The New End of Ideology?

(This piece first appeared in the Libertarian Forum, Vol. X, No. 3, March 1977, p. 1. It reflects Rothbard's lifelong interest in the long march of American political ideologists toward the state-worshipping Center, a process in which Neo-Conservatism was just the latest phase. ~ Joseph Stromberg.)

Back in the complacent 1950's, many ex-radical intellectuals were busily and happily proclaiming the "end of ideology" in America. Led by such right-wing Social Democrats as Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Nathan Glazer, the "consensus intellectuals" were sure that hard-edged ideology, whether of right or left, would no longer appear in America, and that we would all move forward in a new consensus of piecemeal, ad hoc, pragmatists, all accepting the current Welfare-Warfare State consensus. Since the End of Ideology theory immediately preceded the remarkable eruption of the New Left and a decade of stormy ideology, the End of Ideology theorists had to quietly dump their wishful prophecies into the well-known dustbin of history.

Now, in the peaceful 1970's however, a new form of the end of ideology – in practice this time – has emerged, both on the Right and the Left, and few analysts have described or examined this new trend. To sum up our analysis, both Right and Left are experiencing a scuttling of their ideologies, and a reversion to the Establishment Center.

On the Right, a process is being completed which began when Bill Buckley and National Review seized control of the Right-wing in the late 1950's, and accelerated since the Goldwater defeat in 1964. In brief, from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, Buckley and NR ran a conservative movement that was militant and hard-edged: in favor of war and imperialism abroad, militarism and the repression of "subversives" at home, but also inconsistently combined with adherence to the free-market and to a limited libertarian rhetoric in social philosophy. Since the failure of Goldwaterism, however, Buckley and NR have accelerated their drive toward Establishment respectability, being more and more willing to jettison any trace of libertarian rhetoric, and to accept grave compromises on the question of a free-market economy.

While the Viguerie-Rusher-Phillips "New Majority" movement did not succeed last year in taking over the American Independent Party, and remain conservative Reaganite Republicans, the New Majority begins to appear more and more as point men for the direction that the conservative movement is going to take. Put briefly, it involves abandoning the free market and liberty completely, in order to put together a "right-wing populist" (read "neo-fascist") coalition of Southern racists and urban Catholic "ethnics," a coalition devoted to the following programs: militarism at home and war abroad, repression of dissent in the name of "anti-Communism" and "national security," moderate repression of racial minorities, especially blacks, and State enforcement of "morality" in the form of the outlawry of drugs, prostitution, pornography, and abortion, and the support of prayer in the public schools. Inherent in the coalition is the frank acceptance of a permanent Welfare State, except that it [should] be "moderate" and "efficient" (read: "the cutting of welfare aid to blacks.")

That the New Majority may be the wave of the future for conservatism is indicated by the fact that, since the defeat of the Reagan movement, former Senator Buckley has already called publicly for the permanent acceptance of the New Deal welfare state. Already, in fact, there seems to be very little difference between the Buckleyites and the Right-wing social democrats who now call themselves "Neo-conservatives" – the Kristols, Glazers, Moynihans, et al.

In the meanwhile, a similar process of adaptation and self-emasculation has been occurring on the remnants of the old New Left. One of the best things about the New Left was its angry critique of the policies and strategies of the Old Left (symbolized by the Communist Party) namely, to function as the loyal left-wing of the Democratic Party, of modern liberalism – to push for ever more government spending, welfare measures, health insurance, minimum wages, etc. The New Left had presumably broken with all that; they leveled trenchant critiques of the Welfare State as State Capitalism oppressing the dependent masses, they attacked centralized bureaucracy, and called for radical opposition to the Welfare and Warfare States. They scorned coalition with Establishment Democrats as a "coalition with the Marines" (in Staughton Lynd's felicitous phrase.) But now, after over a decade in the wilderness, the New Left "revolution" dead and gone, the remnants of the New Left have sheepishly found their way back into the Left-wing of the Democrat Party, calling once more for more government spending, welfare payments, health insurance, minimum wages, etc. The New Left, now physically older, has, to all intents and purposes, rejoined the Old Left. Former New Left firebrands are running for office in the Democratic Party, or have joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which is frankly in that party formerly scorned as hopelessly State Capitalist. The New Leftists assure us that they have not sold out, that times have changed, that their old opponents have now abandoned the Cold War, but it's still the Old Left coalition with the Marines.

And so there is no distinguishable Right and Left anymore, no hard-edged ideology for either side; they now form the right and left wings of the Establishment, differing still, to be sure, on foreign policy and militarism, but really part of one overall, mish-mash consensus.

If the Right and Left are disappearing as ideological forces, what about the liberals, who still dominate academia, the media, and opinion-molding groups? The liberals are, as they have been for a long time, in a state of total intellectual confusion. There have been no new liberal answers for a long time, and more and more liberals realize that their old ideologies have broken down, that they are not working. More and more liberals – as well as members of the public in general – are realizing that the system of statism has been breaking down. But, human nature being what it is, they will not give up their crumbling paradigm until a better one comes along to replace it. They have to see an attractive alternative.

All this provides an unusually favorable opportunity for libertarians. For we are functioning in an intellectual climate where there is no longer any real, determined, militant ideological competition. Ideological decay and confusion are everywhere. But, in this miasma, we libertarians have that alternative; we have a new and intellectually stimulating and fascinating ideological paradigm, and one that explains the collapse of modern statism better than anyone else. We have a new and systematic creed, and we are just about the only ones who still believe in our ideology. In contrast to the Left, Right, and Center, our ideology hasn't ended; it is just beginning.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author of The Ethics of Liberty and For a New Liberty and many other books and articles. He was also academic vice president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report.

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