Libertarian?

In the midst of the 2012 election, which for some reason I was more obsessed with than any in recent memory (even 2008), I spent a fair bit of time thinking about what my own real political perspectives were. And in the fallout of the 2012 election on the Republican side, I’ve been watching the Republicans, particularly the Republican libertarians pretty closely.

Wikipedia is my friend. It articulated in one neat clause what I understood about libertarians in the United States: “…people commonly associate the term libertarian with those who have ‘economically conservative’ and ‘socially liberal’ political views…”

But libertarian philosophy as a whole is actually quite broad, including those who eschew capitalism. That strain of thought is called “libertarian socialism.” (It is also sometimes called social anarchism – something that should be familiar to those involved in Occupy.) This pretty broad set of ideas is by far the closest that I come to calling my political home (even closer than democratic socialism.) I have great company, though. Apparently, Noam Chomsky is a libertarian socialist. I should have known that.

I’ve actually had this set of ideas for a very long time, just not fully articulated. Every year since I first voted in 1980, the exercise was largely a practice of nose-holding while flipping the lever (or filling in the circle.) No candidate I’ve been able to vote for (that had a chance to win) has ever been on board with where I am politically. Those of us that are generally considered to the left of the mainstream Democratic party feel this way, and I’m sure that just as many people on the right feel the same.

And, of course, the whole idea of “Left” vs. “Right” is problematic. There are at least four major policy threads in US politics: the role and freedoms of business and enterprise, the role of government in caring for its citizens (the social safety net), the role of government outside of its borders (foreign policy), and the role of government in regulating the behavior of individuals (“social issues” like gay rights and abortion.)  (Some people boil this down to two threads – big vs. small government, socially liberal vs. conservative.) Other issues, such as the environment, or the military are to some extent subsets of these, or where these overlap.

The problem for me (and many who fit into this left-leaning libertarian/anarchist camp) is that if there is a strong government, I’m going to always vote to have that government control capitalism, because capitalism without control will very definitely kill us (even with the modest controls there are, it might anyway.) But, ultimately, I don’t really want capitalism to exist at all (at least not in its current form,) which means that the need for government control (and therefore, a lot of government) becomes moot.

I have come to realize that most libertarians in the US agree with me on many things – perhaps more things than many Democrats do. They tend to be socially liberal and deeply question militarism and intervention. Most libertarians in the US, however, are economically conservative, as that wikipedia entry suggests. Economically conservative in ways I find exceedingly problematic. They don’t have any reasonable approach to climate change, which is arguably the most important issue of our time.

Ron Paul, US libertarian poster-child is not the greatest example of libertarians – in fact, he’s not really a mainstream libertarian – he’s more like a bad libertarian/Republican hybrid – the worst of both (although at least he is anti-interventionist.) But hold on to your hats… I have a theory.

Wipe off your crystal ball, and look at 2016. (This might actually take until 2020, unfortunately.) The socially and economically conservative mainstream of Republican voters, including white evangelicals and tea party members, dig in their heels, and keep forcing Republicans running in primaries to espouse ideas that the mainstream finds more and more odious. And they keep losing, over and over again. One of two things happens: The increasingly large and vocal libertarian wing that got insulted and upset at the 2012 Republican convention where they were disenfranchised, splits off, or revolts and takes over the party.

In either case, you have a party which espouses things that a lot more people in the US can get behind. And, to my mind, simply takes off the table stuff that is in reality on its way off the table anyway, like choice and gay rights. It means actually meaningful conversations about military intervention and drug legalization, instead of the basically indistinguishable current difference between the Republicans and Democrats. This isn’t so helpful for issues of climate change and economic inequality, however. That’s because US libertarians, by and large are libertarian capitalists – some of whom have neanderthal opinions about gender and race (and I’m insulting neanderthals.)

A while ago, I wrote an article entitled “Why I’m going to call myself a Christian.” Many Christians would not recognize me as such – I’m too much of a (small-u) unitarian and a Buddhist for most Christians to think I’m one of them. But part of the argument was getting to have a say in how one defines what it meant to be a Christian. Maybe I should start calling myself a libertarian? No, no, not yet, at least certainly not without the “socialist” tacked on after.

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Will Work For…

I wrote this essay this summer, before I moved out of Oakland.

I’m in West Oakland, at the gas station on Market and West Grand. I am on my weekly sojourn out of the city. On my mind is the quiet that will soon greet me and the sad and disturbing memory of a week of two murders on our street. I pull into the station and put my car in position so I can pump gas. I get out of my car and go to the little kiosk between the pumps to pay.

