The Occupy movement has brought together people from a variety of places along the political spectrum, generally somewhere on the Left. The main exception are Ron Paul followers — or perhaps it might be more accurate to say Ron Paul fanatics, as “follower” falls well short of capturing the zeal of those whom the Texas libertarian attracts.
But what is it that attracts Ron Paul followers who, in whatever disjointed fashion, align themselves with the Occupy movement and articulate what is perhaps the most basic Occupy critique: Corporations have far too much power.
Let’s start with the basic libertarian philosophy, which boils down to “government is always bad.” (Ron Paul followers thus would seem to be more at home among tea partiers or the business wing of the Republican Party, where indeed many gravitate.) To put a bit of flesh on the bones, libertarianism can be described as a belief in complete freedom of commerce, of minimal government involvement in the economy or social affairs, and of allowing the “market” to determine economic and social outcomes. An intellectually honest libertarian, then, would be against government laws interfering in adults’ personal lives.
The typical conservative opposes government regulations, but only when it comes to commerce; such beliefs suddenly vanish when it comes to social issues, and thus we have the towering hypocrisy of Republicans thundering against government simultaneous with demands that government control women’s bodies, regulate what happens in the bedroom and decide who can or can’t have a full legal partnership with the person they love.
Representative Paul is not consistent, either — he, too, believes that women are not capable of making decisions about their own bodies and thus opposes abortion. The again, if one sees women as simply carriers of fetuses, and thus lesser beings or commodities rather than full-fledged human beings, maybe it isn’t necessarily inconsistent. (One clue as to why his followers skew heavily toward men. Actually, straight White men, as will see presently.) And his belief in ending military adventures overseas is based on old-fashioned isolationism, not on any notion of solidarity or of a common humanity.
It pays to check under the hood. Having spent many days at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City’s financial district, I did have the chance to talk to a few Ron Paul followers; there always seemed to be one among the sign-holders that daily lined the Broadway side of the encampment. Reluctant as I am to generalize, they were consistently the most fixed in their beliefs. What none of those to whom I talked would consider is what the result would be should their libertarian utopia actually be implemented.
The system is called capitalism for a reason
A brief sojourn on the nature of power in a capitalist country. A short-hand way of describing power relations might be that the possessors of capital rule. The system is called “capitalism” and those who succeed in it accumulate a massive amount of capital.
Any one person, no matter how industrious, can only do so much work, so businesses are formed and employees hired. When the business gets big enough, it is incorporated as a corporation. (There are many suffixes, but let’s stick to one word.) The founder, the founder’s immediate top executives, and eventually their successors, run the corporation to make money. The corporation has to produce a product or service that customers are willing to buy, yes, but to do so in a manner that enables the executives at the top to earn big money and, if the company is big enough to be listed on a stock exchange, the shareholders are expecting a share of the profits, too.
This pot of money is created because the executives pay the employees much less than the value of what they produce. The difference between the value produced and the wage paid is the source of corporate profit, the extraordinary salaries and bonuses paid to those at the top and the dividends paid out to shareholders.
Those few who benefit from the work others perform — the one percent, to use the Occupy Wall Street formulation — quite naturally like the arrangement. And since we have the most greedy lusting for ever bigger pots of money, and competition between the executives of the corporation and the shareholders of the corporation as to which gets the bigger portion of the pot, ways must be found to extract more money (i.e, “capital”).
Competition plays an indispensable role; if a corporation doesn’t increase its profits, the financiers who constitute most of the shareholders will dump its stock and buy the competitors’ stock. The competitor will be better positioned, and might put the first corporation out of business. There are various paths to boosting profits, but ultimately the corporation has to cut costs. At first, cost-cutting can be done through buying machinery or developing more efficient production techniques. But competitors will do the same. Given enough time, the path to boosting profits must rest on reducing the cost of labor — cutting wages, cutting benefits and moving production to countries with much lower labor costs. We are paying the collective price for all this right now.
As more money concentrates into fewer hands, an elite develops that accumulates more money than it can possibly spend on yachts, mansions and other luxuries. Some of their money will spent on buying political influence — “market forces” work in their favor, but they want to be sure that “political forces” do so as well. There may be vastly more working people than elites, but those elites have the money to give to political office holders, to buy and control mass media outlets, to create “think tanks” and other institutions to disseminate their preferred message, and (because of their ability to make big donations) to control non-economic institutions such as schools. We working people sure can’t do any of that.
