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In the wake of Shulamith Firestone’s untimely death, a number of tributes have appeared praising her work in feminist theory.  While Firestone was a creative and risky thinker, unafraid of advancing drastically counter-intuitive ideas, it would be remiss to fail to point out that she hewed quite closely to one of the most central dogmas of our society – white supremacy.  Angela Davis comments:

One of the earliest theoretical works associated with the contemporary feminist movement that dealt with the subject of rape and race was Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution.” Racism in general, so Firestone claims, is actually an extension of sexism. Invoking the biblical notion that “. . . the races are no more than the various parents and siblings of the Family of Man,” she develops a construct defining the white man as father, the white woman as wife and mother, and Black people as the children. Transposing Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex into racial terms, Firestone implies that Black men harbor an uncontrollable desire for sexual relations with white women. They want to kill the father and sleep with the mother. Moreover, in order to “be a man,” the Black man must

… untie himself from his bond with the white female,
relating to her if at all only in a degrading way. In
addition, due to his virulent hatred and jealousy of
her Possessor, the white man, he may lust after her as
a thing to be conquered in order to revenge himself on
the white man.25

Like Brownmiller, MacKellar and Russell, Firestone succumbs to the old racist sophistry of blaming the victim. Whether innocently or consciously, their pronouncements have facilitated the resurrection of the timeworn myth of the Black rapist. Their historical myopia further prevents them from comprehending that the portrayal of Black men as rapists reinforces racism’s open invitation to white men to avail themselves sexually of Black women’s bodies. The fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the Black woman as chronically promiscuous. For once the notion is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible and animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality. If Black men have their eyes on white women as sexual objects, then Black women must certainly welcome the sexual attentions of white men. Viewed as “loose women” and whores, Black women’s cries of rape would necessarily lack legitimacy.

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Trayvon Martin’s murder has provoked a response unlike anything I’ve seen in my decade or so of anti-racist activism.  Though cases like the Jena 6 drew a nationwide response, Trayvon’s case, undoubtedly aided by social media, has served as a galvanizing force that has not remained a lone instance of racism, but has worked to push the cases of the thousands of African Americans slain by cops, judges, and vigilantes into the foreground.  Because of Trayvon, we now know about Ramarley, Rekia, and Bo too.  This is an extremely exciting development, and while it is still too early to tell, I’m hopeful that this represents the beginning of a new movement against white supremacy in the US, dedicated to tearing down the new Jim Crow.

As always, the rise of a new movement has highlighted important theoretical differences among those fighting racism.  The disagreements and arguments that follow from these differences are an important aspect of a democratic movement culture, and are to be welcomed.  They give all of us a chance to learn from each other, to figure out what we really think, and to try and craft a strategic orientation for our movement.

In the case of this movement, the debate that has surfaced most prominently concerns the question of white privilege.  It was raised primarily by a youtube video, in which a white activist chastised other white activists for wearing ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ shirts.  Doing so, she argued, obscures the white privilege of these activists, and makes it seem as if Trayvon’s murder were merely an arbitrary injustice, and not part of a system of white supremacy that relentless oppresses African Americans.  Generally, white activists need to recognize their privilege and the fact that they are closer to George Zimmerman than Trayvon.  Only by doing so will they be able to overcome the racism with which they’ve been socialized.

The video set off a debate.  Sherry Wolf responded with a piece criticizing the notion of white privilege, and arguing that white workers do not, in fact, benefit from racism.  Divided as a class by racism, they suffer the exploitation and oppression visited upon them by the capitalist class even more intensely, since they are unable to unite as a class to combat it.  Sherry’s post prompted a thoughtful rejoinder from Alex Fields, which has helped to clarify some of the main issues and stakes involved in the debate.  Alex and I had a short back and forth on facebook, which I’ve posted below, before agreeing to go public.  In what follows, I will respond to the points Alex raised in both his post and on facebook, and try to lay out what I think the most important critiques of white privilege theory are, and why I think the basic position Sherry defends is a robust prescription for anti-racist politics.

To begin with, I thought it might be helpful to lay out what I perceive as the points of agreement between myself and Alex.  If I am mistaken about any of these, please feel free to correct me.  Alex and I both have caveats or different emphases on these points, but I take this to be the general ground of agreement.

