Shamus Cooke: ‘The danger of right-wing populism’

Found at Dandelion Salad

By Shamus Cooke
December 28, 2008 “Information Clearinghouse“

A strange trend is appearing in the political realm of the Left. Self-proclaimed political conservatives – many current or former members of the Republican Party – are being given considerable room in Left publications, for example in Counterpunch and BuzzFlash. At first it seemed accidental, with only sporadic occurrences. Now these “renegade” right-wingers enjoy ample room in spaces formally reserved for “lefties only.”

How is this to be explained?

If you ask a self-proclaimed progressive why he or she admires a particular conservative pundit, you’ll most likely receive a list of “progressive” positions:

Against the Iraq War
Against free-trade (especially NAFTA)
Against Globalization
Against the bank bailouts
Against the Federal Reserve
Against restrictions on civil liberties

At first glance, then, members of the Left feel obliged to open their arms to these strange bedfellows, who feel more like first cousins than traditional enemies. If, however, one looks under their gleaming progressive garments, an unreformed wolf emerges.

Who are the wolves in question?

A short list may include: Ron Paul, Craig Paul Roberts, and Pat Buchanan.

A quick biography of each person is necessary to put their politics in the correct context, especially since none of the three have renounced their political past.

Ron Paul is a long time Republican congressmen in the House of Representatives, while at the same time being a self-professed Libertarian – the party in which he ran for president in 1988. Paul is extremely religious, strongly anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and incredibly anti-immigration (he regularly refers to immigrant workers as “the illegals”). Paul once famously stated “that 95 percent of the black males in Washington, DC are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” In ‘92, Paul was an advisor for Pat Buchanan’s Republican Presidential campaign and more recently ran for the Republican nomination in 2008. Paul became a true name brand when, in 2003, he voted against the Iraq War Resolution.

Craig Paul Roberts is primarily an economist, and in that capacity was chosen to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan. While in this position, he played a critical role in implementing the 1981 Tax Act, which was the first of two tax cuts – under Reagan – for the super rich to the tune of a 42% reduction, while overall taxes for the lowest tax bracket were raised 1%. Roberts has only fond memories of the Reagan administration. Roberts too has Libertarian leanings and has served as a “Distinguished Fellow” for the Cato institute, a right-wing think-tank. He has been a severe critic of President Bush, which gives him credentials with liberals. His syndicated column circulates widely over the internet.

Pat Buchanan is an old school Republican having gained notoriety for being a close advisor and speechwriter for Nixon. During the Reagan years he served as the White House Communications Director, where his principal task was to garner support for the US-backed military intervention in Nicaragua. Buchanan is a proud co-founder of the infamous “culture war” rhetoric of the right-wing, which primarily pits white US Christians against anyone else, especially immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, and “Zionists.” For this, Buchanan has earned the praise and influenced the ideas not only of Christian fundamentalists, but white nationalist groups (Nazis), who regularly post links to him – as well as to Ron Paul – on their websites. Like Paul, Buchanan has solid links to the ultra-right, theocratic Constitution Party. Buchanan, like the above two, has earned praise from liberals for being against the Iraq war, while being staunchly anti-”neoconservative” – all three refer to themselves as “real” Conservatives.

The right-wing populist formula is a simple one, and the above three – and to a lesser degree CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs and billionaire Ross Perot – have mastered it.

As Wikipedia states: “The strategy of right-wing populism relies on a combination of ethno-nationalism with anti-elitist (populist) rhetoric and a radical critique of existing political institutions.”

The question remains: how does the strategy of right-wing populism interconnect with the above list of “progressive” political positions?

The most crucial link between the two is the concept of nationalism. Nationalism applied to economics has serious implications. In practice, economic nationalism equals protectionism: placing taxes on goods entering the US or subsidizing US corporations for better market performance. If one is against globalization and free-trade, while staying within a capitalistic framework, protectionism (nationalism) becomes the only real alternative.

But protectionism comes with a price. Not only the inevitably higher prices of inflation, but subservience to corporations within the US national borders. If a large US corporation is a poor competitor on the global market, its owners quickly become rabid advocates of protectionism. Likewise, if a worker advocates protectionism, whether consciously or not (such as some argue in favor of the idea of “fair trade””), they are essentially aligning themselves with the fate of “their” native corporations versus “foreign” ones. The worker is thus left without an independent political perspective, and is apt to view foreign workers as opponents, the same as US corporations view their foreign competitors.

Nothing pleases the billionaire shareholder more than hearing that union officials are working together with management towards better “market competitiveness.” This strategy of owner/worker cooperation has been proven decidedly bankrupt for workers, who are blamed for the uncompetitiveness of “their” corporation, and thus punished with wage and benefit cuts, as is happening currently with GM workers, as well as with many others.

