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Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I think the time has come to say something about the curious coalition of political forces on the left and the right uniting to oppose drone strikes, government surveillance, and increased defense spending.  I will start by reproducing a column I wrote eight years ago for a website called  Then I will bring my discussion up to date with some contemporary observations.  Here is the column exactly as it originally appeared.


May 25, 2005

On Left and Right

by Robert Paul Wolff

Some while ago, a fellow leftie put me on to I took a look at the site, bookmarked it, and have ever since been a regular visitor, sometimes clicking on it two or three times in a day. I have even on occasion donated money to keep it afloat. I find there a broad array of factual reports and opinions consonant with my distressed and outraged view of an America seemingly gone mad with imperial hubris and pathological self-delusion.

Being somewhat dim about such things, I did not at first notice that the site is hosted and sustained by right-wing libertarians whose position on the conventional political spectrum is as far from my own as it is possible to get without falling off the other edge of the world from my own. Whereas I look to Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said for intellectual simulation and solace, reaching back, when I desire some historical perspective, to Karl Marx, the managers of are more likely to reach out to Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, with obligatory obeisances to the authors of the Federalist Papers.

This is not the first time I have found myself in suspicious company. Thirty-five years ago, when I published In Defense of Anarchism, I was chagrined to receive congratulatory notes from the likes of Murray Rothbard, and to be offered, by an earnest graduate student, without a word, a tattered copy of Lysander Spooner's No Treason. Indeed, in the sixties, it was often said that the political spectrum was shaped like a horseshoe, with the two ends a good deal closer to one another than either was to the middle. Nevertheless, an America in which the most trenchant, uncompromisingly condemnatory critique of the present administration issues from the pen of Patrick Buchanan clearly requires some new direction of analysis.

I am united with my libertarian brethren in a hatred of the imperial state, and in my disdain for the dishonesty, self-delusion, and wanton profligacy of this nation's policies in the Middle East. I am one with them, also, in my dismay at the erosion of such individual liberties as survived the post World War II era. But if I may speak as a philosopher, I and they are most at odds in the realm of possibility, not of actuality. I would support a foreign policy that genuinely furthered progressive economic and political developments throughout the world, whereas they would view such policies, even if they might be sympathetic to some of them, as an inappropriate overreaching of state power and a violation of the authority that could justly be assigned to the state by an alert and vigilant electorate. I believe, as they fervently do not, that capitalism rests on exploitation, as Marx argued, and I am therefore always ready to consider ways in which the state might mitigate, if not vitiate, the capitalist economic regime.

But since the United States does not, in actuality, offer me the slightest hope of being able to throw my support enthusiastically behind a government that truly embodies the principles in which I believe, I am left to consider how best to resist the advances of the imperial expansionism that has captured the state. And in this effort, as necessary as it is disheartening, I find myself reaching out to those at the other end of the political spectrum.

We can surely agree on the necessity of defeating politically the drive for U. S. military hegemony. We even can agree on several of the most hotly contended social issues that currently divide the electorate – same-sex marriage, abortion rights, rights of free expression. If we can somehow turn this nation from its imperial path, then there will be time enough to fight over the justice or injustice of capitalism, the need for collective social action to provide decent wages and health care, or the merits of federal restraints on corporate depredations.

As the past two elections have demonstrated, the politically active fraction of the electorate is very evenly divided between the two major political parties. It is also the case that the center of the political spectrum has shifted dramatically to the right, with only a handful of genuine old-fashioned Rooseveltian liberals left in Congress [with the honorable and important exception of the Black Caucus], and increasing numbers of stone-age troglodytic reactionaries masquerading in the Republican Party as conservatives. An alliance of Blue State Democrats with true blue libertarian conservatives would have a reasonable chance of defeating the imperialists. It might then be possible to get America to stand down from its militarism and imperial expansionism, and return us to the far better, though admittedly unsatisfactory state of affairs of only a few years ago.

This alliance would undoubtedly splinter almost as soon as it had triumphed, for on a wide range of important domestic issues the partners disagree irreconcilably. Nevertheless, in a world gone mad, we must learn to cherish second bests. As Paul Newman says to Robert Redford in The Sting, when explaining to him the workings of the Big Con, if we succeed, it won't be enough, but it is all we will get, so you have to be willing to walk away.


Well, that is the column, as I wrote it then.  Things have changed a good deal in the intervening eight years.  The politicians who today style themselves as libertarians turn out to favor an intrusive, repressive state when it comes to reproductive rights or same sex marriage, which suggests that their libertarianism is a fraud.  They may worship at the altar of Ayn Rand, but faux philosopher as she was, she would been horrified at the stance they have adopted in her name.  The effort by these apostles of liberty to suppress voting among those whose politics they find distasteful bears no relation whatsoever to the principles they profess to embrace.

The second difference is that although we now have a genuinely more progressive administration in office which is a good deal more cautious about the use of military force abroad, it has embraced and extended the surveillance state of its predecessor in ways that it will be extremely difficult to roll back.

Meanwhile, the increasing economic inequality in America and the destruction of the life chances of scores of millions of Americans has made the need for genuine economic transformation imperative, and in any such effort, our libertarian brethren will be mortal enemies.  Nevertheless, Paul Newman's wise advice to Robert Redford remains true today.  Perhaps we should make common cause with the Rand Pauls of this world when it comes to the surveillance state, and expect all-out war when we try to rectify economic exploitation.


Chris said...

The following is 100% false:

"The second difference is that although we now have a genuinely more progressive administration in office which is a good deal more cautious about the use of military force abroad, it has embraced and extended the surveillance state of its predecessor in ways that it will be extremely difficult to roll back."

I'm just going to list off a few things I can remember off the top of my head:

1. Supported the NDAA bill which allows for the indefinite detention of Americans.
2. Hid the NSA roving surveillance from Americans until Snowden brought it to light.
3. Forced Evo Morales to land his plane in Austria in search of Snowden.
4. Left Bradley Manning locked in a one room cell without any contact for extended periods of time (the UN called this torture).
5. Sent Manning to trial for life charges, and didn't prosecute the murderers in Iraq that Manning revealed in his video leak.
6. Has used the espionage act more times, and prosecuted more whistle blowers than all previous administrations combined.
7. Keeps Guantanamo open and force feeds prisoners, even though something like 70% of them are cleared for leave.
8. Has used more drone strikes in the first few months in office than Bush ever did.
9. Redefined all MALES in a strike zone as "enemy combatants", therefore making himself as Cornel West said, the Geroge Zimmermen of foreign policy.
10. Killed three American citizens without due process, one of whom was 16 years old. ZERO evidence has been produced to suggest that he was guilty of ANYTHING 'anti-american.'
11. Obama has us involved in numerous "dirty wars" across the globe, including in regions never reported on like Somalia and Yemen.
12. Drastically set a new precedent for the war powers act when he invaded Libya, which has officially made Congress's voice on all future wars moot - so long as the precedent stands.
13. Fought tooth and nail to keep troops in Iraq up until the final moment SOFA was enacted. Ironically it turned out that the Bush policy (SOFA) is what got us out of iraq, against the wishes of the Obama administration.
14. He drastically expanded the war in Afghanistan.
15. The Defense Budget has gone up under him.

As Jeremy Scahill said, when it comes to foreign policy, Obama has out Cheneyed the Cheneys.

That list could go longer, but it gets the point across.

Obama is not a progressive. He's not "more progressive" than Bush. If anything he's taken the Bush and Cheney wet dreams, and made them a reality.

Chris said...

If you want a broader analysis by an authority on the matter, check out Jeremy Scahill at Socialism 2013:

Magpie said...

I am afraid in this I have to agree with Chris.

I'm not an American citizen or resident, neither am I knowledgeable about the intricacies of American politics, so I apologize if I offend or say something stupider than usual, but I had, clearly naively, placed great hopes in Obama.

And, let's be clear, when I say great hopes I don't mean I expected the revolution from him. No.

What I expected was a more progressive stance on race relations or immigration; towards international relations or security. God, at least closing bloody Guantanamo. You know, the kind of thing that don't really touch the pockets of our (and his) masters.

Not even that.

David Gordon said...

There is a typo in the title of your post: you have "Ptiching" for "Pitching"

David Gordon said...

There is a typo in the title of your post: you have "Ptiching" for "Pitching"

Will said...

I too was a devoted reader from 2001 to probably 2006. What I now see that I failed to be alarmed by was the antiwar libertarians' willingness to cater to white supremacists and other bigots (in retrospect there were signs of this in the site's editorials all along). This flaw is an inexcusable one and renders them toxic from the point of view of anyone whom bigotry might harm.

And at the end of the day, can we really trust that someone like Rand Paul will prove to be as devoted to civil rights and peace as he claims? He is already quite willing to deny abortion rights, make life more difficult for the children of immigrants, shame homosexuals, and make other authoritarian gestures. One is reminded of Lysander Spooner who "hated" slavery, but even more than that hated all workable methods of ending slavery, and who instead chose as his life's work the destruction of the US Postal Service.