Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Marx’s Tea Party

The populist right has forgotten an older form of class analysis.

The populist right has forgotten an older form of class analysis.

Last summer Angelo Codevilla’s American Spectator essay “America’s Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution” made waves in conservative circles for its compelling treatment of the minority ruling class (the political elite and its partisans) versus the “country class” (the rest of us). It was a sophisticated exposition but also broke down the class conflict in simple terms: “The rulers want the ruled to shut up and obey. The ruled want self-governance.” Rush Limbaugh praised the article for helping to explain the struggle of the Tea Party’s populists against the political establishment.

The Tea Party’s rhetoric of defending the little guy against the powerful has always seemed discordant to the left, which regards such class consciousness as its own domain. The left has long identified itself with the idea of two classes in society—the common people and the power elite—each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When left-wingers speak this way, conservatives like Limbaugh accuse them of “class warfare.” But neither side grasps the full picture: in fact, it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms.

“There was a theory of class conflict developed by classical liberals before Marxism and on which Marx himself drew,” libertarian historian Ralph Raico has argued. This theory was associated with such 19th-century French scholars as historian Augustin Thierry and economist Charles Dunoyer, as well as Jean-Baptiste Say and his followers Charles Comte and Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui. As Raico noted in a January 1991 essay in Liberty, Blanqui wrote “what is probably the first history of economic thought, published in 1837,” in which the French liberal explained:

In all the revolutions, there have always been but two parties opposing each other; that of the people who wish to live by their own labor, and that of those who would live by the labor of others. … Patricians and plebeians, slaves and freemen, guelphs and ghibellines, red roses and white roses, cavaliers and roundheads, liberals and serviles, are only varieties of the same species.

Class analysis was thoroughly incorporated into classical liberal rhetoric by the time Richard Cobden and John Bright were fighting against Britain’s Corn Laws. Bright saw this struggle as “a war of classes. I believe this to be a movement of the commercial and industrial classes against the Lords and the great proprietors of the soil.” The dichotomy between a plundering political class—the rulers and their favored interests—and the masses victimized by state power is further seen in the 19th-century writings of Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, and John C. Calhoun, among others.

According to Raico, Marx expropriated class analysis from the classical liberals and transformed it from a libertarian framework into a socialist one: the historically inevitable clash between profiting capitalists and exploited workers. Marx regarded the state as the capitalists’ tool. The most wealthy merchants tended to be in bed with the political class, and so it was not difficult for Marx to adapt class analysis from a theory based on legally defined categories—those who had state privileges and those who did not—to one where class was defined according to status in the process of economic production. Instead of rulers versus their subjects, Marx gave us owners vesrus workers.

This permutation of class analysis seduced many thinkers of a liberal, humanitarian inclination and aided the statist makeover of liberalism, which made peace with the state as a means of elevating the masses. By endorsing the proletarian capture of state power, Marx, his followers, and the entire left side of the spectrum have in a sense inverted the original purpose of class analysis. In seeing the state as the people’s best hope, and viewing the wealthy as being opposed to the interests of the democratic state, left-liberals have turned the anti-statist, anti-taxation, anti-monopoly thrust of class analysis on its head, converting it from a case against the state into a case for it.

Modern libertarians, as heirs to classical liberalism, have attempted to reclaim the original vision—while still, like the Marxists, “following the money” to see how the state provides monopoly benefits and direct subsidies to corporate interests. Radical libertarian class analysis maintains the classical liberal focus on the taxing state as the chief enemy, while agreeing with leftists on many particulars of how big businesses—especially the banking industry and defense contractors—use the state to line their pockets at the expense of the people.

The man most responsible for libertarian attention to this subject was economist and historian Murray N. Rothbard. Likely the most significant theorist of modern libertarianism—he built a system integrating natural-rights ethics, anti-imperialism, Austrian economics, and individualist anarchism all under the rubric of one political theory—Rothbard was a dedicated practitioner of classical-liberal class analysis. In a 1967 critique of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Rothbard drew on the work of sociologist Franz Oppenheimer to describe the distinction between the minority ruling class and the victimized majority: “By seizing revenue by means of coercion and assigning rewards as it disburses the funds, the state creates ruling and ruled ‘classes’ or ‘castes’; for one example, classes of what Calhoun discerned as net ‘taxpayers’ and ‘tax-consumers,’ those who live off taxation.”