1.) White supremacy is central to contemporary American society.  African Americans and other people of color are oppressed in manifold ways, from mass incarceration to being treated as unreasonably angry when they try to bring up racist oppression.  This is a system that must be destroyed, and collective political action is necessary for this to be accomplished.

2.) The existence of white supremacy means that white Americans have untold advantages over African Americans in many aspects of life.  While the degree to which whites can take advantage of these varies tremendously with class, they nonetheless constitute the material basis of racism among white Americans.  If whites were not actually in better funded schools, able to escape the worst ravages of mass incarceration etc, racism would simply not be an effective ideology.  In a number of crucial ways, whites have it better.

3.) Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color.

This is a substantial area of agreement on crucial political points, especially in the context of the ideology of post-racial America.  I was glad to see Alex’s reply to Sherry written in a comradely (though still appropriately polemical) tone, since the disagreements that exist between these positions should not prevent us from seeing each other as comrades in the struggle against white supremacy.  Nonetheless, there do exist disagreements between us on questions that are central to the movement.  These center around the relationship of racism to capitalism and working class interests, and the political tendencies of white privilege theory.  In a way, this is an awkward debate, since Alex’s critique of my position and my critique of his revolve around what we take to be implied by premises the other accepts, and not as much what the other is actually arguing.  In such a debate, there are going to be lots of accusations of burning straw men, which can be frustrating.  This is, I think, unfortunately unavoidable.  I am going to try and keep such accusations to a minimum, since their proliferation can obscure the real issues in the debate.  With that absurdly long exercise in throat clearing completed, it is time to get down to business.

In her essay, Sherry argues that racism serves to divide black and white workers, making both more vulnerable to capital.  Thus, accepting racist ideas is not in white workers’ interest (note: this is different from claiming there is no material basis for the racism of white workers.  Every ideology has material basis).  Though she does not explicitly state this, she assumes (correctly, I believe) that racism is itself a product of capitalism.  Alex argues that this perspective is mistaken, and leads to bad political conclusions.  He describes two:

If by overcoming capitalism we get rid of both capitalism and the core of racism, but by getting rid of racism we only do damage to the capitalist system without ending it, it seems clearly to follow that it’s more worthwhile to struggle directly against capitalism. Second, there’s a difference in HOW we ought to struggle against racism on these competing views. Sherry pretty explicitly says that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress workers, and that white workers do not materially experience privilege. If she’s right, then it follows that anti-racist struggles are just a struggle against racism in the capitalist power structure, and not struggles against racism within working class institutions, for example. This is a huge difference, and I think the former position is only a little bit different from saying that we really ought to just be struggling against capitalism, and not against racism as independent from capitalism.

I do not believe either of these actually follow from Sherry’s argument.  In fact, her argument explicitly contradicts both of these claims.  Sherry argues that white workers cannot pursue their class interests successfully (at least not very far) so long as they are divided (or divide themselves) from black workers by their racism.  It follows ineluctably from this assertion that the only way white workers can pursue their class interests successfully is if racism is destroyed or significantly weakened.  In other words, there is no struggle directly against capitalism.  It is impossible to successfully confront capitalist class power without smashing the barriers to working class unity.  If this is not done, we can forget about getting very far in expropriating the expropriators.

The second conclusion attributed to Sherry’s argument does not follow for much the same reason.  Racism in working class institutions prevents those institutions from effectively damaging capitalist class power.  Therefore, if we want those institutions to do their job and play a role in helping us stick it to the bosses, we need to purge them of racism.  Only by doing so can we forge the institutions we need to both defend our basic class interests and, hopefully, go on the offensive.

Simply put, neither of the baleful political conclusions Alex argues are entailed by Sherry’s argument actually follow.  If white workers’ class interests are damaged by racism, only by attacking it viciously wherever it reveals its head can those interests be pursued.  In Alex’s original reply, he argued that this line of argument makes little headway against privilege theory, as “White privilege analysis does not say that working class white people are better off under racist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy than they would be under an alternative system like socialism; it says rather that within our current system of racism, white people in all classes are given real privileges that people of color are not.”  But as my explanation of these points implies, this is misleading, since the comparison is not only between a socialist society and our current one.  Even reforms which would leave white supremacy and capitalism in place, such as ending the drug war and mass incarceration, would be of benefit to white workers.  They would weaken the role of war on crime rhetoric in binding white workers to the state, and free up money to be spent on redistributive programs that would weaken market dependency and thus strengthen labor’s hand.  In other words, even within our current system of racism, white workers would benefit not from racism being strengthened, but from it being damaged.

