Stories, Good and Bad

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Steve Almond’s latest book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, is the author’s attempt to sort through America’s flaws, as he perceives them, in order to explain the ascendency of President Donald Trump. The rock that gave credibility to his account — the Trump-Putin collusion — has now eroded to mere talus, and Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Almond is enough of a socialist to recommend the nationalization of the football industry (and that’s going pretty far). In an interview in The Sun (September 2015) he was questioned about his recently published book, Against Football. At one point, the interviewer, David Cook, asks: “Is there anything that would make football worth watching again for you?” In his reply, Almond describes his “dream” of public ownership of the “football industry.” Thus: “The football industry could benefit our communities rather than billionaire owners and sponsors. What would it be like if the teams were publicly owned and the profits were funneled into the public coffers?” And he asks, “Is that such a crazy idea: that this game might help the people who need help the most?”

Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Bad Stories is premised on the determinist idea that individual minds develop according to the stories to which they’re exposed. Furthermore, bad stories, the ones he sees as flawed or distorted, function to keep the good stories out of circulation. All this comes very close to the traditional socialist preference for a deterministic theory of human character and conduct. As Robert Owen put it, “A man’s character is created for him.” Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

The Great Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its discovery that man, through reason and experiment, could identify chemical elements and synthesize molecules, led some thinkers to believe that they could, through reason, design an ideal society. Breathing this atmosphere, Owen concluded that the social order was all wrong, as did Fourier and such other extremists as Marx and Sorel. The main obstacle between them and the realization of their collectivist dreams was human experience, which included 35,000 years of trial and error. One product of the centuries of ebb and flow was the rise of Western civilization and its slow and costly march toward personal and economic freedom. And thus emerged free-market capitalism with its built-in pricing system, a wondrous instrument that adjusts production and distribution, according to demand. Under socialism, the free-moving pricing system is replaced by a governing bureaucracy — a nonaccountable realm, as James Q. Wilson described it. However much the socialist may rant about a just distribution of wealth, the pricing system carries with it a justice that sensible humans can truly understand — rewards based on the satisfaction of consumer demand.

It’s this form of justice that the socialist cannot abide, for he cannot control it — cannot channel its rewards to those that he, by heaven, believes are the most deserving. Hayek has warned us that personal freedom has never existed without economic freedom. “Fear not,” the socialist might say, “human nature is malleable. People will adjust to the imposed system.” But have they ever done so? And one might ask — if people are all that malleable, how did the socialists dream up socialism?

Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

But here we have Steve Almond, feeling impelled to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He reveals the many reasons he divines, foremost among them being those “bad stories” that “distort our belief system.” Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues? Are individual Americans mere bots, driven now here, now there, by media prompts? The reasons he deduces for victorious Trumpism often involve a mass response to external influences, and these often trace back to capitalism. Consider this partial list: voter suppression, elections held on Tuesday, a disaffected electorate, hostile feelings for the other party, passions of a small minority, white privilege and the petty bourgeoisie, dehumanization, conservative paranoia, lying Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, thirst for entertainment, the sports brain, racism, opposition to social change, Trump’s unbridled aggression, television, the internet, Russian bots, lack of a Fairness Doctrine, the media’s right-wing conspiracy (a laugher), Vladimir Putin, Albanian hackers, and, of course, the Electoral College.

Almond criticizes the right and the alt-right for their paranoia, never showing, through example, how they demonstrate that quality. But his own apocalyptic predictions evince the paranoia he attributes to Trump supporters. One of his preferred literary works when seeking an analogy for Trumpism is Moby-Dick. The novel reeks with Significance. So great is the reek that I’ve wondered whether Melville was only kidding. One of my teachers in college, Professor E.H. Rosenberry, had similar thoughts — consider his book, Melville and the Comic Spirit.

But to Almond, Captain Ahab is “a parable about our national destiny in which the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of a story.” (A bulwark? — how about the Constitution?) But Trump is more than an inchoate Ahab — he also resembles Kurtz, the antihero in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad himself was a conservative, loyal to his adopted country, and, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyer, congenitally pessimistic. In Kurtz, we discover a smooth-talking reformer, who seeks to civilize a primitive African tribe. He dreams of a heroic reputation, but is drawn into the very culture he hopes to uplift. “The horror! The horror!” are his last words. Is it Almond, not Trump, who resembles Kurtz? But Almond ventures onward — Trump is also the golden calf prayed to by the Israelites. Indeed, he sees Trump as a packhorse for all the tyrannical vices — a bully, a bullshitter, a hollow entertainer who avoids the issues.

Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues?

What issues? Almond hardly mentions intellectual issues. He never details those Russian-hacker smears he complains of, though he spends a great deal of space on Hillary’s emails. When he does address policy issues, he bases his judgments on the immediate interests of his close acquaintances and a woman he found on Vox.com. He mentions the benefits they derived from Obamacare, for example, or from the Obama “stimulus package.” He overlooks the long-term effects of these “benefits” on the country. He believes the voters should worry more about their personal vulnerabilities than about their grievances. Were this a sound principle, the Pilgrims might have stayed home, along with others who sailed the seas to America. Aggrieved by oppression, they risked a long period of vulnerability at sea — for the promise of freedom.

As Almond sees it, Vladimir Putin is still fighting the Cold War. That we won that war is, to Almond, a bad story, even though the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire is an established fact, and America can rightly claim to have carried the day. The author disparages Ronald Reagan as “the star of Bedtime for Bonzo napping in the Oval Office.” And yet, crucial steps toward Cold War victory were taken during the Reagan presidency. The Reagan-inspired arms race, Reagan’s frankly anti-Soviet stance, and his close alliance with the Thatcher government, all contributed to the economic failure of the Soviets and the eventual decision by Gorbachev to release the captive nations. At the time, George Kennan and his containment policy got much of the credit, though the policy had led to the squandering of blood and treasure in winless wars. But Reagan’s contribution was enormous. What was his approach to the Cold War? “We win, they lose,” he said — and we won.

Will Trump initiate a period of American decline? Putin hopes so, according to Almond. So far, Trump’s tax cuts have brought a period of prosperity to America and provided a clear lesson: as an economic stimulus, a tax-cut beats the federal printing press every time. Creating inflation to stimulate the economy is the equivalent of a lie — an economic falsehood. But Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.” And consider this claim by the author: “When our president fumes about NFL player protests, or Confederate monuments, or gun rights, he isn’t just ‘shoring up his base.’ He’s doing Putin’s bidding.” This is fanciful nonsense.

Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.”

Donald Trump is proving of little danger to America. And he will likely alert our people to a true danger — the swing among Democrats toward socialism, a system that has created a procession of disasters, especially during the 20th century. Its popularity on campuses is a monument to the corruption bred by left-academics, and the ignorance they cultivate. An extensive literature of liberty exists in the archives of America and the Western world. But one would hardly suspect its existence, if judged by the state of knowledge of the average college student of today. When colleges and universities accept an enormous tuition, yet keep students in ignorance to preserve their leftist sympathies, they perpetrate a fraud.

Almond’s political ideas are accompanied by a fashionable anti-patriotism. That America is a representative democracy is, to him, a “bad story.” But members of both houses of Congress are elected by the populations of entire states, or of districts within each state — hence we have representative democracy in the legislative branch. The president of the United States is, at present, chosen by electors in each state, the number of each state’s electors being the same as the number of members in its Congressional delegation. The Constitution doesn’t require a direct popular vote for these electors. The system was meant to protect the interests of the less populated states and to produce a careful choice for an office of great potential power. George Washington recognized this power and, after his second term in office, established a precedent by bidding it farewell.

There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling.

And yet, Almond views America as “borne [sic] of high ideals and low behaviors, the land of all men are created equal and slave labor. We’ve been engaged in a pitched battle ever since, between greed and generosity, between the comforts of ignorance and the burden of moral knowledge.” This quotation is taken from the final chapter of Bad Stories, one that particularly reveals Almond’s affliction with Trump Derangement. Here, anti-Trumpism reaches the brink of hysteria — environmental protection, civil rights, free trade, public education, health care, are “all heading for bankruptcy.” On the other hand, “the markets for white supremacy, mass shootings, corporate profiteering, and nuclear cataclysm are booming.” And worse, “[Trump’s] aides and allies are mortified by his cognitive deterioration, his inability to read, or concentrate. It becomes more and more obvious that he’s unfit for the office. And yet, the office belongs to him.”

Do Almond’s own words represent a bad story as he defines it — one flawed and distorted? There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling. He subjects the man who is now president to an incompetent psychological evaluation. Trump, it seems, “never experienced a sense of being unconditionally loved, what psychologists call attachment. The best he could hope for within his family of origin was to please his domineering father through aggression. Because he never developed an intrinsic sense of self-worth, he can’t protect himself from feelings of inadequacy.” Thus Trump “proved especially captivating to disaffected Americans.” Does this last follow? Or was his appeal simply his departure from the Republican nice-guy-loser pattern — the one pioneered by Tom Dewey and emulated by Messrs. Goldwater, Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney?

Experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Chapter 15 in Bad Stories is entitled “Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses.” This fragment Almond sees as a “bad story.” It’s taken from a sonnet, “The New Colossus,” by the poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a gifted woman. Her poem has been used and abused in debates over immigration, in particular those involving the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Mencken wrote that the poet doesn’t deal in truth, but rather “conjures up entrancing impossibilities.” Perhaps the Lazarus poem conjures up a beautiful dream, the kind that guides and inspires the living. It bears a touch of early feminism, which ought to fascinate the present-day advocates. But it also contains, not only an invitation to our shores, but the inspiration to seek freedom wherever it’s dreamed of.

Alas, Almond is an apostle of equal outcomes, rather than freedom. I’m amazed that socialism ended up, not as one of Almond’s bad stories, but as a resuscitated grand scheme, or better, a secular faith. The fall of the Soviets after decades of blood and slave labor — despite the cheerleading from Western intellectuals — the rejection of British socialism with its Control of Engagements Order, the move of Scandinavian countries toward a free-market economy, and, much earlier, the failure of virtually all socialist communities in America, all taken together, suggest that maybe socialism isn’t such a good idea. The mass murders in Cuba, the desperate exits of its citizens, and the impoverishment of Venezuela offer more evidence of its futility.

Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence?

Still, Almond sees capitalism, personified by Donald Trump, as the great evil. It stands in the way of our solving “crises that are beyond empirical doubt.” In his view, these include “climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all of which are triggering mass immigrations, political unrest, and violent extremism.” It follows — to him — that we must reject bad stories (which ones?) and place our faith in “reason and empiricism.” Empiricism? But empiricism is the doctrine that the source of all knowledge is experience. And experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Resistance to Almond’s collectivist agenda is reflected not only in “a ruthless free market theology” but also in other reactionary attitudes — a “make believe retreat from globalism, a nostalgia for white hegemony.” Worse yet, “our culture lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction, yet lacks the moral imagination to change its moral destiny.” Still worse, “our style of capitalism has acted as a financial centrifuge, perhaps the most brutal aggregator of wealth in human history, built on a foundation of slave labor and fortified by plunder, imperial warfare, the decimation of the labor movement, the predation of Wall Street, [and] the steady subjugation of oversight to private gain.” Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence? Or one requiring more determined efforts to trace empirical facts about the world’s greatest multiethnic middle-class society back to its supposed causes in plunder and brutality?All this “resistance,” Almond conjures up with little regard for the reason and empiricism he urges on the rest of us.

It seems fair to remind Almond and his admirers that in its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, the United States of America has freed more people from slavery than any country in history. It has taken in tens of millions of immigrants seeking a better life and, through trade and the simple giving of gifts, has spread its bounty around the world. It has lost hundreds of thousands of its bravest sons in battles against the forces of tyranny — and often restored the war-damaged lands.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed.

Perhaps a touch of the sportsmanship in a “sports-brain” would make Almond a better, more reflective writer, as would a closer look at that “ruthless free-market theology.” A “brutal aggregator of wealth” must operate in a system of voluntary exchange. He doesn’t hide his money in the bathtub. He adds it to the river of capital that flows into financing and investments — creating new businesses, new products, new homes, more jobs, and more opportunities for improving the human condition. Is everyone happy in a free-market economy? No, of course not. Would there be greater happiness under any other economic regime? No again. A system that rewards the takers by plundering the producers will only spread misery in the long term. Frédéric Bastiat understood this, and his plain words might well be put in the hands of college students everywhere. He spoke of the “instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty.” Yes, and the struggle reflects those heroic qualities, which, taken together, represent a wonder of this earth — it’s called the human spirit.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed. But will their spirit roam free, or will it suffocate under a system that forces them to abide by a bureaucratic plan? An enforced equality can only be achieved at the expense of the best — the most creative, the most productive, the most in need of liberty. I see nothing in this that shows “moral imagination,” or that will lead to an improved “moral destiny.” And it may place all of us nearer to extinction.

With the exception of Almond’s personal experiences, which might make a decent book, Bad Stories is of little value as a source of truth. But as an example of the fashionable nonsense that passes for truth among the academic Left, it may be very useful indeed — it may lead some heroic individuals to educate young minds properly.

Useful Reading


Editor's Note: Review of "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," by Steve Almond. Red Hen Press, 2018, 257 pages.



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I Need a Land Line!

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Don’t get me wrong — I’m into big tech. I use my pocket-sized computer about nine hours a day, according to Apple’s built-in surveillance report — which I never asked for and would be perfectly happy never to see again. It’s as bad as having to see the calorie count when I’m standing in line at Cinnabon.

But here’s the deal: my cellphone is no longer a phone. I can type on it, write articles on it, make lists on it, communicate with my family all over the world via text message and email on it, watch TV and movies on it – heck, I can even make movies on it. But try to talk on it? Like a phone? Forget about it. A phone needs a tower — a tower that communicates with the phone.

I haven’t been able to talk to my mother for at least five years because she doesn’t do texting or social media and my phone doesn’t do phone. Oh, it tries. But it doesn’t succeed. Halfway through a sentence it cuts out, leaving my mother to think that I just hung up on her. (Not only does she not speak text, she does not understand that cellphones don’t speak phone.) My sister, who lives in the 20th century with my mother, wrote me a scathing letter last year complaining that my kids keep hanging up on Grandma without saying goodbye. I tried to explain, but they don’t get it. Not enough cell coverage? They use a land line.

We want all our perks and benefits, but we want someone else to provide them.

It’s especially problematic in New York, where skyscrapers bounce signals off the walls, and in southern California, where the residents suffer from NIMBYism (among a multitude of other sanctimonious social ills). I have homes in both places, and it’s driving me crazy.

NIMBYism — Not In My Back Yard — is just one of many symptoms of the growing fascination with socialism. We want all our perks and benefits, but we want someone else to provide them. We want our cellphone reception to be clear and constant, but we don’t want an unsightly, and potentially dangerous, cell tower within ten miles of our darlings. (I find it ironic that people don’t want a cell tower installed within ten miles, but they give said darlings cellphones from infancy and sleep with their own phones under their pillows.)

Hence, I need a land line.

So here’s my offer to AT&T. You can put your cell tower in my backyard. I live at the top of a hill overlooking a canyon. People will benefit from my cell tower for miles around. And if you hide it inside one of my majestically towering juniper trees, no one will even see it.

People don’t want a cell tower installed within ten miles, but they give their children cellphones from infancy and sleep with their own phones under their pillows.

All I want in exchange is lifetime phone, internet, and cable service for me and my family in perpetuity. And a new phone every two years for free, as you used to do. That’s it, and you can have the top of my juniper tree. Deal?

I tried to call you with this offer, but my phone kept cutting out. So send me a text. Or better yet, let’s do lunch.




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The Trump Cuba Chronicles

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On April 17, 2019, the 58th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, John Bolton, America’s National Security Advisor, announced what may turn out to be the death knell for Cuba’s socialist government. (By contrast, at the same time NPR recounted and gushed about the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and his visit to New York and Harlem in April 1959.)

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas on multiple lawsuits of greater length and complexity than Charles Dickens’ fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Truth is stranger than fiction.

This saga began in January 1996, when José Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, flew into Cuban airspace — twice — and dropped half a million anti-Castro leaflets over Havana. Basulto hated the regime. He was a Bay of Pigs veteran and had spent two years in Castro’s prisons. He had founded Brothers to the Rescue, a group of volunteer pilots, to scour the Florida Straits for wayward “rafts” (crafts often no more than inner tubes cobbled together with twine) overloaded with refugees escaping Cuba — the sort on which Elián Gonzales was found.

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas.

But this time his hate got the best of him. Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper. He ordered the next incursion of Cuban airspace neutralized. The following month, on February 24, Brothers to the Rescue flew a routine search mission. While outside Cuban territorial waters — and without warning — a Cuban Air Force Mikoyan Mig-29UB shot down two of the Brothers’ unarmed Cessna Skymasters, killing 3 pilots. The third Cessna, piloted by Basulto, escaped.

While the Cuban pilot exulted, “We blew his balls off! He won’t give us any more fucking trouble,” the US populace, Congress, and President Clinton were outraged. Two Republican Congressmen, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Representative Dan Burton of Indiana had, two years previously, introduced legislation to tighten the screws on the Castro regime. But the Helms-Burton Act, as it came to be known, was tabled following Democrat filibusters in support of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with the island.

Following the downing of the two private planes on a humanitarian mission, Helms and Burton immediately reintroduced their bill. It was passed by both houses of Congress on March 6, only ten days after the cold-blooded murder.

Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper.

