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7/12/19

Libertarians always try to co-opt the left. Why haven't we learned from this?

There's a simple way to recognize how class struggle is demoted to a secondary concern among the US left: look at how we fight other forms of oppression, and consider how it would look if we fought capitalism the same way. Sometimes you see parallels - for example, in left organizations that exclude avowed capitalists just as they exclude avowed racists and sexists - but quite often you see clear double-standards.

That's why, earlier today, I noted a distinct asymmetry in the way we talk about reactionary co-option. For months, liberal-left media has agonized over Tucker Carlson's attempts to win over the anticapitalist and antiwar left: Eric Levitz has written about it, I've written about it, and today Jeet Heer wrote about it:
Carlson’s project includes trying to attract traditional Democratic voters into the GOP fold. Carlson is as insidious as he is odious and therefore very cunning in trying to channel popular anti-war sentiment into a right-wing unilateralism, as well as recasting grassroots anti-business sentiments into a conservative opposition to the supposed cosmopolitan elitism of woke capitalists.
It's easy to appreciate why the liberal-left would be concerned about Carlson co-opting anti-war sentiment: he's a white supremacist. Opposing him on these grounds falls well within standard liberal Democratic orthodoxy, so we shouldn't be surprised to find intellectuals and activists who are willing to take the correct position on this one.


Capitalists against war?

But how does the US left respond when the same danger emerges - not from Carlson, but from radical capitalists intent on destroying the welfare / regulatory state?

I think we have a pretty clear answer - because last week, Charles Koch announced that he's launching a new antiwar think-tank. And he's launching it in partnership with George Soros, along with a whole raft of liberal-left wonks and academics.

But as far as I can tell, the response from the left has ranged from open support to passive silence. I've laid out my case for skepticism here. In terms of policy, Koch and Soros seem to want two major changes:
1. A reorientation of foreign policy towards China and away from the MENA region, and
2. A greater preference for so-called "soft power" over "hard power".
Obviously, this agenda has some overlap with anti-imperialist aspirations insofar as it involves things like an end to war in Afghanistan and demilitarization. Nevertheless, "soft power" can end up meaning anything from sanctions to proxy warfare to the sort of "internal meddling" that the left has historically opposed - and that Koch and Soros have historically specialized in. And the concern with China suggests that our oligarchs are less interested in rejecting empire than in an utterly ordinary shift in imperial rivals.


A history of co-option

At the very least, then, it seems likely that the Quincy Institute will fund a politics that the left should consider inadequate: rejecting military intervention in some parts of the world, but embracing elsewhere coercive, anti-democratic, immiserating and destabilizing interventions aimed at maintaining the hegemony of US capital.

But there's also a second danger: by proceeding in the name of anti-militarism - and with the approval and cooperation of leftists - Quincy will be in a position to disrupt and co-opt more radical opposition to war. Just a few predictable outcomes:
  • Intellectuals and scholars who might otherwise venture more radical critiques will be censored, or will self-censor, in hopes of securing or maintaining Quincy funding - or to maintain collegial / personal relationships with peers who work there;
  • The media will turn to Quincy's respectable, accessible, and aggressively promoted scholars for their anti-war takes, crowding out more radical voices;
  • Media and popular narratives will evolve to accommodate Quincy's implicit premise of a capitalist antiwar right;
  • Antiwar organizing spaces will be pressured to tolerate and even platform capitalist ideology;
  • Anti-imperialists will be vilified and marginalized as dogmatic factionalists who threaten antiwar unity.
Why is this predictable? Because all of this has happened before - over and over again. The libertarian right, and the Kochs in particular, have a long and well-documented history of aggressively and quite deliberately working to co-opt left politics. As Mark Ames revealed (in an incredible piece that you should really read in full), they've written multiple articles about it:
Your problem, as a libertarian, is to create a libertarian society. To do that, you need many, many new libertarians. Their other convictions, whatever they are, are none of your business. They concern you only insofar as you use them—as the basis for your sale of libertarianism.
As anyone who has been involved in activism longer than five minutes can tell you, the result has been an endless battle to fend off opportunistic capitalists. It happened during the Iraq War:
Over the last several months, a section of the antiwar protest movement in the US has turned with increasing enthusiasm towards the candidacy of Ron Paul, the long-time Republican Congressman from Texas, who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination...[but] a serious struggle against war requires steadfast opposition to such reactionary politics and all those who compromise with it.

It happened during Occupy:
One day as I wended my way past Zuccotti Park, I was struck by waving signs demanding to “End the Fed.” This shruggingly seemed, at the time, to represent an example of the general incoherence of OWS. But a few days later, on the prime media strip along Broadway by the park, there were suddenly four sign wavers in a row urging not only to “End the Fed” but to sign up with Ron Paul, last seen on the GOP presidential debate stage trying to help Rick Perry with his list of agencies to kill.  
This is the kind of thing those on the left — labor, say, or doctrinally correct progressives — will reject as just a fringe manifestation or, more darkly, an attempt by forces of the right to co-opt the movement, a sort of Occupy Wall Street occupation.
And it happened during the Obama-era NSA protests:
"We demand the U.S. Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA's spying programs," is the basic demand of Stop Watching Us. 
This is a vital cause, and I agree with it. 
Yet I cannot support this coalition or the rally. It is fatally compromised by the prominent leadership and participation of the Libertarian Party and other libertarian student groups; their hardcore ideology stands in direct opposition to almost everything I believe in as a social democrat.
Of course this is going to happen again. The libertarian agenda has some superficial overlap with left priorities, libertarians are well aware of this, and they will naturally try to take advantage of it. There is every reason to believe that Charles Koch will try to leverage his funding of the Quincy Institute to advance his political agenda in the exact same way as he always has; it would be madness to assume otherwise.


Why we haven't learned

Perhaps, as the pundits have warned us, there is indeed the threat of an ethnonationalist-anticapitalist Nazbol Republican Party over the horizon - but that is hardly the most imminent danger. What seems far more likely is that the thing that has happened over and over again for the last several decades will happen once more: capitalists will opportunistically co-opt a left priority, and the opponents of capitalism will lose out once again. Whether by design or simply as a convenient side-effect, the Quincy Institute seems like the perfect vehicle for this outcome.

So why, then, is our discourse so dominated by the Tucker Carlson threat - even as it largely ignores this new danger posed by Charles Koch, one of the most powerful, effective, and dangerous political operatives of our time?

It's an easy question to answer if you simply suppose that we aren't taking the problem of capitalism as seriously as we should.