Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Libertarianism's Dystopian Dreaming: Fire Department Lets Family's House Burn Down Over a $75 Membership Fee

In a thousand years I never would have imagined that I would write the following:

On September 30, 2010, a family watched their house burn down because they did not pay a seventy-five dollar "membership" fee to the fire department. They pleaded for help as the fire department stood by, while their home, animal family members, and dreams were turned into ashes. A neighbor offered to pay the "fee" and was ignored. The Right and their pied piper Glenn Beck (along with others drunken on the noxious stew that is Ayn Rand infused libertarianism and Tea Party ribaldry) find mocking joy in the Cranicks' loss. Welcome to America in the year 2010.

Americans (whether intentionally or otherwise) frame their understandings of politics around the notion of "freedom dreams." For some, this is a dream of mass mobilization and a return to the "glorious" 1960s. For others, it is a belief in the virtues of "small government" and "freedom to" as opposed to the necessities of "freedom from." In the imagery of the modern myth that is Ronald Reagan's "a shining city on the hill" and his "morning in America," the freedom dream was one of a renewed country that inexorably triumphs over an "evil empire" and where wealth came to all through trickle down economics and the fictional bounties of The Laffer Curve. The election of Barack Obama under the banner of "change" and "hope" was another type of freedom dream--one where young people along with folks across all boundaries of race and class could come together to heal the economic, social, and political wounds caused by the Bush administration.

Sadly, these freedom dreams seem to have reached an impasse. As America grapples with the Great Recession, a pair of permanent and seemingly endless wars, the contraction of the middle class, and how to best manage its fall from grace as the preeminent power in the world, we are witness to the rise of alternative framework. Enter: libertarianism's dystopian dreaming.

Here, local and state governments offer mandated furloughs to employees. Basic services such as police, fire, and 911 have been drastically curtailed. Public municipalities are on the verge of bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor is widening while wages remain stagnant and the middle class contracts. One in six Americans receive public assistance. Tent cities have sprung forth for the indigent and semi-homeless, while others wait days at a time for medical care from traveling health clinics. Citizens are tired and exhausted. And ultimately as the inevitable result of the Right's dogma beginning from at least the 1970s and early 1980s that government is the problem and not the solution (where the Great Society is imagined as an abject failure) the public has come to expect little from the State and its elected leaders.

As brilliantly highlighted by Sheldon Wolin in his book Democracy Incorporated, there is a sense on the part of the American people that democracy is a sham, an artifice run by two major parties distinguished only by the degree to which they are beholden to a corporate kleptocracy. In America's managed democracy presidential elections can be stolen with little outcry. Profit is the motive for all things--even the most basic of services such as fire protection, education, and health care that ought to be granted to citizens by virtue of their membership in the polity.

This is a creeping rot. For example, on one day it is the most basic of "public goods"--the non-excludable items that every Introduction to Macroeconomics student learns about the first day of class--that are taken away because of an inability to pay. Tomorrow, it may be police protection. The following day, the exclusion could extend to something as basic as national defense--a service to be outsourced to the highest bidder.

We saw a hint of the selfish egotism and empathy-less madness that is inherent in the libertarian, anti-statism that cheered on the burning down of the Cranick family's home in the moments following Hurricane Katrina. While some rightfully focused on the narrative of race and poverty in that American tragedy where the white racial frame deemed black Americans scavenging for food to be "looters," and white folks in the same perilous straits as "looking for food," there was another narrative at play. For some on the Right, the fall of New Orleans was not a parable about the logistical failures of the federal and state governments. Instead, Hurricane Katrina's enduring lesson was that the poor (read: the underclass and blacks at large) need to get an education, end the cycle of poverty, and then purchase cars so they can get out of town if another hurricane were to strike the city: A cruel calculus that ignores any questions of the common good, or of the obligations, merits, and value of citizenship.

Ultimately, the dismantlement of the State, and a breaking of the expectation that the government has obligations to all citizens (and we to our democracy) serves only the rich, the privileged, and the powerful. They can wallow in the sophomoric musings of Ayn Rand and libertarian philosophies best suited to the drunken meditations of college age trustifarians because those with resources simplistically imagine that they are islands onto themselves with little to any need for the government. The Rand Pauls of the world can muse poetically about a repeal of the Civil Rights Act because to them it is an odd historical factoid, not a law that governs their treatment as full citizens. Beck and company can harp on about the evils of unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and "progressives" because they are rich off of their unique brand of faux-populism and its appeal to the tea party, astroturf lemmings. More generally, the New Right and its supplicants can harp on about nullification and "second amendment" remedies precisely because the repeal of the federal government's power serves their politics of "us" as opposed to "them."

As a function of our freedom dreams, we often spend a great deal of time talking about American exceptionalism. What is a core tenet in American society, held in different and varying ways by folks on both the Left and the Right, that America is a unique place, almost singular in destiny, origins, and claims to the greatness of its democracy. But one must also ask the hard questions: How "exceptional" is a country where citizens are deprived of basic services? Where folks like the Cranicks can be made to stand and watch while their home burns to the ground over a membership fee? Is America exceptional because of its infant mortality rate? The educational achievements of its students? The longevity of its citizens? Her status as a debtor nation? The amount she spends on the military?

The burning of the Cranick's home is a sign of a deeper malaise. In total, their loss was an object lesson in the Right's libertarianism infused dystopian dreaming, where empathy and sympathy are trodden over by selfishness and a pure profit-loss calculation.

Nevertheless, I remain a dreamer. Thus, I must ask the following: Is all truly lost? What can we do as Americans on the Left, in the middle, and on the responsible Right to regain our freedom dreams? Are these dreams now and permanently in the dustbin of history, never to be reclaimed? Or is there some undiscovered country that awaits us all?


SL. Meyer said...

Don't you find it sadly ironic that a family such as Cranicks are most likely the type of people whom Beck and the like try to influence? And the Tea Party are trying to woo and the Republicans are trying to keep? They instead now mock him. It's like when those same people mock Blacks with the fried chicken and watermelon jokes...I tell my white southern associates that it's THEY that are being mocked by that too, because that's southern style food, what did they eat at the church picnic last week? It's almost a face palm moment of another kind when the light bulb comes on. I just smile and say "Do you get it now?" About 1/3 do.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...


That is a great point I never thought of. This family represents the cohort that the New Right is trying to mobilize--at least in theory. I saw an interview with the elder Cranick's son and he seemed spot on in connecting the dots. But again, the Red State Blue State meme does point to how the culture war, and other such nonsense has been used to separate white working and middle class people from their natural allies across the colorline.

In light of this incident I do hope that some of the potential tea bag brigands wake up and see what their natural self-interest is.

But again, maybe the psychic wage of whiteness pays more than a natural alliance around common class concerns.


fred c said...

The "psychic wage of whiteness," that's a good phrase for it. For me, the satori moment was realizing that there had been times when I could have been arrested, but wasn't; times when I borrowed money from family members; times that I had been hired for jobs for which I was not actually qualified. I realized that I had accepted the benefit of being white, and had therefor to accept the collective guilt as well.