Helms-Burton was the latest installment on a trade embargo first declared in October 1960 by the Eisenhower administration in retaliation for the nationalization without compensation of American-owned oil refineries on the island. The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. Again, no compensation was offered for the seizures. Additionally, a number of US diplomats were expelled from Cuba. The US then severed diplomatic relations with the socialist regime.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act authorized US nationals whose property in Cuba had been confiscated to file suit in US courts against persons who might be "trafficking" in that property. However, the act granted the president the authority to suspend the lawsuit provisions if it was necessary to the national interest of the United States and would expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.

Private European companies, which had been investing in Cuba through joint ventures with the Cuban government, raised holy hell, creating a serious European Union trade dispute with the US. In response, President Clinton exercised the suspension authority through a nonbinding declaration of intention, approved in April 1997 in order to settle the brouhaha. That suspension has been renewed by every US president since.

And then along came Donald J. Trump. In June 2017, he impetuously declared, "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. No compensation was offered for the seizures.

But before making any changes, President Trump and Vice President Pence decided to meet with the members of the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, especially the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. According to Carlos León, the second youngest member of the invasion Brigade 2506 and later to become the Association’s historian and Interim president (he was already this author’s cousin), Trump and Pence met with a select group of the veterans for four hours — much longer than the meeting had been scheduled for.

Very few of the veterans had supported Trump during the election but, according to Carlos, they found Trump and Pence to be good listeners and receptively involved in the give-and-take of the discussions. Most of the vets had supported most of Obama’s Cuba policies. They succeeded in tempering Trump’s proposed changes down to two minor initiatives all could agree upon.

The policy changes tightened US citizens’ travel to Cuba by more closely vetting the already approved travel categories — a step that in practice meant little, especially for the independent travelers flouting US regulations by departing from Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas. And they sought to curtail American spending on the island to prevent proceeds from benefiting the Cuban military, government, and intelligence services. The latter basically made it illegal for US citizens to stay in government hotels, a change that benefitted the island’s burgeoning private B&B industry. The litigation suspension clause was not mentioned.

Until now.

Proposed policy changes (even under the unconventional Trump administration) are usually discreetly floated, to test reaction. When Carlos heard about the change to Title III of Helms-Burton, he invited John Bolton to officially make the announcement at the Casa de la Brigada in Miami. Ambassador Bolton accepted and, on April 17, the 58th anniversary of the failed invasion, before the assembled surviving veterans of the Bay of Pigs, he opened the floodgates of litigation against entities profiting from the uncompensated stolen properties in Cuba by the Castro regime.

It’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts are potentially liable.

I asked Carlos his impression of Bolton. “For such a giant mustache, I expected a big man. Instead, he’s surprisingly small [5’7”].”

“Coño, Carlos! I mean his character,” I groused.

“The man is a straight-up guy — listening, engaged and transparent,” he answered.

Foreign private company joint ventures with the Cuban government — which always retains a 51% interest — have roller-coastered since they were first proposed. The 1990s were their heyday, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba was desperate for cash. In the early 2000s, after Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela and began subsidizing the Cuban economy, Cuba reverted to centralizing its economy, and foreign investment dried up. About 200 foreign joint ventures folded. In 2010, some 300 Spanish firms were begging for the payments they were due. As of 2011, about 250 joint ventures remained viable.

But it’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts — any entities profiting in any way from expropriated properties — are potentially liable.

On May 2, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line became the first US company sued for using property confiscated six decades ago by Cuba’s revolutionary government.

"There could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

According to the Washington Post, “The actions, in federal court in Miami, were filed by two U.S. citizens whose parents owned commercial docks in Havana and in the southeastern Cuban city of Santiago. ‘The communist government,’ the claim said, ‘nationalized, expropriated, and seized ownership and control’ of the properties when their families fled the island in 1960.”

Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters last month, “The most recent estimate we have from 1996, at the time that the law was enacted, [is] that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

With Venezuela imploding and the specter of the liability of billions of dollars facing foreign investment in the island, Cuba faces a second “special period in Time of Peace” that will test the regime’s survival.




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The Two Socialisms

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When I was in college, the selling point of socialism, communism, revolutionary activism, all of that, was something called “participatory democracy.” That’s what the mighty SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) stood for. That’s what the neo-Marxists stood for. That’s what all the “community organizers” stood for. The idea, endlessly reiterated, was that “decisions must be made by the people affected by those decisions.” No one talked about Medicare for all, or government-funded preschools, or government-mandated revisions of the environment. The idea was that centralized “state capitalism” was wrong, not primarily because it was inefficient, or even inequitable in its effects, but because its decisions were not “democratic.” They had not been made by the people affected by them. If it was inequitable or “slow” (i.e., inefficient), that was why.

Now we are witnessing an immense revival of “socialism,” led by Democratic Party opportunists and hacks. And it is all about laws that need to be made to increase the power of the centralized state. It is about giving professional politicians sole power over healthcare, housing, education, transportation, employment, qualifications for voting, and the possibility of self-defense — and all this without the tiniest hint that anyone except the Philosopher Kings who compose the Democratic Majority in the House of Representatives should be consulted. Participation? What’s that?

American “socialism” has shifted, in our time, from a demotic and “participatory” style to a rule-from-the-top dogmatism.

I have to be honest. I am a foe of “participatory democracy.” I do not believe it is optimal, in any sense, to give power over the individual’s existence to whoever happens to be a coworker, a fellow student, or just a guy who happens to turn up at a meeting. I find myself unable to decide whether a regime of little Red Guards is more repellent than a regime of Bernie Sanders bureaucrats arrayed, rank on rank and cube on cube, to decide what the width of my bathroom door should be.

But I think it’s worthy of notice that American “socialism” has shifted, in our time, from a demotic and “participatory” style to a rule-from-the-top dogmatism, constantly twisting in response to the whims of the politicians but always determined to enforce those whims.

I wonder whether any of the socialists have noticed this. Perhaps they are as ignorant of their own traditions as they are of economics or sociology, or respect for anyone except themselves.




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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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Paul Allen, R.I.P.

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According to Forbes of March 5, 2016, the billionaires in my home state, Washington, had a combined wealth greater than that of the billionaires of Texas and one-third that of the billionaires of California. One of our signature tycoons, Paul Allen, reportedly worth $20.3 billion, has just died.

Allen was partly an accidental billionaire. At Lakeside, Seattle’s old private high school, Allen had a pal named Bill Gates. Together in 1975 they dropped out of college and founded Microsoft. Gates stayed on and built Microsoft into a global company. Allen left in 1982, four years before the company went public. He became rich because of what Gates and others did afterward.

Did he deserve his wealth? Unlike Gates, Allen appears to have worked for only a small part of it. He performed the initial role in a system that creates great wealth for people who start great things, and a bunch of that wealth fell in his lap. Seattle is full of people who made money on Microsoft stock, and I can’t argue that their capital gains are directly proportional to their value added. Still, it was his money.

Allen was partly an accidental billionaire. He became rich because of what Bill Gates and others did at Microsoft after he left.

Paul Allen had a fabulous life. He bought the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team and the Seattle Seahawks football team. He funded a museum that collected the memorabilia of Jimi Hendrix and another that collected the aircraft of World War II. He spent money on rockets into space and on a telescope array to look for life on other planets.

He spent — I hesitate to say invested — in all manner of wonderful projects.

And some of them right where I live. Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton wrote that Allen “may be the last of the great moneyed stewards who invested deeply and with abiding person affection for the city of Seattle.”

I was fine with Allen wanting a stadium for his football team, but I thought he should pay for it himself. For this, I was denounced by football fans.

One of his hometown projects was buying, restoring, and preserving Seattle’s curved-screen Cinerama Theater, which is where I watched the Lord of the Rings movies. Another was funding the Seattle Public Library’s purchase of thousands of DVDs, many of which I watch. Another was funding the Allen Library at the University of Washington, where I do historical research.

I have benefitted from this guy. I am sad to see him go.

Allen has had a respectable send-off, but not from the Seattle Left. Kshama Sawant, our city councilwoman, posted on Facebook:

He spent $250 million on the biggest yacht in the world in 2003; he also owned two more yachts and a fleet of private jets, several sports teams. He paid to put the Qwest Field on the ballot so that working people picked up most of the $425M tab. He spent half a million dollars to defeat the I-1098 Tax the Rich statewide initiative in 2010.

This is posted above an image that says, “Remember the Greediest.”

Sawant is right about Allen paying to put a measure on the statewide ballot to subsidize a football stadium. I was a newspaper columnist at that time, and denounced the ballot measure vehemently, and the state lawmakers who voted for it. For this, I was denounced by football fans. I was fine with Allen wanting a stadium for his football team, but I thought he should pay for it himself.

Sawant derided her colleagues as chickens, which they were.

