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Mises vs. Marx: The Battle Continues

Mises Daily: Thursday, February 15, 2001 by


James Arnt Aune’s Selling the Free Market: The Rhetoric of Economic Correctness (New York: The Guilford Press, 2001) is a broad-gauged attack on free-market economics and policy advocacy. The author, a professor of rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University, sees "right-wing" thought as dangerous rhetoric --a system of verbal maneuvers designed to deflect the public away from its true interest, socialism. The Mises Institute in particular, it seems, is guilty of perpetuating false consciousness that has interrupted history’s march toward the New Dawn.

But before dissecting this bitter book, let us take note of the unseemly tactics used these days by so many leftists in good standing. We saw them used in the election, the post-election Florida confusion, and the Senate hearings on Bush’s nominees. We see them in the scholarly journals, where Mises (who was run out of Austria by the Nazis) has been called a fascist and none other than F.A. Hayek was recently smeared as an anti-Semite.

Characteristic of these attacks is the inability to make even the most rudimentary distinctions: anyone to the right of center is said to be hiding hate beneath an ideological cloak. It was not always so. In 1974, Hayek received the Nobel Prize in Economics. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. eventually responded with a critical essay on Hayek in the New York Times. He asserted that if Hayek’s policy prescriptions had been followed, terrible things would have happened. But at least Schlesinger made an argument of some kind and displayed the relative civility with which even bitter ideological fights could be carried on in the 1970s. Fittingly, Schlesinger has attacked the current crop of left-wing multiculturalists who argue by smear and intimidation.

Smears and personal assaults have always been part of the Left’s arsenal, but one wonders these days whether there are any other guns left. Certainly we know that demonization is integral to the Leftist political strategy in any country in which the Marxists have come to power. Reading the atrocities chronicled in the Black Book of Communism (Stephane Courtois, et al., Harvard, 1999), and the rationale given for them, you can’t but notice the rhetorical continuum that reduces the essential difference between many Marxist intellectuals and the acting commissar to one of degree and circumstance. Now with a century of bloodshed staining collectivist ideology, there is no longer a credible program for the Left to offer. And with so few Gulags remaining to confine their enemies, they are reduced to imposing academic taboos and drumming up media hate campaigns.

Now let’s look at the author himself. Professor’s Aune’s publications, as listed on his personal website, reveal that he is a Marxist of the first water. His interests include such topics and figures as Marx, Marcuse, Raymond Williams, the Gastonia strike, hegemony, and dialectics. His main contribution is to cross-fertilize Marxism with trendy literary theory and rhetorical studies. He evidently wishes to be the next Frederic Jameson.

A friendly reviewer of his first book, Rhetoric and Marxism, calls it "a critique of Marxism from a rhetorical standpoint and a criticism of rhetoric from a Marxist perspective." Further, the reviewer says that Aune wants "to present a Marxism without guarantees"--whatever that might be (American Journal of Sociology, 101, 5 [March 1996], pp. 1461-62]).

Aune’s newest work is published by a left-wing funhouse that also publishes such illustrious periodicals as Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology and books such as Psychoanalytic-Marxism: Groundwork. Aune begins his contribution to this oeuvre with a quotation from Hayek that seems to deplore "perfectionism" on the libertarian Right. Aune then announces his respect for anti-capitalist, traditionalist conservatives, who reject rationalism, understand intermediate institutions, dislike "economic man," and therefore, can see that all who oppose democracy, trade unions, welfare statism, and public schools are "at odds with themselves and the real world" (pp. xiii-xiv). A good conservative, in Aune’s reading, is a moderate socialist.

But it quickly emerges that it is not just perfectionism or libertarianism that Aune deplores but the market economy itself, along with anyone who might rise to its defense. He doesn’t get past the introduction before recommending "Karl Marx’s great contribution": the "unmasking of the strategies used by apologists for capitalism to obscure alternative ways of seeing both the nature of work and the possibilities of justice" (p. 4). These days, the right-wingers have become Gramscians (p. 5), he says, and have got their ideas out, especially the libertarians with their "obsessive emphasis on the market as a solution to all human problems" (p. 7). Indeed, he believes, "by far the greatest danger emanates from unreconstructed libertarianism." (p. 8).

