Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rand, Rachel and the Heart of Atlanta

Libertarianism could be dismissed with a single word: Robinsonade. Alas, as most people -- oddly enough -- haven’t a clue as to what the word signifies, several more words are required.

Individuals producing in Society—hence socially determined individual production—is, of course, the point of departure. The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades, ... [Such conceits are not simply] a return to a misunderstood natural life ... but are rather, the anticipation of 'civil society', in preparation since the sixteenth century ... In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate. .... [T]his eighteenth century individual—the product of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century—appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past.” -- Karl Marx, Grundrisse.
No, Virginia, there is no Natty Bumpo. There never was such a thing as an isolated hunter-gatherer and the notion that there was is simply a retrofitting -- in hides and feathers to be sure -- of an 18th century phenomenon: the “individual” capitalist putting his labour pool to work.

The disastrous thing, in so far as the formation of American political consciousness is concerned, is that the vast expanse of a primeval continent that stretched before the Colonists’ eyes gave the Robinsonade every appearance of reality.

But it was an illusion. For every “Pilgrim’s foot whose stern impassioned stress, a thoroughfare of freedom beat through the wilderness!” (America the Beautiful), there was an industrially produced axe, back in England, which felled the tree in America.

“Production by an isolated individual outside society—a rare exception which may well occur when a civilized person in whom the social forces are already dynamically present is cast by accident into the wilderness—is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other.” (Marx, op. cit.)
And so we are brought to the absurdity of Rand Paul and Rachel Maddow  arguing with one another --- through one of the most technologically and socially networked means imaginable -- about go-alone individualism.

For those who may have missed the spectacle -- which is now the source of much commentary in the press -- the fracas arose over the rumour that Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for Kentucky’s Senate seat, was opposed to that portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited racial discrimination by private businesses, such as Ollie's Family Barbecue. Did he truly believe, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow wanted to know, that "Walgreens" had a right to decline service to Negroes?

What close to 20 minutes of to’ing and fro’ing proved was that Rachel had jaws to rival a pitbull and Rand was supremely adept at not saying “yes”.

But anyone with a brain could see that the monkey was out of the sack: speaking for Libertarians, Rand Paul does not believe that Gubmint has a “right” to tell private businesses with whom they must and must not “associate”.

Of course, the proposition sounds bigger than the actual sliver of principle on which it was based. Paul agreed that there could no discrimination in Gubmint. Not only that, he agreed that there could be no discrimination by any business or organization that accepted public monies. What was left? if not some “a priori private” individual enterprise that was about as mythical as Natty Bumpo? To top off the absurdities, Paul reassured Maddow that “as an individual” he, personally, was utterly opposed to discrimination which he found totally abhorrent and despicable.

For her part, it is highly doubtful Maddow had ever heard of Ollie's Barbecue. It was certainly the case, that no one ever conducted a sit-in at a “Walgreen’s lunch counter” as she thought. Maddow belongs to a generation which has never drunk from a Whites Only water fountain and for whom segregation exists as some sort of politically correct shiboleth. For Maddow, speaking for “Progressives”, it was simply self-evident that no one has a right to discriminate, because, because...

What all this boiled down to was yet another tug-of-war over America’s favorite Tar Baby. Do you or do you not believe it is “OK” to not like African-Americans and, if so, how far are you going to take it? Once again we were left with the game-without-end of personal value judgements and freedumb of choice. Yes you do. No I don’t. That’s not right. Yes it is.

Both Rand and Rachel seemed to accept that the Supreme Court had decided it was “wrong” not to serve Blacks at the lunch counter, and the “argument” -- such as it was -- was whether the Court was right.

Well, what about Ollie’s?

“Ollie's Barbecue is a family-owned restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, specializing in barbecued meats and homemade pies, with a seating capacity of 220 customers. It is located on a state highway 11 blocks from an interstate one and a somewhat greater distance from railroad and bus stations. The restaurant caters to a family and white-collar trade with a take-out service for Negroes. It employs 36 persons, two-thirds of whom are Negroes. In the 12 months preceding the passage of the Act, the restaurant purchased locally approximately $150,000 worth of food, $69,683 or 46% of which was meat that it bought from a local supplier who had procured it from outside the State.” (Katzenbach v. Mcclung, (1964) 379 U.S. 294.)