But I never denounced Allen for what he was, which is what Sawant does. She doesn’t believe people like Paul Allen should exist. (He would be replaced by what? Workers’ committees?) I find her attitude distasteful — and I note that on my neighborhood blog, nextdoor.com, in this left-progressive town I am not the only one down on Sawant.

Some examples:

  • “She is repulsive and needs to be removed ASAP.”
  • “I am very eager to see her out of a $123k a year job.”
  • “I’m one of the misguided people who voted for her . . . She seemed so grounded, solid when I heard her speak in person. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong!”
  • “If it wasn’t for Paul Allen, she wouldn’t even be here. She came to the US after marrying a Microsoft engineer. Show a little gratitude, Kshama.”

Much of the annoyance is for disregarding the taboo against abusing the freshly dead. I hope that’s not all it is.

Sawant, who may be the only hard-socialist councilwoman of a major American city, was at the losing end of the big political battle of 2018 — the Seattle City Council’s “head tax” on large private employers. Her target was Amazon, the company founded and headed by Jeff Bezos, a man even richer than Paul Allen. After the tax passed with the support of Sawant and the council’s progressive Democrats, Amazon, the city’s #1 employer, donated money to an effort to put the ordinance up for a public vote. (We have the initiative and referendum in Washington, and you can do that.) When pollsters discovered that the people of Seattle didn’t support the head tax, the council reluctantly repealed it.

Sawant voted not to repeal it. She derided her colleagues as chickens, which they were.

Sawant demonized Bezos as the greedy rich, particularly when his company said that if the head tax passed, it would not build a planned office tower. When Sawant led a demonstration of her left-wing supporters in front of Amazon’s new headquarters, she faced a counter-demonstration from union ironworkers who wanted to build Amazon’s new tower.

Sawant is up for reelection in 2019. Maybe voters will remember her nastiness at the death of Paul Allen.

Recalled one of the nextdoor.com bloggers:

“I do still get a kick out of seeing the footage of construction workers shouting ‘No Head Tax!’ when she was trying to speak in front of the Amazon spheres. Funny watching her getting completely drowned out by their chants.”

Sawant is up for reelection in 2019. It’s a year from now, but I think people will remember the head tax. Maybe they will also remember her nastiness at the death of Paul Allen.

I think of it every time I get a DVD from the library.




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Seattle Solons Sideline Squatters

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Last month (Liberty, May 10), I reported on the Seattle City Council’s attempt to impose a per-employee tax on large businesses, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used to help the homeless.

The video of the meeting (June 12) at which the Council acted in response to public opposition and repealed the head tax is entertaining. The council chamber is full of people with signs — green ones saying “No Tax on Jobs” and red ones urging a tax on Amazon, the city’s largest private employer. The people holding the green signs are quiet and the people holding the red signs are noisy. When the council members come to a vote, the red-sign people set up a chant to drown them out: “We . . . are . . . ready to fight! Housing . . . is . . . a human right!”

The council members, who had voted unanimously for the head tax a month before, explain their votes (7 to 2 for repeal). First come the progressive Democrats who are voting for repeal. Not one of them admits that the head tax is bad policy. Referring to the success of the business-led petition drive to put the ordinance on the ballot, and polls showing that on this issue Seattle’s liberal electorate sides with business, Councilwoman Lisa Herbold says, “This is not a winnable battle. The opposition has unlimited resources.” By repealing the head tax, she says, the progressives are cutting their losses. “There is so much more to lose between today and November,” she says.

“We need more resources,” the councilman says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, who opposes repeal, talks of the vote as if it were not a defeat. What makes it not a defeat? Because she still believes in the cause. Her belief is what’s important. And also that a month before, the council did vote for the tax. “I’m proud that this council stood up in the face of intimidation and fear,” she says, just before seven of her colleagues vote to reverse their action.

Councilman Mike O’Brien says the city spent $94 million on the homeless last year, and that it is not enough. “We need more resources,” he says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

“We know what the solutions are,” says Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, who votes against the solution she is so sure of.

Finally comes our Socialist Alternative councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, speaking to her chanting groupies with the red signs. She calls this a defeat — and just the sort of defeat you get by putting your faith in Democrats. Her Democratic colleagues patting themselves on the back for caring about the homeless have nothing to be proud of. “This is a capitulation and a betrayal,” Sawant says.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building a socialist America.

And not of the homeless, really. The Democrats talk about the homeless. Sawant talks about working people, at one point saying that the vote to repeal the tax is a betrayal of working people, as if the squatters in Seattle’s public parks were waking up every morning, putting on clean clothes, and going to work.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building her movement for a socialist America.

Mostly Sawant was sore at her colleagues’ unwillingness to accept the business community’s challenge of a public vote. “There was a chance of winning,” she says.

A chance, yes. Not a good one.

Yes, Bezos is her enemy. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats.

Sawant berates her colleagues for surrendering to the business community and its supporters, though she characterizes it as a surrender to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Jeff Bezos IS our enemy,” she proclaims.

And I find myself agreeing with her. Not with her condemnation of Bezos or her advocacy of “social housing” and “taxing the rich,” but with her political clarity. Yes, Bezos is her enemy. Damn right. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats. They did betray her cause, and her. It was disgusting to hear them praising themselves even as they backed down, as if they could weasel out with talk. They lost, and because they lost, she lost.

It’s a glorious day.




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Bettina Bien Greaves, R.I.P.

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All scholars dream of having one or more disciples who will make sure their legacy is kept alive and their works and theories prominently trumpeted before the public eye.

For the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, there was quite a following, including two couples, Hans and Mary Sennholz, and Percy and Bettina Greaves. On January 22 the last of the four, Bettina Bien Greaves, died at the astounding age of 100. (Mary Sennholz also lived to be 100. Austrian economists live long!)

Bettina Greaves deserves to be honored as Mises’ most devoted student, and in July a room will be dedicated to her at the annual FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas.

From the time she first heard Mises speak in 1951 at a Freeman seminar in Washington Square in New York City, Bettina was smitten. With a background in shorthand and secretarial work during the war years, she attended Mises’ famous New York University graduate seminar, taking copious notes on every lecture from 1951 until 1969. Although she had no formal training in economics, Greaves was the queen of the Austrian school and never deviated from it. She joined the Foundation of Economic Education (FEE) staff in 1953 and worked at the FEE mansion for the rest of her career. She survived everyone, including founder Leonard Read. After retiring, she stayed on as a board member and even donated her home in New York to FEE.

Bettina Bien Greaves was an uncompromising advocate of liberty, and will always be an inspiration to aspiring Austrian economists, and scholars everywhere.

I met her a few times when I visited FEE headquarters. My favorite Bettina Greaves story came from 2001, when I became president of FEE. After my first board meeting, Bettina came up to me and said privately, "I support you in every way as the new president. But could you do me a favor? Please be more critical of Milton Friedman!"

I nodded, and she left the room. A few minutes later another board member, Muso Ayau, came over to me. He was the founder of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala and a former president of the Mont Pelerin Society. He whispered, "Mark, I support you in every way as the new president of FEE, but could you do me a favor? Stop being so critical of Milton Friedman!" I’ll never forget it. I told this story to Milton and he had a belly laugh.

Bettina was a true believer in Austrian economics, and always sided with Mises when it came to differences between him and Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. (I’ve written a book on the differences, entitled Vienna and Chicago, Friends or Foes? A Tale of Two Schools of Free-Market Economics [Capital Press, 2005].) She focused her career on advancing the works and ideas of the Austrian school, including the contributions by Henry Hazlitt and Hans Sennholz. She wrote many articles for The Freeman, gave lectures, and compiled anthologies about Austrian economics. She spearheaded FEE’s program to provide libertarian material for high school debaters with packets on foreign aid, government regulations, medical care, and other issues. She compiled and edited Free Market Economics: A Syllabus, and A Basic Reader, a two-volume set that was distributed to thousands of students and teachers. After her husband’s death in 1984, she kept alive Percy Greaves’ lively interest in the controversies surrounding Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor, and wrote several Freeman articles on events that led up to that day of infamy, December 7, 1941.

But her main interest was always in her mentor, Ludwig von Mises. As Margit von Mises noted, Bettina studied “line by line, word for word” her husband’s writings. Bettina and her husband traveled with Lu and Margit to Argentina, Mexico, and other foreign lands where Mises lectured. (She spoke fluent Spanish and German.) She compiled, edited, and translated many of his books after his death in 1973. She also worked with her husband Percy to make Mises’s writings more understandable to the public. It was published in 1974, called Mises Made Easier (but never easy!). With the help of Robert W. McGee, she published an exhaustive Mises: An Annotated Bibliography (FEE, 1993, 1995). When the Liberty Fund decided to publish the complete works of Mises, Bettina was asked to be the editor, writing introductions for each volume.

Bettina Bien Greaves was an uncompromising advocate of liberty, and will always be an inspiration to aspiring Austrian economists, and scholars everywhere. ¡Bien hecho!

