Ron Paul’s Anti-Imperialism

Ron Paul is the only anti-war candidate running for president.  More than that: he wants to do away with overseas bases and reduce the military to the strictly defensive force envisioned in the Constitution; one that only wages wars Congress declares.  He also wants to dismantle the apparatus of empire and to halt American meddling in the affairs of foreign countries. This would entail, among other things, the end of all Bush-Obama wars, the demise of the military-industrial complex, and the termination of America’s virtually unconditional military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel.

Paul is also the only candidate calling for reversing the Bush-Obama assault on habeas corpus protections and on constitutionally protected due process rights.   His views on domestic surveillance and similar intrusions into individuals’ lives and behaviors are more “liberal” than any other Republican candidate’s.  But for one gaping exception, they’re more liberal too than Barack Obama’s: Paul’s libertarianism goes missing when the specter of homosexuality threatens, and he loses it when it comes to female sexuality.  Thus he’s fine with infringing upon reproductive rights; holding, for example, that states should be permitted to outlaw abortion.

Paul’s anti-militarism, anti-interventionism, and fierce, though partial, support for individuals’ freedoms are not the only reasons he falls outside the governing consensus.   His views on economic and social policies are even more discordant and unsettling to the status quo.  And so there is a bipartisan consensus that his candidacy is a non-starter – a point with which our media heartily concur.

This is why, should his candidacy garner significantly more support than it already has, the powers that be across the entire political spectrum, from a to b, will mobilize to crush him.  But it won’t come to that.  His rivals for the Republican nomination are more than up to the task.


Still, as the only anti-war, anti-militarist, and anti-interventionist candidate in the national spotlight, and the most reliable civil libertarian (for straight men), Paul’s candidacy has some appeal for leftists, despite the appalling positions he takes on everything else.   Supporting Ron Paul can therefore seem as good a way as any to express contempt for Barack Obama and his liberal supporters.  Since they offer up fresh grounds for contempt on an almost daily basis, the temptation is palpable to discount Paul’s antiquarian economic philosophy, his hostility towards the labor movement, and his attraction to social policies of the kind that Ebenezer Scrooge endorsed before three ghosts and the Cratchit family set him straight.

Of course, acting on that temptation requires forgetting a lot – like the racist comments in newsletters released under his name and his voting record in Congress on issues affecting women and people of color.  Yes, Paul has spoken out more than any of his Republican rivals or, for that matter, Barack Obama on the evils of institutional racism; the balance sheet is therefore equivocal.  Even so, it is hard to dismiss all the reasons for rejecting Paul out of hand, even if doing so is tantamount to making common cause with the scaremongers on the MSNBC evening lineup.   But some think it worth the effort – because Paul is against Obama for some of the right reasons, and no one else with his degree of visibility and voter appeal now is.

And so, the idea has been floated in publications, including CounterPunch, that routinely fault Obama from the left that it comes down to something of a toss-up: that if you hate Obama’s murder and mayhem, his unwillingness to hold the mighty accountable to the rule of law, and his disregard of traditional rights and freedoms more than you hate Ron Paul’s economic and social policies and his racist, sexist and homophobic leanings, it’s as reasonable as not to fall in behind the Paul campaign.  Some even think that the case for Paul is stronger than that; that he’s our last great hope.

That it would come to this is understandable.  Nevertheless, supporting Ron Paul would be a colossal mistake.

* * *

One very obvious reason why is that working for a Paul presidency is pointless because the Republican establishment will quash his campaign if they find they need to, and because the only part of his “message” that the Republican Party has any prospect of taking on board is the appalling part, not the part that some anti-imperialists are willing to overlook.  In other words, there’s no “pragmatic” justification for signing on.

There may still be expressive reasons to back Paul over Obama, but surely there are ways to send a less ambiguous message – for instance, by backing Jill Stein of the Green Party of the United States or some other left opposition candidate.  That would be a futile gesture too, but at least it would make an unequivocal point.