The only check against that process — which accelerates as more flows to the top, leaving still less for everybody else — is political and social activism. But as the power of the one percent grows, and the struggle of working people to survive becomes more acute, the ability of the elites to further bend the rules in their favor and the difficulty of working people to influence public policy increases, the power of corporations steadily grows. A corporation is not an abstract entity — it is an organization that is run in a dictatorial fashion from the top, and the structure that enables the concentration of wealth. The corporation is simply the legal entity to accomplish that, as would be the case with or without the added benefit of “corporate personhood.”
Removing checks on the most powerful
Now, back to libertarianism. If corporate power (really the concentrated power of a minuscule elite) has become so strong despite the checks and balances built into the modern political system, and that power continues to strengthen, what would happen if the checks and balances were removed? What would happen if we allowed “markets” to determine all outcomes?
The answer should be obvious. A “free market paradise” such as that advocated by Rep. Paul and other libertarians, would mean the end of what is left of our social safety net. No more minimum wage, no more Social Security, no more laws against discrimination in the workplace, no more safety rules, no more consumer-protection laws, no more environmental protection. Indeed, Rep. Paul again said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong because it “destroyed the principle of private property,” according to a Jan. 1, 2012, report in The Huffington Post.
One Ron Paul supporter I talked to was certain that “property rights” would safeguard us in lieu of laws enforced by government. We’re a few blocks from the Hudson River, I said to him, then asked what would stop a chemical company from building a plant on the river, dumping its waste into the river and belching toxic substances from smokestacks. “Property rights” would come to the rescue, he replied, because the “owner” wouldn’t allow that. The owner of the property would be the company operating the hypothetical chemical plant, and it is precisely “property rights” that would enable the company to build the plant and the lack of government oversight that would enable it to pollute in a dangerous manner. To this answer, he replied that “the owner of the river wouldn’t allow that to happen.”
The river does not have an “owner,” I pointed out, and I should have added that, without any government, there would not be an official entity to defend the integrity of the river. He didn’t have a response, and allowed the discussion to lapse. His belief that there should not be a federal government rested on a conviction that state government would be better because it is more local. He might have wished that a state government might be the “owner” of the river (although his actual belief system would require that the river should have a private owner), but that would be no good here, either, because the Hudson is, after all, half in New York and half in New Jersey as it nears its outlet. Pollution is not likely to observe state boundaries. And rivers should not be privatized.
This conversation had begun when I asked him what he thought of the racism in Ron Paul’s newsletters of the past; they were full of vicious White-supremacist and homophobic comments. His answer was a near perfect neologism: “I could write anything under your name and send it out without your knowing.” I replied that wouldn’t be possible as I would swiftly take legal and other action against someone doing that and put a fast end to it. Rep. Paul’s claims that he had no knowledge of what went out under his name for a period of several years is quite simply as lame an excuse as could be put forth — and his followers blindly repeat it.
What we have here is the “true believer” syndrome: I want to believe it, therefore it is. Such a thing is hardly unknown elsewhere, it must be admitted, but rarely does it achieve such perfection. Incidentally, the above conversation was by no means the most fruitless; other Ron Paul followers were still more relentless. (A discussion of “End the Fed” in this post.)
Governments reflect balance of strengths within society
Part of the confusion arises from the demonization of that concept known as “government.” The “government” is not a disembodied entity somehow detached from society, but rather is a reflection of the social forces within society. In a society in which “free markets” are the basis on which most outcomes are decided, those people and institutions that accumulate the most money — and therefore control employment, bend the political process to their preferred outcome and wield their wealth to influence or control other institutions — will be the decisive agents. Their decisions will be to benefit themselves, inevitably at the expense of everybody else.
Such dominance does not mean absolute control. Popular pressure can, on occasion, assert itself as last month’s online campaign to halt the Stop Online Piracy Act demonstrated. But sweeping away government — or reducing government to two functions (enforcing contracts and maintaining a military force) as Chicago School ideologues demand — means that the “market” will determine all outcomes. The “market” would mean concentrated corporate power would decide all outcomes, especially economic outcomes. Life would be much harder than it is now, with no recourse.
That industrialists and financiers would love such an outcome is quite understandable. What isn’t is why any working person would want it. And the scenario just sketched it precisely what libertarians, Ron Paul included, would deliver if they actually were handed power.
The magic elixir that makes so many working people believe that government is source of all problems (although it was a corporation that laid you off or moved your job to the Global South) is that mystical word “freedom.”
“Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. Industrialists and financiers are presented as individuals to be emulated, and their special interests are presented as the interest of all of society. More wealth for the rich (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained on the backs of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.
Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled across the corporate media.
Utopias have a way of becoming dystopias, and the corporate utopia on offer by libertarians — be they in the Cato Institute, in corporate boardrooms, in the tea parties or in the Ron Paul campaign — is a most dystopian trojan horse.