On October 26, in Washington, DC, thousands gathered as part of the “Stop Watching Us” rally to demonstrate against the American surveillance state. Describing itself as a coalition of “over 100 public advocacy organizations and companies from across the US,” the protest featured attendees, speakers, and sponsors from both the anti-authoritarian Left and the Libertarian right.
The nature of an entrenched, bipartisan national security state means that the most powerful members of both parties have an interest in perpetuating government power. The Obama administration carried on the previous administration’s spying programs, and today a Democratic president finds vociferous defenders amongst the most authoritarian members of the “opposing” party.
Consequently, opposition to excessive government intrusion takes on a transpartisan nature. At the Stop Watching Us rally, Dennis Kucinich and Naomi Wolf shared the stage with Tea Party Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. The roster of backers included Code Pink, the ACLU, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (whom I’d not heard of, but come on, “Competitive Enterprise?” Going to go ahead and put that on the Libertarian side).
The Left-Libertarian crowd that showed up on Saturday mirrors the one in Congress that came 12 votes short of defunding the NSA’s mass telephone surveillance last July. The July 24th House bill was co-sponsored by fellow Michiganders Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. The Amendment would’ve “limit[ed] the government’s collection of records…to those records that pertain to a person who is subject to an investigation.” No more blanket collection.
More importantly, the bill managed to accumulate such significant, bipartisan support despite the fact that the nation’s most powerful lawmakers vehemently opposed its passage. The leadership of both parties was arrayed against Amash-Conyers, and as often happens in matters of national security, the Obama administration found a staunch supporter in Michelle Bachmann. Given bills like the Amash-Conyers Amendment, it looks like a Left-Libertarian alliance is the sort of transpartisan project that can finally rein in the surveillance state.
Not so fast, progressives! Some on the left are warning that any alliance with anti-government Libertarians will be drinking from a poisoned well. “Don’t ally with Libertarians,” says Tom Watson of Salon. Watson points to members of the Stop Watching Us rally like the fist-pumpingly named “Young Americans for Liberty,” who boast of their Ron Paul and Barry Goldwater connections along with the usual drivel about “permanent government shutdown” and “the elevation of a free humanity.” Mark Ames, writing for NSFWCorp, goes further than Watson, placing the Stop Watching Us rally in a long line of Libertarian snow-jobs. Ames, along with his colleague Yasha Levine, were the two journalists who first exposed the Koch brothers and their involvement in shaping contemporary American politics. Ames dissects a “Lying to Liberals” handbook from Reason published in 1977, which elaborates on how to make heartless Objectivist garbage appealing to those on the left.
In laying out the case against Left-Libertarian collaboration, Ames points to the previous civil libertarian cause célèbre of opposition to the TSA. In the TSA’s case, Ames writes, the anti-surveillance left was assenting to a GOP and Libertarian big-business plan to “privatize the TSA entirely, abolish the agency and privatize the workforce before it succeeded in gaining union rights as a public sector union” with “the ultimate goal of replacing the TSA with private contractors deploying ‘Israeli-style racial profiling’ in our airports.” Oops.
It’s not clear what the ultimate Koch-benefitting endgame is in Libertarian opposition to the surveillance state. Ames posits that the goal may be “completely privatizing the NSA more than it already has been,” a goal that he points out is already being floated. He’s definitely right that “we can assume they’ve already got a program worked out, and that it’s not something any of us would like.” The question of whether or not Leftists should ally with Libertarians on areas of mutual interest is a complex one, but we can be sure that the Galtian reptiles who bankroll groups like FreedomWorks already have a plan in store to expand their plutocracy.
The Left needs reporters like Ames to tell us when we’re being played for suckers and what the angle is. It’s also true we wouldn’t need these alliances if we had politicians who actually evinced progressive views on the national security state. One of the most consequential and least talked about-aspects of Obama’s presidency is the fact that majorities of Democrats reversed their professed principles once Bush left office. Democratic opposition to policies like Guantánamo, overseas wars, and drone killings evaporated once it was Obama pulling the trigger. Mass warrantless surveillance, similarly, was “shredding the Constitution” under Bush, but is now Obama “keeping us safe.” Leftists wouldn’t need to seek alliances with shady Randroids if we hadn’t been abandoned by Democrats on issues of war and surveillance. Though many progressives enter into Libertarian-dominated causes unknowingly, many more Democrats have abandoned principled positions for partisanship, and that’s what puts progressives in this position.