It must also be emphasized that, under capitalism, putting up trade barriers is a serious international matter. The countries whose goods are being excluded likewise put up trade barriers in retaliation, and goods and raw materials that were once freely traded (relatively) on the world market must be attained through other means. This complete breakdown in international relations, itself beginning with the breakdown of the world economy, logically leads in the direction of war. The right-wing populist clearly understands this, but is driven to economic protectionism not by choice but by the corporate interests that he ultimately represents.

Why does right-wing populism emerge at all?

In normal times, when capitalism is functioning without crisis, there is little room for the far right. When capitalism does enter crisis, the political parties subservient to corporate interests evolve accordingly. This is why both the Democrats and Republicans have been veering to the right for decades; it represents the deterioration of American capitalism’s global position, which is related to the inability of US corporations to maintain their past rates of profit. When an economic crisis intensifies, as it is now, not only does the ruling class require a new political path, but a new vehicle too.

In the 1980’s, when Japanese and European corporations successfully “caught up” with many US companies, Pat Buchanan prophetically remarked that “there was a political vacuum to the right of Reagan.”

Buchanan and the other right-wing populists strove to fill that gap. Foreseeing that the so-called neo-conservative movement in the Republican Party was headed for utter failure (because of losing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), the right-wing populists began a campaign of radical rhetoric, denouncing everything within the existing two-party system. They are not against wars in general – since they happily supported the war in Afghanistan – but against, as Obama put it, “dumb wars.” As the economic crisis deepens, the rhetoric of the ultra-right will continue to radicalize likewise.

This anti-government speechifying can resonate in the ears of many workers, since they have a valid deep-seated suspicion of the two-party system, not to mention the many other institutions the rich use to rule over the majority – the Federal Reserve, CIA, electoral college, the judicial system, the police, etc.

And while the far right says they are against most government institutions, they are primarily against business regulation, public education, the social safety net, and against whatever else that reduces the profits of the corporations they serve. And this is where the different groups of the far right – Libertarians, Constitution Party, “real” conservatives, etc. – sing a hymn together in perfect harmony.

They loudly condemn government to the masses, while quietly idealizing both the market economy and “private property” to their corporate backers. Private property is, to them, not the home you live in, but the giant corporation owned by an individual or small group. In their idealized society, there would be no limit to the mega-employers greed for profits: no minimum wage, no social security, no workers’ protection, no social safety net, etc. The majority of people would naturally rebel against this, requiring the “free-market” idolaters to quickly reestablish all the old, “repressive” institutions.

Since the right-wing has ultimately the interests of the rich in mind, they must resort to radical rhetoric to secure a mass base, while distracting their followers away from the source of their seething anger – capitalism. This is the same reason that they pander not only to religion, but also to ignorant racists by focusing on immigration, condemning both homosexuality and Islam, while ranting against “multiculturalism.”

Unfortunately, the radical rhetoric has fooled a great many workers into supporting the cause of the right-wing populist. This rhetoric, combined with the poor education many schools and unions provide – since the union bureaucrat benefits from the status quo – not to mention the limited perspective of most progressive organizations, makes large sections of the working class especially vulnerable to these radical appearing ideas.

The need, therefore, to be able to distinguish between the political essence of Left versus Right is fast becoming critical. As the recession deepens, the far Right will use their rhetoric and large donors to gather strength. Unmasking their “progressive” positions for what they are is paramount if their true role in support of their corporate masters is to be exposed. No alliances can be made with this dangerous group.

Below the progressive phrases of the ultra right lie class interests, and explaining the fundamentally opposed relationship between worker and owner is crucial if we are to prevent their ideas from developing a mass base capable of being transformed into fascist reaction.

Workers should not adopt the ideology of their employers. We need one that is radically different in essence, not only in appearance. Luckily, such a perspective already exists, and is ultimately the only path that strikes at the root of capitalism – socialism. Workers do not need owners, managers, or bureaucrats; we are capable of running society ourselves.

32 thoughts on “Shamus Cooke: ‘The danger of right-wing populism’

  1. johnlowell

    So much fear, so little time.

    Paul Craig Roberts must be making quite an impact in so-called “progressive” precincts to provoke a call quite this blatant from the left for a circling of the wagons . Could it be that anti-system concerns have begun to trump religion hating on the homosexual left? If so, I’d begin to believe there’s something genuinely progressive to discern in “progressivism”.

    It has been said that politics makes strange bed-fellows. When Alexander Cockburn is an invited speaker at gatherings of Libertarians and Ron Paul is spoken of respectfully at Counterpunch, something quite possibly important – and undoubtedly positive – is happening. But whenever seismic political changes give evidence of developing, there’s always some parochial concern, some devotee of the left/right paradigm, that seems determined doggedly to cling to the past. This time its Shamus Cooke. Put away the bed-sheet, Shamus. Robert Shelton never liked Judy Garland.