In his 1974 essay “The Anatomy of the State,” Rothbard finds the state’s origins in plunder—the state was born when bands of marauders decided to stick around and extract regular tribute from their victims, rather than taking all they could at once and killing their prey. The state is “the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory.” And since the state’s relationship with the people is parasitical, it can only maintain its grip through subterfuge.

“[T]he chief task of the rulers is always to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority of the citizens” through “the creation of vested economic interests” as well as by “promoting [statist] ideology among the people.”

Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a disciple of Rothbard in economics and political theory, elaborates on these principles in his 1990 paper “Marxist and Austrian Class Analysis,” in which he explains the major disagreements as well as similarities between the two schools:

[T]he basic proposition of the Marxist theory of the state in particular is false. The state is not exploitative because it protects the capitalists’ property rights, but because it itself is exempt from the restriction of having to acquire property productively and contractually.

In spite of this fundamental misconception, however, Marxism, because it correctly interprets the state as exploitative (unlike, for example, the public choice school, which sees it as normal firm among others), is on to some important insights regarding the logic of state operations. For one thing, it recognizes the strategic function of redistributionist state policies.

Scrutinizing the relationships between the state and its favored interests is a focus that has long energized Rothbardians and endeared them to New Left historians like Gabriel Kolko—if not for their conclusions then for their amassing incriminating examples of corporatism at work. Rothbard begins his 1984 essay “Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy” indicting an entire industry for its intimate ties to the modern state. Unlike businessmen and manufacturers, who “can either be genuine free enterprisers or statists,” bankers, dependent on the state’s credit expansion and protection of fractional reserve banking, “are inherently inclined toward statism.” With this charge Rothbard begins his detailed analysis of how the financial industry has been in cahoots with the American empire since the dawn of the Progressive Era and how other corporate interests have long instigated U.S. military action to open up markets on their behalf.

Rothbard, guided by libertarian class consciousness, wrote that the mark of a radical libertarian was that he demonstrates  “a deep and pervasive hatred of the State and all of its works, based on the conviction that the State is the enemy of mankind.” This orientation of opposition to the political class and seeing it as an enemy informed Rothbard’s coalition-building strategy. He sought alliances with those who seemed naturally adverse to the power elite. In the 1960s, he worked with antiwar radicals who resented being forced to finance and fight a war in Vietnam. In the 1990s, Rothbard saw hope on the anti-Clinton populist right. As Rothbard’s student and colleague Lew Rockwell later noted, after the Cold War “a new opening appeared to achieve Rothbard’s dream of bringing about a middle-class revolution against the state.”

In his 1992 article “Right-Wing Populism,” Rothbard proposed an agenda both populist and radical. He suggested decentralizing government to settle controversies on social issues, while focusing on questions that libertarians and conservatives could rally behind—including slashing taxes, cutting welfare, abolishing racial and other group privileges, dismantling the Federal Reserve (“attacking the banksters”), bringing the troops home, and defending family values against the politically correct state. He emphasized that Washington, D.C., was the enemy. The class analysis was always implied or declared.

The Tea Party at least superficially resembles the bourgeois uprising that Rothbard favored. Its rhetoric opposes Wall Street bailouts, corporate cronyism, and the national political elite. But is the Tea Party’s class analysis accurate enough to constitute a revolutionary movement—or are these mostly partisan opportunists who will unite behind the next Republican president, just as the 1990s anti-Clinton movement backed the spendthrift Bush administration?

Much of the Tea Party’s focus on the elites has been understandable, and even left-liberals like Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher and left radicals like Noam Chomsky have defended some of it, warning fellow leftists not to dismiss the populist anger as unjustified or hypocritical. But whereas some left-liberals have had a mixed reaction to the Tea Parties, Rockwell and many of Rothbard’s other libertarian followers have been skeptical or downright hostile. Ryan McMaken wrote in an April 2009 LewRockwell.com article, “The Tea Parties: We’ve Seen it All Before”:

Conservatives have been doing this since the fifties. In order to enhance the popularity of their cause, they pretend to be the ideology of low-taxes and decreased spending, espousing the many benefits of austere government. Then, as soon as they are in power, they quickly forget all about the ideals of small government and focus on what really matters to them: nationalism, war, and doling out the spoils of political victory to their friends.

