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Joel Sucher, "Ron Paul, Libertarianism, and the Anarchist Connection"

"Ron Paul, Libertarianism, and the Anarchist Connection"
Joel Sucher

Let's face it, the dogged Republican quest to find the one "true
conservative" is beginning to look more and more like the search for the
Holy Grail. It's an article of faith for most Republican stalwarts that
there should be some such animal; but, it seems, the voters can't make
up their mind just which contender fits that bill of particulars. Mitt's
devotion to the ideal scores high in one primary; Santorum's in another;
then enter Newt, managing to capture some piece of primary fame and
glory. The series of Republican debates has become, in essence, the most
entertaining variety show since Ed Sullivan.

Standing quirkily apart, is Ron Paul: one time Libertarian Party
Presidential candidate (1988), gone mainstream Republican. I've always
thought of him as something of a cross between the kindly TV icon, Dr.
Marcus Welby, and the infinitely patient Fred Rogers, star of Mr.
Roger's Neighborhood. Except in Ron Paul's neighborhood, bankers don't
get bailed out and if you've got a prescription to be filled, don't
count on Medicaid to pay.

At 76, Ron Paul remains the most visible standard bearer for the
Libertarian ideal of absolute freedom, or at least as much as you can
get. In the primary ring, he doesn't do much dancing or rope-a-doping;
he boxes with a flat footed style, absorbing body blows, staying
composed and readying himself for the next flurry of jabs. His followers
are passionate and loyal; a "give me space/get out of my face" crowd
that runs the gamut from middle-aged, middle-American pistol packers to
an under-30 "let me smoke/snort/shoot up my drugs of choice" crowd. The
debates are boxing matches; Ron's fans shout and cheer when he scores
with a particularly incongruous remark. This is followed by a sense of
apoplectic unease among traditional Republicans when he calls for things
like no foreign aid for anybody - and that includes Israel.

But, I submit, Ron Paul is blazing a trail on an old road, one that's
lined, philosophically, with both Libertarian and Anarchist pavers. Yes,
Anarchism: the word whose name Fox News dares not speak -- except as an
epithet. Is it a stretch to call Ron Paul an "anarchist?" Is it possible
that even one Presidential contender could be painted with that brush?

If you google Ron Paul/Anarchism you'll get a number of interesting
hits: a confusing mix of yes, no, and maybe. Anarchism and
Libertarianism are two political philosophies that have clearly shared
the same space, though emerging from wildly different places. For every
anarcho-communist or anarcho-syndicalist you find under the bed, there's
an anarcho-individualist and anarcho-capitalist lurking nearby.

This notion of who is and isn't an anarchist, and who acts like an
anarchist, without explicitly flaunting the label, was a question that
inspired a 1980 documentary, ANARCHISM IN AMERICA, produced by Pacific
Street Films (a company I co-founded along with Steven Fischler), and
funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our colleague and
partner in this endeavor was Paul Berman, the author, critic, and now
MacArthur fellow, one of whose works is titled "Quotations from the
Anarchists." The humanities theme we pursued in the film was simple: is
"anarchism" something that washed up on our shores, brought here by a
rag tag bunch of immigrants, mainly Jews and Italians, fleeing late 19th
century class warfare in Europe? Or was there a nativist brand, evolved
as part and parcel of the American character?

The so-called "American as Anarchist" theory, postulated on the
observation that over here (as opposed to over there: Europe) we hate
being told what to do, where to go, who to be friends with, and that
rather than blindly follow orders, we'll bolt and run at the earliest
opportunity. One of our interviewees back then, who has now ascended to
the status of Poet Laureate of the United States, was the self-described
anarchist, Philip Levine. His experiences living in England convinced
him that there was something distinctly un-American in the way most
Brits conformed to their societal norms, he told us, "staying in line,
cueing up... while I broke all the rules." To be an American, he
related, was to be street smart; to know for whom the laws were made and
who they benefited (his example: John D Rockefeller). His conclusion:
the anti-authoritarian streak was not necessarily anarchist, but simply

Ron Paul taps into this same sensibility, or at least what's left of it.
"How do we minimize the role of the State? To bring about radical and
permanent change in any society, our primary focus must be on the
conversion of minds through education," he has said.

But there's a downside: when you wander through a forest of alternative
political thinking you're bound to pick up a few cockleburs -- in his
case, accusations that he's been supported by White Supremacist and
Neo-Nazi groups. Whether there's any truth to the allegations (which
many of his opponents would like to believe) the controversy has
certainly guaranteed that his dream of inhabiting the White House will
never go beyond a fantasy. Whether Ron's run for the White House will
deposit any unwanted baggage at the doorstep of his Libertarian
supporters - tarring the message -- also remains to be seen. But it may
prove useful for those on the left (or even those in the dazed and
confused moderate right or middle ) to examine just what the message is,
and its applicability to the way we live today in a post 9-11 society.

Anarchism, in any guise, champions the struggle of the individual
against institutions; the underlying premise being a call for more
rather than less freedom, even when circumstances seem to dictate the
opposite (think: Patriot Act). Ron Paul, as a spokesperson for this
general idea, is usually given short shrift by pundits and
editorialists, who are quick to shove him into the "crackpot" category
(most recently by Paul Krugman in the New York Times). However, it
doesn't obscure a message that's become downright appealing for a
constituency on both sides of the political fence, and he's capturing an
audience with an ever younger demographic.