  2. HumbleTravis

    The author lists several items and says that the proper “progressive position” is to be against them. Yet several of these things were either invented or greatly expanded by progressivism!

  3. RedPhillips

    Perhaps he should get the name right before he starts pontificating. It’s Paul Craig Roberts, not Craig Paul Roberts.

    And who is this guy’s intended audience. Does anyone with any political savvy need an explanation of who Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan are?

  4. paulie cannoli Post author

    I don’t agree with John Lowell’s whole comment, but I do agree with this part: “When Alexander Cockburn is an invited speaker at gatherings of Libertarians and Ron Paul is spoken of respectfully at Counterpunch, something quite possibly important – and undoubtedly positive – is happening.”

    Humble Travis,

    The author lists several items and says that the proper “progressive position” is to be against them. Yet several of these things were either invented or greatly expanded by progressivism!

    We have always been at war with Eurasia.

    And who is this guy’s intended audience.

    Left wingers who he thinks are becoming too friendly towards Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan.

  5. USAF Vet Dan

    Shamus, you really need to educate yourself. I could write a book on all the misconceptions, misstatements, and misinformation you have in your article, but I’ll hit just a few points so that the readers will see that nothing you said is worth reading.

    >>Paul is extremely religious

    Decades of Paul’s voting record proves he is a STRICT Constitutionist. This means his personal beliefs are not allowed to affect his decisions as a statesman. You see, Shamus… even making such a statement shows you have bought into the pseudo-democracy myth (in which personal philosophy is allowed to trump Constitutional limits). A true statesman (in contrast to a slimy politician) actually honors his/her oath of office. Why don’t you start there when you analyze an elected representative.

    >>strongly anti-abortion

    BS. Paul correctly sees that the CONSTITUTION does not empower the federal government to address this issue. Therefore it is an issue for the states. So, Shamus… just because Roe v. Wade fits your ideology, you want to cram a “one-size-fits-all” law down everyone’s throats??? Why not allow each state to decide. Viva la difference…. or do you really hate freedom and liberty that much???


    Shamus, do you even know what libertarianism means??? If you did, you’d know that the core of Ron Paul stands for individual freedom… especially in the bedroom.

    >>and incredibly anti-immigration (he regularly refers to immigrant workers as “the illegals”)

    Shamus, you make no distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants. Ron Paul is only against the illegal variety. Aren’t you just the least bit embarrassed about trying to discredit someone with such a cheap, transparent tactic?? …or are you an anarchist who would trash laws such as those that regulate immigration?

    Like I said, I could write a book debunking your misguided and misinformed perspective but I think I’ve made my point. Shamus, you need to get another hobby, pal. I feel embarrassed for you.

  6. Libertarian Joseph

    what immigration? government doesn’t really own land. there two kinds of land

    owned land

    and unclaimed land

    government can own neither. but government however is able to homestead, but it may never involuntarily set “national policy” leave that to the landowners

  7. Trent Hill

    “a number of Ron Paul followers.”

    More than just a number. I’d bet…5-7 percent, possibly, with another 5-7% being anti-state minarchists–all of the Austrian Economics variety.

  8. JimDavidson

    @5 Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

    Not Eurasia. Eh.

    @9 Correct on Ron Paul. He is personally anti-abortion, as are many people. He is strongly pro-constitution, and as you note this does not give the federal government any relevant power over abortion.

  9. RedPhillips

    “And who is this guy’s intended audience.

    Left wingers who he thinks are becoming too friendly towards Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan.”

    I know, but he acts as if they are unknown entities. PCR may need a brief bio for readers, but RP and PJB? The article comes off as very amateurish.

    And it is entirely possible that Shamus IS objecting to Paul’s personal religiousness. Lefties often consider religiousness, personal and public, as inherently anti-progressive, and in a way they are correct.

  10. Terry Conspiracy

    As a Ron Paul Canadian, I look to the pro Constitutionists as our best defense against the looming American annexation of my country.

    The Ron Paul movement has just taken control of the LA GOP, & I cheer their victory !

    A Ron Paul “Revolution from within” in the style of Jerry Rubin is just the ticket Canadians need to see. Congratulations LA for leading the way to a better World by 2012 !

  11. paulie cannoli Post author

    The Ron Paul movement has just taken control of the LA GOP, & I cheer their victory !

    We have a problem with that abbreviation in the states. Louisiana? Los Angeles? Lower Alabama?

    In any case, I cheer their victory, wherever it was.

  12. paulie cannoli Post author

    Of some possible interest to readers of this exchange…

    Most of us take for granted that those rectangular green slips of paper we keep in our wallets are inviolable: the physical embodiment of value. But alternative forms of money have a long history and appear to be growing in popularity. It’s not merely barter or primitive means of exchange like seashells or beads. Beneath the financial radar, in hip U.S. towns or South African townships, in shops, markets and even banks, people throughout the world are exchanging goods and services via thousands of currency types that look nothing like official tender.