In his own September 2010 essay “Prepare to Be Betrayed,” Rockwell identifies the Tea Party as an “amorphous thing… which embodies a huge range of political impulses from libertarian to authoritarian. … On immigration, the Tea Party ethos favors national IDs and draconian impositions on businesses rather than market solutions like cutting welfare. On social and cultural issues, they can be as confused as the Christian right, believing that it is the job of government to right all wrongs and punish sin.” The movement’s effect on politics will at best be a mixed blessing, and “even the best electoral outcome will not lead to actual cuts in the power of government over our lives.”

From a libertarian perspective, the Tea Party is surely missing something big. A Pew Research poll from September 2010 found 47 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters were “angry” with the federal government. But by March 2011—in the wake of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives—that figure dropped to 28 percent. Indeed, a New York Times poll in April found that 57 percent of self-described Tea Party activists had a favorable view of George W. Bush, the president whose Medicare Part D was the largest welfare-state aggrandizement since LBJ, whose “Ownership Society” helped bring on the financial collapse, and whose wars helped bankrupt the nation.

The attitudes toward war nearly sum up the sharp distinction between Tea Party populists and classical liberals. According to polls, Tea Partiers tend to be more supportive than the general populace of U.S. military interventions. But war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne said, and nothing done by America’s government is more rapacious, collectivist, or dangerous to liberty than its warfare policies. Rothbard never saw much hope with the right before the 1990s, while it was uncritically cheering on the Cold War. Today’s conservatives seem almost as militaristic as during Vietnam, even with a Democrat at the reins of it all. They might protest the bombing of Libya for partisan reasons, but few have embraced peace as a foundational value.

The Tea Party types also tend toward a patriotic love of many of the state’s “public servants.” Beck, Palin and Limbaugh question Obama’s domestic politics, but they always encourage us to trust the police, the prosecutors, and all who serve in the military. But under radical class analysis, if welfare bums and teachers are on the public dole, so too is everyone who carries a gun for the regime. While some libertarians and conservatives envision a limited state where soldiers and cops would be among the only legitimate government employees, today conservatives simultaneously describe the state as tyranny while worshipping those who carry out its orders.

Moreover, the Tea Party largely comprises older Americans who rely on regressive Medicare and Social Security programs. One of their critiques of Obamacare was that it would deprive Medicare of funding. Through no fault of their own, they have a vested economic interest in the continuance of the welfare state. A McClatchy-Marist poll this April found that 70 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers opposed cuts in Medicare or Social Security to balance the budget.

The elderly would fare better in the long run in a free market, as their children and communities could better care for them than the insolvent Uncle Sam. But for now, they embrace the greater part of the entitlement state, which, along with the military-industrial complex, constitutes the vast majority of federal spending. On most big issues, the Tea Party sides with the power elite. New Deal and Great Society liberalism and Cold War militarism have become the “permanent things” for today’s so-called conservatives.

In light of the heated debt-ceiling negotiations this summer, liberals in the media complained that the Tea Party won the day. “[T]his much is clear,” wrote Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast. “Barack Obama may be president, but the Tea Party is now running Washington.” Many who identify with this faction will disagree—the debt-ceiling increase was the largest in U.S. history, after all.

We can be charitable and say the real Tea Party isn’t in charge of Washington at all, yet we might wonder what would happen if the populist, Republican-leaning conservatives who make up the movement did manage to capture national power. Would even that lead to smaller government? Or has this movement made its peace with the state, much as the Marx-inspired liberals did a century ago?

Perhaps the very fact that they believe patriotic Americans can reclaim the government and purge it of its predatory nature reveals a flaw in their reasoning. Certainly, their attempt to stand up for the taxpayer while also defending the Pentagon and recipients of social insurance from the Democrats’ cuts shows they’ll only go so far in turning Codevilla’s class consciousness—to say nothing of Rothbard’s—into a call for meaningful action.

So long as the Tea Party embraces the welfare and warfare programs that account for the lion’s share of wealth redistribution in this country, their attempts at class analysis will miss the mark. This is no reason to dismiss the populist effort entirely, only to recognize the limits of its opposition to big government in the name of the little guy. When it comes to class analysis, the Marxists are more wrong than right, but at least they are coherent.

Anthony Gregory is research editor at the Independent Institute.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.



The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here