As a final point on this side of the debate, it is curious that Alex asserts these conclusions follow from Sherry’s basic argument, given the political practice of the organization she is a part of.  A quick glance at socialistworker.org reveals that the ISO devotes easily as much time to issues of racial oppression as it does to ‘direct’ struggles against capital.  If it is a logical conclusion of the theory that the ISO holds that struggles against racism are less important than struggles against capital, what are we to conclude from the fact that their political practice seems to include no recognition of this?  I have no doubt the sectarian trolls of the left have all kinds of speculations on this point, but if you accept, as I think Alex does, that comrades in the ISO are committed Marxists and sincerely dedicated to overthrowing white supremacy, this is a real question.

On the white privilege side of things, the debate centers around the political tendencies operative in privilege theory.  I argued that there is a tendency to focus on changing white behavior, and that collective political action fades to the background.  Since such action is the only way the institutions of white supremacy in the US are going to sustain much damage, this emphasis on changing behavior inhibits the struggle against racism.  Alex replied, quite correctly, that while such an emphasis may predominate in some white privilege theory, that doesn’t invalidate the theory any more than the sometimes stiff structural focus of Marxists invalidates it.  I want to argue, however, that this focus is actually dominant in white privilege theory.  To understand why, I think it is worth stepping back for a moment and contextualizing the theory.

Critics of white privilege theory often argue that it is a result of diminished expectations.  They often do so, as Sherry does, by asserting that things like the right not to be shot down while walking in a neighborhood are rights, not privileges, and it constricts our horizons to categorize them as such.  I think it’s right to categorize privilege theory as the product of diminished expectations, but that this is a fairly weak example.  Rather, I would argue that white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action.  In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change.  Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power.  Not all of this, of course, was detrimental.  Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism.  But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation.  Again, I’m not arguing that some of this wasn’t necessary and important.  What is problematic is the way this focus excludes political action.  It’s legible in the video Sherry is responding to.  There, whites are encouraged to ‘critique norms,’ ‘give access to discourse,’ ‘raise children without indoctrination’ – important tasks both, but there is no mention of the need for collective political action.  Some might say. as Alex has, that this is not in contradiction with such action, which is true.  But, like white privilege theorists themselves often assert, silence is itself symptomatic.

In his replies, Alex offers a more nuanced theory of changing white behavior, arguing that it is necessary for white activists to realize their privilege and work to undo it in their organizing work.  As he says “collective action and attempts at solidarity will usually fail if the white folks involved are unable to challenge the racist patterns in their own thought and behavior.”  Here, changing white behavior is not a replacement for political action, as it so often is elsewhere, but rather its precondition.  This is a much stronger argument, and I agree with much of it.  Nonetheless, I think it is overextended, and that this overextension is politically harmful.  While it is vitally important to create antiracist spaces in our movements, I don’t think it’s true that movements will usually fail if white privilege is not systematically confronted and resolved within movements.  There’s a test case here in the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964.  There, thousands of mostly white college students from across the country descended on Mississippi for a voter registration drive.  As white privilege theorists would predict, they caused a lot of trouble.  Coming from white backgrounds, they didn’t realize the danger that they were asking black folks to put themselves in just by voting.  Their privilege blinded them to the fact that they could be putting someone in danger simply by knocking on their door.  Many of them had far less developed racial awareness than the majority of white activists today, coming from liberal backgrounds in which the south was conceived as a totalitarian society in contrast to the liberal north.  Racism was seen as a regional aberration, not a systemic feature of American society.  Yet and still, Freedom Summer was a success.  It undoubtedly would have been more effective if the privilege of these students had been confronted and worked through.  But their failure to do so did not sabotage the movement.

Now, I am unequivocally not arguing that white privilege in movements is not a problem, or that it does not hamper movements, or anything like that.  Whenever it surfaces, it needs to be confronted.  But identifying white privilege as one of the most important factors in the failure of collective political action leads to a mistaken political perspective that cannot be a solid foundation on which to build a movement.  Rather than white privilege, I would argue that what explains the failure of significant movements to develop is the same thing that explains the general weakness of the left – the defeats of the last wave, the hegemony of liberal pro-democratic party politics, the legacy of Stalinism, the implosion of significant far left groups, etc.  If we think that white privilege is the most important thing holding our movements for racial justice back, we’re likely to miss a good deal of this, which makes it very difficult to address successfully.  Again, this isn’t to suggest that addressing white privilege in movements isn’t important – it’s crucial.  Assigning an improper explanatory role to it (or anything else, for that matter), however, does nothing to strengthen our movements.