A man stands looking at me while I put my card into the slot. He seems to be about my age, but I can tell it has been a longer, harder life for him than for me. His ebony skin is dull, his mouth is mostly bereft of teeth, and his face is worn. He’s distracting me from my task of paying for gas.

He says, “I can already see that smile on your face that says ‘I don’ have nothin’.'” It’s disarming, and his eyes shine. “I’ll pump your gas, even if you don’ have nothin’.”

Before I stopped for gas, I had passed one of the recyclers. There are a lot of recyclers in our neighborhood. That one had erected a tent-looking thing made out of blankets, and seemed to be creating a kind of protective nest for him and his bags of bottles and cans.

There is one familiar recycler who is herculean. I’ve seen him pulling six or seven shopping carts with cans and bottles. The carts have full bags piled high on top of them and fastened to the sides. His body is ripped: I can see the muscles through the tears in his shirt and pants.

I know that he’s spent at least a day or two, if not more, gathering those bottles, with great effort. He probably had to walk miles and miles. I imagine it takes me, a member of the creative class, one hour of sitting on my ass to make the amount of money in all of those cans and bottles.

I am brought back to the man, who is still waiting to hear from me. I reach into my wallet, and give him a dollar. He thanks me, and goes to pump the gas.

I say, “It’s alright, really, you don’t have to do that.” He insists, and I relent. He pumps the gas. As he’s pumping, he tells me a story.

“It’s been hard. My mother, she died of breast cancer, and I’ve been homeless since. My pastor—he offered for me to run this little halfway house he is trying to start there.”

I imagine the pastor—an older, upright and proud Black man, in despair about the state of our people. And I am in despair, as well, despair for all of this effort and willingness, going nowhere.

I’m not sure what to say, so I just nod. It is Thursday afternoon, the beginning of my weekend. I’ve worked four days this particular week, which is somewhat unusual—I generally work three.  This is because in one regard at least, I won the birth lottery. I got a good education: private school through 4th grade, a suburban public school through high school, a small, private, elite liberal arts college, and finally graduate school. These have allowed me to learn a skill that is in high enough demand that I don’t have to work full time, but I can still make a modest living that one person can manage to live on.

Each one of us played the birth lottery, even though we seem to forget that we did. Some people lose big at that lottery, spending impoverished lives, and unable to make it better, no matter how much effort they expend. Some lose the birth lottery, but somehow, miraculously, in the face of growing up without intellectual or even actual nourishment, manage to eke their way out. It is, of course, those people we always point to when the others predictably fail. Some, like me, made out fairly well. Still others hit the huge jackpot, but most of those imagine that they did it all themselves. It’s kind of like winning the lottery, and insisting that it was the effort of buying the ticket that guaranteed the win. And, of course, they blame the losers for their lack of effort.

I think about the nature of work in this country. Here are three men, all Black, of course, who are just a tiny representation of the millions of men and women who lost the birth lottery, live on the fringes, and work as hard, or harder, than anyone else, and still are not able to get what most of us take for granted. They are invisible in our discourse about work and poverty. And I know they work a lot harder than I do.

The welfare queen is the one that is the most visible. That mythical being that rebelliously has children and lives off of the state, just because she has no “work ethic.” And her children who, in the minds of some, would be “OK” cleaning the toilets of the schools they attend. She is the straw (wo)man, the picture of poverty that so easily draws the ire of those who work hard for a living.

In my Thursday afternoon sojourns out of Oakland, there is not only the gas to get, there are groceries to buy. A weekend in the country would not be the same without a good bottle of Reisling, some goat cheese, and a loaf of crusty bread to dip into extra virgin olive oil, and the balsamic reduction I’ve taught myself to make.

As I shop for food for the weekend, I pick up a bag of grapes. They are local, and organic, and not so expensive. I’m happy for a moment. And then I imagine the woman who picked them. She might be a citizen, but she is more likely undocumented. The day she picked these grapes, stooped down, feeling the weight of the grapes in her hand, perhaps she wondered how her children were doing that day. Were they in school? With a neighbor? I imagine she knows she works this hard so that they can have a different life.

I spent $2/pound for the grapes, but it might have taken her two days to make what I make in an hour, sitting on my ass. Or, if I were one of my younger, more athletic colleagues, I could have been working on a standing or treadmill desk for that hour.