* * *

Editor’s note: Bettina Greaves was a loved and valued Contributing Editor of Liberty. Readers can find her articles and reviews from November 1997, “To the Dialecticians of All Parties,” to November 2008, “War from Six Sides,” by clicking here. More biographical information can be found in Jim Powell’s article, “A Salute to Bettina Bien Greaves,” July 1, 1997, on the FEE website.




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Caracas Dispatches

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Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.

Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.

Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.

Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.

“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.

I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.

In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.

In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.

Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.

Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.

Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.

On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.

N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."




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Buying Genocide, Part 3

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Nazis as Socialists: How Accurate a Description?

An economic historian, Andrei Znamenski, wrote a nice analysis of the question of whether the National Socialists were really socialists. He begins by noting a fascinating historical fact: in the West outside of Germany, people to this day call the NSDAP “Nazis,” whereas the Germans still call them National Socialists. The full name of the party was of course the National Socialist German Workers Party, but Germans use — and used — just the first two words. Znamenski points out that Hitler and his followers never liked the term “Nazi”; they used “National Socialist” or the initials ND or NSDP. And in the years after the discovery of the Holocaust, “Nazi” — like “fascist” — became a generic term of abuse against political opponents. So we now have expressions like “condo-Nazi” and “femi-Nazi.” But as Znamenski notes, this is odd. Historians and other intellectuals never use “Commies” when writing about the Soviet Union under Stalin — they call people “Soviets” and so on. In fact, Znamenski observes, the Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism. It has instead pushed two versions of the “Hitler Myth.”

One version — the one the communist and socialist Left most embraced — is that Hitler, while manipulating ordinary Germans, especially the bourgeoisie, was a puppet of the large industrial capitalists. That is, this Leftist myth has it that Nazism in particular and fascism in general “were the last-ditch effort of decaying monopoly capitalism that used them [i.e., dictators like Hitler and Mussolini] in their desperate desire to save the [capitalist] system from its final and unavoidable collapse” (550).

The Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism.

This idea is belied by the facts. Early on (1925–1933), two-thirds of Nazi Party members were workers, farmers, and professionals. By the mid-1930s, industrial workers — who earlier supported by huge margins the Social Democratic and Communist Parties — were drawn over to the National Socialists, primarily because of the Party’s program of full employment. By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background. By contrast, the industrialists overwhelmingly favored the conservative and ultra-conservative parties — the German National People’s Party, the German People’s Party, and the Catholic Center.

The second version of the Hitler Myth — the one most embraced by the progressive liberal and non-communist Left — was that Hitler was a demonic, uniquely charismatic dictator “who took advantage of the German people’s sadomasochistic and authoritative nature — enabled in this by the Great Depression.” Znamenski cites as an example a recent BBC documentary written by Laurence Rees, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.

By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background.

Znamenski doesn’t reply directly to this myth, so I will. I would suggest that it is in fact a pseudo-explanation. To say that Hitler was “charismatic” is merely to say that he was able to make his message resonate with many people. But the issues remain: what was the message? Why was it ultimately more appealing than the communist, mainstream socialist, progressive and conservative ideologies? Saying that Hitler (or Churchill, FDR, JFK, or Reagan) was charismatic is like saying that silent movie star Clara Bow was the “It” girl — the word names rather than explains an historical fact.

Yet, as Znamenski argues, the work of Götz Aly and others enables us to see that Hitler’s regime was indeed both nationalistic and socialistic:

Their goal was to empower all people of “Aryan stock” at the expense of non-Germans. Whereas Stalin cannibalized his own population, expropriating and phasing out segments of society on the basis of their social and class origin, Hitler rejected class warfare and acted as a “benign” dictator toward the German people. His bio-politics aspired to mold the members of the Aryan “tribe” into an all-inclusive “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) by uplifting them not through attacks on “class” aliens but on ethnic and racial “others.” Hence the ideological emphasis of Hitler’s regime on the expropriation of resources belonging to non-Germans and the exploitation of their slave labor. (545).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer. National Socialism was similar to the international variety: anti-bourgeois, aiming for a classless system, but dissimilar primarily in privileging one ethnic group at the expense of others.

Znamenski adds a number of important points, including the fact that Hitler espoused socialist views before he adopted virulent anti-Semitic ones. Underscoring Aly’s analysis of the regime’s purchase of popular support, Znamenski quotes Albert Speer, the regime’s preferred architect and minister of war production:

It remains one of the oddities of this war that Hitler demanded far less from his people than Churchill and Roosevelt did from their respective nations. The German leaders were not disposed to make sacrifices themselves or ask sacrifices of the people. They tried to keep the morale of the people in the best possible state by concessions. (546)

It is worth noting that the top income tax rate in Germany throughout the war was a mere 13.7%, compared to 23.7% in Great Britain, and a whopping 94% in the United States.

One last, provocative point that Znamenski makes is that as the Nazis gained power, their socialist opponents started aping the nationalist aspect of National Socialism. In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which (among other things) espoused militarism and anti-Semitism. They had posters with both the red star and the swastika and their street fighters were called “beefsteak” (brown on the outside, red on the inside).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer.

Even more interesting is the response of Stalin to Hitler, a man whom Stalin trusted and admired at some level, but also feared. During the ferocious war with Nazi Germany, a war costing the lives of upwards of 22 million Russians, Stalin started openly appealing to Russian patriotism (as opposed to class warfare) and even loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church. After the war, Stalin aped Hitler ever more closely, In January 1953, an aging Stalin had the state propaganda organ Pravda put out the story that a group of Kremlin doctors, almost all of them Jewish, had poisoned two of Stalin’s closest aides and taken part in a “vast plot conducted by Western imperialists and Zionists to kill the top Soviet political and military leadership.” This was the Doctors’ Plot, and Stalin intended to have a show trial to set up a national campaign to rid the Soviet Union of “cosmopolitan” and “Zionist” elements. In short, Stalin was going to go after Russia’s (then) 2 million Jews. They would be sent to Stalin’s own concentration camp system, under the pretext of protecting them. No doubt the Jews would have been sent to the industrial camps to be used as slaves to support the Soviet regime. Stalin’s own profound anti-Semitism was a partial motive for his actions, but one suspects that he figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while). Only Stalin’s death a few months later stopped this plan from being implemented.

As fine as Znamenski’s analysis is, however, it requires considerable qualification.

First, there was a salient difference between Nazism and socialism (as that was typically defined), concerning ownership of private property. Specifically, even “democratic” socialist regimes traditionally advocated the nationalization (the socialization or social ownership of) major industries. For instance, Britain after WWII nationalized the coal, electricity, railway, and healthcare industries. And the communists essentially tried to own all industries, virtually socializing all sources of production, even family farms.

In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which espoused militarism and anti-Semitism.

However, the Nazis seemed ambivalent about socialist economics. While their early party platform advocated nationalization of major industries, when in power Hitler actually privatized a number of companies. These included four major banks; the German railway, then the second largest socialized company in the world; the largest German steel company; several shipbuilding companies; and the company that controlled all the metal production in Upper Silesia.

Hitler’s own description of his economic views is at least unclear, if not downright oxymoronic. He said at one point, “We are socialists; we are enemies of today’s capitalistic system.” However, he also held that socialism of the Nazi sort “has nothing to do with Marxian socialism . . . Marxism is anti-property; true socialism is not.” And he said in private, “I absolutely insist on protecting private property . . . we must encourage private initiative.” Again, Hitler said, “Socialism! That is an unfortunate word altogether . . . What does socialism really mean? If people have something to eat and their pleasures, then they have their socialism.” He also said, “The basic feature of our economic theory is that we have no theory at all.”

One revealing thing that Hitler (after achieving power) said in this regard was, “There is no license anymore, no private sphere where the individual belongs to himself. That is socialism, not such trivial matters as the possibility of privately owning the means of production. Such things mean nothing if I subject people to a kind of discipline they can’t escape . . . what need have we to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.”

Stalin figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while)

This has puzzled some commentators, so much that some say the Nazi regime didn’t really have an economic ideology. But it did, of course: it had its own form of corporatism (or “corporativism”). Corporatism permits private businesses but organizes them by industrial sector and tightly controls them (as well as the workers) so that economic production satisfies the state’s needs and purposes. From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

So under corporatism the State is the chief institution. No wonder the Italian fascists summarized this view as: “Everything for the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.” It is worth noting that this vision (of the various institutions in society not competing and clashing, but of cooperating — under the direction of the state) is a vison shared by more than fascists and National Socialists: it is attractive to many Catholic social philosophers (who have advocated a “Catholic corporatism”), many American soi-disant progressives, and the present-day leadership of both China and Russia.