Rand Paul’s filibuster of the John Brennan nomination was the first time a lot of us on the Left had to ask these questions. Brennan, Obama’s choice to head the CIA, played a role in many of the war crimes of the Bush administration, including the covert CIA drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen. It was Paul, who opposes the Civil Rights Act and may or may not be literally named after Ayn Rand, who opposed Brennan’s nomination.
Over the course of 13 hours, Paul’s filibuster covered a lot of territory that would be appealing to his Minarchist base. However, he also read Glenn Greenwald and talked about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki on the Senate floor. Rand, like his father, thinks that rape victims should be forced to carry the child to term, but he also demanded an end to the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens and the daily terror that is life under drones. Amash looks like he will be a similar figure: he is both a politician who has called out John McCain for racist comments as well as one of the assholes who shut down the government.
Ultimately, the reason progressives make common cause with Libertarians is due to the anemic nature of American Left. The Left needs robust alternatives, the way the Libertarian right has massive, well-funded structures in place. It’s also easier to resonate with voters and your Congressional colleagues on issues like the economy or women’s rights than on surveillance or national security. How to create genuine alternatives on the Left is a much more complex and challenging question that people devote their whole lives to figuring out.
Until then, progressives are faced with the question of working with people whose dream-society most of us on the left would find reprehensible. What does a temporary alliance based on mutual interest mean when the ultimate social goals are so divergent? Despite all the talk about opposing tyranny, Libertarians are usually deeply conservative and contemptuous of freedom other than the freedom to protect one’s property.
Those are the sorts of people we talk about when we talk abstractly about Libertarians. There is a similar Left-Libertarian convergence in the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is largely responsible for the destruction of black and brown communities and turning the US into the world’s largest jailer. Both the progressive Left and Libertarian right would claim to stake their positions on principle, although Libertarians have a “states’s rights” and privatization scheme in mind.
For the Leftist, the premise undergirding that principle would be an opposition to a system of racist oppression. The Libertarian, though, premises their beliefs on the idea that the Federal government should only defend the borders, enforce contract law, and prevent women from getting abortions.
The question for Leftists here as with surveillance is, is it worth working with people whose opposition is based on a dream to abolish the Federal government so that oligarchic interests can act unfettered? Is it worth working with Libertarians, who’d love to kick the policing of drugs down to the states, who could choose to impose Singapore-style punishments if they wanted, like the death penalty for trafficking? Is it worth it if it could take mandatory-minimum sentencing off the books?
With the Amash-Conyers bill, an alliance is very specifically targeted. Unlike with the TSA issue, Amash-Conyers would’ve accomplished a meaningful, targeted end, rather than serving as a Trojan horse for privatization—as far as we can tell. Muckrakers like Ames warn us that Libertarian advocacy groups only mobilize to advance the interests of their plutocrat funders. Levine challenges those who would doubt this to “name one positive social policy that libertarian politicians/thinktanks helped push through or say nothing.”
Levine is right that the dreamworld American Libertarians would create would horrify progressives. Noam Chomsky says that Ron Paul’s politics are “savage,” and “a call for corporate tyranny.” It’s also true that thanks to a Ron Paul-voter named Ed Snowden, we are finally having a debate about our surveillance state that should’ve happened the first time the Patriot Act sunseted, if not earlier.
Many years after September 11th receded from the forefront of the public memory, the national security state kept growing, with the Military Commissions Act (2006), the Protect America Act (2007), the FISA Amendments Act (2008), and the NDAA (2012) passing many years after the post-9/11 panic subsided. We’re in a moment where we can finally meaningfully challenge the surveillance state. Even the Patriot Act’s author, Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, says that the NSA’s domestic surveillance has gone too far. Politics is making for the strangest bedfellows, and we on the Left have questions to ask in addition to all the work ahead.