The book proper begins with a critique of rational-choice theory as rhetoric, and an assertion that right-wing foundation subsidies to selected students are "threatening to academic freedom" because such foundations impose "a party line" (p. 17). After using dubious empirical studies to defend minimum wage laws and farm subsidizes, he proceeds with the only part of the book where the actual existence of anything outside of language plays much of a role. Like many leftists, he sides with competitive losers like Betamax, seeking thereby to demonstrate constant market failure. Since Austrians have produced solid critiques of the market-failure school, we need not linger over Aune’s thin rebuttals.

Aune charges that by adopting a "style" of hard-headed "realism" as their "default rhetoric" (p. 40), right-wing economists preach the inevitability of their preferences, thereby demoralizing opponents. This, he charges, is undemocratic (read: nonsocialist) and implies "the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" (p. 33). The concepts of "economic man," absence of social consensus, "free-riding," and "rent-seeking" are "templates, or rhetorical topoi." Taken too seriously and "subsidized [his emphasis] by right-wing foundations, [these principles] become the greatest threat to equality and democracy since the pre-1937 Supreme Court" (p. 46)–a threat that presumably includes the Constitution itself. For Aune, what "right-wing economists" deride "as ‘rent-seeking behavior’" is actually "democratic participation" (p. 56).

The chapter on Ayn Rand brings us a bit closer to home. Aune discovers--with no great originality--that Randianism is cultic and "totalitarian" (pp. 60-61). There is much discussion of Rand’s novels, dealing with anaphora, Randian sex, John Galt’s speech, and so on. Broadening his attack to include the work of Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, he is shocked that anyone could see justifying the State in the first place as a problem. He finds it "a comparatively short step, alas, from Nozick’s argument to the rantings of the National Rifle Association about the confiscation of guns, or the right-wing militias’ contention that any form of government extending beyond the role of a county sheriff is illegitimate" (p. 91). Aune has chosen his rhetorical tone for the rest of the book.

It is with the chapter on Murray Rothbard and Charles Murray that things heat up. Libertarians, he writes, show "a deep antipathy to democratic discussion and debate" (p. 99). He claims that libertarian thought "[taps] into deep class and racial resentments and [is] coded as ‘antigovernment’ resistance"; to underscore this theme, he refers to "Murray’s defense of racism under the rubric of ‘freedom of association’" (p. 100). It would appear that the idea of freedom of association, once precious to the Left, has no validity in the capitalist setting.

Aune tells us that the chief influence on Rothbard--Ludwig von Mises--was "fairly nonempirical" (p. 101), a good indication of how little he knows of this literature. Taking For a New Liberty as a Rothbardian text to be rhetorically disassembled, Aune quarrels with Rothbard’s reading of the American Revolution, Cato’s Letters, etc., countering that real republican theorists were communitarians (p. 103). On that reading it seems odd that Thomas Jefferson, for one, knew the works of Adam Smith and actually translated Jean-Baptiste Say’s Treatise into English.

Aune attributes to Rothbard a "conspiracy theory" of the origins of state-run schools (p. 104). Against this, there is a large body of literature, much of it from the old Left, whose burden is precisely that social control was the point of public education and which supports Rothbard. Aune ignores it. Aune then claims in one of many bizarre remarks that Rothbard rejected utilitarianism because he (Rothbard) was "completely uninterested in general happiness." He finds it a problem that Rothbard, a self-proclaimed Aristotelian and Thomist, suddenly "smuggles in Locke" to build his libertarian system. Later, he chides Rothbard "for the inability to make moral distinctions" (p. 106).

Our Marxist rhetorician closes in with breathless hysteria: "Rothbard is the favorite economist of the Patriot militias, the Holocaust revisionists, and the Christian Right" and--worse luck--given Rothbard’s hard-hitting critique of statist mystification, there is "but one short step from Rothbard to Timothy McVeigh." This is the kind of claim, advanced without argument, that typifies what the Left used to call the "paranoid style" before neo-Marxists themselves took it up.

As Aune addresses Rothbard’s sundry policy proposals, with much shock and dismay, he cannot help seeing that "Rothbard provides a more radical assault on the contemporary state and on big business than virtually any contemporary socialist thinker"; even worse, "Rothbard’s confounded ability [italics added] to switch back and forth between moral and utilitarian justifications is part of the rhetorical kit of all contemporary libertarians" (p. 109).