Arguably, futile gestures can play a beneficial role this election season, but at least let them be long-lived enough to have an effect.  The Greens will be on Obama’s case until November and they’ll be around long after that; in all likelihood, the Paul campaign will sputter out just as soon as Mitt Romney clinches the Republican nomination.

There is a chance, some hope, that Paul will run against Romney on the Libertarian ticket.  But he said he won’t, and the smart money agrees.  If those in the know can be believed, it isn’t loyalty to the Republican Party that would hold him back, and neither would personal ambition.  It’s because he doesn’t want to give the Republican establishment a reason to wreak vengeance on his son’s political career.

Parents should not be judged by their offspring.  But, in this case, there is little daylight between the father and the junior Senator from Kentucky.  That should give anyone considering supporting Paul’s candidacy on anti-imperialist grounds cause for concern.  Rand Paul is one of the most high profile Ayn Rand fans on the national scene, and one of the most hapless figures in the Republican menagerie.  With the Pauls as with the Bushes, it may not quite be a case of like son, like father – from generation to generation, it gets markedly worse.  But could anyone this side of the Tea Party’s most benighted quarters really want to help continue the Paul line?

Therefore rather than expressing contempt for Bush-Obama politics by supporting someone whose domestic policy prescriptions make Mitt Romney’s look good, it would be better just to join the majority of one’s fellow Americans and sit the election out.  Since it is never possible to tell what abstentions mean, that would send an equivocal message too.  Better that, though, than flirting with Paul family values.  Better still to support a candidate clearly to Obama’s left.

A slightly less obvious reason not to back Ron Paul is that electoral politics is not where change happens – especially now when masses of people, energized by last fall’s occupations, are poised to launch a spring offensive.  Engaging with the electoral process is hard not to do in an election year, and already there are occupations of various candidates’ offices and speaking venues.  This is as it should be; they deserve it, Obama especially.  But the campaigns this time around are essentially irrelevant to the movement’s concerns.  This would be true of the Paul campaign too, even if its flaws were less compromising, and even if it stood a chance of surviving into the spring.

It is also unclear what a President Paul or any president who would go against the tide could accomplish.  Barack Obama came to power with the ruling class united behind him and with massive popular support.  That would hardly be the case with Ron Paul, even if per impossibile he were to get the nomination and then to win in November.  Obama had enough political capital in the months following the 2008 election to do a good deal more than he did.  But he wasn’t up to the task; and it is far from clear, in any case, what he really wanted.  Ron Paul seems more principled, or at least more ideological.  But even a principled leader can only accomplish so much when the rest of the political class is subservient to the usual paymasters. Obama might have been able to get single-payer health insurance through Congress, for example; he could certainly have gotten a public option and a more robust stimulus.   But even if Paul came to office with more political capital than Obama squandered, he could never cut the Pentagon down to size.  No one could. That would require either a revolution or a period of years without a threat credible enough to sell to a gullible public.  With an enemy like “terror” now inscribed in the collective consciousness, the former is the more realistic prospect.

*  *  *

For anti-imperialists to support Ron Paul is therefore not just a bad idea; it’s a waste of time and effort.  But it’s not a waste of time or effort to examine the reasons that make Paul’s candidacy appealing.

It is telling that Paul does not claim to be anti-imperialist; he and his followers say instead that he is an “anti-interventionist.”  They should be taken at their word.

To be sure, the practical difference between anti-interventionism and anti-imperialism is presently moot.  But, as noted, Paul’s views are of no practical consequence.   His advocacy of non-intervention will not affect on-going debates within the Republican fold; it will certainly not dislodge the neocons from their perch of influence.  Therefore Paul’s anti-interventionism will not move the bipartisan consensus a notch.   It is only from a theoretical standpoint that the difference matters — for now.

