Semiotics in national dialogue: an observation

One thing the Notes on Liberty community may not know about me is that I worked for a while as a research (and writing) extern for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Because of my academic background in history and the arts, most of my work focused on historical communism, especially as related to propagandist representations from inside communist countries. The experience provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in the documentation and wording of communism.

Most people know how the Soviet and Maoist propagandists portrayed their own people: the moral, brave underdogs who are hated and despised by rich, corrupt weaklings. Any of the sufferings connected to communism – famines, shortages, economic instability – these were all the fault of external forces. Except in the case of the Chinese, to whom Mao refused to offer explanation and simply told the people that their sufferings were glorious and were sacrifices to the revolution. Hua Yu in his memoir China in Ten Words conveys quite poetically exactly how “glorious” everyone’s sufferings were. Even today, we are still treated to a modern iteration in the form of Nicolás Maduro and his wild accusations regarding the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. Most of the time, the perpetrators are the White House and CIA, though in August 2018 he blamed Colombia and some unidentified Floridians and in December 2018 he threw in Brazil, along with the traditional “White House did it” trope.

What is less commonly known – outside of film and literature aficionados – about Cold War era portrayals is their representation of those who live on the other side of the divide, i.e. in capitalism. Across the board, the portrayals were fairly simplistic – the rich were evil, the poor were good. The premise was always that the former were useless and the latter were meritorious, belonging in a socialist workers’ paradise, instead of in a system that metaphorically chewed them up and spat them out. The propagandists were masters of imposing this interpretive paradigm universally, from traditional Western literature (or even their own traditional literature in the case of China) to news items. For example, the failed yachtsman and minor-league conman Donald Crowhurst became a proletariat hero in the Soviet film Race of the Century in which he is driven to his death by a greedy, capitalist sponsor (in real life, Crowhurst’s angel investor). The propaganda point being that in capitalism human life is expendable. One has only to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to see under which system an indifference to human life was, and still is, ingrained.

There is a reason that Marxist and post-structuralist theory and criticism focus on the concept of “the other.” It is because communism can only arise from chaos and conflict. In order to justify its existence and explain its ills and failures, there must be an “other” which opposes it. The other can be the White House, foreign intelligence services, or foreign bankers. “Othering” can be imposed on practically any person or group of people, and the dynamic can be read into any relationship. If one wants to find an “other” in Solzhenitsyn, a very good candidate is Fetyukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For a literary criticism standpoint, Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s contempt for Fetyukov is a case of the former “othering” the latter. “Othering,” while a development of Marxist thought, is not a domain exclusive to communist writing. Ian Fleming used the paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, in his James Bond series, with their black-and-white portrayals of who was the good and who was the bad party.

Study of the language and structures of Marxist thought and propaganda is both lacking and overwhelming today. Yes, on the one hand, our universities have been overtaken with grievance studies and criticism classes. But on the other, the tropes and thought processes of Marxism have subtly appeared in contemporary American dialogue. More insidiously, they are not coming necessarily from the overt socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but from figures that identify as center and right. Ocasio-Cortez and her idol Bernie Sanders might be pardoned for regurgitating Marxist tropes, given that at least these politicians have had the decency to acknowledge their ideological leanings, but for “Conservative” [note the big “C”] intellectuals to do so is indicative of either ignorance or manipulation, both of which are unforgivable.

Consider what Michael Lind, a prominent neo-conservative, wrote in an article titled “Classless utopia versus class compromise,”published in American Affairs in summer 2018,

Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.

Lind has had a decades-old, well-publicized bugbear with libertarian thought, and to some extent his language reflects this. What is concerning about his words is the justification of localized socialism (history shows that this would not remain local for long) using the language of agency. The entire argument is built upon the fundamental Marxist assumption that the proletariat has no agency, wants it, and must collectivize to have it. In Marxist speak, Lind’s acceptance of the laborer-has-only-his-labor paradigm effectively “others” everyone on the other side of an indeterminate class line – upper-middle-class professionals (progressive or not), college students, free-marketeers, oh, and rich libertarians (one wonders where poor student classical liberals and middle-class libertarians fall in this equation).

In old fairy tales, a common theme is a beloved plant, usually a tree, that begins to wither away. The tree is externally healthy, and no one can discern a logical reason for it to be dying. After a long search, consulting of necromancers, and other typical fairy tale activities, the hero digs around the tree’s roots and discovers that there is a repulsive, venomous animal, usually a snake or a toad, living there, and it is the cause of the plant’s slow decline. Marxist thought and paradigms, not Marxism as an ideology, have become that snake for American Conservatism and center-right politics. Its poison is exacerbated by the fact that its acolytes and proselytizers appear to be unconscious of its presence as they argue that their only desire is to preserve the American Republic through preventing class conflict. But if they are doing is to hurl us faster and faster, more inexorably toward this very breakdown, as their ideas begin to overlap with those of the acknowledged far-left.