    Alternative means of trade often surface during tough economic times. “When money gets dried up and there are still needs to be met in society, people come up with creative ways to meet those needs,” says Peter North, a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Liverpool and the author of two books on the subject. He refers to the “scrips” issued in the U.S. and Europe during the Great Depression that kept money flowing and the massive barter exchanges involving millions of people that emerged amid runaway inflation in Argentina in 2000. “People were kept from starving [this way],” he says.

    Closer to home, “Ithaca Hours,” with a livable hourly wage as the standard, were launched during the 1991 recession to sustain the economy in Ithaca, N.Y., and stem the loss of jobs. Hours, which are legal and taxable, circulate within the community, moving from local shop to local artisan and back, rather than leaking out into the larger monetary system. The logo on the Hour reads “In Ithaca We Trust.”

    Alternative (or “complementary”) currencies range from quaint to robust, simple to high tech. There are Greens from the Lettuce Patch Bank at the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural northeastern Missouri. In western Massachusetts one finds fine-artist-designed BerkShares, which are convertible to U.S. dollars. More than $2 million in BerkShares have been issued through the 12 branches of five local banks, according to Susan Witt, executive director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, the nonprofit behind the currency. And in South Africa, proprietary software keeps track of Community Exchange System (CES) Talents; one ambitious plan is to make Khayelitsha, a vast, desolate township of perhaps 1 million inhabitants near Cape Town, a self-sustaining community.

    An alternative currency is generally used in conjunction with conventional money; one may use local currency at the farmers’ market and regular greenbacks at the supermarket.

    More at the link…

  13. Trent Hill

    He means Los Angeles by LA. California Ron Paulers have had some startling wins lately, in Alameda County, Los Angeles County, and Orange County. In Missouri, Ron Paulers control roughly half of the State Party.

  14. G.E.

    Lefties often consider religiousness, personal and public, as inherently anti-progressive, and in a way they are correct.

    Except that the bulk of the Progressives (including the KKK) of the Progressive Era were religious nutjobs.

  15. Trent Hill

    “Your ignorance is staggering, Trent. Back up your bs with facts”

    My ignorance is staggering but you want ME to provide the links for information that is well-known to most in the liberty movement? Do your own research troll. Paulites have had major wins in several counties in CA and control alot of the MO-Republican organization.

  16. JimDavidson

    Not mentioned are the alternative currencies attacked by the government, such as Liberty Dollar and e-gold.

  17. RedPhillips

    I’ll let the KKK as progressive comment pass, but many religious progressives had abandoned orthodoxy. The lapsed Puritan social gospel advocates being a good example. Their embrace of progressive causes was entirely consistent with their rejection of orthodoxy and embrace of modernist religion.

  18. Terry Conspiracy

    Yes, the L.A. (Los Angeles) GOP (Grand Old Party) is now in the hands of the RPM (Ron Paul Movement), & Trent Hill has trumped that good news bulletin with…….

    “Ron Paulers have had some startling wins lately, in Alameda County, Los Angeles County, and Orange County. In Missouri, Ron Paulers control roughly half of the State Party.”

    paulie cannoli can not be faulted for not being in the know on such matters, because the true fault lies squarely in the hands of the CCP (Corporatist Controlled Press). They are clearly trying to restrict public awareness of the grass roots movement behind Ron Paul, in the hopes that it will fade away, but to no avail.

    The question is, when will the MSM (Main Stream Media) do the right thing & recognize these RPM (Ron Paul Movement) victories as news worthy ?

    This may prove to be the tactical blunder that will allow the RPM to continue to win regional control over the GOP establishment, because their rank & file members will continue to be taken by surprise, just like paulie cannoli.

    My favorite quote from the last election was “It seams like, the more we ignore him (Ron Paul), the more popular he gets”.

  19. paulie cannoli Post author

    I don’t watch mainstream media.

    My news sources sources are the comments here, a small handful of alternative party sites – you can figure out pretty easily which ones, I generally link my sources here – and google news for the names of the larger alternative parties and their 2008 presidential candidates.

  20. Trent Hill

    “you can’t be a minarchist and be anti-state. that makes no sense. unless they’re minarchists that want voluntary government”

    I believe this to be quite false. HL Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, and Garet Garrett were all anti-state minarchists. Walter Block has said he believes in such a thing, as does Thomas E. Woods.

  21. Shawn

    Shamus: As a requirement for entry into your utopia of the “left” you apparently require the errant soul to renounce their political past – this level of self-righteous dogma sounds strikingly like something one would hear from a proselytizer of Scientology. What are your crimes Shamus?

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