We did witness an interesting left/right convergence of sorts when
filming ANARCHISM IN AMERICA. At a Libertarian Party conference in 1980,
one of the invited guests, left wing anarchist theoretician Murray
Bookchin told an enthusiastic audience of buttoned down, white bread
Libertarian conservatives, "I believe in individual freedom, as my
primary and complete commitment, and when I normally encounter my
so-called colleagues on the left - socialist, Marxist, communist - they
tell me that after the revolution they're going to shoot me and Karl. I
feel much safer in your company."

Bookchin was sharing the podium with Karl Hess; a Libertarian with a
particularly interesting pedigree. As a political speechwriter, he'd
penned the famous lines for Barry Goldwater's 1964 Republican
Presidential acceptance speech: "I would remind you that extremism in
the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that
moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Poetic as those
words were, they also helped lose the election for Barry; tarring him
with a "if you elect this guy we're all screwed" label and igniting a
Democratic counter-campaign that featured the famous TV spot, "Daisy,"
juxtaposing a young girl with a flower set against a slowly ascending
mushroom cloud.

After Goldwater's defeat, Hess, disillusioned, bade a fond farewell to
the Republican camp. He fled south to a West Virginia homestead (where
we encountered him); took up commercial welding, refused to pay taxes
and began to study the writings of the 19th century American
Individualist anarchists, among them, Lysander Spooner (individualist
and abolitionist); Benjamin Tucker ("unterrified Jeffersonian"); and
Ezra and Angela Heywood (believers in free love and feminism). He also
immersed himself in the work of the 20th century Libertarian Party muses
like Murray Rothbart and Ludwig von Mises, both part of the Austrian
School of Economics. Then, he recalls, a funny thing happened on the way
to the Libertarian forum: Hess discovered Emma Goldman.

"When I read Emma Goldman," he told us, "you immediately see,
consciously or not, that she's the source of the best in Ayn Rand. She
has the essential points that the Ayn Rand philosophy makes, but without
this crazy solipsism that Rand is fond of, the notion that people
accomplish everything in isolation. Emma Goldman writes that all history
is a struggle of the individual against the institution, which is what I
always thought Republicans were saying."

Heady stuff coming from a guy still considered a Libertarian Party icon,
and while Hess was fleeing from the tax man, Ron Paul was ensconced with
Libertarian Party colleagues discussing the arcane economic theories of
self described "anarcho-capitalist" Murray Rothbard.

"Ron Paul, in short, is that rare American, and still rarer politician,
who deeply understands and battles for the principles of liberty that
were fought for and established by the Founding Fathers of this country.
He understands that sound economics, moral principles, and individual
freedom all go together, like a seamless web," Rothbard said in his
preface for Paul's book, Gold, Peace, and Prosperity: The Birth of a New
Currency. Although Ron Paul has entered a mainstream political stage his
economic tap dance remains essentially all Austrian, all Rothbard, all
the time: Anti-Federal Reserve/Pro-Gold Standard.

It's been more than 30 years since ANARCHISM IN AMERICA was released.
Things have changed to such a great degree that now the examples of
"unconscious" anarchists, highlighted in the film (ie: independent
truckers), may simply be viewed as cute relics of a bygone time.
Post-911 American society has undergone a transformation; an alchemical
process of conformity that's slowly breeding out the essential
anti-authoritarian impulse. Today, surveillance cameras are ubiquitous;
we're forced to submit to dehumanizing searches when boarding planes;
questioned to death when applying for a driver's license; asked, and
asked again for ID when entering the most benign of office buildings.
The log line in this drama should read '1984 meets Brave New World,'
where suspicion rules the day, perpetuated by fear-mongering
institutions like the Teutonic sounding Homeland Security. Citizens are
told what they can or can't do - whether it's smoke a cigarette in a
park (No, says Mayor Bloomberg) or decide to abort a fetus (No, say
three of the four Republican candidates). Ben Franklin, I'm sure, is
rolling in his grave given how few remember his prescient admonition,
"They, who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary
safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Back in the 1980s a bunch of us -- including Paul Berman -- used to
troop down to the weekly meetings of something called the Libertarian
Book Club. It was founded in 1946 by Jewish and Italian Anarchists of
the extreme left wing variety. They were veterans of the 1930s labor
struggles; some had ventured to Spain during the so-called civil war to
work with anarchist colleagues in Barcelona, and, yes, they shared the
same Libertarian sentiments as many of Ron Paul's current supporters.

For all his blemishes, Ron Paul has demonstrated that there is still a
constituency that can be called on to hoist principle above political
expediency. I've never considered the Tea Party movement compatible with
Libertarian goals, since they've hoisted themselves on their own
political petard by following a "means justifies the ends" political
strategy. But whether Ron Paul's campaign machine would now consider an
outreach to include a visible left component -- perhaps the OCCUPY
movement -- is probably not in the cards. His playing style seems to be
set, and his base of support is the previously mentioned usual suspects.

However, it is tempting to imagine a new fangled party styled on
Libertarian lines: principled, but with fresh blood, a refreshed agenda
and a something-we-can-all-agree on platform. Down the road this sort of
movement might gain some real political traction; especially if we keep
racing down the path towards more muscular restraints on personal
freedom. I strongly suspect that there's still a hefty bit of gumption
left in the American character, and if Ron Paul can help nurse that
along, he's definitely added value to this Presidential race.

[Joel Sucher, a New York film maker, is working on "Foreclosure
Diaries," a documentary about the financial crisis.]