If you are a glutton for punishment like me and you read a lot of leftist academic journals (but I repeat myself. . .), you discover quickly that for the left, everything is violence. Literally violence, especially free speech, but also capitalism of course. Violence is the instrument of racism and domination. Another peculiar feature of leftist academic jargon today is to talk about “bodies”—especially “black and brown bodies,” which is merely an updating of the Marxist critique of how capitalism supposedly “commodifies” everything. In other words, the fixation with “bodies” is just new language for the old—and discredited—labor theory of value.
Yes, you can be excused for noticing the violence done to comprehensible English prose in most such articles, which might read better if they were translated into French (preferably by Foucault) and then back into English. You might also be excused for wondering about the originality of this whole outlook.
Let’s take a look at a sample passage:
All ownership arises from occupation and violence. When we consider the natural components of goods, apart from the labour components they contain, and when we follow the legal title back, we must necessarily arrive at a point where this title originated in the appropriation of goods accessible to all. Before that we may encounter a forcible appropriation from a predecessor whose ownership we can in turn trace to earlier expropriation or robbery. That all rights derive from violence, all ownership from expropriation or robbery, we may freely admit. . .
All violence is aimed at the property of others. The person—life and health—is the object of attack only in so far as it hinders the acquisition of property. . . [A]ll legal rights are nothing but time-honored illegality. . .
Even the social order, achieved in the constitutional modern state, is based on violence. The free contracts on which it pretends to rest are really, they say, only the conditions of a peace dictated by the victors to the vanquished, the terms being valid as long as the power from which they sprang continues, and no longer. All ownership is founded on violence and maintained by violence. The free workers of a liberal society are nothing but the unfree of feudal times.
What whacked out leftist said this? Actually it was the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, in his classic 1922 book Socialism. I pluck this passage not to inveigh against von Mises or the sometimes too doctrinaire libertarianism occasionally associated with him, but rather to illuminate the complete unoriginality of the contemporary left, who seem to think their insights into the world are blindingly new with them. Von Mises was doing no more than to restate what was obvious to Hobbes (or Locke, or Machiavelli, or the ancient Greeks) that all political orders owe their origin to “force or fraud,” and that, as Max Weber memorably put it, the premise of the modern State is the monopoly over the “legitimate” use of force.
My message to leftists who go on about violence is, congratulations on completing kindergarten: you may now proceed to the first grade. And start your real education perhaps with Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass North, John J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast (non-leftists all).
But this is where the important divergences begin. It was hardly unique to von Mises to note that it was capitalism and the rise of contract status for individuals that began to reduce violence and force and replace it with the rule of law. As von Mises notes:
It is only slowly and with difficulty that the idea of Law triumphs. Only slowly and with difficulty does it rebut the principle of violence. Again and again there are reactions; again and again the history of Law has to start once more from the beginning.
We are having another of those “reactionary” moments again just now, with the revival of socialism, a violent doctrine. I used to find von Mises turgid and dull, but with the arrival of Lizzie Warren, AOC, and Bernie Sanders, von Mises big book on socialism is not just highly relevant, but riveting reading.
I’ll have more to say about the childlike unoriginality and superficiality of the academic left in subsequent posts, but for now leave you with a warning from von Mises that applies perfectly to our current moment:
Our whole civilization rests of the fact that men have always succeeded in beating off the attack of the re-distributors. But the idea of re-distribution enjoys great popularity still, even in industrial countries. . . If we wish to save the world from barbarism we have to conquer Socialism, but we cannot thrust it carelessly aside.