Hence, our author decides that such a dangerous fellow must be demonized, along with his associates, and here the book begins to look like a focused hit on the Mises Institute. (The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute take their hits in footnotes.) Mises, a dogged opponent of fascism, is treated by Aune like some sort of fascist, especially since Texas A&M’s library copy of Human Action "was donated to the university by a segregationist group in Dallas." Asserting guilt by association is bad enough, but guilt by donation?

Aune adduces Rothbard’s support for Strom Thurmond in 1948. Further: Rothbard "was one of the charter members of the League of the South, which promotes ‘peaceful’ secession from the United States and encourages a return to the ‘Christian republic’ of the Old South." The author also demands to know why Rothbard, whose political ethics begin with the right of self ownership, "does not address Aristotle’s notorious concept of the ‘natural slave,’" hinting with little subtlety that Rothbard supports slavery. Aune adds to reassure the doubtful: "A strong sense of property rights and individual liberty can be consistent with the practice of slavery." No mention that the core principle of Rothbardian political economy is to reject every form of slavery, public or private, and call for the right of complete self-ownership.

Whipping himself up into further frenzy, he says that the League of the South and the Mises Institute have been "instrumental in promoting Christian Right resistance to federal power." Further showing off his research skills, he notes that Mark Thornton, "a close associate of Rothbard’s from the Mises Institute," was a "top adviser to Governor Fob James of Alabama, who has denied that the Bill of Rights applies to the states and has threatened to call out the Alabama National Guard to protect the right of a local judge to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and pray publicly before sessions of his court" (pp. 110-111). No mention that Thornton is the author of The Economics of Prohibition (1991), which condemns the criminalization and even regulation of all drug use–a political position not exactly identified with the Christian Right.

One footnote (p. 187) resolves any confusion over whether Aune is a leftist liar or a genuinely mistaken would-be scholar. He invites readers to "explore" the "interrelationships" between Samuel Francis, Joseph Sobran, American Renaissance, the Mises Institute, and now the big one – "the Committee on Documentation of the Holocaust (CODOH), a Holocaust revisionist website that includes an article by Rothbard on ‘the importance of revisionism for our time.’" In fact, Rothbard’s article, if it is "linked" at all, is a general plea for historians to take greater account of the crimes of the State. This professor of rhetoric has failed to grasp the different contextual meanings of "revisionist." Another note (p. 187) states that Rothbard opposed the Vietnam War, but finds no further significance in that fact. All these notes, by the way, come on the heels of another note citing the proto-Stalinist Structural Marxist Louis Althusser as a great scholar.

Even so, Aune, the Marxist literary analyst, can’t quite recoil in mere horror: "What I find admirable about Rothbard is his willingness to take the consequences of his ideology ‘to the end of the line’...." Of course terrible "social devastation" would soon overtake a Rothbardian world. (Aune, p. 111.)

Aune disposes of Charles Murray with even greater speed. Murray is only a classical liberal, but reading The Bell Curve (of which Murray was co-author) alongside his What It Means To Be a Libertarian "provides useful insights into the hidden assumptions of libertarianism" (racism) as "an ideology for Murray’s ‘cognitive elite’" (p. 111). The usual business about a "race to the bottom," should states begin cutting welfare payments, is mooted (p. 113). The implications of Murray’s book are "chilling." Unlike the campus libertarians Aune has met, whose main issue is drug legalization, "[w]hat Murray really wants is to restore the Old South, although he is less honest about it than Rothbard was toward the end of his life" (p. 114).

Of course, the plot to reinvent the Old South is not exactly proven here, but Aune just knows, somehow, that Murray has put forth "a set of appeals sufficiently coded that they can appeal simultaneously to white racists, recreational drug users, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and – well – the stupid" (p. 115). Libertarianism, straight or watered, our author says, is just a conspiracy (so to speak) to "eliminate the power of democratic majorities in the U.S. system" (p. 166).