I hope this does as well clarifying my position as Alex’s piece did his.  These issues are absolutely central to anyone concerned with rejuvenating Left politics in the US, and I am very heartened to see them being discussed and debated among comrades.

 

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So the story of Ron Paul’s alleged racism is once more making the rounds.  First surfacing in 2008 as a result of James Kirchick’s reporting in The New Republic, its most recent iteration is an article by Jonathan Chait, a wretched corporatist Democrat whose motivation in rehashing Kirchick’s story was probably concern that Paul’s positions on the wars, drug policy and the like would embarrass Chait’s beloved commander in chief (Chait has recently written on how liberals are afraid of power, a phobia that his unrelenting sycophancy seems geared towards proving he does not possess).  Though the charges are old, their re-emergence is nonetheless a salutary development, as Paul’s star has risen in recent months with the eruption of class anger against Wall St and the perpetual implosion of the Republican primary field.  Given this (undeserved) street cred, it’s useful for people to be reminded of Paul’s entanglements with racism and other odious discourses.  The gist of the story is that Paul published a series of newsletters in the 1980s and 1990s (which ended up providing much of the seed money with which he launched his political career) that contained a whole host of rather nasty bits on pretty much every oppressed group in American society.  Chait gives us a small sample:

This “Special Issue on Racial Terrorism” was hardly the first time one of Paul’s publications had raised these topics. As early as December 1989, a section of his Investment Letter, titled “What To Expect for the 1990s,” predicted that “Racial Violence Will Fill Our Cities” because “mostly black welfare recipients will feel justified in stealing from mostly white ‘haves.’” Two months later, a newsletter warned of “The Coming Race War,” and, in November 1990, an item advised readers, “If you live in a major city, and can leave, do so. If not, but you can have a rural retreat, for investment and refuge, buy it.” In June 1991, an entry on racial disturbances in Washington, DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood was titled, “Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.” “This is only the first skirmish in the race war of the 1990s,” the newsletter predicted. In an October 1992 item about urban crime, the newsletter’s author–presumably Paul–wrote, “I’ve urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self defense. For the animals are coming.” That same year, a newsletter described the aftermath of a basketball game in which “blacks poured into the streets of Chicago in celebration. How to celebrate? How else? They broke the windows of stores to loot.” The newsletter inveighed against liberals who “want to keep white America from taking action against black crime and welfare,” adding, “Jury verdicts, basketball games, and even music are enough to set off black rage, it seems.”

Such views on race also inflected the newsletters’ commentary on foreign affairs. South Africa’s transition to multiracial democracy was portrayed as a “destruction of civilization” that was “the most tragic [to] ever occur on that continent, at least below the Sahara”; and, in March 1994, a month before Nelson Mandela was elected president, one item warned of an impending “South African Holocaust.” …

The newsletters were particularly obsessed with AIDS, “a politically protected disease thanks to payola and the influence of the homosexual lobby,” and used it as a rhetorical club to beat gay people in general. In 1990, one newsletter approvingly quoted “a well-known Libertarian editor” as saying, “The ACT-UP slogan, on stickers plastered all over Manhattan, is ‘Silence = Death.’ But shouldn’t it be ‘Sodomy = Death’?” Readers were warned to avoid blood transfusions because gays were trying to “poison the blood supply.” “Am I the only one sick of hearing about the ‘rights’ of AIDS carriers?” a newsletter asked in 1990. That same year, citing a Christian-right fringe publication, an item suggested that “the AIDS patient” should not be allowed to eat in restaurants and that “AIDS can be transmitted by saliva,” which is false.