But now may not last for long. As the occupation movements mature, it could soon become timely to gain a clearer understanding of what genuine anti-imperialism involves.  One way to gain a purchase on that question is to reflect on Paul’s rationale for taking the positions he does.  His reasons contrast with the kinds of reasons opponents of America’s perpetual war regime and its ever-expanding military-national security apparatus need to take on board.  The contrast is instructive.

Before his comparatively strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, hardly anyone gave Ron Paul’s views much thought – except for some ardent, mainly college-age, true believers who, in better times and places, might as easily have been drawn into one or another facet of (left-wing) radical politics.  Those who did reflect on Paul’s politics mainly assumed that it was a hodge-podge of reactionary positions on domestic issues and far left (actually, just sensible) views on foreign affairs; the only common thread being that nearly everything he advocates falls outside the bounds of “respectable” opinion.

This is probably what most people still believe; and it is almost certainly what left-wingers who find his anti-war and anti-intervention positions appealing think.  But the prevailing impression is mistaken; Paul’s views comprise a consistent whole.

It might seem that Paul’s anti-interventionism marks a return to the much disparaged “isolationism” of pre-World War II America.  But this too is a mistake.  The isolationists cautioned against interventions in European quarrels; they had no problem with asserting American power in the Western hemisphere, throughout the Pacific region or in East Asia.  American isolationists were bullies on the order of their European counterparts; the difference was just that they chose to work their own side of the street.  After World War II, the whole block became America’s turf, and the isolationist option therefore became moot.  Paul’s politics is far from reality-based, but even he is not about to try to revive a position that events long ago made irrelevant.  That Paul almost certainly wouldn’t want to do so, in any case, is to his credit.  His anti-interventionism is more principled than the isolationism of old, and far less hypocritical.

In pre-modern times, one people would invade another for glory or for any of a variety of other reasons that nowadays defy understanding.  But, even those hoary days, material gain was an important cause of conquest and extra-territorial meddling.  In modern times, it is the only motive.  Thus all modern theories of imperialism, not just those that claim derivation from Marx, assume its preeminence.   Paul is not interested in explaining imperialism; the concept falls beyond his ken.  His concern is only to get the United States to back off from what others mean when they use the term.  But, as much as anyone who does seek to account for the phenomenon, his rationale is driven by the assumption that what matters is material gain.

In brief, he is a true believer in, and ardent defender of, the perfect goodness of untrammeled markets.  A full-fledged free market theologian – or, as they would prefer to call themselves, economic theorist – would account for aggressive wars and other efforts by one people to dominate another by claiming that these are all untoward consequences of government intrusions into otherwise beneficent market mechanisms.  They would argue that states distort markets; that they create bureaucratic inefficiencies and encourage rent seeking, efforts to gain riches not through market mechanisms but by obtaining government favors.  Then they would explain America’s bloated and over-used military and its ravenous military-industrial-national security complex along these lines.  They would also account for the problems confronting the domestic economy in the same way.  If only free markets and private property were left alone, people would be as well off as they can possibly be in this best of all possible worlds.

This is a lame position to defend.  In this respect, free market theology is like the genuine article.  But, as we know from the genuine article, with enough ingenuity, arguments can be concocted in ways that obscure their flaws and that mask the preposterousness of the conclusions they purport to sustain.  Don’t expect Paul to make those arguments however; he’s only one of the faithful – a consumer, not a producer, of bad ideas.

For garnering votes in the primaries and caucuses, it’s just as well.  Theology is nothing if not arcane, and the Republican electorate disdains subtleties as much as it disdains everything else that is or purports to be intellectually serious.   Better just to take it for granted that others can make a case for what Paul assumes.  It works for God; why not for free markets too?

Whether he would make anything explicit of it or not, the rationale undergirding Paul’s positions  posits that wars and foreign meddling are deviations from true capitalism, not inevitable consequences of it.  This conflicts with what all plausible theories of imperialism contend, but so what; theologians are accustomed to offending what evidence and sound reason establish.

