With the official disbanding of the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and the disintegration of New Left activism in general, a vacuum has been created within the radical movement. As the productive elements of New Leftism fade away, the void is quickly being filled by a familiar two-headed beast: the old scarred and ugly face of doctrinaire Marxism and the more hideous visage of self-righteous nihilism. The absence of a well-formulated philosophical base to support the activist programs of the New Left has given birth to a new generation of crusading irrationalists, frustrated bomb throwers, and penis-hating feminists.
What this means to libertarians is that the fundamental anti-authoritarianism and anarchism of the radical movement is in serious danger of being eroded. The great challenge that is presented to libertarians at the beginning of the 1970′s is to salvage this splintering movement and transform it into a healthy and creative radicalism over the next ten years.
It is to make the New Libertarianism the movement of the 1970′s; to make our brand of radicalism as influential in the next decade as the New Left was in the middle and late 1960′s.
How do we go about it?
The first thing we ought to learn is how to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors. The last best chance for free market radicalism in the United States came in the late 1950′s following the publication of Atlas Shrugged and the establishment of Objectivism as an organized intellectual movement. Some twelve or thirteen years later we now see that Objectivism has failed in its long-range goals; it has failed to strike a responsive chord in the general population. While Objectivist literature has sold into the millions, the basic tenets of Objectivist philosophy have not, and I think we can safely say, will not take root in society at large. The high sale of books is no guarantee that the public is also buying the ideas presented. A quick scan of the best-seller lists is ample proof that people prefer a “good read” more than anything else.
Objectivism has failed to become a mass movement primarily because it failed to grapple, except in an arrogant and highly superficial manner, with the key issues of the past ten years. While Objectivists engaged in the exclusive luxury of abstractions and ideology, a war was going on, housing and education among other vital institutions were coming apart, the cities were exploding with violence, the American middle class was falling into a daze, and government grew increasingly more repressive.
What was the Objectivist cure for this? Selfishness. What was the cause of all our ills? Altruism. What should we do about exploited minorities? Leave them alone. This is hardly the stuff to fire the imagination of a populace literally begging for solutions and definitive answers to their questions. Why? The Objectivists failed to respond. Champions of the marketplace, they remained aloof from the disordered marketplace of American society and the public has rewarded them accordingly with silence.
If the New Libertarianism is to succeed it will have to do so by responding to the issues, by applying theory to the marketplace. The way things are shaping up, the primary concerns of the next few years are going to be: the continuing war in Asia and its progenitor, an imperious U. S. foreign policy; ecology and pollution control; housing and education; women’s rights (as distinct from the loony women’s separatist fringe); day care centers for working mothers; the development of expanded abortion facilities; cheaper and better medical assistance for the poor. To these we can add our own bete noir-taxation and the regulated economy.
Instead of replying, “rational self-interest”, when people want to know how to meet these concerns, we will have to demonstrate how a strict enforcement of property rights will protect them from environmental contaminants; why the free market will provide them with abortion clinics and day care centers (perhaps as a fringe benefit of private employment); how expanded health care can be made available to all without the AMA to lobby against competition and restrain the flow of medics into society. After all, is it not the purpose of the free market to supply demand in the most efficient manner? Why should suggestions to meet the demands of low-income groups be simplistically dismissed as altruism if these suggestions are in accord with libertarian principles? Is it not i n our own interest to offer solutions to the issues before the authoritarians co-opt them f o r their own ends?
Another tactic we will have to develop if we are to build a mass libertarian movement is obtaining favorable exposure in the major media. The major organs of communication are largely controlled by liberals. It was the liberal news media which actually brought the New Left into prominence through constant and favorable exposure. A blackout in the mass media will lead to the certain death of any incipient movement. If the ideas are not favorably analyzed by the opinion-makers (And let’s face it. Public opinion is a manufactured product. If most people were rational enough to formulate their own opinions we would now be living in at least a reasonably libertarian society), their chances of taking root are reduced to nil.
To do this will require severing any lingering ties with the brand of “conservatism” currently practiced by the Nixon-Agnew-Reagan-Buckley Club and staking out a more independent course. The liberals are completely down on the New Left these days. They have finally realized that the current crop of New Leftists actually wants to kill them.
“Kill a Parent a Day” was the theme of a recent SDS gathering. The liberals in their usual muddled and soft-headed manner are capable of sitting down over martinis and debating the pros and cons of whether they should be wiped out or not. By merely not advocating the wholesale slaughter of liberals we offer a Modest Proposal (If only Jonathan Swift were alive today) agreeable to at least the less-masochistic liberals. I have no doubt that some of them crave Death by Flagellation. But most are ready to lionize anybody who is not in favor of exterminating them and I see no reason why we should not capitalize on this situation while it lasts.
There is an area on the Left, ranging from Mailer and Goodman among the radicals to Hamill and Wicker among the quasi-libertarian liberals, that is becoming more receptive to the New Libertarian position. It strikes m e that this is the best strategic position for us at the beginning of the 1970′s, with the more outspoken critics of government repression who have access to the major communications media. The alternative is to remain in an ideological Ivory Tower, vilifying everyone not in full agreement with ourselves as “irrational” and “immoral”, where we are certain to die the slow inevitable death of the Objectivists. If the New Libertarianism follows a similar fate, any hope for free marketism in the foreseeable future will vanish with it. It will certainly be a long time before an opportunity such as this is made available again. It is for us now to succeed where the Rand and her mimics failed before us.
VOL. 11, NO. 11 JUNE 1, 1970
More from Jerome Tuccille