Distributed December 1995
Copyright ©1995 by Abbott Gleason
Nobody seems to believe anymore in the possibility of such rapid, coercive and "total" transformation, either of individual human beings or of their societies, and a good thing, too. But the pendulum has by now swung far in the other direction. Conservative and liberal thinkers alike see a connection between the end of communist totalitarianism (or "post-totalitarianism") and the transition of "authoritarian" governments in Latin America and Asia from bureaucratic absolutism toward market economies and something approximating parliamentary democracy. The welfare state is under increasing attack in many countries of Europe and Asia.
This tendency is visible in the United States as well. There is not only a strong and growing tendency to believe in wholesale privatization and marketization, but a growing conviction that the state (in the United States usually understood as the federal government) is the fundamental enemy of human freedom. A generation ago, law enforcement agencies on both the federal and state level were the darlings of conservatives. J. Edgar Hoover was an icon of the Right, even the far Right. Now it is largely liberals who defend federal agents, if anybody does, while conservatives suspect them of everything from pervasive incompetence to internationalist conspiracies involving the United Nations and Russia. Many would abolish them altogether.
How did so profound a change come about? Two causes stand out. One is the eclipse of strong-state conservatism (which flourished during the Cold War, with the "national security state") and the increasing dominance of a neo-classical economic sort of conservatism. The intellectual father of the movement is the late Friedrich Hayek. In his Road to Serfdom (1944), he argued that almost all forms of planning are akin to totalitarianism--although even Hayek was willing to see more of a safety net for the poor than some House Republicans. With the Cold War at an end, the last vestiges of support for a powerful "national security state" have fallen away--except, apparently, when weapons systems are involved.
But the Left has played a role in the extremism of anti-government politics in the United States as well. When organizations like the National Rifle Association call agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "jack-booted thugs," they are only echoing the student left of a generation ago. Belief in the coming of Fascism to the United States used to emanate from the loony Left. Now it has migrated to the loony Right. But the delegitimization of the United States government and its agencies took a very long step forward in the radicalism of the Sixties.
We ought to be careful. Racial, ethnic and even class hatreds run higher in this country than most people like to admit. Anti-semitism is rather widespread, especially among blacks and on the far right. Blacks and whites may be as openly and viscerally hostile to each as at any time in American history. At some level, state power--and even more importantly the belief that state power is there--protects us all. The rich in this country are already locking themselves up in privately protected enclaves. Do we want to accelerate that tendency and move into an era when various private armies dominate both the suburbs and the countryside and government forces are derided as agents of tyranny?
If armed force is privatized in the United States and the police are delegitimized by some combination of Right and Left political forces, of blacks and whites, ordinary people of all races and political positions will be the losers in the class, ethnic and racial strife that will follow.