The Court went on to remark that “There was an impressive array of testimony that discrimination in restaurants had a direct and highly restrictive effect upon interstate travel by Negroes. This resulted, it was said, because discriminatory practices prevent Negroes from buying prepared food served on the premises while on a trip, except in isolated and unkempt restaurants and under most unsatisfactory and often unpleasant conditions. This obviously discourages travel and obstructs interstate commerce for one can hardly travel without eating.” (Ibid)

At the same time the Supreme Court was examining the “burger stream” at Ollie’s, it was looking under the bedsheets of the Heart of Atlanta Motel.

“Appellant owns and operates the Heart of Atlanta Motel, which has 216 rooms available to transient guests. The motel is ... readily accessible to interstate highways 75 and 85 and state highways 23 and 41. Appellant solicits patronage from outside the State of Georgia through various national advertising media, ... it accepts convention trade from outside Georgia and approximately 75% of its registered guests are from out of State. Prior to passage of the Act, the motel had followed a practice of refusing to rent rooms to Negroes, and it alleged that it intended to continue to do so. In an effort to perpetuate that policy, this suit was filed.” (Heart of Atlanta v. United States (1964) 379 U.S. 241)

The Supreme Court ruled that Heart of Atlanta had to bed, and Ollie’s had to sit, Negroes. But this had little to do with it being the “right” thing to do. The Court very ostensibly side-stepped that can of “personal value judgement” worms. Instead, the Court explained that the purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “to promote the general welfare by eliminating discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in . . . public accommodations (Heart, supra, at p. 245.)

“The power of Congress to promote interstate commerce also includes the power to regulate the local incidents thereof, including local activities in both the States of origin and destination, which might have a substantial and harmful effect upon that commerce. One need only examine the evidence which we have discussed above to see that Congress may -- as it has -- prohibit racial discrimination by motels serving travelers, however "local" their operations may appear.” (Id. at p. 258.)

As for Ollie’s....

“It goes without saying that, viewed in isolation, the volume of food purchased by Ollie's Barbecue from sources supplied from out of state was insignificant when compared with the total foodstuffs moving in commerce. But, as our late Brother Jackson said for the Court in Wickard v. Filburn (1942): "That appellee's own contribution to the demand for wheat may be trivial by itself is not enough to remove him from the scope of federal regulation where, as here, his contribution, taken together with that of many others similarly situated, is far from trivial." (Katzenbach, supra, at p. 301.)

Ah yes... Wickard v Filburn ....

Nothing is better suited to prove the delusional nature of America’s love-fest with individualism than Wickard; for one could not possibly have been more Crusoe like than Roscoe Filburn, an Ohio back-country farmer who practiced “self-sustainable” living and whose extent of “intra-state commerce” consisted in dropping off some extra home-lain eggs for sale at a local General Store 10 miles down the dusty country road. Apart from that, he grew 10 acres of winter wheat from the harvest of which he baked his own bread. According to Filburn, he was as removed from inter-state commerce as one could possibly be, and therefore did not have to comply with the Agricultural Adjustment Act which set quotas on wheat production.

Not. The Supreme Court ruled that Roscoe Filburn was in fact “in” interstate commerce because by not buying inter state wheat (say from Nebraska), he affected the level of interstate commerce as much as if he had sold his wheat in interstate commerce.

"The reach of [Congressional] power extends to those intrastate activities which in a substantial way interfere with or obstruct the exercise of the granted power. (Id., at p. 124)

“But even if we assume that [Filburn’s wheat] is never marketed, it supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market. Home-grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce.” (Id. at p. 128)
Accordingly, Filburn’s crop was subject to lien and a penalty of 15 cents per bushell in excess of his alloted quota. (Id, at p. 116) The Court had ruled: There will be no Robinsonades!!

Although the discussion in Wickard, Heart of Atlanta and “Ollies Case” is cast in terms of “local” versus “interstate” commerce, what the Supreme Court recognized was the truth of Marx’s critique of “individual production”.