Libertarian Countries and Libertarian Societies

by Fred Foldvary

Michael Lind in the 4 June 2012 salon.com in his article “The question libertarians just can’t answer,” asked, “Why are there no libertarian countries?”  One answer is simply that there are very few pure libertarians. But another answer is that most folks are libertarian enough that they establish libertarian societies, by which I mean not just organized clubs but also informal social gatherings and happenings.

The essential libertarian proposition is “live and let live.”  In a libertarian society, there are no restrictions on peaceful and honest human action.  Most people believe that it is morally wrong to coercively harm others, and they have been brought up to have some sympathy for others, so that they don’t want to hurt others.  Therefore most gatherings such as concerts, athletic events, and street traffic is peaceful. Thus much of the world operates in a libertarian way, without governmental direction. If you host a party in your house, you seldom need a government official there to keep the peace.

This social libertarianism has limits, as those who do not conform to cultural standards such as dress codes would encounter some intolerance.  Nevertheless, there is an almost universal agreement that assault and theft are evil, and a widespread aversion to such anti-social behavior.  When most folks are pro-social in their behavior, they demonstrate a wide and deep level of libertarianism.

Why does the US government impose restrictions such as prohibiting trade with Cuba?  Most Americans probably favor free trade with Cuba. But a minority special interest opposes trade with Cuba and has the political clout to stop it. So the basic reason why the US does not have full freedom is the inherent dysfunction of our system of selecting the chiefs of state. That system is mass democracy.  The failures of mass democracy have been documented and analyzed by the branch of economics called “public choice.”

The two basic reasons why there are no libertarian countries are:

1. Very few people understand or even know about the ethics, economics, and governance of pure liberty.  Pure freedom is not taught in schools, and it is not in the predominant culture.

2. Mass democracy enables special interests to skew policy that favors a few at the expense of the many.

However, the general concept of “freedom” and “liberty” is universally admired.  People have a genetic dislike of being controlled. But their moral views have been skewed by thinking their religious and cultural views are universal.  Ignorance is therefore the ultimate reason why libertarianism is not more widespread.

In another essay on 13 June 2013 Lind says, “Grow up, Libertarians!”  It shows that Lind does not know the meaning of the word “freedom.”  He writes that fighting evil requires limiting the “freedom of employers to buy and sell slaves.”  He has a physical definition of “freedom,” rather than the ethical meaning of there being no restrictions other than on coercive harm to others.  The ownership of a slave is not ethical freedom.

He then says that libertarians propose “the replacement of all taxes by a single regressive flat tax that would fall on low-income workers.” Anyone who advocates such as tax is not a pure libertarian. Lind confuses libertarianism with conservativism.

Michael Lind concludes with the statement, “libertarianism as a philosophy is superficial, juvenile nonsense.” Wow – perhaps he has never read freedom philosophers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and John Hospers. We need a serious explanation of why the basic libertarian idea – live and let live – is superficial nonsense.

There seems to be a simple explanation for Lind’s views on libertarianism – he simply does not understand it.

Logical Fallacies in the Press

Hank blogs about yet another hit job on libertarianism in the press, this time coming from some hack named Michael Lind in Salon. Unfortunately, the whole thing is based upon a logical fallacy that is buried in the seventh paragraph of the piece. Lind wonders aloud:

But think about this for a moment. If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?

This is a basic logical fallacy known as (in Latin) argumentum a silentio, or an argument from silence. An argument from silence is a conclusion drawn based on the absence of evidence. Logical fallacies coming from the enemies of freedom are not always to be ignored, and Hank did us all a service by trying to earnestly straighten out Lind’s fallacious reasoning, but at the same time, we know from careful research that most arguments are based off of dishonesty, plain and simple.

Here is the upside, though: as Dr Gibson points out, the fact that the press is even paying attention to libertarian arguments suggests that more savagery from the Left is coming our way. Given that the Left is morally and ideologically bankrupt, this should serve as some small comfort to those of us who yearn for a less paternalistic and condescending society.

Addendum (6/6): Will Wilkinson has more over at Democracy in America. Tom Woods chimes in as well.

Why are there no “Libertarian Countries”?

So asks Michael Lind in Salon yesterday.

My answer to the question would be:

A libertarian state (he says “country”) is a contradiction in terms. Duh! Some states/countries are certainly more libertarian than others, and the Salon piece even acknowledges that, but the state itself is the reason there are no pure “libertarian countries”. It need not have anything to do with anarchism as even limited government advocates view the state as a necessary evil, and its nature as eventually and inevitably corruptive of all that exists within its prerogatives.

If Mr. Lind simply wants an example of a geographic area that is entirely libertarian, sans state, he would first need to acknowledge that no such place can exist within or as part of a state. But since every country in the world is a state, there are no such places. Even if there were, they wouldn’t count according to Mr. Lind, because they would not fit his definition of country. Notice how he discounts several contestants, having already failed to say what he thinks a libertarian country would look like: Continue reading