Under corporatism, people are allowed to keep their private property, including their businesses, even large ones, but only if these are controlled by and run for the benefit of the state. Neosocialism, of which fascism and National Socialism were varieties, can be defined as the state pursuit of socialist social goals (such as equality and “fraternity”) through a corporatist rather than a socialist economy.That is, a neosocialist state will pursue wealth equality, say, or fraternity (e.g., Volksgemeinschaft), not by nationalizing industries sector by sector but by controlling and coordinating the private companies to further these goals, including taxing businesses and redistributing the wealth.

From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

The concept of Volksgemeinschaft informed the National Socialist form of corporatism. The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries, and control and coordinate labor, industry, farming, the educational system, and the media for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state, which was in turn embodied in the Führer.

The Nazi regime pursued classical corporatist economic policies, including central planning, massive controls, autarkic and one-sided trade policies, and massive spending programs. The regime replaced the trade unions with a unified German Labor Front, under regime control, which banned strikes, lockouts, and summary terminations. The regime replaced all the chambers of commerce with a unified Chamber of Economics, which then was folded into the Labor Front. The combined Labor Front and Chamber of Economics was run by a board of trustees, all appointed by the regime. Small businesses were monitored by shop councils and Courts of Honor that cooperated with small business owners to set working standards and wages — under the supervision of the regime.

The first economic program the regime formulated was a massive infrastructure program, which led to a 300% increase in the number of construction workers. The regime controlled the number of car models made, and (when war broke out) restricted their use. The regime of course rapidly increased military spending, which hit 10% of GDP in 1936, vastly more than that of any other European nation. And while there were regime members who favored free market policies, the faction that favored autarkic policies and a military economy won out — Hitler envisioning a struggle to the death between National Socialism and “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Germany’s trade policy was reconfigured to favor trade with southern and southeastern Europe, aiming to make southern Europe and the Balkans dependent upon the regime, supplying it with raw materials in exchange for German manufactured goods. The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them. Naturally, the degree of state control over the economy only increased with the outbreak and then escalation of the war.

The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state.

The clear Nazi aim was to provide a high standard of living for citizens of the country — an aim that was never urgent for Stalin. But consider another major difference between Stalin and Hitler. Lenin had achieved power by armed revolt and Stalin by systematically eliminating his rivals in the party dictatorship. At no point did Lenin, Stalin, or any of the Bolsheviks ever have to face genuine elections with actual opposition parties, parties with competing ideologies, as the Nazis originally did. This may be part of the reason why Stalin could (in Znamenski’s nice phrase) “cannibalize” his own population, selecting various groups on the basis of alleged class affiliation for use in the Soviet’s own vast concentration camp system. However, the Nazis retained to the end the sense that they needed to keep their base — German workers, farmers, small businesses, bureaucrats, big businesses, the military command — at least materially provided for until the end. And as I explain below, there was a deeper motive for the National Socialist transfer of wealth to German citizens.

In the end, the regime collapsed, because as the conquests were halted and then rolled back — and the number of Jews (and others) whose assets and labor it could completely seize diminished — it ran out of money, men, and machines to continue fighting.

The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them.

In fine, the Nazi regime was truly socialist. And it died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Baroness Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

Nazi Anti-Semitism: Was it Unique?

In the last section I focused on the socialist aspect of National Socialism. Let us turn now to the nationalistic side.

It is a question often asked: How could the Germans — arguably the most culturally advanced people in the world at the time — descend into the barbarism of totalitarianism and genocide? I suggest that a great part of the answer lies precisely in that advanced culture.

Let me start by talking about an influential German sociologist who helped shape National Socialist ideology: Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936), a star in the German academic world. Tonnies distinguished between Gemeinschaft (roughly “organic community”) and Gesellschaft (roughly, “associational society”). Gemeinschaft is the sort of emotionally tight community that (allegedly) characterizes the family and long-standing ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. In such communities, Tonnies held, individuals have mutually recognized roles to play in set relationships defined by Wesenwille (“natural will”), which consists of naturally occurring emotions. People behave towards one another in accordance with traditional social rules developed by a shared organic history.

In the end, the regime died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Margaret Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

In contrast, Tonnies said, Gesellschaft is the sort of loosely structured and diverse organizations such as governmental bureaucracies and large industrial companies. Such organizations are characterized by Kurwille (“rational will”), relationships based solely on rational self-interest. The growth of Gesellschaft (during the industrial revolution) undermined the ties of family and neighborhood, resulting in an impersonal society and widespread alienation, the feeling of being separated from one’s work and society generally. This is a line of thought that traces back to Marx at least.

Now, Tonnies held that all societies contain both sorts of organizations, though a given society may have a dominance of either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft. His view was not that societies should aim at one or the other type of association, but rather (in the words of the New World Encyclopedia), “More important for the developed of a successful society is the effort to harmonize the two aspects, and thus to ensure that both individual goals and the needs of the society as a whole are satisfied, while maintaining the element of care and concern for each person as members of one human family.”

In much sociological literature, then as now, so-called observational science is mixed with ethical value judgments. The fact-value distinction — or in Humean terms, the is-ought distinction — is routinely disregarded by sociologists in particular, and social scientists in general.[1] Whatever Tonnies meant about balancing the two types of association, by his very description, Gemeinschaft is more appealing, especially to people of a romantic bent. Isn’t familial concern a better basis for society than cold, selfish calculation? So, while Tonnies opposed the Nazis, leading them to strip him of his emeritus position in 1933, the National Socialists seized on his concept of Gemeinschaft and made it the center of their worldview. More precisely, the Party’s sociological ideology was centered on turning Germany into a Volksgemeinschaft — in this case, an extended Aryan clan.

German socialism is informed by the national spirit, the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

We can now turn to Werner Sombart. Znamenski mentions the key influence that Sombart (1863–1941) played in the development of national socialist ideology but doesn’t spell out this influence. Sombart started as a Marxist, but moved away from Marxism to develop his own rightist critique of (modern) capitalism. He laid his views out in his magnum opus, The Modern Capitalism: Historical and Systematic Presentation of the Overall European Economic Life from its Beginnings to the Present Day[2] — first published in two volumes in 1902, then expanded in 1916, and growing to three volumes by 1927 — as well as The Jews and Modern Capitalism — published in 1911.

Sombart held that capitalism developed in three stages: early capitalism (prior to the industrial revolution); high capitalism (beginning in 1760 or so); and late capitalism (beginning with World War I). In Sombart’s analysis, early capitalism — medieval commerce — was a stable, coherent, supportive system, in which guilds and merchants cooperated, with wages held constant at a “just” level, markets shared equitably by the players, profits and wages guaranteed but held to reasonable levels, and markets with production levels limited and protected from competition with those in other places. But, he argued, because Jewish traders and manufacturers were excluded from the guilds, the Jews developed a hatred for the system, deliberately destroyed it and replaced it by modern predatory capitalism, with its unlimited competition.

In a book he wrote at the outset of WWI, Sombart advocated the theory that the war was the unavoidable clash “between the English commercial civilization and the heroic culture of Germany.” The English, under the influence of their commercial mindset, with its utilitarian emphasis on the happiness of individual people, had lost their warlike instincts. He held that the highest ideal was the “German idea of the State. . . . The State is neither founded nor formed by individuals, nor is its purpose to serve any interests of individuals. It is a Volksgemeinschaft in which the individual has no rights but only duties.”

Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least.

By 1917 Sombart was a full professor at one of the top universities in Germany, and was more renowned as a sociologist than even his longtime friend Max Weber. By the early 1930s, he had moved into the National Socialism orbit.[3] In a 1934 book called German Socialism, he claimed that German socialism puts the “welfare of the whole over the welfare of the individual.” This new socialism requires “a planned economy in accordance with state regulations.” Moreover, German socialism is informed by the Volkgeist (national spirit), the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

Besides Sombart, there were a number of other academic or intellectual stars whose views informed the development of the National Socialist ideology in the 1920s. These thinkers, whom Jeffrey Herf has called “reactionary modernists,” tried to combine progressive feelings toward modern technology with regressive feelings toward modern democratic government and free market economics. They included sociologist Hans Freyer (1887–1969), philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), legal scholar Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), and historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). While these thinkers differed in their receptivity to the National Socialist party — most joining the party enthusiastically, but one of them (Spengler) being critical of it — they were all “nationalists who turned the romantic anti-capitalism of the German Right away from backward-looking pastoralism, pointing instead to the outlines of a beautifully new order replacing the formless chaos due to capitalism in a united, technologically advanced nation” (264).

How enthusiastic Sombart and Heidegger were about technological advance is open to dispute, but that these thinkers contributed ideas that informed National Socialism is not. Freyer held that the highest stage of society is the state in which individuals merge into a collective unity. Jünger wrote that the Jews had to be either completely assimilated or forced to immigrate to Palestine. Spengler argued for a Prussian Socialism, meaning a German nationalistic non-Marxist socialism.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense.

