Alexander Cockburn, Left Wingers, Right Wingers and Libertarianism

As a former leftist who now considers himself a libertarian, I was fascinated to read Alexander Cockburn’s musings on whether the whole Left/Right dichotomy makes any sense any more. Cockburn’s article, “Life and Libertarians: Beyond Left and Right,” was occasioned by an invitation to speak at Antiwar.com’s recent national conference. Antiwar.com is, as the name suggests, an anti-war organization that is decidedly libertarian in orientation.

Cockburn reports that he got some angry e-mails from some Leftists folks who didn’t approve of Cockburn speaking at an event that Pat Buchanan (who opposed both the Kosovo intervention and the Persian Gulf War) was speaking at. Cockburn’s reply to one of these critics is a succinct, “I don’t mind sharing a conference schedule with someone who opposes war on Serbs and on Iraqi kids.”

Cockburn’s article is interesting because he is the exception to the rule that currently plagues much left (and right) politics – he is an independent thinker who doesn’t blindly insist on separating everything into these silly categories. Even I was surprised, for example, to see Cockburn lending support to the Fully Informed Jury Association, which believes juries have the right to judge the law as well as the facts of a case. As Cockburn notes, most people on the Left tend to see jury nullification as a tool of white racists, although it has a long history supporting freedom and liberty going back to before the existence of the United States and played an important role allowing northern juries to set fugitive slaves free (the juries rightly deciding that regardless of the merits of the case, fugitive slave laws were simply wrong).

Cockburn could have just as easily added that most conservatives also aren’t very fond of FIJA because they see jury nullification as the tool of liberal extremists who want to avoid sending young men and women to jail for years for possession of an outlawed chemical substance.

An anecdote Cockburn tells of wanting to go see a weekend event called “Gunstock” a few hours away from me in Detroit reminds me of what originally alienated me from much of the Left. A friend of Cockburn’s described Gunstock as people who hate the United Nations and are in favor of guns, and was horrified that Cockburn still wanted to visit the show. When he wrote a column for The Nation suggesting Leftists take to gun shows with their copies of The Nation and talk to these folks, the idea wasn’t very well received to say the least.

One of things I most vividly remember about protesting the Persian Gulf War was the rather general arrogance of my (then) fellow Leftists students and others who basically believed they had the Solution and could not understand why others disagreed with them. I remember distinctly a fellow protester explaining to me that he believed our protests were all futile – nothing would change until some sort of apocalyptic act brought down the entire capitalist structure. No wonder nobody was listening to us.

But the issue I really want to address what Cockburn says toward the end of his article – just how far can libertarians and leftists unite on the anti-war platform.

So, my libertarian friends, at what point do you get off the train? You say, ‘we like corporations, the right for people to associate and form a corporation and issue publicly held stock and maximize profits. This is part and parcel of the economic package we favor.’ Then you have to do battle with leftists, those who say corporate greed will lead to war and waste.

Libertarians will leave the Left precisely where they leave the Right – when the conversation turns to using the power of the state to interfere with free association. The Right insists on using the power of the state to enhance some corporations at the expense of the rest of us. This is wrong. The Left, on the other hand, wants to the use the power of the state to render corporations largely impossible. This is wrong, also. Despite what many Leftists seem to think, most libertarians don’t want to become faceless drones working in enormous corporations. We believe that the current system of corporate/government control is due precisely to the failure of the government to remain a neutral party in associations, and many of us suspect that in large measure the corporate system wouldn’t survive a return to true neutrality, but would be replaced by something better that none of us can foresee. But we’re not prepared to use the power of the state to force that vision down the throats of Americans.

Take Pentagon spending. Is the economy basically underpinned by Pentagon spending, defense spending, and has been ever since 1938-roughly when the New Deal failed, which it did, effectively.

On Pentagon spending, your friends on the Left tend to be bald hypocrites. On the one hand Pentagon spending is supposed to be an unmitigated horror. On the other hand, people like Barbara Ehrenreich throw out the creation of the Internet, motivated in large measure by military needs, as conclusive proof of the need for government programs. Which is it? Is massive government spending a panacea or is it an unmitigated disaster”? It would be nice if the Left could make up its collective mind. For libertarians, the answer is relatively straightforward. Pentagon spending should be chopped to the bare minimum needed for defense of the country. We shouldn’t be financing a globe trotting army and wasting billions to starve children in Iraq.

On this and a wide range of issues, in fact I think there is possibility for a lot of cooperative working together , but it will require overcoming a lot of misconceptions and, occasionally, animosity. A couple years ago, I was part of a group at the university I work at that held a hugely successful daylong protest in favor of marijuana legalization. To pull the event off required a coalition of libertarians, environmentalists and leftists. There was certainly no love lost between myself and the environmentalists groups as we had clashed repeatedly over various issues for several years. Yet we were able to put those animosities and disagreements aside for this cause. (On the other hand the Free Tibet student group, run by leftists, wanted nothing to do with us libertarians.

Before I end, let me suggests another area where Leftists and libertarians should have a lot of agreement – speech issues. Unfortunately, the idea of free speech is under constant assault by both the right and the left. A few years ago I saw a protest on campus that confirmed my worst fears. There was the most prominent lefty professor and many of his students walking hand in hand with conservative right wingers to protest ads for a local strip club that appear in the student newspaper. They were chanting, “You say free speech, I say free woman.” More and more I see leftists turning away from the free speech absolutism that attracted me to left wing politics in the first place, and instead justifying restrictions on speech provided they harm only corporations. I keep reading ridiculous claims even in magazines like The Nation that associations of individuals, such as corporations, simply don’t have free speech rights (one wonders how these folks will react when conservatives propose restricting the speech of Planned Parenthood on precisely these grounds).

So why not more alliances between libertarians and independent-minded leftists? After we’ve made the world safe from Pentagon spending, corporate welfare, censorship, capital punishment and a whole host of other issues, then we can happily move on to fighting amongst each whatever issues are left over.

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