Therefore Paul would bring the troops home not for any of the reasons genuine anti-imperialists would — because they’re on the wrong side of liberation struggles or because their military adventures sustain a long overripe capitalist order – but because what they’re doing, indeed their very existence, is, by his lights and according to the theology he assumes, bad for business.   Paul wants to save capitalism from forces that he thinks lead it astray; forces that, in truth, are inherent in the economic system he supports.  If he is on the side of peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is for no reason other than that peace is, by his lights, a by-product of getting capitalism right.

It is hard to see how anyone with a modicum of sense could fail to see that just the opposite is true.  But this is the way of theology.  Endeavoring to make the lesser argument appear the stronger is older than God.

* * *

Because the free market is Paul’s God, and because, following the market theologians, he understands the market’s commandments as he does, Paul would withhold the blank check America gives Israel.  Justice has nothing to do with it, and neither does solidarity with victims of oppression.  Nor do Paul’s positions on Middle Eastern politics reflect a geopolitical conception at odds with the neoconservatives’; their concerns are not his.  The problem, for Paul, is only that supporting foreign states is not something sound, limited governments ought to do.  Their job is to assure that free markets work their effects; that, and nothing more.

It is a stretch to attribute coherent thoughts to the other GOP contenders, but to the extent one can, it would be fair to say that, in some vague way, they share Paul’s views on limited government; after all, they say they are libertarians too.   But they are also, in varying degrees, in the thrall of a strain of anglo-Protestant evangelical theology, dispensationalism, according to which, for the end time to come, there must be a real world Jewish state in the Holy Land.  Before the Israeli Right decided, in the 1970s, to cultivate the crackpots now running the show in evangelical circles, dispensationalism was a fringe, indeed heretical, line of thought.  By now, it is almost mainstream in the evangelical community, the most vocal and active component of the Republican base.   And so each of Paul’s rivals pay Israeli governments homage, whether from genuine conviction of sheer opportunism is impossible to say.

To the extent that they care about consistency, they, like the faithful whose votes they covet, simply assume that the commandments of the market somehow accord with the will of their Almighty God.  To entertain the possibility that Paul might be right would require too much thinking.  But, to listen to them talk, on the off-chance that he is right, as they might well conclude if they understood their own positions better, their good pal Netanyahu’s wishes would take precedence every time.  It’s the least they could do since he was the one who pioneered their strategy of contemptuous obduracy for putting Obama in his place.  Besides that, what God hath given, let not Mammon take away.

Paul counts himself among the godly too.  Would that in this respect he were closer to Ayn Rand!  But his theology is, by all accounts, more orthodox than the Christian Zionists’ – he sees the end time as a theological construct, not a political project.  And so he is not compelled, as the others are, to look upon Israel and Palestine differently from the way he looks upon other potential foreign entanglements, even if he would say, if pressed, that the Creator does indeed takes a special interest in the real estate that lies at the heart of their conflict.  For Paul as for other Christians outside the Zionist ambit, the Holy Land’s problems are for its inhabitants to work out on their own.  God won’t mind in any case.   More importantly, anything else is bad for business, and therefore not our business.

One might think, nevertheless, that in practice Paul’s position is a good one, even if his reasons for holding it leave everything to be desired.  But, again, that doesn’t matter because Paul’s campaign will have no practical effect at all – except perhaps on economic policy, where his views, being congenial to the myopic interests of influential Republican backers and being of a piece with those of his rivals for the nomination, might well succeed in moving the GOP even farther to the right, and the bipartisan consensus along with it.

The moral is plain: leave anti-imperialism to anti-imperialists, and forget about Ron Paul.  It’s a snare and a delusion, and there are too many better ways brewing to fight back against Obama’s last gasp Reaganite politics, and to resume humanity’s forward march.

Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of  THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the PeopleHe is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply