These days when an online conversation turns to international affairs, even here in Australia, it’s not long before the Ron Paul supporters arrive.
Not since the height of Obamania have so many Australians been so enthusiastic about a US politician. But what makes the passion about Paul even more remarkable is that he’s a Republican — and many of his local fans identify as progressives.
The Barack Obama presidency has disappointed most those who believed intensely in the lofty rhetoric of the campaign. In Australia, the real fervour about Obama came from liberals who saw him as the anti-Bush, a president who would eschew military adventurism, restore the rule of law, and replace W’s blustering stupidity with a calm intelligence.
Today, it’s those same liberals who are most conscious of how closely the Obama administration resembles its predecessor, with the new president, as Glenn Greenwald puts it, presiding over a shopping list of measures that "liberalism has long held to be pernicious".
Obama, Greenwald continues, has “slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with drones, cluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalised the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield.”
Greenwald’s list of disappointments is lengthy. Yet how does this progressive critique of the Democrats lead to support for a Republican, especially given that party seems so evidently dominated by murderous buffoons?
Certainly in the Republican debates so far, the biggest cheers have been for whichever evil clown pledges to execute more prisoners, authorise more torture and kill more foreigners.
And that, of course, is why Ron Paul stands out. He’s a libertarian, and far more self-consciously ideological than most politicians. That’s why, as his enthusiasts remind us, he’s the only candidate from either party to oppose the US’s never-ending wars, to denounce assassinations and drone strikes, to call for rolling back the Patriot Act and the rest of the infrastructure of the war on terror.
His campaign, as Paul’s supporters say, is a million miles from the rhetoric of any other US politician.
Yet, for all that, there are other ways in which Paul fits in with the bigots and race-baiters on whom modern day Republicanism rests. He’s fanatically anti-abortion, for a start.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, for instance, Paul circulated newsletters chock full of racial bigotry. A small sample from October 1990:
“A mob of black demonstrators, led by the ‘Rev.’ Al Sharpton, occupied and closed the Statue of Liberty recently, demanding that New York be renamed Martin Luther King City ‘to reclaim it for our people.’ Hmmm. I hate to agree with the Rev. Al, but maybe a name change is in order. Welfaria? Zooville? Rapetown? Dirtburg? Lazyopolis? But Al, the Statue of Liberty? Next time, hold that demonstration at a food stamp bureau or a crack house.”
Paul now says he knew nothing about such comments and he didn’t write them himself.
It’s an absurd response. Who circulates a publication under their own name and then pays no attention to what it says?
Anyway, even if such passages were written by someone else, the assumption that recipients of Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, the Ron Paul Political Report and the Ron Paul Investment Letter wanted to read crude racism says volumes about the milieu from which Paul emerged.
Part of the reason Paul seems different from the rest of the Republican field is that his initial support base was built outside the mainstream — indeed, against the mainstream, and largely resting on the far right.
It should be remembered that extreme right-wing populism (and, yes, fascism) always presents itself as insurrectionary, railing not just against migrants and minorities but also against big business and the government. That’s why Paul has provided a natural home for the radicals of the right.
Consider this account of Paul’s 2007 campaign by the Orcinus website, which specialises in monitoring hate groups.
“Virtually every far-right entity — neo-Nazis, white supremacists, militias, constitutionalists, Minutemen, nativists, you name it — that I’ve been monitoring for the past decade or more is lining up behind Paul. I’ve checked with other human-rights observers, and they’re seeing the same thing. Ron Paul, rather quietly and under the radar, has managed to unite nearly the entire radical right behind him."
For some on the left, none of this matters.
Whatever Paul’s past sins, they say, he’s at least ensuring that opposition to the US's wars gets a hearing in the mainstream. And that, at least, is a good thing.
Except that Paul’s foreign policy is, in essence, isolationist. That’s the basis of his opposition to war — the idea that what happens overseas is no business of ordinary Americans.
The left-wing anti-war tradition begins from a totally different place.
The left has always argued not for ordinary people to ignore the world but to embrace it — that is, not for isolationism but for solidarity.
The distinction is not trivial. If the left retreats from its traditional commitment to internationalism, it opens the way for warmongers to present themselves as the champions of the oppressed, much as the neocons did with Iraq.
Isolationism, in that sense, paved the way for the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan, since the inability of the left to respond to the sympathy that ordinary people felt for the victims of dictatorship allowed liberal interventionism to prevail.
Perhaps more importantly, detaching Ron Paul’s progressive sounding slogans from the context in which they emerge entails ignoring the basic connection between political means and political ends.
More than anything, Paul is committed to the free market. He’s a market fundamentalist, far more besotted with the wondrous powers of the invisible hand than any other politician in the US or Australia. That’s the basis of his libertarianism: a fantasy of individual traders happily setting up their lemonade stands without regulation or interference. If ever implemented, Paul’s ideas would illustrate how unfettered markets foster repression more than freedom.
The obvious example is Chile, where the introduction of an extreme market experiment depended on Pinochet imprisoning or killing those who complained about falling living standards.
A US administration implementing Paul’s program would inevitably confront protests by unionists and others understandably unenthusiastic about massive federal cutbacks and the disintegration of whatever remains of the welfare state nor the bosses’ new found liberty to sack them. To carry through a pro-market revolution would thus require the full force of the US state’s repressive apparatus.
That’s all hypothetical, of course, since Paul won’t be the Republican candidate and his policies won’t be implemented.
But it has implications for his new status as the spokesperson for anti-war and civil libertarian sentiment. Think about the massive struggles required to end all of the US interventions overseas and to roll back the draconian anti-terror legislation.
Such campaigns simply cannot succeed without enlisting organisations like trade unions, able to wield real social clout precisely because they organise millions of people in chains of solidarity.
Paul’s free market libertarianism is, however, fundamentally hostile to that kind of collectivism. Thus, the more that demands to end war and restore civil liberties become associated with Ron Paul and the current he represents, the less chance these campaigns have to build links with the forces they need to actually win.
Which is simply another way of saying that allowing right-wingers like Paul to present themselves as the champions of the causes traditionally associated with the left is an utterly disastrous strategy for progressives, one that will have consequences for years to come.
Insofar as the left in Australia and elsewhere are flirting with Paulism, we are seeing a profound confusion about what the left is and what it should be, a confusion that’s particularly dangerous in a context where, around the world, the far right is on the rise — and increasingly selling its message with anti-establishment rhetoric.
The thing is, though, most progressives who talk about Paul know all of this.
In essence, their argument comes down to one really simple point: namely, in an election between the increasingly Bushlike President Obama and whichever corporate shill the Republicans eventually select, Paul represents the best option available.
But does that sound at all familiar? Actually, it’s precisely the same argument Obama’s left-wing supporters made at the last election. Yes, they said, we know he’s not perfect — but he’s simply the best thing going.
In other words, we’re now seeing a fresh incarnation of precisely the "lesser evil" argument that got us into the mess we’re now in.
Surely it’s way past time that the left broke from the politics of self-delusion. If wishes were horses, we’d be galloping to utopia by now. As that fine American writer Flannery O’Connor once said, the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it.
There’s no progressive options available in mainstream US politics at the moment.
The task of the left there, as with the left here, is to rebuild from the bottom up, rather than fantasising about non-existent saviours. If that seems like a big task, well, all the more reason to stop fooling around with right-wing cranks and to get on with the real work.
[This article first appeared on New Matilda and is republished with the permission of the author.]