Especially useful to the National Socialists in developing their views about government and law was the work of Carl Schmitt. During the 1920s, he wrote a string of influential essays and books with ideas that the National Socialists found useful. For example, in 1921, he published the essay On Dictatorship, in which he argued that one of the most effective components of the new (Weimar) constitution was the power given to the president to declare a state of emergency, which he characterizes as dictatorial. Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least. And Schmitt urged that dictatorship means simply power achieved by other than the slow means permitted by republican democracy.

Just a year later (1922), Schmitt published another controversial essay — Political Theology — in which he advanced the thesis that political theory investigates the state in precisely the way theology investigates God. In 1923 — a decade before he joined the Nazi Party — he published a critique of the legitimacy of parliamentary government entitled The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. In this work he attacked the practices of representative liberal politics in ways that ironically anticipate by a half-century Public Choice Theory, arguing that actual party politics are far from the ideal of dispassionate rational actors debating policy prescriptions with the goal of reaching the best answer for society, but are instead the trading of favors in back rooms. He also questioned the idea that a majority vote represents the will of the people. As an author of the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Schmitt puts it:

If a majority can overrule a minority, and identify its will with the will of the people, why should it not be possible for the will of a minority to express the will of the people? What if a group of democratic rebels want to establish a democracy in a society where most people are opposed to the principle of democracy? Would they not be justified, from a democratic point of view, to abandon majority rule, to identify their own will as the will of the people, and to subject their compatriots to a re-education dictatorship? Schmitt suggests that such a dictatorship would still have to be considered democratic, since it still appeals to the idea that political rule ought to be base or the will of the people.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense. His was a sophisticated defense and explication of the fascist notion that the dictator can better represent the Will of the People than even — the majority of the people!

The last major work that Schmitt brought out during the period during which the National Socialists were solidifying their general ideology and electoral platforms (the early- to mid-1920s) was The Concept of the Political (1927; with views elaborated in Constitutional Theory, 1928). In this work, he advances the theory that “the political” is what is central to politics, not mere party politics. The political, he held, is always and everywhere constituted by the existential delineation of friend from enemy. Not even friend from other, please note, but friend from enemy. The enemy can be anybody felt by the dominant political group to be different and alien “in an especially intense way.” And the difference that sets the enemy apart need not be nationality — it can be any difference (racial, religious, or ideological) so long as it is felt deeply enough to become a violent struggle with the other.[4]

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy that threatens the people’s interests and wellbeing is tailor-made as a justification for the singularly virulent National Socialist anti-Semitism.

Looking at the work of Tonnies and Sombart in relation to the development of National Socialist ideology, I think we are in a position at least partially to answer the question raised by the work of Goldhagen: whether the reason for Hitler’s support was that the German culture had a uniquely virulent form of anti-Semitism — eliminationist anti-Semitism — that accounted for the German public support of the Holocaust.

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy is tailor-made for National Socialist anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face. The standard form of anti-Semitism is one common in Europe, but also in North and South America, and the Middle East. It is what I call lumpen anti-Semitism — the anti-Semitism of the average, not particularly well-educated Christian. Among many Christians, it takes the form of hating Jews, allegedly because they “killed Christ,” but also generally from “prophet rejection resentment,” the idea that Jews are people who reject the view of Jesus as Messiah, and even more as the son of God. Lumpen anti-Semitism is quite common among Muslims as well, because Jews also reject Muhammad as a prophet. Pogroms aimed at Jews were recurrent in European history. Note, however, that lumpen anti-Semitism is not eliminationist: throughout European history, typically, if any Jews converted to Christianity (or Islam), no further attacks were made on them.

But the Nazi Party’s ideological anti-Semitism was never based on the idea of prophet rejection, or on any aspect of Christian theology, for the simple reason that the Party never allied itself with any Christian religion, in the way some other German right-wing parties had.[5] No, the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitism was what we can call doctrinaire anti-Semitism. It was informed by the rightist anti-capitalism of the German academic right-wing critics of modern capitalism, which held that Jews represent modern capitalism, that they are solely interested in profit and market share, not Volksgemeinschaft, that they want unrestrained free markets and widespread free trade, rather than structured and controlled nationally autarchic markets. This was the justification for the singular twist of Nationalist Socialist anti-Semitism.

What was unique to Germany was the presence in the late 1800s and early 1900s of a group of major academic thinkers — truly academic superstars — whose writings were not widely influential outside the German world but profoundly informed the National Socialist ideology. It was a more “sophisticated” anti-Semitism based on a hatred of modern capitalism rather than a love of ancient religion. It tapped into a pre-existing strain of German romantic pastoralism. And it was given a racial basis by the Nazis. This is what was deliberately spread by the Nazi propaganda regime, certainly exploiting pre-existing lumpen anti-Semitism but twisting it into the doctrinaire anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face.

If you want to see the Tonnies-Sombart strain of socioeconomic theory in Nazi ideology, there is no better place to look than one of the five major anti-Semitic propaganda movies the regime produced during the period 1939 to 1940, Linen from Ireland (Linen aus Irland, 1939). I have discussed this film extensively elsewhere, so I will be brief here. Suffice it to say that the plot concerns humble German village artisans and a local company owned by a man who, although he is wealthy, has total respect for them. The artisans make linen, and the local company buys it. Together the local tradesman and the company form a cozy economic Volksgemeinschaft — the artisans earn a decent living, taking pride in the craft that they and their ancestors have practiced time out of mind, the company owner gets rich, but not “obscenely” so, and looks out for the artisans in a patriarchal sort of way. The owner and the artisans are able to get the prices needed for them all to live well because the government imposes steep tariffs on linen imported from Ireland — where apparently it can be produced much more cheaply.

Into this German spirit heaven — heaven for the workers and owners, but apparently not for the consumers who are forced to pay higher prices! — steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell. A big company owned by a good Aryan but controlled by a scheming Jewish manager buys out the local linen companies so that they will not oppose a scheme to end tariffs on imported linen. The manager’s scheme calls for importing cheap linen from Ireland and then shutting down the domestic industry. The Jewish manager is portrayed as quite willing to do this and thereby (the film alleges) destroy the centuries-old community and starve thousands of people, because (as he brags) he is a man of the world, not rooted in any community. Only at the end is his scheme exposed and halted.

The Conviction of Ideologues

In this essay have tried to explore a number of points, some specific to National Socialism, and some more general. I explored the general compliance mechanisms of power, purchase, and persuasion. I argue that these tools are not mutually exclusive; any regime will use all three to get citizens to comply with its goals. Clearly, the National Socialists did so. In an earlier essay I argued that they had a propaganda machine second to none, which I illustrated by showing the amount of work the regime devoted to just one tiny medium of propaganda — uniforms and insignia.[6] In this piece I covered in detail how the regime carefully used racially redistributionist economic policy to give German citizens material prosperity, thus purchasing popular support. (In a subsequent essay, I will explore the regime’s use of power to enforce support).

Into this German spirit heaven steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell.

This brings us to another subject that I examined: the degree to which the National Socialists were socialists. Here, the answer is probably surprising to most Americans, but as Aly’s work brilliantly establishes, the National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; that is, they pursued the practice common to all socialist regimes of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do. Rather than take, say, 75% of a targeted person’s income (as the present socialist prime minister of France has tried to do), the National Socialists tried to take, and often succeeded in taking, 100% of the targets’ assets, right down to their labor, personal belongings, and ultimately their bodies — hair, teeth and bones. This worked for a short while — only about a dozen years, which is just a blink of the eye in historical terms — in delivering material wealth to the nontargeted “Aryan” Germans. The National Socialists engaged in a radical redistributionist frenzy, but it worked only for a brief period.

The third subject I explored was the nationalist side of National Socialism. I suggested that what was unique about National Socialism was its explicit identification of Jews as the main enemy, and its focus on proper “Aryan” Germans of all economic classes. It wanted a fascist dictatorship of the Aryans, rather than the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. This identification with the German nation, presented as a desire for a Volksgemeinschaft, was a crucial feature of Nazi ideology, crafted to win popular support, especially the support of workers and farmers, away from other socialist and communist parties. The strategy worked so well that the communists started emulating the Nazis’ nationalism. Patriotism is a much more powerful identity than class.

The fourth matter I examined was the unique nature of National Socialist anti-Semitism. It transformed the traditional religious lumpen anti-Semitism, based on prophet rejection, into a pseudo-scientific doctrinaire anti-Semitism based on race-genetic theory, Social Darwinist eugenics theory, and right-wing anticapitalist sociological theory promulgated by major German academics. So the National Socialists didn’t just engage in a radical redistributionist frenzy; they engaged in a radical racial redistributionist frenzy.

The National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; they pursued the socialist practice of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do.