Going over the material here again, I found myself wondering how Paul’s supporters attempted to defend such rank filth.  This lead me to Julian Sanchez & Dave Weigel’s article, ‘Who Wrote Ron Paul’s Newsletters?’  Weigel is a libertarian writer, but someone I nonetheless respect as he has, in the past, shown himself to be perfectly willing to confront racism in conservative ranks.  He continues that work in this piece, which treats the newsletters as the abomination that they are, but also reveals that the question of their authorship is not straightforward.  Paul maintains he has no idea who wrote the offending pieces, and has repudiated the sentiments contained therein.  The smart money appears to be on one Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr, a mainstay on the libertarian right in the US for forty years and a longtime associate of Paul’s.  As Sanchez and Weigel point out, this doesn’t exactly exonerate the candidate.  Even if Paul himself is not a racist, he was undeniably willing to profit off of the vilest sort of racial obloquy.  However, they also contend that even if Paul has failed to come clean about his past, his current conduct, such as his willingness to call out the racism of the war on drugs, evince a clear repudiation of any association with racism.  To me, this is less than convincing.  I am not the least bit interested in what Paul believes in his heart of hearts.  His political conduct reveals that he is more than willing to draw on the language of white supremacy when he thinks it will benefit his cause, and equally willing to discard it when he believes it will not.  The best one can say of Paul after reading Sanchez and Weigel’s reporting is that he is a consummate opportunist.

What interested me most about their piece, however, was not their evaluation of Paul, but rather the peek they afford into the racial politics of American liberatarianism.  Lew Rockwell, it turns out, is no minor crank.  He is the founder and chairman of the board of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a think tank that aspires to be a sort of organizing center for right-wing libertarians and the most important institution for disseminating the ideas of Austrian economics.  Reading some of Rockwell’s publications, the likelihood that he was responsible for penning the words quoted above appears high.  Rockwell has a habit of publishing openly white supremacist material, such as this gem from Samuel Francis:

In the first place, the natural differentiation of the races in intellectual capacities implies that of the two major races in the United States today, only one possesses the inherent capacity to create and sustain the level of civilization that has historically characterized its homelands in Europe and America [note: this is level of civilization of which Francis is so proud]….And secondly, the recognition of racial realities implies that most of the efforts now deployed to combat racism…are misplaced, based on a profound misconception of racial capacities…Those policies and laws are the fruit of a discredited egalitarian mythology that animates the federal leviathan’s perpetual war against civil society and debilitates white resistance to the gathering storm of racial revolution that the enemies, white and non-white, of the white race and its civilization now openly preach and prepare. (Qtd. in Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, 173)

This appeared in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, a publication Rockwell edited with Murray Rothbard.  Rothbard is the single most important figure, after von Mises and Hayek themselves, in the strains of libertarian thought that claim adherence to Austrian principles , and is the subject of breathless adulation by his followers (the account linked to reminds me of nothing so much as the old Stalinist mythology of Lenin, in which young Ilyich, upon hearing of his brother’s execution for populist terrorism, exclaimed ‘No, we will not follow that road.  That is not the road to take,’ and, presto! Bolshevism was born).  As would befit a man with such a reputation for individualism and creativity, Rothbard didn’t merely publish the racist views of others: he penned a number himself.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rothbard and Rockwell devised a political strategy for American libertarians that hoped to inflame class and racial resentments among white Americans in the hopes of turning them against the welfare state, the Federal Reserve, and all the other bogeymen of the libertarian imagination.  The fruits of this strategy are not pretty.  Take, for example, Rothbard’s manifesto for this orientation, the 1992 essay ‘Right-Wing Populism.’  In it, he laments the ‘massive scare campaign’ mounted against David Duke, the former klansman and inveterate racist who briefly rose to prominence in Republican politics in Louisiana.

For Rothbard, Duke’s ascendency confirmed the potential of a libertarian politics fused with racial resentment:  ‘It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke’s current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians; lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what’s wrong with any of that?’  (The notion that one must call for equal rights for whites, of course, implies that whites are currently oppressed, a proposition at the core of contemporary white supremacist discourse.)  Rothbard proposed that libertarians embark on a two-pronged strategy.  First, ‘build up a cadre of our own libertarians, minimal-government opinion-moulders, based on correct ideas’, and second, ‘tap the masses directly, to short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites, to rouse the masses of people against the elites that are looting them, and confusing them, and oppressing them, both socially and economically.’  This distinction between an esoteric and exoteric knowledge is, of course, a familiar one in conservative intellectual history.  In Rothbard’s case, the libertarian intelligentsia, imbued with the all-powerful understanding of Ludwig von Mises Thought, will use their correct ideas to shape society, while the roused masses will perform the work of tearing down the existing statist institutions.  For Rothbard, the arousal of the masses is best accomplished through appeals to racism.  Libertarians should remind the masses that ‘The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of “corporate liberal” Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.’

