demands on us citizens -- to provide for the common defense, AND to promote the general welfare.

Seems to me inarguable that providing education, roads, and police and fire protection are necessary to promote the general welfare. And I would add healthcare to that list, as well."

The problem is that you can't fight the Right's newspeak with reality. Moreover, isn't it funny how so many of them worship the Constitution, except when it is inconvenient and subverts their agenda? On the Great Society (and the New Deal too), these were great successes for our society, not perfect, but necessary and net gains. Funny, how they are reimagined and reframed by those on the New Right and elsewhere that want to turn the clock back to the Guilded Age (or earlier).
What can we do as Americans on the Left, in the middle, and on the responsible Right to regain our freedom dreams?

From the Left, but I would add to your question, and very importantly, "on the responsible Left". In my view, a very important weakness of the Left, my Left, has been its inability to unsympathetically criticize and analyze itself (out loud), along with an overly long adherence to sentimental, romantic dogma and some of the cult figures associated with it. European social reforms, such as they are, have been a bit more mobile I think, in moving forward, despite the crippling aspects of institutionalizing and bureaucratizing the mechanisms (though perhaps sad, if they've lost some of their dreams and their idealism).

Not so funny, how willing Americans are, to globalize everything (including assassination), except, a notion of what 'socialist' minded ideas and reforms might be like, beyond the few radical and oft repeated stereo-types.

That Americans, in the past, often lauded in the world for their creative thinking and spirit, cannot seem to think and create their way, out of this seemingly impossible conundrum, says much about the tenacity and ferocity of this enemy with which they are confronted---which is, none other than themselves. A very deeply disturbing civil society question, which other nation states HAVE confronted, are, or are trying to, all in their own ways---violent or not---or somewhere in between. Will U.S. civil society be able to do, what their forefathers did? And throw off the yoke of tyranny, however they may?
By saying "forefathers", I mean to refer to the most positive aspects of---these men and woman---of all races, and persuasions and 'walks of life'---right through to present day,,, think Zinn and a 'people's sense' of 'forefathers'.
After Reagan's election I ran into one of the folks who had been a big wheel in the counter-culture and draft resistance movement I was on the very young end of, he one of the oldest.

He said, "We really thought there was going to be a revolution ..."

These were groups that functioned as secret societies, that planned, plotted and sometimes acted. In the end the Government stepped in and squashed them all.

The militia to mcveigh timeline of the right's reaction to Clinton was a redux- the Government put a stop to it.

I don't worry about the tea baggers doing jack shit ... you have to suffer first to actually sit-in, hunger strike or do any type of real protest ... they'll never do any of that ... but, if, in a miracle, they did get stupid ... they'd be put down faster than a rabid dog ... which is not the worst analogy for this group.
Hello, Chauncey. While I disagree with your conclusions, I applaud you for having a very well-written piece. I quote you in a blog post that I wrote today, criticizing Olbermann and other progressive voices. You can read the piece at http://www.thejoyofreason.com/2010/10/of-fish-fire-flakes-foibles-fatuity-and.html

Thanks
Greg
@Inverted: You wrote: "That Americans, in the past, often lauded in the world for their creative thinking and spirit, cannot seem to think and create their way, out of this seemingly impossible conundrum, says much about the tenacity and ferocity of this enemy with which they are confronted---which is, none other than themselves. "

Scathing and sharp. We are really prisoners of the machine. The endless consumption and want that is capitalism and the Consumers Republic has turned inward on itself almost like a cannibal. Is this a byproduct of a lack of political vision or is it the causal variable driving it?

@Oahu: You wrote-"After Reagan's election I ran into one of the folks who had been a big wheel in the counter-culture and draft resistance movement I was on the very young end of, he one of the oldest.

He said, "We really thought there was going to be a revolution ..."

Question: besides those destroyed by the new version of Cointelpro, how many old Lefties got mortgages, 2.2 kids, and simply sold out?

@Greg--Thanks for the complement. I will check out your piece. What did you disagree with? Is it an ideological disagreement, i.e. you are a libertarian, or something more factual/events/understanding of the happenings of that day?

best. cd
Hey Chauncey, I have some strong libertarian leanings on some issues (drug policy, abortion), moderate ones on others (taxation, which I think should be lower, because the government should be spending way less generally), and un-libertarian ones on yet others (I guess an example is taxpayer-funded public libraries). I'm not a big-L Libertarian (I used to be), because pure Libertarianism (the Libertarian Party, anarcho-anything) is an unrealistic philosophy. It represents an unconstrained vision of human nature (Ironically, so does Marxism) and is likely to lead to harmful outcomes in many policy areas and situations.

I'm personally more of a minarchist than a Libertarian. That is, I advocate the smallest government possible; it should fulfill necessary governmental functions but not excessive ones. Example: Public parks are great (within reason), public golf courses are a waste. Publicly-funded counseling for victims of crimes is excellent (and should generally be increased, in my opinion); publicly-funded psychotherapy for everyone would harmful, because it reduces patient choice, doctor compensation, creates medical shortages, etc. Publicly-controlled water supply is a good idea (because the cost of building a sewage infrastructure is best when shared by as many users as possible, and it would be wasteful and probably not realistic to have multiple sets of water pipes under a street); publicly-controlled phones are not. Taxpayer dollars should never, ever be used for building arenas for private sports teams (Corporate welfare and crony capitalism are disgraceful). Et cetera.

Anyway, I don't think that my personal political philosophy drives my analysis in this particular situation. As far as I can tell, this was a failure of a specific, poorly-designed, local, government program created by a failure of will by a handful of rural Tennessee politicians. They were unwilling to implement tax policies that were unpopular with the county's agricultural community, who did not want to pay increased property taxes to cover homeowners (Based on the county's geography, it seems likely that a volunteer fire department would be the best solution). As far as I know, they designed and implemented the policy for politically expedient reasons, not ideological ones.

While I understand the temptation to blame this on Ayn Rand, I just don't think that it works. Besides, I think that very few of Obion County's residents are bronzed, unimaginably handsome, brilliantly intelligent, perfectly sculpted, super-wealthy, self-made men and women who don't have a big problem with rape and sound like a cross between a philosophy textbook and a Harlequin romance when they take turns making speeches (in lieu of having actual conversations). Clearly, Ms. Rand's vision of humanity is far from fulfilled there.
Glad I found you. Thought provoking in a way that helps me recall a time, not so long ago, when I didn't mind having my thoughts provoked.