“The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan and then later in the various forms of communal society.... Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social relations [appear ]as mere incidental means towards his private purposes... But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social , general relations.”
To illustrate: The car which speeds along interstate 75 gives the impression of utmost disconnected individuality. What connection has it to Ollies or Heart of Atlanta Motel when it doesn’t even have to be driving on interstate 75 in the first place? But Ollies and the Negro’s Chevy that speeds by are in fact integrated in the most complex and inextricable ways imagineable. A motel could not exist without the motorists who drive by and the General Motors company could not exist without suppliers at one end and motorists at the the other.

What Heart of Atlanta and Ollies Case did was not to affirmatively create an “artificial” integration but rather to remove a contradiction to an integration that already existed in actual fact.

The plain fact is that the United States is an immense economic engine on integrated producing and consuming parts. The machine -- and the benefits it produces for all generally -- simply will not work when 12% of the population is half in and half out. (And this appplies whether the 12% is racially segregated or economically segregated as when unemployed.)

Civil Rights activists have always been a tad embarassed by Heart and Ollies. What they wanted to hear was something in overcoming and Kingesque tones about human dignity and the promised land. What they got instead was “levels of interstate flow”. But in a sordid kind of way the Supreme Court was even more profound. It recognized, as Marx put, that

"The human being is in the most literal sense a Ξωον πολιτιξον not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society." (Marx, op. cit.)

Marx did not mean “individuate” in the sense of “human potential” pscho-babble. Although in an ultimate sense Marx would probably agree with Feuerbach that “the essence of man is contained only in the community, in the unity of man and man," the focus of the Grundrisse was economic activity and, in that context, Marx was saying that so called “individual entrepreneurship” is, a fortiori, a social activity -- not "circumstantially" but "essentially".

There is in fact simply no form of economic activity that can be regarded as “private”. When one thinks about it, “private economic activity” is and always has been an oxymoron since there is no point in selling to one’s self. What there can be is privately managed activity; but commerce is necessarily social and hence political.

If there was a time, 200 years ago, when -- like a child camping in the back yard -- we could play at being Robinson Crusoe, that time was over. Ollie’s Case and Heart of Atlanta, simply gave judicial recognition to the fact that in a mass-industrial consumer society all business is public inter-state business.

With this in mind, it can be seen that the “debate” between Maddow and Paul was in fact a totally false dialectic. Neither of them questioned the neo-liberal premise of "general welfare through hope and a prayer". Instead, both used the same ol’, same ol’ race card to side-step the grotesque absurdities of economic laissez faire.

While Maddow did not expound a particular point of view, the stance implicit in her focus was explicated the day following by an opinion piece in the New York Times which engaged in a two steppin shuffle worthy of the best Vaudeville blackface.

In “advancing the autonomy of private businesses” the Times intoned, Paul is “is reviving libertarian thought in its peak period” as expounded in Milton Friedman’s 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom.”

Milton, you say? Having thus clued everyone in to the connection between “libertarianism” and “neo-liberalism” (the Time’s own economics of choice), the Times then obscured: Friedman himself, the Times said, acknowledged that an individual choice to discriminate was a simply a reflection of his community’s values. Alas! These values were at war with Negroes. Thus, "Paul’s championing of private businesses, ignoring the rights of just about everyone else, places him on the wrong side of history” And of course the right side of history is that Negroes should be allowed to sit at lunch counters.

The problem with Maddow and her think-alikes at the New York Times, is that they take refuge in racially manichean rhetoric about white choice “warring” against blacks while ignoring the fundamental social irresponsibility of neo-liberal economics which is then papered over with politically correct "responsible" behaviour. There is nothing “progressive” about this; it is simply a species of charity toward the “deserving” Negro.

The problem with Paul and his Libertarian supporters is not simply that they are mired in a rued for reality that is actually passed but that they fail to grasp the real libertarian challenge.

During his interview, Ron Paul fairly desperately tried to tie-in a right to economically discriminate with First Amendment rights to believe what you want and hate whom you will. His mistake was precisely in trying to make a tie-in where the connection should in fact be cut.

The real challenge is how to preserve Robinsonades in terms of personal rights and political freedom, while acknowledging that there is no such thing as “private economic life” on the material level. This is the dilemma that that gave rise to so-called “Libertarian-Socialists”.

The sorry upshot of it all was that whereas Maddow’s political correctness has little problem with government dictating how a person is not allowed to think, Rand's libertarianism has little with problem with government not controlling how a person makes money. It is just the other way round.

©WCG -2010

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