He goes on to propose a list of eight programmatic demands for the new populist libertarianism, which includes items such as ‘Slash Welfare. Get rid of underclass rule by abolishing the welfare system, or, short of abolition, severely cutting and restricting it.’ ; ‘Abolish Racial or Group Privileges. Abolish affirmative action, set aside racial quotas, etc., and point out that the root of such quotas is the entire “civil rights” structure, which tramples on the property rights of every American.’ ;

Rothbard's agents of liberty

‘Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not “white collar criminals” or “inside traders” but violent street criminals – robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.’ ; and ‘Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.’  As Rothbard’s fascoid rhetoric about the police reveals, he is more than happy to compromise on aspects of supposed libertarian principle to accomplish the goal of rousing the masses against the dusky statist parasites.  Appeals to tradition similarly trump libertarian theory, as Rothbard indicates a willingness to compromise on ‘such vexed problems as pornography, prostitution, or abortion. Here, pro-legalization and pro-choice libertarians should be willing to compromise on a decentralist stance; that is, to end the tyranny of the federal courts, and to leave these problems up to states and better yet, localities and neighborhoods, that is, to “community standards.”‘  Of course, as Corey Robin has argued, such private and local forms of authority have historically been the most important sources of authoritarianism in the US.

‘Right-Wing Populism’ was far from Rothbard’s only venture into race-baiting.  In the sickeningly titled ‘Their Malcolm…and Mine,’ Rothbard expostulates on Malcolm X and the legacy of Black nationalism.  Engaging in the venerable white supremacist tradition of complaining about the injustice of a holiday for Dr. King, Rothbard raises the spectre of a holiday for Malcolm and cries out in anguish, ‘Isn’t “Dr.” King for Heaven’s sake, enough?’ Later, he exalts Malcolm at King’s expense, writing ‘he was not a fraudulent intellectual with a rococo Black Baptist minister style, like “Dr.” King.’  The Tea Party’s obsession with the credentials of a certain prominent African American is, it appears, not a new phenomenon on the American right.  But even worse than Rothbard’s contempt for King is his praise for Malcolm: ‘He carried himself with great pride and dignity; his speaking style was incisive and sparkled with intelligence and sardonic wit. In short, his attraction for blacks was and is that he acted white. It is a ridiculous liberal cliché that blacks are just like whites but with a different skin color; but in Malcolm’s case, regardless of his formal ideology, it really seemed to be true.’  Rarely have more offensive words been offered as approbation.

Most peculiarly, Rothbard, who was himself Jewish, appears to have been something of an anti-semite.  His own self-description of himself was as ‘a pro-Christian Jew who thinks that everything good in Western Civilization is traceable to Christianity’ (paging Anders Breivik).  His defence of Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan contains the unpleasant assertion that ‘Rosenthal’s [one of Buchanan’s Jewish foes] proboscis tells him that Pat is an anti-Semite.’  An essay of his on Origins of the Welfare State in America evinces a disconcerting interest in the Jewishness of many of the players in the story.  An associate of Rothbard’s, who wrote a piece entitled ‘Why must Christians routinely grovel and apologize for crimes against Jews which they never committed?’, recounted that ‘It is not Christian anti-semitism, but, as Murray Rothbard used to note, Jewish goy-bashing which has become the characteristic act of tastelessness in our time.’

Rothbard’s apparent anti-semitism has provoked the expected response from his acolytes: He’s Jewish!  This is hardly a serious defense.  Anyone who believes that Jews cannot be anti-semites is obviously unacquainted with the writings of Gilad Atzmon.  More generally, Rothbard and his supporters have argued that it is impossible for him to be a racist, since racism is a ‘collectivist’ ideology, and Rothbard was a principled individualist.  This is roughly on the same level as a misogynist arguing it is impossible for him to hate women, because his mother was one.  Rothbard was undeniably willing to spread racist ideology to further his political ends, at the very least.  Moreover, even if we accept the questionable assertion that libertarianism and racism are logically incompatible, there are a multitude of ways the two can still co-exist.  Rothbard could simply be an inconsistent libertarian.  Or, he could fail to recognize his own beliefs as racist.  Regardless of its insufficiency, however, this defense at least has the virtue of raising the issue of the relation of political theory to racist canons of knowledge.  For as profoundly as the ideology of white supremacy appears to have suffused the American libertarian movement, I would at least be willing to grant that there is no necessary logical connection between libertarianism and racism.