There are other predictable targets: Ronald Reagan, Patrick Buchanan, Pat Robertson who, in Aune’s conspiratorial frame of mind, are all linked in a plot to forestall socialist utopia. Surprisingly for a conspiratorialist of such passion, Aune then denounces conspiracy theories with a focus on books critical of the Federal Reserve System (p. 132). Employing a dull version of Occam’s razor, he claims that anyone who questions the existing banking system must perforce be anti-Semitic, and so Eustace Mullins, Andrew Macdonald, and Pat Robertson all speak with the selfsame voice. He guesses that "more people have read Robertson’s book than the writings of Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard put together" (p. 135)! This may be sad, but think of the time those people have saved.

From fascist/populist pamphlets by monetary cranks Aune glides gracefully into a treatment of "Christian economists," including Gary North and Walter (he means Ronald) Nash. We cannot be surprised to learn that these gentlemen "consider themselves disciples of Ludwig von Mises, and the Mises Institute," which "proudly publicizes its placement of recent Ph.D.s at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges." Unaware that Mises was an eloquent champion of the right to charge interest, he goes on to add to his strange brew the point that "Christian economists are opposed to usury" (p. 136)–when in fact it was Marx who most famously revived the ancient hatred against usurers. There is also no mention that the Mises Institute’s directly affiliated scholars are in 250 institutions of every variety and that it has assisted 7,000 students at 900 colleges and universities the world over, though this information is freely available. Among these students and young professors, granted, are some affiliated with a college the Left regards as fundamentalist, but it is doubtful that any of these people would turn down a tenured position in the Ivy League.

Aune brings the ideological trek of Pat Buchanan under his rhetorical microscope, briefly, complaining about the Right’s successful theft of "class" issues from the Left (p. 144). This all has something to do with discourses about "globalization," which he attributes to the Right, although the mass media (more likely to be his friends) originated that slogan. He treats his readers to a dubious story showing that Röpke was nicer than Mises (p. 143), when in fact the story itself is refuted by a careful reading of Röpke’s original rendition (which involved not Röpke himself but "a friend" and may not have involved Mises at all: see The Social Crisis of Our Time [Transaction, 1992 [1942]], p. 224).

The conclusion, "The Market and Human Happiness," features a new trope: "even Llewellyn Rockwell of the Mises Institute" (p. 166). This refers to Rockwell’s and others’ attack on the federal bailout of a large corporation, which seems to stun Aune, who clearly sees free-market theorists as little more than shills for the big bourgeoisie. He asks whether instituting genuinely really free markets wouldn’t just freeze economic "power relations" where they are now, revealing his lack of engagement with theory (p. 168).

Never one to stop short of insult and caricature, Aune avers that "[n]o human being can for long live solely as Homo economicus, so all free-marketeers end up with elements of irrationality in their systems: disciples of Mises become radical neo-Confederates; Randians become love junkies; Republicans become Cold Warriors or find Jesus; and libertarians becomes racists or gun fanatics" (p. 168).

The causal theory is a bit murky, but evidently this is what one must expect once a society makes labor a commodity. Aune’s repeated claim that Mises thought in terms of "economic man" suggests that he has not ventured very far into Human Action, or any other of Mises’s works, or any of the Austrian tradition that begins with the rejection of preset patterns of human motivation.

Apart from nutty judgments, guilt by association, and a plethora of errors of omission, Aune makes errors of fact. For example, he thinks Frank Chodorov was "Chodorow" and states that Rothbard earned his PhD with Mises at NYU (it was Dorfman at Columbia). In the end, however, the errors and lies don’t matter. Keynes was a Keynesian and Marx was a communist. We can see what Aune is. The real problem here is precisely the "rhetoric" of the author. It is completely unhinged from the demands of truth.

Richard M. Weaver was a professor of English, a libertarian conservative, a Southerner, and a teacher of rhetoric. Of late, scholars have begun to appreciate his important contributions to that field, the very one which Professor Aune claims to wield in the service of scholarship. We have already noted the inability of many contemporary thinkers to make the most elementary distinctions. Here is what Weaver wrote to friend at the end of World War II: "[N]ever has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible." (Quoted in Ted J. Smith III, ed., In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 [Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000], p. xxxiv)

That is a worthwhile endeavor. We cannot leave it to the Aunes of the world.

* * * * *

Joseph Stromberg (stromberg@mises.org) is historian in residence at the Mises Institute and Jeffrey Tucker (tucker@mises.org) is editorial director. See Stromberg's Daily Article Archive and Tucker's Daily Article Archive and other articles.