I exist in the hippie/activist/artist slice of the middle class, where most of those around me have found work they enjoy, and have some kind of meaning for them. And most of the people I hang out with are childless, or their children are grown and independent, so there is no need to work to feed more mouths, or house more bodies, than just ourselves.

Some people I know, like me, have found the right mix of things to do, combining efforts which provide income and creative or activist efforts which might not. A few people I know do full-time work they don’t much enjoy, but they seem to know that it’s on the road to something else; they know they won’t be stuck there permanently.

What I consider to be “my work” is not only the work that makes me a living. As a writer, my work is, by just about any standard, quite prodigious. And it earns me mostly self-satisfaction, and a few nice comments from readers, and enough money most months to buy myself a few lattes.

Most people I know are not especially well-off, and many of us live without things that most in the middle class find essential, like health insurance, retirement savings, or owning a house. But the truth is that all of us are doing basically fine. Certainly better than the man who is pumping my gas.

He says, “I said to my pastor I’m willin’ to do anythin’—just need a place to live. God is good, He workin’ for me.”

I smile. He seems like a very nice man, genuine, clear. He continues, “I know it’s goin’ to be alright, I’m sure of it. The pastor, he wants me to have a chance.”

Because my car windows are grimy from trips on the dirt road leading to the country house, he suggests that he can clean them off so I can see properly. I try my best to dissuade him, but he insists again, and goes out of his way to find some water to wet the towels he has with him. He makes the windows gleam. Of course, I don’t explain to him why the windows are so grimy in the first place. It seems embarrassing to admit to him that I have two homes, even if shared, when he has none.

We shake hands. He genuinely seems to have appreciated our contact. I’m sure he appreciated the dollar. I drive away feeling conflicted, and sad. This man is full of energy and effort, but all he can manage to use that for is pumping gas and cleaning windows for change. And there is so much more work to be done in this world—work I am sure he would be happy to do.

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New Blog: Observations and Reflections

I've been a blogger consistently almost 10 years now. That's a long time – longer than most bloggers have been around. I have had a lot of different blogs, too. In 2005, I actually had 3 blogs going: a regular blog, a technology blog, and a ministry blog. I retired the ministry blog when I left seminary, and retired the technology blog last year, and replaced it with an author blog, which I write in now and again. But I felt like I wanted a place to write a bit more deeply, to delve into the issues of the day in a balanced, reflective, and sometimes spiritual way.

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On the elimination of borders

Once upon a time… Actually, not all that long ago, human beings were divided into tribes. Survival depended on small groups of individuals living and working together to hunt, gather, raise children, migrate when needed, etc. The distinction between “us” and “them” – those who were not of the tribe, was clear. Tribes certainly cooperated, interbred, and, of course fought. But the survival of the few in the tribe depended on the few, and was not greatly affected by tribes even a hundred miles away.

Tribes evolved into city-states, then empires and colonies, and finally, the collection of nation-states we have now. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying a few thousand years of history into one sentence.) And now, the struggles and survival of people thousands of miles away have very definite effects on us. This is unprecedented in history.

These reflections come from thinking about Israel and Palestine. In some ways, this long-time struggle between two badly-matched tribes has been in basically active conflagration since 1967, with a few moments of calm over that last 45 years. I mean badly-matched in that one, Israel, has had enormous of power over the other, was created by a colonial power, and is supported by arguably the biggest power on Earth (that would be us.) The origin and reasons for this conflict are many, and I won’t even try to describe more than 60 years of history and analysis here. But one thing is clear: this one conflict (and our role in it) has had enormous effects, some of which include effects close to home: dead people in Manhattan.

A friend of mine has been an advocate for the “one state” solution for a very long time, long before Michael Lerner published a book about it. I would go further. It’s time for the world to be one state. It’s time we finally realized that we’re all in it together, and have to actually work together to survive.

Gone is the time when the activities of one nation-state across the planet had little or no effect on other nation-states. Gone is the time when there was enough resources that it didn’t matter who used what where. Desertification in parts of China affects air quality in California. Burning coal in the US or Russia melts glaciers, raising the sea level world-wide. We can’t escape the fact that we all affect each other in ways unknown even a hundred years ago.

It’s time that we finally understand that we are in this together, as one human species. I know – you say this is messy. The “United States” can barely pull it off – how could we manage to pull it off worldwide? I don’t have a good answer – but I know one thing. If we don’t, we’re doomed.

 

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