How does this understanding of National Socialist ideology help us come at the Goldhagen-Groth dispute? Both authors were right about some things and wrong about others. Goldhagen (and Gellately) are right in thinking that the German people broadly backed the regime, and that anti-Semitism was historically common in German culture. But Groth is right in thinking that native German anti-Semitism was no different from that kind that is present in virtually all Christian and Muslim countries (then and now), not some special “eliminationist” anti-Semitism. More importantly, Groth is right in thinking that the regime’s popular support didn’t rest upon the German people’s anti-Semitism.

He is wrong, however, in his failure to recognize that National Socialist ideology certainly did have a different and more dangerous anti-Semitism than the lumpen variety. The regime’s anti-Semitism was based on racial genetics and anti-capitalist sociological culture. More importantly, Groth is wrong in thinking that the regime did not enjoy broad support throughout its existence. It did have that support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because the regime delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes (at least until 1943). To reiterate a rejoinder I earlier made to Groth, this hardly validates Hitler. Yes, he gave his political base material wealth and national pride, but it was wealth stolen from viciously victimized people, especially the Jews, and it was national pride based on the brutal seizure of other countries’ lands.

Let me end by discussing briefly the issue of the role that ideology played in the “Final Solution.” I’ll repeat an observation made by Stephen Kotkin, who is arguably the greatest authority on Stalin and the Soviet Union. He makes the point that contemporary scholars now have access to archives recording what Stalin and other high-level officials said in private to one another. What scholars have discovered, Kotkin notes sarcastically, is that the communists really were — communist! In other words, the Party officials were true believers in Marxist-Leninist ideology at the highest level.

The Nazi regimed enjoyed broad support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because until 1943 it delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes.

I would suggest that anyone interested in National Socialism take the same perspective. The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true. They didn’t cynically target Jews and just call them racially and culturally inferior and dangerous; no, they targeted Jews because they viewed them precisely as such.

Now, was the National Socialism “eliminationist”? It certainly seems to be an open question, in that while the Party’s hostility towards the Jews was made manifest from the start, with a sequence of targeting actions. Yet in reality no attempts to exterminate the Jews in Germany or elsewhere took place before 1941. What was going on?

My suggestion — or better, my speculation — is that we need to differentiate between inherent and operational eliminationism. From 1933, when Hitler achieved power, to 1939 when he invaded Poland and the English declared war upon him, he was content to rack up geopolitical gains and simply harass Jews into emigrating (after seizing most of their tangible assets). The arch-ideologue Eichmann himself kept pushing his “Madagascar Plan” (under which all European Jews were to be dispossessed of assets and then shipped to Madagascar to live) until 1939 or later.

The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true.

This was consistent with what I will call inherent eliminationism. If your anti-Semitism holds that Jews are racially inferior but also culturally dangerous to true Aryans, and you hold that true Aryans will eventually conquer the world, this would seem to imply that eventually, Jewish people must be eliminated. But that is like saying, “Someday, the Messiah will come.” It is more a statement of faith in the future than an imperative for the present.

But in 1939, things began to rapidly change. After earlier geopolitical successes with no military opposition, Hitler’s invasion of Poland finally brought Britain and France into the war. He had earlier threatened to hold Jews at fault if war ever broke out. In 1939, he had his excuse.

I suspect that the planning for the war with Britain and France in late 1938 was a big part of the reason the regime started the production of its first two explicitly anti-Semitic feature films, Robert and Bertram and Linen from Ireland, both produced in 1938 and released the next year (the first just two months before and the second one month after the outbreak of the war). Preparing for the actual use of the Wehrmacht (and recognizing the massive increase in funding this would require) led the regime to start actively preparing the public for the wholesale dispossession of the Jews.

In 1939, planning started in earnest toward the Wehrmacht’s much bigger challenge of invading the Low Countries and France, which again would increase the need for seized assets. Moreover, both Hitler and Goebbels were disappointed with the strength of the anti-Semitic messages of the 1939 films. So the three major regime studios were ordered to start production on major production anti-Semitic propaganda films. These films (The Rothschilds, Jud Suss, and The Eternal Jew) were released in 1940.

The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally.

The war clearly went in Germany’s favor from 1939 until 1941. The regime rapidly conquered the Western half of Poland, the Nordic countries, and France with relative ease. It was only with the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain in 1941 (which ended the possibility of invading Britain) that the regime began to sense its vulnerability, and it was in 1941 that the decision was made to exterminate (rather that force the emigration of) the Jews.

So it was a real change in geopolitical realities that induced the National Socialists to move from merely implicit to actually explicit eliminationist anti-Semitism, and then to the implementation of the Final Solution. The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally. This allowed the regime to purchase the support of the average (non-Jewish) German with stolen food, clothing, furniture, and homes.

In the first article in this series, “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” I suggested that one crucial mechanism exploited by compliance agents, especially in totalitarian regimes, is propaganda — persuasion, if you will — and that the National Socialists were adept at that tool. In this article, I’ve put the focus on the mechanism of purchase — that is, gaining compliance by trading items of value; and I’ve reported Götz Aly’s evidence of how attentive the regime was to buying the citizen’s support. Aly nicely points out that the two methods of compliance — persuasion and purchase — were mutually supportive. Dispossessing, deporting, and destroying the Jews was made easier by the relentless and remorseless campaign of propaganda against them.

In the third and final installment of the series, I will turn to the role that power played in the regime’s attainment of popular compliance with its agenda. It is ironic — as Daniel Goldhagen and Götz Aly, despite their differences, agree: the regime’s power apparatus was modest, compared to its reputation. I will examine this idea more closely.

References

Aly, Götz. Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. New York: Henry Holt and Company (2005).
Backhaus, Jürgen. “Sombart’s Modern Capitalism,” in Kyklos 42 (Fasc. 4) pp. 599–611, (1989). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6435.1989.tb01276.x/abstract
Groth, Alexander. “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism,” in Political Society Review Vol. 32, No.1, pp. 118-158 (2003). https://isistatic.org/journal-archive/pr/32_01/groth.pdf
Grundmann, Reiner and Stehr, Nico. “Why Is Werner Sombart Not Part of the Core of Classical Sociology? From Fame to (Near) Oblivion,” in Journal of Classical Sociology Vol. 1 (2), pp. 257–287 (2001). http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/14687950122232558
Jason, Gary. “Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer: A Review of Triumph of the Will,” in Liberty, April 2007, p. 44. http://libertyunbound.com/node/92
Jason, Gary. “Film and Propaganda: What Nazi Cinema Has to Tell US,” in Reason Papers 35 (1): 203-219 (2013). https://www.academia.edu/24443412/Film_and_Propaganda_The_Lessons_of_the_Nazi_Film_Industry_2013_
Jason, Gary. “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” in Liberty, July 3, 2016 (2016a). http://www.libertyunbound.com/node/1574
Jason, Gary. “Whence did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?” in Reason Papers 38 (1): 166-181 (2016b). https://reasonpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/rp_381_9.pdf
Jason, Gary. “Selling Genocide I: The Earlier Films,” in Reason Papers 38 (1): pp. 127-157 (2016c). https://reasonpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/rp_381_7.pdf
Kotkin, Stephen. Interview on Uncommon Knowledge, October 6, 2015. http://www.hoover.org/research/hoover-fellow-stephen-kotkin-discusses-stalins-rise-power
Ridley, Matt. Interview with Russ Roberts, Econtalk, 2010. http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2010/Ridleytrade.mp3
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Carl Schmitt” (2014). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schmitt/
Znamenski, Andrei A. “From ‘National Socialists’ to ‘Nazi’: History, Politics, and the English Language,” The Independent Review Vol. 19, No. 4 pp. 537–561 (2015). http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_19_04_06_znamenski.pdf.



[1] Werner Sombart in particular couldn’t resist making value judgments — especially about Jews — though he feigned being purely scientific in his writings (Grundmann and Stehr, 270).

[2] For a nice overview of the structure of Sombart’s Modern Capitalism, see Jürgen Backhaus.

[3] Reiner Grundmann and Nico Stehr note that Sombart was initially enthusiastic about National Socialism, and say that he — like other reactionary modernists such as Heidegger and Schmitt — only soured on the regime when they realized it didn’t want them for high positions or for policy advice (271). They don’t explain why the regime didn’t welcome these intellectuals, but I would suggest it was primarily because Hitler was profoundly anti-intellectual, neither comfortable around nor deferential towards intellectuals.

[4] Tom G. Palmer in a recent lecture made the point that Carl Schmitt’s perspective is very much alive in Putin’s Russia.

[5] Indeed, there was a fascination with arch-anti-Christian Nietzsche among many of the Nazi hierarchy — including, of course, Hitler himself.

[6] I have written more extensively of the Nazi propaganda machine. Some of my essays of interest might include “Film and Propaganda: The Lessons of the German Film Industry”; “Whence Did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?”; and “Selling Genocide: The Earlier Films.”


Editor's Note: This essay is the final part of a three-part series.



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