The Rise of the Myth of the Republican Anarchist

Originally posted 

Recently the Republican Party has taken to a program of prolonged obstructionism. If something is happening in the House of Representatives or the Senate that they don’t like, the GOP will do whatever they can to make sure it becomes enmeshed in filibuster, gridlock and other methods of slowing everything down until the last possible second.

This obstructionism is being called anarchism, repeatedly, despite having nearly nothing in common with any aspect of the anarchist tradition. Yes, it is true that if an actual anarchist somehow managed to get themselves elected to Congress, they would do all they could to make sure that nothing got passed. But this doesn’t just stem from a hatred of Democrats. Actual anarchists loathe both parties, and would make sure that their obstructionist platform was bipartisan in its monkeywrenching.

It is disingenuous to call Republicans anarchists, as articles in New York Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, New York Times and OpenDemocracy have all done within the last year. Why? The answer is simple: despite their flirtation with (often the most basic or vulgar) libertarianism, Republicans love the State. Specifically, they love the aspects of the State that anarchists loathe most. Anarchists wouldn’t clamor for war on public radio, as John McCain did yesterday; they wouldn’t call for closed borders and the expulsion of undocumented immigrants, as people like Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer do on a near-constant basis. Perhaps vitally, they wouldn’t be running for Congress in the first place.

And still, you have people like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proclaiming in the middle of a debate on an energy bill that “the anarchists have taken over.”

In 2011, Timothy Egan wrote a blog post for the Opinionator, the New York Times’ regular online opinion mill. He described his experience at the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. He described the window-smashing, understood by anarchists as being purely symbolic and a venting of frustration against multinational corporations who exploit workers at home and abroad, as a manifestation of the nihilistic spirit of all anarchists everywhere. “[It] seems to have found a home: in the Republican Party,” he wrote.

This was written during the debt ceiling debate; ultimately, the ceiling was raised, but only a little. The “anarchists’ storm” Egan warned against never did come to pass. And there’s a reason for that: Republicans love the State, regardless of what they might say on camera.

Fast-forward to March 2013. Bob Burnett, a retired Silicon Valley executive (according to his HuffPo bio), writes his first article on the scourge of the Republican “anarchist.” It’s a biting profile, incisive in its takedown of the most conservative members of the GOP. If it didn’t confuse ultraconservative with anti-statist, it would have been a pretty good article by Huffington Post standards. Instead, Burnett mixes-and-matches random right-wing buzzwords: “Conservative,” “Tea Party,” “Objectivist.” This last one especially is the nail in the coffin for Burnett’s argument, the definitive proof that the people he’s describing hate the state.

“Motivated by a strange brew of Old Testament Christianity and Ayn Rand’s ‘objectivism,’ they’re a lethal force within the GOP — anarchists,” he writes.

The Republican Party has been taken over by anarchists, Tea Party extremists who do not believe in government. As University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff observed, “They believe that Democracy gives them the liberty to seek their own self-interests by exercising personal responsibility, without having responsibility for anyone else or anyone else having responsibility for them.” Republican anarchists reject the founders’ morality, the sentiments that produced the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. These ultra conservatives don’t believe in the common good or the notion that Americans have a moral responsibility to care for each other. The Republican anarchist motto is, “I’m for me, first.” (Ayn Rand’s objectivism and glorified self-interest.)

Sorry, no.

Roy Childs Jr., a free-market anarchist*, addressed the claim that objectivists are anti-state in his 1970 essay, “Objectivism and the State:”

There are, by your framework, three alternatives in political organization: statism, which is a governmental system wherein the government initiates force to attain its ends; limited government, which holds a monopoly on retaliation but does not initiate the use or threat of physical force; and anarchy, a society wherein there is no government, government being defined by you as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.” You support a limited government, one which does not initiate the use or threat of physical force against others.

It is my contention that limited government is a floating abstraction which has never been concretized by anyone; that a limited government must either initiate force or cease being a government; that the very concept of limited government is an unsuccessful attempt to integrate two mutually contradictory elements: statism and voluntarism. Hence, if this can be shown, epistemological clarity and moral consistency demands the rejection of the institution of government totally, resulting in free market anarchism, or a purely voluntary society.

If Burnett had only written this one article on “Republican anarchists,” perhaps it would have been a linguistic flash in the pan, but no: a week later, he’s at it again, this time tying his theme in with the gun control debate. And again, he ties together all of this information that would probably be a pretty good takedown of violence and paranoia culture among the American right… if he wasn’t trying to suggest that every single person who carries a gun and a Republican voter card was secretly out to destroy the State.

“Commonsense gun control legislation is anathema to Tea Party Republicans. To the anarchists universal background checks suggests intrusive government surveillance. To anarchists limiting magazine size or assault weapons is unacceptable; their guns are not for hunting, they are for self-defense,” he writes. “That’s why the current congress won’t pass gun-control legislation.”

One wonders whether the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would have been considered a “Republican Anarchist” group, had Burnett been alive and writing then.

It isn’t that anarchists are against gun control (though, to be clear, I am against gun control), it’s that we recognize that banning guns and calling it a day isn’t going to solve jack squat. The State itself promotes violence on a systemic level. It beats the drum of war. It puts the (now-often-militarized) police on a pedestal to be worshiped by the rest of us.

The fact that kids still grow up wanting to be cops is much, much more worrying to me than whether my neighbor has a gun or 50 guns in their home. But I digress.

From Burnett’s writing has sprung even more musings on the problem of the “Republican Anarchist.” Bruno Leipold at OpenDemocracy wonders whether Republicans are, in fact, simply “underdeveloped” anarchists. NJNiceGuy (what an awful name) went to the dictionary, looked up “anarchist” and wrote about it for Daily Kos. And the pièce-de-résistance? A nice long feature on the 45 congressmen New York Magazine considers “anarchist” in july.

All of these miss the point.

When did Republicans start screaming “DEATH TO THE STATE” as they hoist their black flags? When did they start reading Bakunin, Proudhon, Tucker, or Spooner in the middle of legislative session? How many of these so-called anarchists could even pick Emma Goldman out of a lineup? The answer is, they haven’t, and they can’t. They adhere to their conception of what the “founding fathers” wanted. They’re conservative, and maybe even a little (well, okay, a lot) fascist. But anarchists?

Don’t make me laugh.


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    Trevor Hultner

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    Independent Journalist. Itinerant podcaster. Born-again nerd. Unabashed Chumbawamba fan