Why, then, have the two had the relationship they have?  One answer is suggested by Rothbard’s own writings.  In his review of that infamous tome of racist pseudo-science, The Bell Curve,  Rothbard raves about how the book has scientifically established the ‘almost self-evident fact that individuals, ethnic groups, and races differ among themselves in intelligence and in many other traits, and that intelligence, as well as less controversial traits of temperament, are in large part hereditary.’  For Rothbard, this is a development to be celebrated.  Why?

Two reasons we have already mentioned; to celebrate the victory of freedom of inquiry and of truth for its own sake; and a bullet through the heart of the egalitarian-socialist project. But there is a third reason as well: as a powerful defense of the results of the free market. If and when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the free market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and “discriminatory” and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance. In that case, the intelligence argument will become useful to defend the market economy and the free society from ignorant or self-serving attacks. In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.

‘An operation in defense of private property.’  I doubt that racialist science has ever received such an honest description from one of its partisans.  Here, it seems to me, lies the crux of the affinity between libertarianism and racism.  By arguing so strenuously that markets are the most efficient and most just form of social organization, libertarians tend to be unwilling to attribute the continued racial stratification of American society to the operation of markets.  With this explanation unavailable, others must be found.  Now obviously a belief in Black inferiority is not the only other option here.  Some libertarians argue that, ironically, it is anti-poverty programs themselves that perpetuate racial stratification, as they eliminate the incentives to work hard, save, etc, and thus hurt the very people they were implemented to help.  But even this genteel version of the argument has inbuilt tendencies towards racist scapegoating, as  this sort of talk inevitably seems to descend into descriptions of a ‘culture of poverty’ and other ugly tropes.  What begins as a structural explanation slides all too easily into an argument about the deficiencies of racial minorities themselves.  As Rothbard’s example shows, however, some strains of libertarian thought embrace racism full stop, arguing that racial stratification is simply the expression of the genetic superiority of the white race.  The market simply articulates what is written in our genes.  Thus, while considered as abstract propositions, there may be no necessary relationship between libertarian thought and racism, in the historical conditions in which both exist, there does exist an elective affinity between the two.

At the same time, Rothbard’s writings also evince a deep libidinal investment in white supremacy.  His fantasies about police violence being unleashed on vagrants and muggers reveal a real sadism, a desire to see non-white bodies broken.  This emotional connection to the politics of white supremacy is connected with, but not reducible to, the elective affinity described above.  Here, Corey Robin’s recent writing about conservatism seems relevant.  Robin argues that conservatism is always a defense of threatened hierarchies.  It is ‘a meditation on–and theoretical rendition of–the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.’  For Robin, this is the unifying thread linking family values, the free market, imperialism, and racism.  Clearly not every strand of conservatism embraces all of these causes, but what links all of them are a defense of a certain hierarchy – be it in the workplace, in the family, or between nations.  Libertarianism fits in here as a defense of  the subordination of employers to bosses, but also more generally as an endorsement of a hierarchical society.  Libertarian polemics narrate a heroic tale of productive entrepreneurial ubermenschen and their parasitic antagonists.  In these stories, those at the top of society deserve everything that has come to them, as do those on the bottom.  Hierarchy is valorized a moral good.  This gesture is generalized from economic life to life in general in Rothbard’s beloved essay ‘Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.’  Here, in the course of arguing that Leftist egalitarianism is morally abhorrent, Rothbard slips into a long excursus on the inferiority of women, arguing that the universality of women’s oppression is itself the greatest proof of male superiority.  The emotional attachment to hierarchy in libertarian polemic, though it may originally center on the workplace, seems easily extendable to other forms of hierarchy as well.

Ron Paul’s newsletters are thus not an aberration in the political tradition with which he is affiliated.  American libertarian thought has some deep entanglements with racism, a fact which is unsurprising when one considers the origins of many of the movement’s favorite tropes in the defense of the slavocracy.  Even if some strains are less enamored with white supremacy than the American Austrians (reason magazine seems quite committed to racial egalitarianism, while the CATO Institute tends instead to promote the sort of historical revisionism that counterposes Martin Luther King and the ‘good’ civil rights movement against the ‘bad’ movement for things like affirmative action), the veneration for the market that is always at the heart of libertarian thought contains real affinities with the tradition of white supremacy.  Taking a long view of American history, it does not seem too much to say they were made for each other.

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