A remarkable change has swept what the media would usually call the “right wing” of American politics, or what I would more precisely call the freedom movement. What it’s become is much welcome but essentially inconceivable 30 years ago, and underscores just how meaningless the terms right and left have become.
The freedom movement’s disgust with the prevailing regime has led it to both borrow from and celebrate the spirit of the New Left, as embodied in the 60s protest movement. The timing seems just right because the Obama administration has rendered the organized modern left as completely toothless.
The best illustration is from the closing banquet of FreedomFest, Mark Skousen’s annual event in Las Vegas that attracts 2,000-plus attendees. It’s a kind of ideological expo with vendors from all over the pro-enterprise, pro-prosperity, pro-freedom world. This year the event seemed more alive and energetic than ever (it’s my fourth year to attend).
The event attracts a hugely diverse crowd — old-school constitutionalists and young-school libertarians — with lots of debates over issues like foreign policy, anarchism vs. minarchism, school reform, monetary reform, immigration, and the like.
It is a commercial venture — not a nonprofit fiefdom — and therefore more indicative of the true spirit of the ideological times. So it’s fair to regard this fun event as something of a microcosmic barometer.
Let me present the scene from Saturday night, one that’s still blowing my mind given how nonchalantly the whole thing was presented and how enthusiastically it was received.
I walked into the ballroom and was greeted by a giant blast from a past I never knew. There were hippie reenactors marching up and down the aisles and working the crowd at the cocktail party. They were wearing tie-dye, love beads, afros, and rose-tinted glasses. They were carrying all the signs we associate with antiwar protests from the late 60s and early 70s. Peace, love, understanding. Give it all a chance, they shouted.
This was just to get people warmed up to the ethos, and people absolutely loved it.
The entertainment for the evening was a Janis Joplin reenactor who sang all the songs that outraged and scandalized a generation of conservatives way back when. When she was not singing, a hippie reenactor band (sort of reminded me of the flashback scenes from “Spinal Tap”) sang songs about peace and love, complete with all the dance moves from the time and the drug-infused dream-headedness of the VW-bus-driving dropouts of the time.
On the tables, there were rose-tinted glasses for everyone, the kind with the round lenses that I associate with John Lennon. Tables had peace-sign bracelets that people put on. The dramatic entertainment for the night featured a hilarious and hacked up version of Camelot, a musical that came out in theaters and which, in retrospect, sampled the free-loving spirit of the times.
Otherwise, the dance that followed was explosively and wildly fun, a complete letting go even to the point of conjuring up a Woodstock ethos.
A conservative activist in, say, 1984, would not and could not have imagined this crowd as the 2014 successor to the movement created by the likes of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley back in the late 1950s. To that generation, the hippies embodied the end of history: drugs, sexual liberation, rock and roll, racial mixing, disregard of authority, loathing of the military, deracination from family heritage, and so on.
The generation of conservatives that came to power in the Reagan years demonized this lefty crowd as immoral, relativist, rootless, and dangerous to the culture in every way, the very font of the wreckage that became of what was once a great country. The 60s protest movement was the foil for this past generation of conservatives, the people who “always blame America first.”
But something strange has taken place on the right over the decades. Gone is the old-time deference to the establishment, the demand to respect your elders and the local police, the maudlin regret for the loss of old-world virtues. Now we are watching the emergence of a genuine counterculture radicalism among the right, an ethos that reflects the alienation of the New Left.
What’s changed and made this possible? Obama is an obvious first-level answer. As the hero of what remains of the organized left in this country, Obama embodies the worst of the establishment, a defender of the state in all its manifestations, including its military branch, its surveillance power, and its non-stop attack on free enterprise.
This has led to a reassessment of the old models among what remains among the conservative leadership. There is no desire to conserve the top-down model of political organization. In a country where the regime surveils, jails with impunity, wrecks foreign countries, grabs guns, uses the tax state for feeding oppressive bureaucracies, and so on, what could possibly be the point of conserving anything of the old governing establishment?
This was pretty much the conviction that led to the rise of the New Left that once led antiwar protests and sought to change the old civic values that made the draft and pointless foreign wars permissible. It’s a similar conviction that is driving the right today, a sense of being fed up enough just to scrap an entirely unworkable system.
Part of the New Left political culture was a sense of class war between the elites and the simple folk just trying to live their lives without imposition and intrusion. In the same way, I saw films at FreedomFest that captured that spirit exactly. But instead of being narrowly focussed on lifestyle and civil liberties, they focussed on commercial freedom as essential to the meaning of human freedom itself.
Commercial freedom includes the right to raise animals in humane environments and sell proceeds, the right to distribute raw milk, the right to farm without being hectored by environmental regulators, the right to braid hair or pick up passengers without asking The Man for permission. These were the themes of all the most popular films at the film festival.
A main event at FreedomFest was a screening of the third part of the movies based on Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Rand was known for her disdain for the hippy movement, and yet there is a strange sense in which her novel’s theme of “going Galt” — walking away from the corruption created by reigning elites and choosing to build a separate and new world — shares the same sensibility of the New Left that emerged ten years after her novel was published. The strikers against the regime just took a different form than she had anticipated.
The heroes in Atlas are not the elites who luxuriate in their position and power over others. They were the movers and workers who had skin in the game and were willing to get their hands dirty in the hard work of building things that make society work. Sometimes when the prospects for working within the system become too grim, you just have to walk away from the mess made by the rulers.
This is an aspect of pure protest, rooted in a model of political understanding that pits elites against simple folk. The new counterculture among this freedom movement embodies a grass-roots capitalistic ethos. And this makes sense too, because the response to the 2008 financial crisis was to transfer billions in wealth from the people to the established banking interests. It is far more likely today that we are going to find genuine capitalists oppressed by the system rather than served by it.
Other factors have played into this reversal of political identity. The militarization of the police, the overreach of all forms of regulations reaching into every aspect of life, the egregiousness of foreign military campaigns, and the complete disregard of the basic human right to live life as you want. It’s shocking to realize that some of the best, most courageous, and most creative American minds of our time have had to flee the country, are languishing in jail, and have even been driven to suicide to escape oppression.
In retrospect, the right wing of the Nixon era, if it really favored freedom as Barry Goldwater described it, was completely wrong to demonize the New Left protest movement. They were resisting the draft, the drug war, the domestic use of the military to suppress political dissent, as well as FBI surveillance. These are same type of issues that drive the pro-liberty protest movement of today completely nuts.
The principled left and right have always had more in common than each supposed.
We can never stop learning the lesson. The real enemy are not the dissidents, drop outs, refuseniks, and countercultural protesters. The enemy is the state. If beating it back means reviving 50-year old New Left strategies, so be it. Janis Joplin summed up what it is like to be ruled by government today:
Sittin’ down by my window,
Lookin’ at the rain.
Lord, Lord, Lord, sittin’ down by my window,
Lookin’ at the rain, see the rain.
Somethin’ came along, grabbed a hold of me,
And it felt like a ball and chain.