The Death of Politics
by Karl Hess
published in Playboy, March 1969, this article was made available
for the web by David Schatz and François-René
This is not
a time of radical, revolutionary politics. Not yet. Unrest, riot,
dissent, and chaos notwithstanding, today's politics is reactionary.
Both Left and Right are reactionary and authoritarian. That is to
say, both are political. They seek only to revise current methods
of acquiring and wielding political power. Radical and revolutionary
movements seek not to revise but to revoke. The target of revocation
should be obvious. The target is politics itself.
revolutionaries have had their sights trained on politics for some
time. As governments fail around the world, as more millions become
aware that government never has and never can humanely and effectively
manage men's affairs, government's own inadequacy will emerge, at
last, as the basis for a truly radical and revolutionary movement.
In the meantime, the radical-revolutionary position is a lonely
one. It is feared and hated, by both Right and Left although
both Right and Left must borrow from it to survive. The radical-revolutionary
position is libertarianism, and its socioeconomic form is laissez-faire
is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to
use and dispose of as he sees fit: that all man's social actions
should be voluntary: and that respect for every other man's similar
and equal ownership of life and, by extension, the property and
fruits of that life is the ethical basis of a humane and open society.
In this view, the only repeat, only function of law
or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence
that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for
If it were
not for the fact that libertarianism freely concedes the right of
men voluntarily to form communities or governments on the same ethical
basis, libertarianism could be called anarchy.
capitalism, or anarchocapitalism, is simply the economic form of
the libertarian ethic. Laissez-faire capitalism encompasses the
notion that men should exchange goods and services, without regulation,
solely on the basis of value for value. It recognizes charity and
communal enterprises as voluntary versions of this same ethic. Such
a system would be straight barter, except for the widely felt need
for a division of labor in which men, voluntarily, accept value
tokens such as cash and credit. Economically, this system is anarchy,
and proudly so.
is rejected by the modern Left which preaches individualism
but practices collectivism. Capitalism is rejected by the modern
Right which preaches enterprise but practices protectionism.
The libertarian faith in the mind of men is rejected by religionists
who have faith only in the sins of man. The libertarian insistence
that men be free to spin cables of steel, as well as dreams of smoke,
is rejected by hippies who adore nature but spurn creation. The
libertarian insistence that each man is a sovereign land of liberty,
with his primary allegiance to himself, is rejected by patriots
who sing of freedom but also shout of banners and boundaries. There
is no operating movement in the world today that is based upon a
libertarian philosophy. If there were, it would be in the anomalous
position of using political power to abolish political power.
Perhaps a regular
political movement, overcoming this anomaly will actually develop.
Believe it or not, there were strong possibilities of such a development
in the 1964 campaign of Barry
Goldwater. Underneath the scary headlines, Goldwater hammered
away at such purely political structures as the draft, general taxation,
censorship, nationalism, legislated conformity, political establishment
of social norms, and war as an instrument of international policy.
It is true
that, in a common political paradox, Goldwater (a major general
in the Air Force Reserve) has spoken of reducing state power while
at the same time advocating the increase of state power to fight
the Cold War. He is not a pacifist. He believes that war remains
an acceptable state action. He does not see the Cold War as involving
US imperialism. He sees it as a result only of Soviet imperialism.
Time after time, however, he has said that economic pressure, diplomatic
negotiation, and the persuasions of propaganda (or "cultural
warfare") are absolutely preferable to violence. He has also
said that antagonistic ideologies can "never be beaten by bullets,
but only by better ideas."
A defense of
Goldwater cannot be carried too far, however. His domestic libertarian
tendencies simply do not carry over into his view of foreign policy.
Libertarianism, unalloyed, is absolutely isolationist, in that it
is absolutely opposed to the institutions of national government
that are the only agencies on earth now able to wage war or intervene
in foreign affairs.
In other campaign
issues, however, the libertarian coloration in the Goldwater complexion
was more distinct. The fact that he roundly rapped the fiscal irresponsibility
of Social Security before an elderly audience, and the fact that
he criticized the TVA in Tennessee were not examples of political
naïveté. They simply showed Goldwater's high disdain
for politics itself, summed up in his campaign statement that people
should be told "what they need to hear and not what they want
There was also
some suggestion of libertarianism in the campaign of Eugene McCarthy,
in his splendid attacks on presidential power. However, these were
canceled out by his vague but nevertheless perceptible defense of
government power in general. There was virtually no suggestion of
libertarianism in the statements of any other politicians during
last year's campaign.
I was a speechwriter
for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 campaign. During the campaign, I
recall very clearly, there was a moment, at a conference to determine
the campaign's "farm strategy," when a respected and very
conservative senator arose to say, "Barry, you've got to make
it clear that you believe that the American farmer has a right to
a decent living."
replied, with the tact for which he is renowned, "But he doesn't
have a right to it. Neither do I. We just have a right to try for
it." And that was the end of that.
Now, in contrast,
take Tom Hayden
of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Writing in The Radical
Papers, he said that his "revolution" sought "institutions
outside the established order." One of those institutions,
he amplified, would be "people's own antipoverty organizations
fighting for Federal money."
Of the two
men, which is radical or revolutionary? Hayden says, in effect,
that he simply wants to bulldoze his way into the establishment.
Goldwater says he wants, in effect, to topple it, to forever end
its power to advantage or disadvantage anyone.
This is not
to defend the Goldwater campaign as libertarian. It is only to say
that his campaign contained a healthy element of this sort of radicalism.
But otherwise, the Goldwater campaign was very deeply in hock to
regular partisan interests, images, myths, and manners.
policy, particularly, there arises a great impediment to the emergence
of a libertarian wing in either of the major political parties.
Men who call upon the end of state authority in every other area
insist upon its being maintained to build a war machine with which
to hold the Communists at bay. It is only lately that the imperatives
of logic and the emergence of antistatist forces in Eastern
Europe have begun to make it more acceptable to ask whether
the garrison state needed to maintain the Cold War might not be
as bad as or worse than the putative threat being guarded against.
Goldwater has not taken and may never take such a revisionist line
but, among Cold Warriors, his disposition to libertarian
principles makes him more susceptible than most.
This is not
merely a digression on behalf of a political figure (almost an antipolitical
figure) whom I profoundly respect. It is, rather, to emphasize the
inadequacy of traditional, popular guidelines in assessing the reactionary
nature of contemporary politics and in divining the true nature
of radical and revolutionary antipolitics. Political parties and
politicians today all parties and all politicians
question only the forms through which they will express their common
belief in controlling the lives of others. Power, particularly majoritarian
or collective power (i.e., the power of an elite exercised in the
name of the masses), is the god of the modern liberal. Its only
recent innovative change is to suggest that the elite be leavened
by the compulsory membership of authentic representatives of the
masses. The current phrase is "participatory democracy."
Just as power
is the god of the modern liberal, God remains the authority of the
modern conservative. Liberalism practices regimentation by, simply,
regimentation. Conservatism practices regimentation by, not quite
so simply, revelation. But regimented or revealed, the name of the
game is still politics.
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